Formula One: Reality matches the Ferrari myth

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The Independent Online
THE OLD man stood in the shade of a giant scarlet truck. Leaning on his cane, he watched the restless promenade of the Formula One paddock - the good, the bad, and the merely beautiful. Silvio Ferri, 92 years old, remembers the days when Enzo Ferrari was a racing driver, long before a car carried the name around the world. Each spring Silvio pulls on the Ferrari-red sweater with the prancing horse shield on its left breast and leaves his home in Verona to travel the 200 kilometres to Imola for a rendezvous with the most potent myth in motor racing.

Yesterday was one of those rare days when the myth is matched by reality, enabling Silvio and 100,000 others to celebrate the momentary fulfilment of their historic dream. And it was, above all, a family do. Here, on their home track, which is named after their patriarch and his doomed son, the Ferrari family congregated to see Michael Schumacher end an interminable wait by bringing one of the red cars home to win the San Marino Grand Prix for the first time in 16 years.

Among those in attendance were Enzo Ferrari's surviving son, Piero, and Piero's 10-year-old grandson, also named Enzo. There was Don Sergio Mantovani, the priest from Maranello who has blessed generations of Ferrari drivers. There were former Ferrari champions, like Niki Lauda and Jody Scheckter, and the long-retired mechanics who fettled their vehicles, seizing the chance to bask once more in the reflection of glory. There were even the old girlfriends of former champions.

Ferrari is enveloped in history like no other team, and at Imola that history is everywhere. On Saturday the family gathered for the unveiling of a statue at the circuit entrance, a 20-ft high bronze casting of a dozen Ferraris climbing over each other to the sky - "a symbol of Ferrari and of the myth of Ferrari", according to the mayor of Imola. With his 15th victory at the wheel of a Ferrari, Schumacher brought the team and its fans closer to the dream of a first world championship since Scheckter's victory exactly 30 years ago.

It was a stirring and heroic drive in a race perfectly suited to a beautiful afternoon. The sun glinted off the scarlet bodywork of his car as Schumacher slowed down after taking the chequered flag, driving as slowly as he could to savour the cheers, the klaxons and the waving banners of the people in the grandstands. He wanted, he said afterwards, to look into their faces.

They love Ferraris, and anyone who drives them fast. Italian drivers in foreign cars, or foreign drivers in Italian cars, or even Italian drivers in other makes of Italian cars hold no interest for them. Nor, in truth, does the racing itself. Ten years ago at Imola, when the Ferraris of Alain Prost and Jean Alesi retired in the first 10 minutes, leaving Ayrton Senna to cruise to victory, the thronged hillsides had emptied long before the race had reached half-distance.

As if a Ferrari victory in Emilia-Romagna were not enough, Senna's spirit provided the day's other historical resonance. Five years ago Schumacher was sitting at the wheel of a Benetton just behind Senna's Williams when the Brazilian entered the old Tamburello curve and was launched into the accident that cost him his life. Schumacher won the restarted race that day, unaware of his rival's fate, and went on to capture a tainted championship.

He led from pole position the following year, again in a Benetton, but retired. In 1996, in his fourth race for Ferrari, he again started from pole but finished in the first of a hat-trick of second places at Imola. Yesterday he returned to the track lying fifth in the championship after the season's first two races, and wondering whether Ferrari was ever going to give him the third title that would bring him alongside Senna, at least in statistical terms.

At Imola, Ferrari try to leave nothing to chance. This year they brought along four cars, 12 engines, five gearboxes, 2,000 litres of fuel, five articulated trucks, three motor homes, 17 engineers, 20 mechanics, seven publicity people and dogsbodies, and 600 guests. But although Eddie Irvine, Schumacher's No 2, had won the opening race in Australia, while the team leader himself had finished second in Brazil, they knew that they were lagging behind the performance of the McLaren-Mercedes combine, who had spent the winter developing an even faster version of last year's all-conquering car.

For most of the weekend, Schumacher seemed subdued, almost morose. Either he was depressed about Ferrari's continued failure to match McLaren's progress, or he had caught the bug which was afflicting several members of his team. He made the right noises about a new nose-wing that he tested at the team's private track on Thursday, and was as careful as usual not to raise expectations too high. But he seemed to lack conviction, and the pessimistic mood was underlined when Irvine remarked to journalists that he had been "more than disheartened" to discover that their cars were no closer to the McLarens.

"We've made some improvements," Schumacher said after Friday's practice sessions. "But in Formula One things never stand still, and it depends how much improvement other teams have made, particularly McLaren. We need to know whether we've moved forwards, or stayed where we are, or gone backwards. After Sunday afternoon we'll know exactly what is the situation. It's important that we don't always have two McLarens in front of us, that we at least beat one of them."

In Saturday's qualifying session Schumacher practically drove the wheels off his car in an attempt to match the McLarens, showing sensational courage and commitment but still ending up behind Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard on the grid. But the gap was less than two-tenths of a second - which, compared with the car's performance in Brazil, meant that he had found eight-tenths of a second somewhere. "It's closer than I had expected," he said, still sounding downbeat. "But I'm a bit disappointed with my own performance. I didn't manage to drive a perfect lap. I could have gone better, and pole position was within my reach. This means we are in good shape for tomorrow. Let's wait and see what happens."

No one at Ferrari knows Schumacher better than the team's technical director, Ross Brawn, an Englishman who worked with the driver during his championship seasons at Benetton and who moved to Maranello, taking a bunch of key technicians with him, two years ago. "There's an element of frustration," Brawn said after the qualifying session, "because Michael came to Ferrari to win the world championship and we haven't achieved that yet. But he's still as determined as ever, and his ability is as strong as ever. We all wish we'd done it by now. But to stay at the front for those three or four years is still an incredible achievement. And if you count his time at Benetton, Michael has been at the front for longer than anyone."

Schumacher is managed by Willy Weber, a silver-maned former club owner who negotiated his client's starting salary of $25m (pounds 15.53m) a year with Ferrari and recently renegotiated an extension to the end of the 2002 season. But the failure to land the title in his first three years led to speculation that Schumacher believed he had made a mistake in taking on the challenge of dragging the Prancing Horse back to glory.

"Michael isn't discouraged," Weber said on the eve of yesterday's race. "To be honest, we thought we'd need the same time to do the job that we had with Benetton. Now it's one year longer but nothing has changed in our thinking. Michael is very strong, he likes a challenge, and he knew what he was facing when we made the move to Ferrari. He's still the same as in the first days with the team, full of the will to make things happen - the things that were in our head when we joined Ferrari. We're still behind the team and we're sure that we'll win the championship this year. You know Ferrari is champion in picking up after a bad start. Give us one or two more races and you'll find out."

One race doesn't make a summer, but the combination of Schumacher's virtuosity at the wheel and Brawn's strategic brilliance brought Ferrari's fans close to a state of ecstasy at Imola yesterday. "This was a team victory," Schumacher said, "and what made it even better was seeing the enthusiasm of the fans." Two hours after the end of the race, while most of the team were still celebrating victory and the last of the fans were delaying their departure for home, someone in the pits fired up a racing engine. Even that got an ovation.