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Schumacher refuses to tempt fate


Michael Schumacher is taking nothing for granted, even if history suggests that the Ferrari driver's record sixth Formula One title is a foregone conclusion.

The German needs one point from Sunday's season-ending showdown in Japan to pass the late Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio and stand alone and unchallenged as the most successful driver the sport has ever seen.

Only McLaren's Kimi Räikkönen can stop him now and even then the matter is out of the Finn's hands. Räikkönen's only chance is to win and hope that Schumacher, five times triumphant at Suzuka including in all of the last three years, somehow fails to score. But it has been five years since Schumacher drew a blank in Japan. None of his current rivals has won at the southern circuit nor beaten Schumacher in any race that the German has finished there.

Some might have expected the celebratory caps and T-shirts to be on sale already. Indeed, Ferrari's official web site had Schumacher listed as a six-times champion already last month. But the great man will not tempt fate. He learnt that lesson in 1997, when manager Willi Weber produced merchandise celebrating Schumacher's title only for him to lose out to Canadian Jacques Villeneuve.

"Everyone thinks its a done deal but that's not the case," the German said last week. "I don't want to sound a bit pessimistic but that slight chance that Räikkönen still has is spinning around in my head. Life is like that. If you feel too secure, the opposite can happen and that is why we must stay very focused."

MANSELL MEMORY

Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn recalled the 1986 season, when Briton Nigel Mansell arrived in Adelaide with a six-point lead only to suffer a blowout and watch France's Alain Prost take the title.

"We all remember Nigel Mansell in 1986," Brawn said after Schumacher won the U.S. Grand Prix. "It would be a tragedy if we got that close and didn't win. In many ways there's more pressure to score one point than going in with a guy who's even."

No driver has ever kissed away a nine-point lead in the final race and lost the title. Mansell's extraordinary misfortune was just that -- extraordinary.

Of the 21 previous seasons that have gone down to the wire, 13 have been won by those leading the championship into the final race.

Schumacher had little personal interest in the last cliffhanger, when team mate Eddie Irvine arrived at Suzuka four points clear of McLaren's Mika Häkkinen. The Finn won race and title and Irvine finishing third behind Schumacher in the last year to see the championship go to pursuer rather than pursued. Before that, Schumacher took part in three last-race title duels, beating Briton Damon Hill in 1994 but losing out to Villeneuve in 1997 and Häkkinen in 1998.

In 1998, he was four points behind Häkkinen but qualified on pole. His hopes were then destroyed when he stalled on the grid at Suzuka and went to the back of the field. Working his way back to third place, with Häkkinen leading, Schumacher went out with an exploded rear tyre.

In 1997 he was a point ahead of Villeneuve before one of the most controversial races of Schumacher's career. The German ended up stripped of his points that year after swerving into Villeneuve's Williams in a desperate attempt to win the title by taking out his opponent as he went past. The effort backfired, with Villeneuve continuing while Schumacher, who had been rewarded with the 1994 title in similar circumstances when he steered into Hill, went out.

EPIC FINISHES

Formula One's distant past contains some truly epic championship finales.

In 1984, Austrian Niki Lauda clinched the closest ever title race when he beat McLaren team mate Prost by half a point. Eight years previously, with Ferrari, Lauda lost out to McLaren's James Hunt in Japan. The Austrian, who had been in a fiery and near fatal crash at the Nürburgring in the August, pulled out in heavy spray at Mount Fuji as Hunt continued and won the title by one point.

Scoring systems have changed over the years and at one period only some of each driver's race results counted towards the championship. That allowed Briton John Surtees to become champion for Ferrari in 1964 despite having scored a point less than Graham Hill from all the season's races.

In 1959, Australian Jack Brabham won the first of his three championships at Sebring in the United States after pushing his car across the line when it ran out of petrol.

"They tell me the crowd went wild," Brabham wrote in his autobiography. "Motorcycle cops tried to keep back the crowd. It must have been the first time the new world champion was escorted to the flag by a motorcycle escort. Frankly I don't remember a thing."

By Alan Baldwin LONDON, Oct 7 (Reuters)


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