Motor Racing: Italians lose patience with Ferrari

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The Independent Online
Seventeen years of hurt and still no sign of an end to it all. Indeed, these past few weeks have plunged motor racing's most famous, fabled and revered team, Michael Schumacher and all, to new depths of despair.

Schumacher's magnificent win in the rain in Spain might as well be 17 years ago. Ferrari's next drivers' title looks no nearer. Their catastrophe count extended to three consecutive races in Sunday's British Grand Prix, Schumacher and Eddie Irvine mustering eight laps between them before both cars retired. Next stop Germany, Schumacher's home race, and even for Ferrari the pressure can rarely have been more intense.

Before the garage shutters came down on their latest embarrassment, all Italy was wailing its outrage. Italian television did not bother showing the podium ceremony at Silverstone, preferring to open an inquiry into the shambles.

The Italian press was scathing. "Poor Ferrari, red only from shame," the Rome newspaper Il Messaggero said in a front page headline. "This mythical car, which has made motor racing history, seems to have become a circus car, exploding in the hands of clowns," Italy's largest selling sports daily, Gazzetta dello Sport, said.

"Every time Ferrari goes up in smoke, every banal error that leaves you speechless, means that a piece of Italy, which we were once proud of, dies," it added.

La Stampa, owned by the Agnelli family who control Ferrari, told its readers: "The trouble for Ferrari is that the public are fed up with waiting. The last world championship of Jody Scheckter in 1979 is a fading memory."

Many have called for the head of Jean Todt, the team director, and he says he would have to accept any decision to remove him, just as he accepts the criticism. "National passion in Italy is very strong," the Frenchman said. "Being in charge of the team I have been criticised and I have to answer my responsibility."

The more pragmatic suggest Ferrari have no one better to replace Todt, but then pragmatism has never been Maranello's strongest suit. Emotional forces can inspire, yet too often undermine.

The boss of another team looked on in amusement at Silverstone as Ferrari's president, Luca di Montezemolo, ushered the patriarch of the Fiat empire, Gianni Agnelli, around the pits, pursued by hordes of photographers and camera crews.

"Look at it. Crazy," the neighbouring boss said. "It puts too much pressure on everyone in the team and now they cannot work as they should. I'm pleased to see it. It helps us."

A member of the Ferrari team commented some hours after the French Grand Prix, where they managed five laps, and Williams finished the race first and second: "You see us, we are still packing our trucks and yet Williams have everything away. They're organised. We're not."

It is a generally held belief that Ferrari have funds way in excess of other teams but that, through mismanagement and a lack of organisation, they squander a potential advantage. Todt rejects that claim.

He said: "It makes me angry when I hear Ferrari has the biggest budget. It is completely wrong. Unlike the other teams, we built our own engine. If you calculate the investment put in by other engine manufacturers and their teams you would see it differently.

"Anyway, money cannot buy everything straight away. We have improved and it takes time. People expect too much too quickly, and that brings the biggest pressure. The mistakes are ours, the responsibility ours. We have to explain failures and say more than I would prefer, but that is part of being Ferrari. What I do say is we have to be more positive."

Ferrari have explained the series of component failures yet cannot explain why the apparent reliability recorded in testing has not, of late, been repeated in the races.

Schumacher has constrained his feelings and continued to convey the message that the team will get there in the end. He has already hinted he is prepared to commit himself beyond his two-year contract and perhaps finish his career at Ferrari.

He has a get-out clause in his agreement, which he could exercise at the end of this season, but where could he go? Williams could not afford his $25m (pounds 16.5m) a year asking price the last time they talked. He left Benetton for a new challenge, as well as that enormous salary, and McLaren still do not look an attractive enough proposition.

Speculation that Damon Hill might change teams was, of course, part of the spiralling frenzy at the British Grand Prix. However his boss, Frank Williams, said he expected to start negotiations aimed at agreeing a new contract with Hill for next year.