The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Knocking on heaven’s door
- Just a point to win and everything to lose for Schumacher

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

The German needs one point in 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 Raikkonen can stop him now and even then the matter is out of the Finn’s hands.

Raikkonen’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 website 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 Raikkonen 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 focussed.”

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 US 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 teammate Eddie Irvine arrived at Suzuka four points clear of McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen.

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 Hakkinen in 1998. In 1998, he was four points behind Hakkinen but qualified on pole. His hopes were then destroyed when he stalled on the grid at Suzuka and went back of the field. (Reuters)

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