Fans celebrate victory as 'a family affair'

Ferrari fans throughout Italy poured on to the streets yesterday morning to celebrate Michael Schumacher winning the Formula One drivers' title in Japan, a victory they had been waiting 21 years for. Impromptu convoys of cars waving the red and yellow flags of Ferrari, their horns tooting, formed soon after the German's Ferrari crossed the finish line in Suzuka. Jubilant crowds gathered in the mainpiazzas in Milan, Turin and Rome, and in Naples and Bari they partied along the promenade until lunchtime.

Ferrari fans throughout Italy poured on to the streets yesterday morning to celebrate Michael Schumacher winning the Formula One drivers' title in Japan, a victory they had been waiting 21 years for. Impromptu convoys of cars waving the red and yellow flags of Ferrari, their horns tooting, formed soon after the German's Ferrari crossed the finish line in Suzuka. Jubilant crowds gathered in the mainpiazzas in Milan, Turin and Rome, and in Naples and Bari they partied along the promenade until lunchtime.

Italy's normally reserved president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, summed up national sentiment when he commented: "Finally, after 21 years, and we earned it." All television news bulletins led with the national triumph.

At Maranello, where Ferrari have their headquarters, church bells rang out. Father Alberto Bernardoni apologised that the bells had not been sounded as soon as Schumacher crossed the finishing line because he had been saying Mass at the time.

Many residents had stayed up all night and thousands had braved persistent rain to following the tense race on big screens in the town piazzas. Some fans invented a mock funeral procession, carrying a wooden coffin with the word "Mercedes" on it to the local church and then to the Ferrari plant. Supporters from surrounding towns caused traffic jams trying to reach the centre.

"Jump, jump, jump!" young fans yelled, hopping up and down in the streets in a homegrown version of the Mexican wave. "Everyone who doesn't jump is Finnish!"

The Mayor of Maranello,Giancarlo Bertachini, said: "Ferrari is a family affair, all our families are touched by it, and everyone shares in this joy." A street party is planned in the central Italian town in two weeks' time.

In the interim, at the Malaysian Grand Prix, Ferrari hope to clinch the constructors' title, their consolation prize last year, to complete a millennium slam.

The Ferrari president, Luca di Montezemolo, said it was, "the happiest day of my life, at least professionally speaking. The victory of Ferrari is the victory of Italian technology, of a company, which is not a football team, with its employees and its technology. We won against the giants of the automotive, space and electronic industries.

"Losing in the last race for three years in a row is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. I have fantastic and tragic memories, of drivers who died with our cars, of magnificent feats that only just failed. It was the first victory since the passing away of the company's founder, Enzo Ferrari, in 1988, and Gianni Agnelli, of the Fiat dynasty, said his first thought was how happy the old boy would be today."

Di Montezemolo revealed he had telephoned Schumacher, saying: "I listened to Schumi and then I only said: 'I thank you; I am doing it now because in an hour's time I will be drunk and will not be in full possession of my faculties.'"

Many of those celebrating on the streets yesterday were not born the last time Ferrari celebrated such a win, when the South African Jody Scheckter took the title in 1979. The victory was especially sweet given that for the past three years fans have seen the title that seemed theirs snatched from them in the final grand prix of the season.

In 1995, Schumacher, with two world drivers' titles under his belt, left Benetton for Ferrari, then in the doldrums. Despite 23 victories in that time, the drivers' title has always eluded him. Fans have been critical of the German driver's performance and many had seen the hiring of young Brazilian prospect Rubens Barichello as a sign that Ferrari was losing faith in Schumacher.

While Italy celebrated the triumph of what it considers a national symbol, there was rejoicing in Germany for the feat of their countryman. In Schumacher's home town, Kerpen, in northern Rhineland, they have decided to name a street after him - fittingly, -- the one leading to to the go-kart track owned by Schumacher's father.

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