Ferrari gives fresh optimism to Schumacher

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The Independent Online

Ferrari put on a show yesterday, leading the way in first practice, and there was a time when the locals would have reacted with excited anticipation, even expectation, of success in the race. Now they need more convincing.

Ferrari put on a show yesterday, leading the way in first practice, and there was a time when the locals would have reacted with excited anticipation, even expectation, of success in the race. Now they need more convincing.

"Unfulfilled Promise" could be the title of the Ferrari story these past few years and they prepare for tomorrow's Italian Grand Prix, in front of their devoted though discerning tifosi, requiring nothing short of victory from Michael Schumacher to check Mika Hakkinen's seemingly irresistible surge towards a third successive championship.

Ferrari had the first two places at the end of proceedings yesterday, Rubens Barrichello edging out his senior partner by 0.06sec. Hakkinen, in a McLaren-Mercedes, was fourth, behind Jarno Trulli's Jordan-Mugen. David Coulthard, in the other McLaren and the outsider in the title contest with four races remaining, was fifth, having lost much of his afternoon running time after going off and abandoning his car in a gravel trap.

But then, as this season has proved, first impressions can be deceptive. Schumacher, winner of the opening three races, now trails Hakkinen by six points and optimism among the sport's biggest fan club has waned accordingly. After five years at Ferrari, the German is still endeavouring to become the team's first world champion since 1979 and, should Hakkinen win here, the likelihood is Schumacher will be waiting into a sixth year.

Schumacher, ever mindful to massage the morale of his team, was not about to play down his chances here. He maintains the tide can be turned again and was encouraged by yesterday's performance. "I am generally happy with the work we did," he said. "I did a lot of laps and we made several fine tuning changes to the car. These resulted in some good improvements. The car is going very well, better than in the past when we came here. This time the car is a pleasure to drive. This was a good way to start the weekend."

Barrichello may have a significant supporting role to play in the remaining grands prix and his speed yesterday was as promising for the team as it was surprising to the Brazilian.

"I didn't expect to be quick after the problems I had in testing here last week," Barrichello said. "Suddenly, with a different car, I am happy and off we go. We don't normally see that kind of difference."

Barrichello, making his first appearance in the Italian Grand Prix at the wheel of the scarlet car, was equally heartened by the public backing he received. "It's amazing the atmosphere of the crowd," he said. "Whatever you do they react. For me it feels like being in Brazil at Interlagos. They support both drivers. Of course they look for Michael because he has been here longer but I felt they were quite impressed with me."

However, those tifosi will not delude themselves they have McLaren on the run here and Jean Todt, Ferrari's sporting director, offered a sobering perspective. Todt said: "Of course the dream result would be to have the same situation as today, with an all-red front row. But we all know the true value of Friday's times."

McLaren will hope to work their way through a full programme today and line up tomorrow in better order. Hakkinen too, spent more time than he would have wanted kicking his heels, the consequence of a gearbox problem.

Coulthard, 13 points adrift of Hakkinen, may be under less pressure than the two main contenders and just might profit. If he wins tomorrow he is suddenly back in the frame and, despite his spill yesterday, he adopted a defiant stance. He insists that should he stay in touch come the final race in Malaysia, fate could look kindly on his chances.

"I'm in a positive mood," he said. "I'm tuned in to what I have to do - have a good qualifying and a good race. I know I can do it, it's just a question of having everything come my way. If I go to Malaysia within nine points of the lead, I've got a chance."

Coulthard was one of 20 drivers who went off at the reshaped first chicane during the afternoon and that obstacle, first time round, could hold the key to the grand prix. Schumacher and most of the drivers are satisfied with the changes but the new boy, Jenson Button, was unsure about the chicanes.

Button, driving a Williams-BMW, was 11th yesterday. The jaguar pair, Eddie Irvine and Johnny Herbert were sixth and 12th respectively.

ITALIAN GRAND PRIX (Monza) Standings (after two practice sessions): 1 R Barrichello (Bra, Ferrari) 1min 25.057sec; 2 M Schumacher (Ger, Ferrari) +0.060sec; 3 J Trulli (It, Jordan) +0.333; 4 M Hakkinen (Fin; McLaren) +0.496; 5 D Coulthard (GB; McLaren) +0.739; 6 E Irvine (GB; Jaguar) +0.850; 7 P de la Rosa (Sp; Arrows) +0.855; 8 P Diniz (Bra; Sauber) +0.924; 9 J Verstappen (Neth; Arrows) +0.963; 10 M Salo (Fin; Sauber) +1.236; 11 J Button (GB; Williams) +1.395; 12 J Herbert (GB; Jaguar) +1.577; 13 M Gene (Sp; Minardi) +1.581; 14 H-H Frentzen (Ger; Jordan) +1.706; 15 G Fisichella (It) Benetton) +1.752; 16 J Villeneuve (Can; BAR) +1.849; 17 R Zonta (Bra) BAR +2.013; 18 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton) +2.036; 19 N Heidfeld (Ger; Prost) +2.078; 20 G Mazzacane (Arg; Minardi) +2.411; 21 R Schumacher (Ger; Williams) +2.795; 22 J Alesi (Fr) Prost +2.847.