Michael Schumacher blotted his copybook again by brushing his left-rear suspension against a chicane yesterday morning, but yesterday afternoon he radiated all his old confidence as he thrust his Ferrari round Imola faster than anybody else in practice. And it was not even the new car.
After a season that has yielded him only eight points thus far and three self-inflicted lapses of judgement, the world champion needs a strong result here and yesterday he looked ready to achieve it. The previous day, Max Mosley, the president of world motor sport's governing body, the FIA, made veiled threats that his conduct in speeding past waved yellow flags in Brazil might yet come back to haunt him, but Schumacher yesterday looked like a man with few cares in an altogether benign world. Ferrari's much-vaunted new car – the F2003-GA codenamed after the late Fiat chief Gianni Agnelli – may not be deemed raceworthy yet, but, on current form, the F2002 will do very well nicely, thank you.
"It's great to have both cars on the front row today," Schumacher said with a smile, as his team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, sped into second place. "We thought we could get this result, but the opposition, particularly Williams, is very close. We think we have a good car for the rest of this weekend and I think it is capable of winning. I hope this is so for all the tifosi.
"We always knew that Malaysia and Brazil would be difficult for us, as has been the case last year. Back then, we came to Imola and had the upper hand. For the moment, it seems to be the case this year too. Given our experience with the F2002, racing it here seems to have been a good decision so far."
Most worrying for opposition such as Williams-BMW and McLaren-Mercedes is that the Bridgestone tyres on the Ferrari appear to be very well suited to single-lap qualifying duties, though that will be perhaps less important when the teams run race fuel loads for qualifying tomorrow in order to decide the starting grid.
In the Williams camp – boosted by the recent acquisition of NiQuitin CG as an important sponsor at a time when tobacco advertising is gradually being phased out – there remains considerable optimism for a new gearbox and rear suspension package and a new front wing. These were first seen recently in Brazil, but circumstances did not allow the team to exploit them fully.
Ralf Schumacher complained about oversteer after qualifying, while his team-mate, Juan Pablo Montoya, readily admitted that after his off-road excursion in Brazil he felt it incumbent upon him to keep the car on the track during qualifying and was therefore a little circumspect in his approach. Both felt they could have matched Barrichello's lap time had the need arisen, but more encouraging has been the performance of the Williams-BMW over Imola's high kerbs. That is where the secret to lap speed lies. "I think our car looked as good as the Ferraris over them," suggested the chief designer, Gavin Fisher.
"Our result shows a big step forward. It shows what the potential of our car is," said BMW's motorsport director, Gerhard Berger. "Both our drivers made small mistakes, therefore I am very pleased they could achieve positions three and four."
Both Ferrari and Williams-BMW could be forgiven for thinking that their seasons really begin here, after their troubles in the opening three rounds, but over at McLaren- Mercedes there has been plenty of head-scratching over Kimi Raikkonen's eighth-fastest time and David Coulthard's ninth. Some cynics suggested that the team deliberately ran their cars with extra fuel to prevent rivals gaining performance data, but their technical director, Adrian Newey, summarised qualifying quite succinctly when he said: "It's a bit disappointing."
The team chief, Ron Dennis, suggested that time invested in selecting the right choice of race tyre had limited the time left to fine-tune the silver cars. Ferrari merely smiled contentedly, just like old times.
As Renault, who have previously been strong this season, struggled to hone their cars, the other dark horse was once again Mark Webber in the Jaguar. The Australian dipped beneath the BAR-Hondas of Jenson Button and Jacques Villeneuve to snatch fifth-fastest time. "The first sector was a bit weak but the last sector was really good, so I'm pleased," he said.
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