The moment their work was done at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari yesterday afternoon, and they had wrapped up the front row of the starting grid for today's San Marino Grand Prix, the Schumacher brothers jumped aboard a private jet to fly to Cologne where their mother, Elizabeth, lies comatose in a private clinic.
"Their mother has been ill for some time," said a source close to the family, who did not want to be named, "but it's been very bad since last week." Elizabeth Schumacher, 55, went into hospital in her home town on 10 April and is now in a "stable condition," according to Ralf Schumacher's spokesman, Thomas Hofmann. Media reports said she fell in her house and suffered internal injuries, lapsing into a coma after an operation.
Hofmann said there was "no discussion going on at the moment," in reaction to rumours that the brothers might withdraw from today's race. He said that both would fly back to Cologne again immediately the event was over. "They're keeping in touch with friends and family," Hofmann said. "You can see that [Ralf] is down. But he's working to overcome it and keep it inside him." The two Germans – first Ralf, for BMW Williams, then Michael, for Ferrari – dominated the second qualifying session here.
This season has been tough for both. The world champion has only scored eight points compared to series leader Kimi Raikkonen's 24, and has made errors of judgement that have cost him dear in all three races. In Australia he tried to sit it out round the outside of the first corner with the Finn, only to damage his car's aerodynamic appendages; in Malaysia he collided on the opening lap with Jarno Trulli's Renault; and in Brazil a fortnight ago he crashed in the rain after apparently ignoring double-waved yellow caution flags.
Meanwhile Ralf has cracked in three single-lap qualifying sessions and has only a fourth place to his credit. And while his driving has drawn such criticism that there have been suggestions in several quarters that his seat with the team is under threat, as BMW Will-iams want to replace him with the winner of the Brazilian Grand Prix, Giancarlo Fisichella, for 2004, other aspects have also come in for unwanted scrutiny after rumours about his personal life.
Both went off the road yesterday morning, too. Michael slid briefly into a gravel bed but was able to drive away; Ralf backed his car into a tyre wall after sliding wide in the Variante Alta chicane at the highest part of the circuit. The damage was sufficiently bad that he needed to switch to the spare car.
For both, then, qualifying brought a form of redemption. First Ralf overshadowed his team-mate, Juan Pablo Montoya, trimming the Colombian's 1min 22.789sec best to 1:22.341, and that withstood Rubens Barrichello's subseq-uent effort. Then Michael put together another of his pluper-fect laps to shade his brother by hundredths of a second.
"After the first sector, where I was not very fast, I thought my qualifying lap was compromised," the younger brother said, "but then surprisingly I made it. I must say thanks to the t-car team as they did a very good job getting my car ready, which I had to use after the mistake I made this morning. We have been very strong so far here and I hope the weekend continues like this."
For the world champion, pole position was a timely reminder to his rivals that the "old" Ferrari F2002 – the new F2003-GA was deemed not yet raceworthy, and will probably not appear now until Austria in May – still has plenty of life left in it. "Today, what we refer to as the 'old' car proved what it could do and what we knew it was capable of," he said. "However, it will be interesting to see what happens depending on today's fuel loads.
"My lap was not perfect, as I was cautious and eased off a bit in the final sector. From testing here we knew what to expect, and it felt comfortable today. It is great to be back on top, especially here in Imola."
While Ferrari celebrated, BMW Williams looked quietly confident they have turned a corner with their new aerodynamics and gearbox/rear suspension package. There is a question mark over McLaren, whose drivers, Raik-konen and David Coulthard, both made errors that left them sixth and 12th in the line-up. If team strategy has not been a factor in this apparent performance drop-off, they must hope at least to keep up a good points score, especially if forecast rain materialises.
The dark horse will again be Mark Webber with his Jaguar, fifth fastest. "We are on a healthy fuel strategy and there is no deception here," Webber said, confirming what the shrewd already accepted. "Jaguar are making very impressive and clear progress." Now they need some points to underscore that.
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