Haunted by a 17-year hitch

For the dream team of Formula One the nightmare goes on. David Tremayne examines the causes and ill-effects
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Not long after Michael Schumacher won the Spanish Grand Prix with a majestic performance that registered the first tangible payback for the millions of dollars that Schumacher is being paid by Marlboro and Ferrari, the famous Italian team's sporting director, Jean Todt, was congratulated. He accepted the plaudits with grace, caution and a short laugh.

"It already seems very far away now, so don't congratulate me, because the last race, in Canada, was a disaster." At that time the two races highlighted Ferrari's rollercoaster season, which has been characterised by patches of promise allied to dark despair. After the Spanish win, Schumacher's car would not fire up for the grid formation lap in Canada and he was obliged to make slow progress from the back before brake problems and a broken driveshaft halted him.

Todt said that Ferrari's season had both exceeded and fallen short of his expectations. "We are not yet where we want and need to be. We are still facing too many problems. If we want to pretend to fight for the World Championship, we must be in a position to have two cars able to score points at every race."

At that stage, the performance of Ferrari's first V10 engine had been one of the year's success stories, but again Todt was cautious. It transpired that he had very good cause to be. "I am superstitious," he said. "So in one way I will say no, I was not expecting to be as competitive on the engine side. On the other hand I am always scared that we blow up one engine after 10 laps."

And then came the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours. After a row over the legality of the aerodynamic "barge boards" behind the front wheels of Eddie Irvine's car, which thus had to start from the back, Schumacher's pole-winning sister car did blow its engine. Not after 10 laps, but while the field circulated on its warm-up lap.

Worse still, two weeks later at Silverstone a hydraulic oil leak in the gearbox jammed Schumacher's car in sixth gear and forced him to drive straight into his pit garage after three laps, while Irvine's car lasted little longer before it ran a differential bearing. The situation had reached crisis point.

Since Magny-Cours, the Italian media had been screaming obsessively for someone's head, and the witchhunt was in full flow. Italian law demands that a culprit be identified in fatal accidents, and its media similarly demands a scapegoat when Ferrari underperforms. Todt is the man in the crosshairs.

Ferrari's problems are widespread. The F310 was late arriving, which set the programme back. Its handling has been indifferent, and its carbon fibre transmission casing has leaked. There have been suspension breakages, and their solution to aerodynamic conundrums has not matched that of Williams. There are myriad modifications in the pipeline for Schumacher to test, but where there was once talk that 1997 would mark Ferrari's true push towards another championship, sceptics already expect that Luca di Montezemolo, the Ferrari president, will soon promise that next year will be a build- up to an "all-out assault" in 1998.

Spells in the doldrums are nothing new to a team that was in F1 even before the inauguration of the official World Championship in 1950. In 1954 and 1955 their cars were hopeless, and again in 1960 and 1962. In 1969 they actually withdrew part-way through the season to regroup, and that happened again in 1973, though each time they bounced back stronger and more competitive than ever. There were Constructors' Championships in 1982 and 1983, but Ferrari's last world champion was Jody Scheckter, 17 years ago.

At Silverstone last week the mood was one of complete astonishment. Technical staff voiced bewilderment, their incredulity embracing flights of fancy that outside agencies might have been at work. Schumacher, his long face set in a hard line, summarised it best: "This is absurd," he said as he watched his World Championship prospects dying. "We did a race distance testing at Imola recently, and again at Monza. We ran reliably here on Friday and Saturday. And then we do three laps today. There is just no logic to it at all."

The problem is that there seems to be precious little logic to the whole Ferrari set-up. One team insider recently made the telling observation that it is not run along the same lines as British marques, such as Williams and McLaren. Both of them have cross-pollination of ideas across all levels of the workforce. Despite the presence of Di Montezemolo, the man who masterminded Niki Lauda's successes in the Seventies, and despite the common sense Todt has tried to bring in his three years with the team, Maranello remains the hotbed of polemics that it always was when Enzo Ferrari was alive. The Old Man's ghost still stalks the corridors. The hierarchical fiefdom remains and insiders say, for example, that only heads of departments may converse with race engineers. Fraternisation is discouraged.

Tension has been evident at times in the relationship between the British- based design satellite, Ferrari Design & Development, run by John Barnard, and the engineering department at Maranello, where Gustav Brunner and Aldo Costa take what Barnard has created and run it at races.

"We test a lot, but we don't do it the right way," another insider said at Silverstone. "It's too disjointed and we don't have a baseline. There are many new parts to try, but we don't make enough of them. So those we have become unreliable." This season began with great expectations, following Schumacher's arrival."But now," said the mole, "comes big shit."

If a man of Todt's calibre cannot make it work, Ferrari has little hope, for he is level-headed and under no illusion about the mountain they must climb. In the post-Barcelona euphoria he played things down with the voice of reason, expressing only modest aspirations. "We need to win one more race," he said. "That would make me happy, because it would be one more than we won in each of the last two years."

Todt understands that the Prancing Horse must canter before it can be spurred to gallop again, but others are less patient. At the beginning of the year Gianni Agnelli, the all-powerful father-figure at Fiat, which owns and funds Ferrari, said haughtily: "If Ferrari does not win with Schumacher, it will be Ferrari's fault."

Indeed it will be, but it is unlikely to be his head that rolls if the old nag does not soon transform itself into the race-winning thoroughbred that Italy demands.

From Scheckter to Schumacher

1979 Williams fastest but Jody Scheckter wins World Championship for Ferrari, with team-mate Gilles Villeneuve runner-up.

1980 Scheckter fades, and only Villeneuve's brilliance saves Ferrari in a dismal season.

1981 New turbo engine has power but is mated to agricultural chassis.

1982 Tragedy strikes when Villeneuve is killed and Didier Pironi crashes in sight of championship. Ferrari are winning constructor.

1983 Nelson Piquet scoops drivers' title, but Ferrari again top constructor.

1984 McLaren upstage everyone.

1985 Michele Alboreto fights Alain Prost for championship, but fades in closing stages.

1986 Ferrari poor match for Williams-Honda and McLaren-TAG.

1987 Yet again, Williams dominate, but Ferrari come good in final races.

1988 More tragedy as Enzo Ferrari dies. Berger triumphs at Monza shortly afterwards, the only race McLaren don't win.

1989 Mansell wins opening race with new V12 car, but McLaren take the titles.

1990 But for Senna driving Prost off road at Suzuka, super-competitive Ferrari could have won the championship.

1991 After near-miss in '90, Ferrari fall apart, and foolishly sack Prost at end of year.

1992 Ferrari regroup and struggle to learn about Williams-type technology.

1993 Another dismal year, characterised by numerous active suspension failures.

1994 Barnard's car promising, but not enough. Berger wins first race for team since 1990.

1995 Drivers love chassis and powerful engine, but cars lack downforce and still can't catch Williams and Benetton. Alesi wins in Canada.

1996 Schumacher joins and wins in Spain, but already troubled season then disintegrates.