Ferrari's fragile ambitions buoyed in Brazil

Michael Schumacher's second place at Sao Paulo has calmed fears that this year's F1 championship may be a one-horse race. By David Tremayne
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The Independent Online
IF YOU believed the pessimists in Interlagos last Thursday, Ferrari's chances of winning the world championship had long been sluiced away in the Australian Grand Prix, even though Eddie Irvine won that race. The sheer speed of the McLarens had so stunned the team that the less psychologically strong members had already sunk deep into typically Italian doom and gloom. Last weekend in Brazil their mood went up and down faster than inflation in Sao Paulo, but after Michael Schumacher's strong drive to second place a new mood of optimism pervaded the camp.

This fragile psychology must drive the team's pragmatists, such as the technical director, Ross Brawn, and sporting director, Jean Todt, to distraction, for it is like a jack-in-the-box perpetually coiled, ready to spring forth the moment anyone lifts the lid to peep inside.

The underlying problem for the sport's most charismatic team is that this is the third consecutive season in which their pre-season optimism has been shattered in the first race. And it is 20 years since Jody Scheckter rode a Prancing Horse to a world title.

Hiring Schumacher - a man whose salary could take a chunk out of third- world debt - has been the most costly undertaking in the Scuderia's illustrious history and there are people who want to see a return on the staggering investment. For three years Ferrari has been predicting world championship success, only to be outgunned either by Williams or, latterly, by McLaren. Patience and psychology is wearing thin, which serves only to increase the pressure the team are working under. The near-misses of the past three years can only be forgiven for so long.

Insiders confirmed that McLaren's sheer speed in Melbourne absolutely stunned Ferrari, who, having run them so close in the latter half of 1998 had expected to be at least as competitive at the start of this year. "You could say that we were surprised," Irvine admitted.

Where McLaren went for speed over reliability and paid the price Down Under, Ferrari were deliberately cautious. Brawn knew that the full aerodynamic package would not be ready, but where British teams such as McLaren or Williams accept failure as part of the Formula One deal, an inevitable factor of motor racing, factions within Ferrari have always struggled to maintain an even strain and not to let the vagaries of the sport affect the team's mental equilibrium. Brawn shrugs wearily at this. "Of course we were surprised by McLaren's speed in Melbourne," he admitted. "But we deliberately went the conservative route to begin with."

Despite the dramatic rise of Stewart-Ford and promise shown by other teams, he confirms that Ferrari have eyes only for McLaren. "They are our target. If we can get close to them, we'll see what happens."

Ferrari did get closer in Brazil, close enough to lead for a while and to push McLaren, and if there is a still a performance gap, it is far smaller than it was five weeks ago. The scene looks set for another cracking world championship contest.

"We don't yet have enough grip and we are still learning how to use the Bridgestone tyres properly, both in qualifying and the race," Brawn says. Irvine points out that Goodyear tyres were last year the secret weapon that allowed Ferrari to get on terms with McLaren. "The construction of the tyre that they gave us last year was bloody great. That tyre had fantastic traction, you could do anything with it. We haven't quite got to that stage yet with the tyres we have this year."

Despite such technical setbacks, there are no signs that Ferrari will roll over and die after their poor opening race. That is something for which F1 fans can feel profoundly grateful.

Ferrari's race performance was much more convincing on Sunday after aerodynamic changes enabled Schumacher to look far more competitive than he had in Melbourne. Though McLaren still had the performance edge, second place was a dramatic - and partly unexpected - fillip for the Italian team. And the reliability of both of their cars further increased their lead in the constructors' championship, too. It is McLaren doing the chasing right now. "We have a great team at Ferrari," Brawn says. "We're doing plenty of work, and if we can perform the way we did last year, we can do it."

Schumacher was delighted, and that is always bad news for rivals. "McLaren have set the target and we know what we have to do to reach that level of performance, and then to exceed it," he warned. "Ferrari has every capability to achieve this and we started to prove that this weekend. The points situation doesn't worry me at this early stage of the season."