Ferrari gambled by bringing one of its new cars to Brazil for Michael Schumacher to drive, but yesterday the world champion found himself upstaged not only by David Coulthard's McLaren-Mercedes and the Williams-BMWs of Juan Pablo Montoya and his brother, Ralf, but also by Allan McNish's Toyota.
The score is one-all between Ferrari and Williams-BMW in the battle for the 2002 World Championship. But even the BMW-Williams team acknowledge that the real fight begins this weekend now that Ferrari's latest contender has finally hit the track.
The strategy carries an element of risk, since only one of the new F2002s is here in Interlagos, but the performance of the car in recent testing – and the pace of the Williams-BMW in Malaysia – persuaded Ferrari that their conservative policy of racing last year's car in Australia and Malaysia could not continue.
Schumacher faces some slight logistical problems with only one new car on hand and an F2001 as his back-up, because the rules only permit him to use the spare car during qualifying on Saturday afternoon and in the race. Thus any reliability problems with the new car on Friday or on Saturday morning could prove costly. But he is convinced that Ferrari must take the risk in order to keep moving forwards. Every mile he puts on the car is an investment for the rest of the season.
"We know that the new car is much better than the old one," he said, after getting away with a spin in the afternoon and ending the day fifth fastest. "To begin with we did not feel that we knew it well enough to race it, and that it was not reliable enough to race, but now we feel the time is right."
By the end of Friday morning's practice session Ferrari's decision appeared vindicated as Schumacher set the fastest time ahead of his brother Ralf in the Williams-BMW. Just over a second separated them. "It is a good start," the world champion said with a smile, "but this is only the first session." Subsequently he failed to improve.
While Schumacher played with his new toy, the local hero Rubens Barrichello put on a brave face as he was obliged to stick with the older Ferrari. "It is obvious that I would have liked to have had the new car because after four days' testing in Barcelona, I felt that it was better in every respect. So for sure, when I knew that we were only bringing one car, to be racing in my home country at my racing track it feels sad not to have it. But I accept it."
The Brazilian spun off the track after only three laps in the morning and was unable to continue. In the afternoon, however, he improved to shadow his team leader with the seventh fastest time.
Yesterday started badly for the rival McLaren-Mercedes when Kimi Raikkonen and David Coulthard both went off the track in the morning, but once the Scot got going he was successfully able to challenge Ferrari and Williams-BMW for the fastest time. "The day didn't start too well," he admitted, "but we got the car working really well this afternoon. This is a bumpy place, but the car felt good in the circumstances."
The Scot, who won here last year, needs a victory on Sunday to keep himself in the title hunt.
The Malaysian Grand Prix winner, Ralf Schumacher, was only fourth fastest (behind Scotland's McNish, who put in a low-fuel run for Toyota), but the German remained confident that he can repeat the performance this weekend. "Our engine is very good here and tyrewise we should be looking good," he said. "Juan could have won the race easily last year, so we are pretty optimistic."
The tyre war between Michelin and Bridgestone intensified this weekend, with both companies bringing new products. Track temperatures of 40C during the first day's practice suited Michelin perfectly, for Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya scored a one-two result for Williams-BMW in such conditions two weeks ago. But Bridgestone, the winner of the opening race in Australia a month ago courtesy of Schumacher and Ferrari, have new compounds and constructions for a circuit whose surface is notably abrasive and bumpy and requires maximum traction on its tight infield complex.
Sao Paulo Grand Prix (Brazil) (Practice session for tomorrow's race): 1 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1min 15.075sec; 2 J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW 1:15.345; 3 A McNish (GB) Toyota 1:15.450; 4 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW 1:15.477; 5 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:15.627; 6 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:15.883; 7 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari 1:15.933; 8 J Button (GB) Benetton-Renault 1:16.054; 9 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda 1:16.183; 10 P de la Rosa (Sp) Jaguar 1:16.289; 11 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Arrows-Cosworth 1:16.375; 12 E Bernoldi (Br) Arrows-Cosworth 1:16.379; 13 O Panis (Fr) BAR-Honda 1:16.391; 14 E Irvine (GB) Jaguar 1:16.424; 15 M Salo (Fin) Toyota 1:16.529; 16 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Honda 1:16.539; 17 F Massa (Br) Sauber-Petronas 1:16.548; 18 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-Petronas 1:16.573; 19 T Sato (Japan) Jordan-Honda 1:17.432; 20 M Webber (Aus) Minardi-Asiatech 1:17.714; 21 J Trulli (It) Benetton-Renault 1:17.979; 22 A Yoong (Malay) Minardi-Asiatech 1:18.426.Reuse content