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Schumacher and Ferrari prepare for FIA hearing

Ferrari's Michael Schumacher has stretched his Formula One championship lead to a massive 46 points but it could shrink again within days.

The world champion's second place in Sunday's European Grand Prix, behind triumphant Brazilian team mate Rubens Barrichello, took his tally to 76 points from a possible 90.

His nearest rival, brother Ralf at Williams, has just 30 points with eight races remaining. Ferrari have 102 points to the 57 of Williams.

The title chase may seem to be over but Schumacher, Barrichello and Ferrari must now turn their thoughts to a meeting of the FIA's World Motor Sport Council in Paris on Wednesday.

The hearing was called after Ferrari sparked worldwide outrage last month by ordering Barrichello to let Schumacher past in the final metres of the Austrian Grand Prix.

Schumacher, well on the way to his record-equalling fifth world title, then broke protocol by pushing his team mate to the top of the podium for him to accept the winner's trophy.

The Nuerburgring paddock was full of speculation about what, if any sanctions, might be applied with suggestions ranging from a race ban, points deductions or a fine.

"The FIA's credibility is very much on the line here," said one source close to the governing body, indicating that the outcome had to be seen as fair and considered.

What seems certain is that Ferrari cannot expect the passing of time, any more than what happened on Sunday, to alter the world body's response to what happened in Austria.

However, any punishment is likely to focus on the breach of podium protocol rather than Ferrari's controversial, but not illegal, use of 'team orders'.

Such orders were seen again on Sunday, but with an ironic twist in Barrichello's favour.

This time it was effectively an order to Schumacher not to try and overtake.

"After the second pit stop the team said drive home the race...that was the order to both of us to just drive a safe race and drive it home," said Schumacher.

Ferrari had presented the Austrian decision as a reflection of their own paranoia, the feeling that the championship could still be lost through misfortune and that Schumacher needed every point.

By allowing the German, who was right on Barrichello's tail on Sunday for the closing laps, to stay second in Germany, Ferrari came across as far more confident that the title was won and that the dropped four points would not be crucial.

Cynics could always argue that, with the hearing looming, they were never going to antagonise the authorities with another blatant act. But more subtle forms of manipulation were not seen either.

Both drivers had smooth pit stops, coming and going in almost identical times, and Barrichello felt he was fighting on equal terms.

Schumacher, who attends an FIA event in Cologne on Tuesday to promote road car safety developments, would not comment on what might happen on Wednesday.

But he said a month had made a considerable difference to Ferrari's thinking, adding: "I think the points situation was quite a different one in these days than it was in Austria because nobody sort of knew how the season would develop and we are obviously in a much more comfortable situation now.

At a post-race news conference he was asked if the championship was in the bag.

"Am I champion now? I wish to say that but it is not," he replied. "We go step by step closer to it but until it is the case there is no point thinking too much about it. People have sometimes certain ideas but I think that we were simply not at the time arrogant enough to think that it is so easy to win this championship. I don't want to say now we are arrogant but we have quite substantially more of a points difference."

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