The British Grand Prix's tradition as a crossroads in the world championship is evidently unaffected by the early date of the Silverstone event. The race on Sunday week could have a defining impact on the season.
Michael Schumacher returns to the scene of his accident last July with a 24-point lead over the reigning champion and perhaps only genuine rival, Mika Hakkinen. If Hakkinen and his McLaren-Mercedes partner, David Coulthard, are to retain realistic hope of catching Schumacher they have to check the ominous momentum the Ferrari driver showed in the team's home race. Schumacher's victory in Sunday's San Marino Grand Prix was his third in as many races this season. He is probably at the peak of his considerable powers and his car has improved performance to go with extraordinary reliability. All Italy is ready to embrace the scuderia's first world champion in 21 years.
The German's first task as Silverstone's sparring begins in the form of this week's test is to vault any psychological barrier left by that crash. He suffered a broken leg when he went into a barrier at Stowe Corner and his subsequent three-month absence eliminated him from the title contest.
Schumacher said: "I don't think I will have any problem. It is something you know can happen in racing and it can happen anywhere. I will look at the run-off area there and we have the test anyway. My physical condition is stronger than ever. I had medical checks which confirm that. The time away from racing and then the winter break freshened me mentally. I have the momentum and hope to continue. Everything points to optimism."
The men racking their brains are more likely to be found in the McLaren camp. Hakkinen appeared certain of a win here, leading until his second pit-stop. Then, in four laps, Schumacher produced a familiar spurt before a swift pit-stop put him in the clear.
Hakkinen has been on pole for all three races, but two retirements and now Ferrari's fabled strategy have undermined his prospects of three championships in a row. The Finn and his Scottish team-mate acknowledge they have to retaliate at Silverstone, which renders the four-day test all the more important. They must have a bullet-proof plan of action this time.
Coulthard, third at Imola after winning his duel with Ferrari's other driver, Rubens Barrichello, in the pits, said: "Michael can still be caught. We've got plenty of races left so the opportunity is there. But we've got to get 16 points at Silverstone. We have to make sure he's no higher than third.
"Michael can be more relaxed than us, that's for sure. There is not so much pressure on him. It is looking good for him but I still believe we have the performance in the car. We've got to start making that count."
McLaren claim Hakkinen was handicapped by debris damaging the floor of his car and an electrical fault which "triggered an engine reset".
They were encouraged by the pace of Hakkinen and Coulthard, once the latter had been able to rid himself of the red blockade that wasBarrichello's Ferrari.
Ron Dennis, McLaren's team principal, said: "David's subsequent speed was an indication of what his true potential was. It wasn't the result we wanted but there are 14 more grands prix and it's clear that we still have the potential to win. We are certainly looking forward to Silverstone."
So is Schumacher. He now has 38 grands prix wins, only three fewer than Ayrton Senna achieved. Schumacher is on course to surpass the Brazilian's total this season and challenge the all-time record of 51 victories, held by Alain Prost, before he decides he has had enough of racing.
The church bells may have been ringing again at Maranello, but Jean Todt, Ferrari's sporting director, sounds a muffled note. "After three races we are in an encouraging position in the championship," he said. "This race has shown it will be a long road ahead, but that is an incentive to work even harder. The drivers did a great job, as did the whole team. Now we can look ahead calmly to the next round."Reuse content