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Gloves come off as F1 heats up

The gloves are off in Formula One, with the championship balanced on a knife-edge and just three races remaining.

The past week has been full of allegations, counter-accusations and threats with rival teams and tyre makers building up a head of steam as the title showdown reaches boiling point.

Ferrari, constructors' champions for the past four years with Michael Schumacher winning more races than any other driver in the history of the sport, are feeling the heat and fighting back.

Formula One's glamour team had got into the habit of turning up at Monza, the temple of Italian motor racing, for a celebration with their army of fans after winning the championship at a canter.

Not any more. They head for next week's Italian Grand Prix with the local media screaming crisis and the real prospect of ending the year empty-handed.

Schumacher, chasing a record sixth drivers' crown, was lapped at the last race in Hungary by Fernando Alonso's Renault while Williams seized the lead in the constructors' standings.

The German, winner a record 11 times last year, has not led a race since Canada in June and Italians fear that the wheels are coming off Ferrari's challenge.

He is just one point ahead of Williams's Juan Pablo Montoya and two clear of McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen.

To cap it all, Michelin-shod teams filled the top seven slots in Hungary with eighth-placed Schumacher the only Bridgestone runner.

"They (Ferrari) will tell us it was the tyres...well, just go to the tyre man and change them," La Repubblica newspaper commented sharply after Budapest.


The rebuke was only slightly wide of the mark. Within days, the governing FIA announced tighter checks on front tyres at Monza as suspicions filtered out about the legality of Michelin's tread.

Michelin, whose teams have won four of the last five races after struggling against Ferrari's suppliers Bridgestone in 2002, said their tyres were legal and had passed all previous inspections.

This week the war of words intensified, with Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn suggesting that the team could seek to review past races with the possible risk of the championship being settled in a courtroom.

"Ferrari are very angry and frustrated as it is now clear that a large number of the Michelin teams were running illegal tyres for a considerable amount of time," he told Britain's Autosport magazine.

Michelin replied with a threat of legal action.

It may all prove to be no more than a storm in a teacup, with Schumacher playing down the controversy after testing at Monza, but the accusations over a few millimetres of rubber testify to the intensity of the title fight.

Last year's big storm brewed up only after Ferrari made a mockery of the Austrian Grand Prix with 'team orders' because they were so dominant.

Schumacher, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve played all kinds of mind games during their title battles in the mid-1990s but this year's contenders have avoided personal animosity.

The German said this week that he was expecting a straight and fair fight at Monza.

"The gap closed by Williams and McLaren in the last two races cannot be explained only by the tyre factor," he said. "The results of these tests have been very encouraging and you must not forget that only three races ago at Silverstone we were on top. I don't deny that we have a difficult race ahead of us... it will be an interesting and uncertain finale."

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