Ralf Schumacher could be closer to following his illustrious brother out of Formula One than anyone realises, if rumours in the German media are to be believed.

According to Bild, the German may be given the two 'flyaway' races in Canada and the United States to raise his game, or face the axe when Formula One returns to the more familiar European circuits, where a replacement could be slotted more easily in alongside Jarno Trulli.

Although Schumacher has a contract with the Cologne-based team until the end of the year - with all options on the team's side - his lacklustre start to the year has apparently prompted a rethink as to his role within the squad. Much has been made in recent weeks about the financial burden Schumacher poses to Toyota, with his deal worth an estimated E17m a year, given the return he is producing.

Just one point has come the German's way this season and, while Trulli has also found the going tough with the TF107, the Italian continues to out-perform his team-mate. Schumacher failed to break out for the first qualifying session in Monaco, and dropped to the back of the field in the early stages, and has failed to shine at any race so far in 2007.

Team president John Howett told Bild that he would be watching the market with interest in the coming weeks, but insisted that talks between the two parties were ongoing - despite the newspaper reporting that a tete-a-tete between employer and driver in Monaco resulted in a heated exchange that saw each blaming the other for the year's shortcomings.

Schumacher's manager, Hans Mahr, has already been quoted this season as claiming that, should Toyota decide to drop his charge at the end of the season, there were plenty of other options for 2008. However, in Monaco, he was insisting that Toyota should be honourable enough to see Schumacher's contract through to the end of the year.

Obvious replacements do not spring readily to mind, although Franck Montagny currently serves as chief tester for the team and had F1 experience from time in the backroom with Renault and race appearances with Super Aguri in 2007. Toyota's young driver programme is probably still some way from producing an F1-ready pilot, although Kazuki Nakajima has carried out third driver duties with 'customer' team Williams this season and has shown raw pace in his first three GP2 meetings.

 

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