Motor racing: Ferrari's red tide warning

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The Independent Online
THE RAIN, a Ferrari on pole position, and an apology from Michael Schumacher to David Coulthard - these were the last things anybody expected in Monza. But two out of three ain't bad.

Schumacher came to Monza - Ferrari's spiritual home, where the Scuderia prepared to celebrate its 600th GP - expecting to struggle the way that he had on that other high-speed circuit, Hockenheim, where Ferrari's aerodynamic shortcomings were magnified. But then it rained on Friday and again, very heavily, on Saturday morning.

Thus was set the scene for another Schumacher coup, for parts of the track remained damp when qualifying began. Initially there was the inevitable poker game as everyone saw who could out-wait whom, and looked for somebody else to go out and do the donkey work of establishing a dry line.

This had a compressive effect which eventually heightened the sense of theatre in one of racing's great arenas, after the first 34 minutes had passed in deafening silence before Tora Takagi and Spa victor Damon Hill finally ventured out. Illustrating the unreality of the situation, the hapless Ricardo Rosset was fastest on three occasions for Tyrrell.

But when the serious stuff began it was soon the McLarens of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard versus Schumacher, after momentary intervention by Sauber's Jean Alesi. But it was Schumacher and Ferrari who timed their performance to perfection, for while he enjoyed a clear run, both Coulthard and Hakkinen suffered from traffic on quicker laps, as did Hill.

Thus the unthinkable happened: at Monza, where they had been expected to dominate, neither McLaren was on the front row, for Jacques Villeneuve also rose to the occasion to plant a Williams there instead. It could not have been more satisfactory for Schumacher.

"My quick lap in itself wasn't very good - it didn't feel fast driving - but it was quick on the clock and that's what counts," Villeneuve said. "Our car seems to be working well on low downforce, and I am surprised that Ferrari is too."

McLaren were surprised too, which could could not have been more satisfactory for Schumacher. "This was a dream result," he said. "It has been a long wait for my first pole of the season, but Monza is the best place for it to happen and I am very happy about it. Today's result puts us in a very strong position for the race." A nice piece of understatement, that, given the way that he had stuck it to McLaren.

In the home of opera there was an elaborate ritual of handshaking between Schumacher and Coulthard, in the acrimonious aftermath of their controversial collision during the Belgian GP a fortnight ago. But few saw it as anything other than a bit of artful and contrived window dressing. Schumacher spoke airily of a new peace, but it was easier to persuade Bill Clinton to put his hands up and say sorry for his misdemeanours. Similar "humility" continued to elude the former World Champion.

"David and I have generally got on well in the past," he said, "and we still get on well." This, a week after he had stormed down to the McLaren pit immediately after erupting from the cockpit of his three- wheeled Ferrari following his dramatic crash into the back of Coulthard's McLaren as he came up to lap it in the rain, and then accusing the Scot in uncompromising terms of trying to kill him.

"As you may have expected," Schumacher continued with the glibness that he has perfected, "it was good and necessary to have a talk between ourselves to sort out some questions. There are no further problems. Naturally you can be very disappointed in a situation like this, and it was pretty easy to see my disappointment. But after a couple of days spent thinking about it and going through the incidents, you just go on. We came here testing in the week after the Belgian race, so you just get on with your job and forget about it because you can't put the clock back."

The bad feeling between Ferrari and McLaren remains, while the passions of the vociferous Italian fans, the tifosi, were still also inflamed. One of their banners proclaimed: "Coulthard killer", another: "Irvine, now you know you have a mission." McLaren have been very careful to afford the Scot adequate protection this weekend. Amid this hoopla, the three-time World Champion Jackie Stewart provided a much-needed oasis of common sense.

Reflecting on Schumacher's impetuous behaviour at Spa, he said: "What Michael was guilty of there was pure road rage. He had put himself in a position where he would suffer. In Germany in 1972 I made a mistake with Clay Regazzoni and put myself in a position where I would suffer if he reacted negatively. And he really gave it to me." Movie footage shows the Scot climbing from his damaged Tyrrell in clear dudgeon, throwing his gloves into the cockpit. The body language said it all, just as it did for Schumacher.

"It was my last chance to win that year's championship," Stewart said. "I was angry with myself because I knew I had done the wrong thing in putting myself in that position. And I believe that 90 percent of Michael's anger was with himself. What was he doing taking that chance when he was 35 seconds in the lead? When you get as angry as he was then, the mind management system has completely broken down."

There hasn't been a wet Italian Grand Prix since the pre-war days, and Saturday's deluge appeared to hold out hope for Ferrari. But after Schumacher and Ferrari wove their brilliant spell and yanked the rabbit out of the hat, the weather became irrelevant. Overtaking is damn near impossible here, and with McLaren shoved off the front row, the red tide may well be turning. Where better for it to do so than Monza?