Prancing Horse takes great leap

David Tremayne expects higher things from Ferrari after Jean Alesi's victory
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The Independent Online
NO driver has ever had to wait as long as Jean Alesi for his first grand prix victory. So he was entitled to feel a little lachrymose in Montreal on his 31st birthday last Sunday as he reflected on his 91st Formula One race.

"I've had moments in my career when I said to myself: `I don't know what I did to God,' because I have had so many opportunities to win but didn't make it. But it was not possible to win before. I never got a car like this. It is unbelievable for me and for Ferrari."

The irony is that the victory came without the revised engines and aerodynamics they had expected to enjoy in Canada. In the end, Alesi's win owed much to the misfortune that befell Michael Schumacher's dominant Benetton-Renault. But until he was told to conserve fuel, Alesi was holding constant the gap between their two cars.

Williams-Renault, and Damon Hill in particular, will have watched Ferrari's performance with growing unease. Williams dominated the first three races of the season, but Benetton bounced back in Spain in May. Now it seems that Ferrari have pulled ahead as well.

Crucially, both Benetton and Ferrari have something Williams do not- reliability. Suspension failure cost Hill the Brazilian Grand Prix, and both in Spain and in Canada a problem with the electronics cost him the points he dearly needs to accumulate while he waits for a more competitive car.

There are three principal architects of the return of Ferrari as a force in Formula One, and two of them can be credited with restoring a sense of order to what had become a team torn apart by internal politics.

In 1974 a young Roman lawyer, Luca di Montezemolo, was given the task of bringing Ferrari back from ignominy after an appalling season. By the end of the next season Niki Lauda had won them the World Championship. Now Di Montezemolo is back in his third year as president of Ferrari.

Shrewd, stylish and fresh from organising the football World Cup in 1990, he recruited Jean Todt as one of his first acts. By coincidence, this weekend sees the running of the Le Mans 24-Hour race, where the little Frenchman honed a reputation won through World Rally Championship victories by masterminding Peugeot's successful assaults. The Englishman John Barnard, the man who brought carbon fibre to racing car chassis and developed semi- automatic transmissions while at McLaren, is the third string to Ferrari's bow. He now creates the red arrows for Maranello's quiver at a smart factory unit in Shalford, near Guildford.

As Ferrari's challenge gathers strength, Di Montezemolo speaks carefully of mounting a full championship challenge by 1996. Todt is a little more cautious, preferring to talk of 1997. Barnard smiles with unalloyed relish as he considers the performance of the present 412 T2 chassis. All three know they might just win this year.

"Many of the programmes I've done end up in three-year cycles," Barnard says. "The payback doesn't start until the third year. At Ferrari, I think we are beginning to see that pay-back." The smile broadens, and he adds: "It is fantastic that this early in the season I am able to start looking seriously at our car for the 1996 season . . ."

Alesi's win put Ferrari on 105 grand prix victories, regaining top spot from McLaren. Even Benetton and Williams will not be betting against more triumphs for the Prancing Horse as 1995 continues to unfold.