Wheel of fortune deflates for Schumacher and Ferrari

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For the first three grands prix of the season Ferrari were untouchable. They could do no wrong. They had a bullet-proof car (at least, in Michael Schumacher's case) and the momentum was running with them. But since the British Grand Prix at Silverstone a fortnight ago, precious little seems to have gone right.

Mika Hakkinen described his victory in the Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona on Sunday as a breakthrough race for McLaren-Mercedes. He may be right. While the silver arrows hit the target, Ferrari were left with the questionable solace of Rubens Barrichello's distant third place, and a mere two points after a catalogue of disaster for the fifth-placed Schumacher.

The German's choice of tyres may have been critical. Where almost every other team, and certainly every other top runner, opted for Bridgestone's soft-compound tyres, Schumacher elected to use the harder rubber. On his second set he was clearly struggling, though it transpired this was due to air leaking from one of the wheel rims, not a puncture. But even before that Hakkinen had noted that he was able to catch Schumacher as the Ferrari's tyres began to go off. "It was," a straight-faced McLaren team member remarked, "an extraordinary decision for Michael to have taken."

Then there was the dramatic injury to Ferrari's chief mechanic, Nigel Stepney, when Schumacher was prematurely signalled to rejoin the race while Stepney was still trying to disconnect the refuelling hose. When he was carted away to hospital his deputy, Andrea Vaccari, struggled to match his efficiency, and the whole affair highlighted the dangers that refuelling presents. It is a while since the fire which engulfed the Benetton pit at Hockenheim in 1994 and lit up front pages around the world, or since Pedro Diniz's Ligier caught fire after a bungled stop in Argentina two years later, but the practice is fraught with danger.

The refuelling hoses are so heavy that two men are required to hold them, and it requires considerable strength to push the nozzle into place, not to mention sang-froid notto get it wrong. Teams drilltheir crews for hours duringthe season. Ferrari may havebeen fortunate to escape aconflagration.

At the worst Schumacher should have finished third at the weekend. Instead, he saw his lead in the world championship reduced to 14 points, and Ferrari's over McLaren slashed to only seven.

Worse omens may be blowing in the wind. Hakkinen has made no secret of the fact that McLaren's latest MP4/15 is a difficult car to drive, physically and mentally. And it seems that the new regulations governing the permissible level of electronic control, introduced at Silverstone, may have played to the driveability of the Ferrari V10 engine. These days the engine is only a relatively minor part of the overall performance equation, and sheer horsepower is a smaller part still. The driveability - how quickly the engine responds, how wide its power band is, how smoothly it allows the pilot to drive - can be more influential on lap times.

The Ferrari V10 has always been strong in this respect; the Mercedes-Benz V10, by contrast, has often been peaky during its development phases. It has always produced prodigious power, but delivers it in a more abrupt manner. That can make a car difficult to set up.

In Barcelona, however, Hakkinen's post-race manner left little doubt that he believes McLaren and Mercedes have taken a significant step forward. "For one thing the reliability was absolutely excellent," he said, "and also it's fair to say that we have understood a lot more about the car this weekend. It still wasn't perfect today, but I feel we can now make it a lot faster for the future."

There was a final twist for Ferrari. Hakkinen's trophy for winning was a scale version of a Ferrari steering wheel.

McLaren confirmed yesterday that David Coulthard bruised rather than fractured his ribs in last week's plane crash. The Scot will undergo physiotherapy before preparing for next week's European Grand Prix at the Nurbürgring.