Ferrari's success prompts cynicism from rival teams

The tension was etched deep into Michael Schumacher's square-jawed features in the moments before the Japanese Grand Prix. Since he joined Ferrari for the 1996 season, the German has carried not only his own hopes for a third world title, but the hopes of a nation that loves Ferrari with the sort of passion familiar to Englishmen only via their love of football.

The tension was etched deep into Michael Schumacher's square-jawed features in the moments before the Japanese Grand Prix. Since he joined Ferrari for the 1996 season, the German has carried not only his own hopes for a third world title, but the hopes of a nation that loves Ferrari with the sort of passion familiar to Englishmen only via their love of football.

In Maranello, and throughout much of Italy, the church bells finally rang for Ferrari's great day.

Not since the South African driver Jody Scheckter was crowned at Monza in 1979 have the prancing horse been able to boast a world champion driver. The team are alone in contesting every year of the world championship since its official inception in 1950. And greats such as Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, Mike Hawthorn, Phil Hill, John Surtees and Niki Lauda have driven what their English rival, Tony Vandervell, described with vigour as "those bloody red cars" to world titles. But the paucity of true success since Scheckter's has been an enduring embarrassment.

In 1982 and 1983 Enzo Ferrari's team won the constructors' title, and they did so again last year, but that is the second prize, however much manufacturers might wish it were otherwise. The title that counts to the man in the street is the one that a delighted Michael Schumacherfinally clinched with a superb performance in Japan on Sunday.

Back in 1996, when his cars ruled the world of Formula One and the savvy predicted that only McLaren would be able to offer a serious challenge, it was Frank Williams whodetected which way the wind of the future was blowing.

"It is quite possible that we will not win a race next season," he said quietly, sipping tea in the office of his old factory at Didcot. "We never assume anything here, and I can tell you, Ferrari will be strong. They are the ones we fear in the future." A shrewd man, Williams could see how Ferrari were marshalling their resources, hiring Schumacher for 1996 and then bringing in his cronies from the Benetton days, the Englishman Ross Brawn as technical director and the South African Rory Byrne as chief designer. Under the motivational leadership of Luca di Montezemolo, who had led the team to greatness with Niki Lauda in the Seventies, Ferrari steadily began to reinvent themselves.

"What we have done," Montezemolo said, "is to maintain our passion and our Italian nature, but to combine it with the coolness of the English teams who know so well how to win in Formula One." For three years the mix proved not quite good enough to topple first Williams, and then McLaren-Mercedes. Each season the passionate Italian fans, the tifosi, expected so much. And each year the prancing horse would limp to the finish line, beaten at the last hurdle.

Schumacher's victory has been greeted with delight in many quarters, not least within the portals of the FIA, the world governing body of motor sport, which on occasions has expressed its desire to see somebody upset the status quo of McLaren domination. But together with the success comes a deep cynicism in some quarters that the FIA has done all it possibly could, while appearing to be reasonable, to help Ferrari. McLaren's chief, Ron Dennis, believes that Ferrari are accorded judgements that other teams are denied, even if he is too astute to air such views publicly. In 1998 McLaren spent a fortune developing a special braking system, at every stage acquainting the FIA's technical department with its intentions and receiving the go-ahead. Then, following a complaint by Ferrari, the system was suddenly outlawed by the second race. McLaren continued winning.

After the Belgian Grand Prix this year McLaren's special differentials, which had also been cleared by the FIA's technical department, suddenly were declared no longer acceptable. Their deletion coincided with the upswing that swept Ferrari to its long overdue success.

"It's easy to be paranoid in this game," one leading technical director said after Sunday's race. "But it is hard not to feel that Ferrari have a special place that others are denied. Now that they've won, I think we'd all like to be assured that we will all get equal treatment in 2001." "Is it a level playing field?" Dennis asked in Suzuka. "I don't think it is. Draw your own conclusions."

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