The born fighter in Juan Pablo Montoya spoke defiantly of his wish to take the challenge to Michael Schumacher but the Colombian's body language betrayed a waning conviction.
Schumacher, with three victories from the season's first four races, goes into Sunday's Spanish grand prix here heading the championship by 14 points from his brother Ralf. Montoya, the younger Schumacher's team-mate at Williams-BMW, is a further three points adrift.
It was not supposed to be like this. Williams were meant to be standing toe to toe with Ferrari's Schumacher, producing the kind of slugfest that has the public on their feet. However, such was Ferrari's dominance at Imola, where Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello registered a one-two success for the Italian team, that even Williams will do well to make a contest of it this weekend.
Montoya, the former CART champion who has shown himself capable of taking on the four times champion of Formula One, given the opportunity, tried his best to talk up a good fight here yesterday.
"Imola was a struggle for me," said Montoya, who was beaten into fourth place by his partner at the San Marino grand prix. "It was unexpected how quick Ferrari were. This is hard work for us but you can't win them all. We still have a chance of fighting back. It is a matter of who can evolve the car quicker. I don't know if I can beat Michael here but you never know. If he breaks down in this race we have got to take advantage and then we are right there again.
"I never said I had a title bid. You always want to challenge but it is difficult to say if you have got a chance. Things change so quickly in Formula One. This year we were straight on the pace. We did improve this winter."
Alas for Williams and the rest, so did Ferrari. The new car is a distinct development of the championship-winning 2001 model and Schumacher's ambition is undimmed. Although he would never say as much outside his immediate circle of family and confidantes, he must believe he will not only post a record-equalling fifth title this season but also go one better than Juan Manuel Fangio's landmark next year.
"Michael is the guy on the grid to beat," Montoya said. "He is a good driver with the best car and that makes him difficult to beat. We've got to get a better car. But it's not frustrating. We've won a race this year and finished on the podium. I could be racing with Minardi."
Frustrating or not, Montoya categorically rules out the option of foul play. He has already been involved in a couple of collisions with Schumacher's Ferrari this season but has no desire to go hunting the German.
He said: "I believe in driving hard but fair. I want to win because I did a good job, not because I hit somebody off the circuit."
The complication for Montoya is that he has to beat Ralf as well as Michael Schumacher, and his team-mate's consistency is currently paying dividends.
"I'm not concerned about Ralf," Montoya maintains. "He's quick but I've got second place from two races. The only race Ralf beat me fairly was at Imola. That day I didn't have a good car and he had a good race."
Michael Schumacher inevitably cautioned against complacency, stressing that there were no certainties in grand prix racing, yet he acknowledged that he and his team arrived here well prepared and confident of extending their advantage in the championship.
This circuit was once the stronghold of McLaren-Mercedes, but they are now in danger of dropping below third place in the standings. They are coming under increasing pressure from Renault and in particular their young British driver Jenson Button.
"It's great to turn up at a circuit thinking we can get a points finish," said Button, who lies fourth in the drivers' table. "I believe we'll be fighting against McLaren and Sauber here."Reuse content