| Ralf rejects suggestions that he has finally moved out of Michael’s shadow this year because he considers he has always been his own man
Berlin: Michael Schumacher paused, carefully considering a question that would have been unthinkable last year.
The Ferrari driver, chasing a record sixth Formula One championship, had just been asked by German television who he thought was the better Schumacher right now — himself or younger brother Ralf.
“At the moment, it’s Ralf...isn’t it',” he said after Ralf’s French Grand Prix win on July 6.“I don’t see any reason against him being considered as one of the co-favourites. Ralf is right up there.”
Ralf has won the last two races for Williams and is also the only driver to have finished every race in the points so far. His form, after a disappointing start to the season, has helped blow open the title race and silenced critics who only a month ago questioned the German’s ability and desire to win after he trailed Michael home in Canada without attempting to overtake.
Ralf remains 11 points adrift of Michael, with McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen sandwiched between the brothers ahead of Sunday’s British Grand Prix, but several pundits already consider him a good bet for the title.
He has his best chance yet, although recently he has played down expectations.
“These chances are very small and I don’t even dream about it,” Ralf said. “The 11-point advantage Michael has is too much and as a result it will be very hard to close the gap.
“But if we keep working as concentrated as we did the last few races, it could be very interesting. Let’s wait for the next two or three races and then I’ll be able to tell you more.”
Hungry for heroes
Germans have grown accustomed to Ralf, 28, being in the slipstream of 34-year-old Michael, who still has by far the most fans in a country hungry for heroes.
Tennis player Boris Becker boosted Germany’s national pride with his Wimbledon exploits from the 1980s and Michael has done the same since he arrived in Formula One in 1991.
The reaction to Ralf — Schumi II — is cooler and more like that to Michael Stich, Becker’s German rival who beat him in one Wimbledon final.
Ralf, in his seventh season in Formula One, rejects suggestions that he has finally moved out of Michael’s shadow this year because he considers he has always been his own man.
“I guess I’ve shown before that I have my own character and have long been trying to establish my own identity. This isn’t something that happened this year,” he said.
He said that even though Michael was “perhaps the best driver” he had nevertheless been overtaken in the past and would be overtaken and beaten in the future too.
“Will Schumi be able to handle Ralf’s success'” asked top-selling daily Bild after Magny-Cours, one of several newspapers having a Schumacher field day.
“Ralf and his Cora are the Beckhams of Formula One,” declared Bild am Sonntag about Ralf and his wife.
There has been much speculation about why Ralf, after trailing Michael for years, is now winning.
Some point to their mother’s death recently as a touching moment for Ralf, who was particularly close to her, while others suggest that he has been stung by criticism levelled at him earlier in the season.
A more plausible explanation is Williams’ success in improving the aerodynamics of a car which already has Formula One’s most powerful engine.
“I wouldn’t attribute it all to Ralf,” Michael told Bild am Sonntag. “He’s finally got a car he can get something out of.”
The relationship between the two may be changing on the track but it remains the same off it.
“We were fighting against each other in the last few years in Formula One and our relationship didn’t change so I see no reason why it should change now,” said Ralf. “I love my brother even if I’m battling him for the championship.”
The main difference appears to be that they discuss racing a lot less these days.
“We have been talking less about Formula One since I’ve been in the same league as my brother,” Ralf said.
“I’ll give you an example. In Australia we went out for dinner and spent three hours together and I swear we didn’t say a single world about Formula One. And that hasn’t changed.”