Passions inflamed by magic of Ferrari

Nothing less than victory will suffice for the fanatical followers of Italy's 'national team' at Imola tomorrow Richard Williams at Imola
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The Independent Online

Nobody remembers Ferrari's worst day on their home track with a bigger shudder than Cesare Fiorio. It was back in 1991, and more than 150,000 fans had gathered at Imola to see if the red cars, driven by Alain Prost and Jean Alesi, could beat the McLarens of Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger.

Fiorio was managing the Ferrari team that day, and therefore responsible for upholding the honour of the national team. As Prost and Alesi set off on the parade lap, a persistent drizzle turned to a downpour. Suddenly the track was a lake. Half-way round the circuit, travelling at no more than 50 miles an hour, Prost spun off and couldn't get started again. On the pit wall, Fiorio watched in horror as the grid formed up without his number one driver.

"I didn't know what had happened," he said yesterday. "At that time, the communications between the pits and the drivers weren't so good. Where was he?"

The race started. "Still no Prost. Then they come through across the line at the end of the first lap. But when they get to Tosa, the second corner of the second lap, Alesi collides with somebody else and crashes out. So, after one lap, there are no Ferraris in the race."

The grandstands and hillsides had been packed with fans waving red flags. "Straight away, you could see all the people rolling up their flags." And not just that. They were packing up to leave altogether. Twenty minutes after the start of the San Marino Grand Prix, the place was more than half empty.

Fiorio knew what failure meant to the fans. "I thought, 'I'd better disappear.' So I left the circuit by motorbike, wearing an anonymous crash helmet."

Tomorrow the Ferraris will again do battle with the McLarens, still their chief rivals, in front of a full house at the autodrome named after their founder. Expectations are higher than they were nine years ago, since Michael Schumacher, the Ferrari team leader, has won the first two races of the season and is doing nothing to discourage predictions of a hat-trick. Twenty years after Jody Scheckter became the last Ferrari driver to win the world championship, the German may finally achieve the prize. And the possibility has inflamed the passions that only Ferrari can evoke. The viewing figures for the live transmission of the Brazilian race on Italian television were a record 14 million.

Men like Frank Williams, Eddie Jordan and McLaren's Ron Dennis would give a considerable part of their vast fortunes for the following that Ferrari attracts, not just in its home country but around the world. The Italian team, which launched its own supporters' club and web site this week, is a marketing man's dream, and so important to the box-office appeal of Formula One that the FIA, the sport's governing body, is regularly accused of bending the rules to ensure that Ferrari remain competitive. Yesterday Max Mosley, the association's president, again issued the standard denial, although there were powerful rumours that Ferrari was the team he was referring to when he announced that the use of an illegal traction control system during 1999 had been detected during post-season investigations by the FIA's technical inspectors.

Now in his eighth year as Ferrari's chief mechanic, Nigel Stepney still expresses amazement at the emotions aroused by the team's successes and failures. "It's still hard for me to understand the force behind Ferrari that attracts so many people," the Englishman, formerly with Lotus, said in the Imola paddock yesterday. "It's completely different from England in that respect. It's as if Ferrari's in their blood."

In this corner of Italy, cars in general are in their blood. Emilia-Romagna was the cradle of many Italian manufacturers - not just Ferrari but Maserati, Lamborghini and others. The passion for car racing spread throughout the country between the wars, and eventually, through a process of natural selection, Ferrari became a sort of unofficial national team. Its standing was emphasised by its insistence on continuing to paint the cars red, Italy's racing colour, rather than offering its colour scheme to sponsors, as the English teams began to do at the end of the 1960s.

Crucially, something about the ambiance of the team communicated itself beyond the national frontiers. Like the Brazilian football team, Ferrari became the romantic favourites of fans around the world. "When we were in Brazil two weeks ago," Stepney said, "you'd never seen so many red baseball caps and T-shirts. Nobody has the same passion for McLaren, do they?" Part of this reaction was due to the arrival in the team of Rubens Barrichello, the best Brazilian driver since Senna. But when Barrichello drove for Jordan and Stewart in previous years, there was no such fever in the grandstands. Ferrari was the magic ingredient.

