Motor Racing: Ferrari the masters of strategic battle

David Tremayne hears that McLaren, wounded in Monaco, are ready for a resurgence
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The Independent Online
"IF YOU had told me in Melbourne that I would have been leading the World Championship by now, I would not have believed you," Michael Schumacher said in Monaco.

It has become an all-too familiar refrain from a man as well versed in the art of gentle deception as he is in the fast lap, this playing down of Ferrari's competitive position. It derives more from a wish to limit the expectation of the Italian media - should such a thing be possible in the country where Ferrari are a religion - than it does from a desire to mislead rivals. But there is no doubt that, at present, Ferrari are proving devastatingly capable of misleading McLaren. Brilliant driving allied to cunning strategy won Schumacher and Ferrari the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, and did the same in Monte Carlo.

Where McLaren opted for sufficient fuel to get poleman Mika Hakkinen to the 50th of the 78 laps, Schumacher had enough for 42. And the difference in the starting weight of the cars proved critical as they lunged for Ste Devote, the tight first corner. Momentarily, Hakkinen contemplated resistance as Schumacher drew alongside. "But he was clever enough not to make it too close," Schumacher said, "otherwise we would have crashed. I was able to slip by because I had better momentum. I was able to take advantage of my strategy, which was obviously to get clear and build up the gap I needed for the pit stop, to make everything safe. I was pushing flat out to get the gap I wanted."

McLaren's strategy was curious, given the team leader Ron Dennis's belief that Monaco is all about leading into Ste Devote. "Monaco is a race in which you can be two seconds off the pace and still run it from the front," he said. "Everything is about qualifying and who emerges first out of the first corner. Chances are if Mika had got into the first corner first he'd still, despite all his problems, have been able to hold Michael at bay."

But with a heavier car Hakkinen lost out to Schumacher, just as David Coulthard did to Eddie Irvine, and the red cars ran rings round Dennis's silver arrows. Coulthard quit with another transmission failure while a front suspension problem and a momentary slide down an escape road because of oil deposited by Tora Tokagi's blown engine left Hakkinen only a distant third, humbled in a race which he had dominated 12 months ago.

With Ferrari now 24 points clear of McLaren in the chase for the Constructors' World Championship, and Hakkinen trailing Schumacher by 12, things hardly look rosy for the British team, who this time last year seemed invincible. But Dennis is adamant that it was more a matter of McLaren losing Monaco than Ferrari winning it. "They were running against two lame ducks, not two competitive McLarens. I don't think anyone should read too much into it."

That may well be true but the fact remains that the McLaren, though fast, is fragile. The Ferraris run like metronomes overdosed on Duracell. Dennis is prepared to concede that the Italian cars possess quite remarkable reliability. "Every time we've made mistakes, Ferrari have been waiting there to pounce and you have to admit that they did a good job in Monaco. But there are 12 races remaining and I will predict now that we'll be taking them to the wire. We had an even greater advantage over them at this stage last season, yet the title was decided at the last race."

Hakkinen left Monte Carlo bound for more work in Barcelona, fortifying himself with the knowledge that McLaren have plenty of developments in the pipeline. "We have some very intensive testing coming up," the World Champion said, "and we plan to improve the car and the engine so that we can find more speed and stay competitive."

Dennis, meanwhile, is remembering the first part of Kenneth Wolstenholme's famous comment: "They think it's all over" - but not the latter part. "It"s somewhat premature to predict the outcome of the championship. We are four races into the season and lots of things can happen." And in a reference perhaps to Ferrari, he added: "I don't see the individual objective of one person in a Grand Prix team, whoever it may be, as being of particular relevance to the overall effort. We're there to function as a team." Which, after all, is what McLaren do best.

ITV's Formula One anchorman, Jim Rosenthal, made quite the best summary of the Monaco GP as frustrated passengers in Nice endured the seemingly inevitable delays with British Airways flights. His plane eventually left well before those scheduled to fly earlier. "This is the first overtaking move of the weekend," he said. A dull race might just be the harbinger of a sensational summer as McLaren come back on the attack.