"It's a combination of the history, the machines, and the man," said Fiorio, who is now in charge of the Minardi team. "Ferrari have been there longer than anybody else, so long that they've become a sort of reference point for Formula One. They've been successful sometimes and not successful sometimes, and when they aren't successful it's still a big story. When other teams are not successful, people don't care. But if Ferrari is not successful then people are asking, 'What mistake did they make? Did they hire the wrong driver, or the wrong engineer?' There is also the fact that for 50 years Ferrari has made road cars which people dream of owning one day. And, of course, there was Enzo Ferrari himself."

"Enzo Ferrari was a genuine sportsman, a genuine fighter, and a genuine self-publicist," Pino Allievi, the respected Formula One correspondent of the Gazzetta dello Sport, said in the Imola press room yesterday, looking down on the Ferrari pit. "In the era before people thought about images, Ferrari was the only team that worked on its image. Ferrari was a pioneer in many respects. He was the first to put sponsors' names on the side of the trucks that carried the cars. In 1930, he was already putting out the equivalent of press releases, just like the teams do today. And in Argentina in 1949, he was the first to put a sponsor's name on the car itself - almost 20 years before Colin Chapman and the Gold Leaf Lotus team."

But Enzo Ferrari was also someone whose character - sentimental, cynical, manipulative - created a kind of mystique around the team which, it must be said, was only intensified by the deaths at the wheel of his cars of many brave and reckless men, among them Ascari, Castellotti, De Portago, Musso, Collins, Bandini and Gilles Villeneuve. This kind of atmosphere is what makes it possible for Fiorio to compare the team to a religion, and the team manager to a priest, with no Christmas or Easter but with worship seven days a week. "If you leave the building at seven o'clock in the evening," he said, "it seems strange, because everyone else is still there. You feel like a traitor. This isn't because anyone is forcing you to do it. You do it because you must get the team to win. That's the atmosphere you're in. So you cancel the rest of your life. You can forget you have a family. You only have yourreligion to look after."

This is the stuff the fans feed on, although Allievi says that not all Italians are susceptible. "That's the mistake the English make. They think all Italians are Ferrari fans. That's not true. Not all Italians care about motor racing."

Then that must be just the way it sometimes seems, as it did yesterday, when Schumacher and Barrichello led the timing sheets at the end of the two unofficial practice sessions, thus guaranteeing a huge crowd for today's qualifying hour. But if a promising build-up is followed by failure tomorrow afternoon, the supporters' spirits will plunge again.

"They're very passionate and emotional people in all aspects of life," Stepney said. "For the last three or four years, we've been in a situation where we know we can win, so the pressure hasn't been quite so bad. But when you know you can win, you have to deliver. You have to show you can win all the time. Last year was particularly difficult because we made some very stupid mistakes, and those are the hardest to live with." The worst came at the Nürburgring, where Eddie Irvine was left with only three wheels at the end of a pit stop. "We looked completely stupid. When we got back to Maranello, there was a wheel in the middle of the square, with a note attached. 'We found the wheel,' it said. So they do have a sense of humour."

When Ferrari are winning, Stepney and his co-workers are fêted the length of the country, unable to buy their own drinks anywhere. "You go to Maranello on a Sunday night when we've won, and the town is full. Full of cars, full of people. You'd never get a town in England like that. And people come from all over the world to see it." And what happens when he walks into a restaurant after a disaster like the Nürburgring? "I don't. I stay at home until we have a good result."

But maybe the reason for Ferrari's unique appeal is simpler and more basic than any of these explanations. "Red is a magic colour," Allievi said. "The Italian institute of psychology produced a survey in which they reported that it's the favourite colour of children aged between two and six - not just in Italy, but around Europe." A primitive appeal, then, to the child in all of us. That sounds about right.