On the eve of the French Grand Prix, it is time for announcements in Formula 1: Ralf Schumacher says he will not race for two to three months at least; the FIA says it will introduce new rules to slow down single-seaters starting in 2005 and prepares a nineteen-Grand Prix calendar; McLaren is set to debut a new car. It is the week of the French Grand Prix. The World Championship enters the second part, a sort of round of return with a fairly predictable outcome: this is the year of Ferrari, which today celebrates eleven years at the helm of Jean Todt.
"I feel like I've been beaten by a boxer".
That had been Ralf Schumacher's first comment as he left the hospital in Indianapolis, where he had been admitted during the U.S. Grand Prix. On Wednesday, June 30, 2004, new tests revealed that it was not just bruises and contusions: two of the German driver's vertebrae were broken. From the two hypothesised rest races, the prognosis is lengthening to between eight and 12 weeks of absolute rest. At best, Ralf Schumacher will return to Monza in September. At worst he will be left with dates in Japan and Brazil. Or not even those if his replacement performs well (Ralf Schumacher will change teams at the end of the season anyway). On Sunday at Magny-Cours Williams-Bmw will field test driver Marc Gene, who also replaced Ralf Schumacher at the end of 2003. Seven days later at Silverstone it will likely still be the Spaniard behind the wheel, since there is no possibility of midweek testing. Then the Anglo-German team will consider a final solution: there is talk of the return of Jacques Villeneuve, who is in talks with Frank Williams but still far from an understanding. Italian fans dream of a transfer from Sauber-Petronas of Giancarlo Fisichella, to whom a contract clause with the Swiss team could give the green light for one of the top teams.
"I don't feel terrible, however, before deciding when to go on track I want to weigh the situation well to avoid repeating the mistake I made a year ago, when I announced my return to Monza and then it was not possible".
The FIA World Council has ruled that Formula 1 cars must slow down. Federation experts link the accident that happened to Ralf Schumacher to increased performance. At Imola, for example, lap times have dropped by 9 seconds over the past six years. If the technical directors of the ten teams do not find a solution, the FIA will impose new rules in October that will become operational in 2005. And it will be a problem for the engineers who have already been designing the new single-seaters for a couple of months. The FIA has also set nineteen dates (one more than in 2004) for the next calendar. The San Marino Grand Prix could thus survive despite the introduction of the Turkish Grand Prix in Istanbul. Finally, the FIA ruled that the European Touring Car Championship, in which Alfa, BMW, Peugeot and Seat currently participate, will become World Championship. The new McLaren-Mercedes MP4-19B is ready to debut. The decision,' explained Mercedes racing manager Norbert Haug, 'was taken after the positive and encouraging outcome of the numerous tests carried out. However, Haug urges not to get caught up in excessive euphoria. So far the Anglo-German cars have only scored 17 points.
"Max Mosley will step down as president of the International Automobile Federation in October".
One and a half lines of communiqué, without even a biographical fact. Why this decision?
"The president will explain in person".
Spokesmen say. On Friday 2 July 2004, a press conference will be held in Magny-Cours, where the French Grand Prix will be run on Sunday 4 July 2004. Just one clue: on Wednesday, the FIA World Council unanimously voted an ultimatum to Formula 1.
"Study a solution to reduce performance or we will do it on authority".
The deadline is in October, coinciding precisely with the president's resignation. The impression is that Max Mosley, 64, in office since 1993, is asking for a vote of confidence. Otherwise he will pull out of a sport he considers too dangerous. The accidents to Ralf Schumacher and Felipe Massa have set off alarm bells. The FIA compared lap times from 1998 to the present day at the Imola, Melbourne and Monte-Carlo circuits. The case of Imola is the most striking: 1'29"345 six years ago, 1'19"753 in 2004. Safety is an old preoccupation of Max Mosley. On 1 May 1994, as the new president of motor racing, he suffered the shock of the deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger. Two weeks later, in Monte-Carlo, he witnessed the frightful accident of Karl Wendlinger and made his first dynastic decision: from 1995, the engine capacity was reduced from 3500 cc to 3000 cc. But technical progress and the ingenuity of engineers went faster than limits and bans. The drivers' front is divided. The most concerned is Jarno Trulli, who together with Michael Schumacher, Mark Webber and David Coulthard is in charge of safety in the drivers' association:
"We have to reduce the performance by four to five seconds per lap immediately. I was already saying this before the accident in Indianapolis".
Rubens Barrichello opposes:
"No, it's wrong to change suddenly. We have to think about 2005, not before. The danger? I pray to God that nothing ever breaks, but fortunately we are no longer at the technology of the 1970s. The general safety level is very high".
It seems a contradiction: drivers pester engineers for more horsepower, road holding, traction, then demand grandmas to reduce performance. Michael Schumacher replies:
"The development of a single-seater is part of our work. That doesn't exclude that we have to think scientifically about safety. My brother's accident is an important signal. Mosley's resignation? I am astonished. He worked well, even if I didn't always agree with him, making Formula 1 safer. It will be difficult to replace him".
Juan Pablo Montoya sees no major problems:
"In other racing formulae, like Nascar, accidents are much more frequent. It doesn't shock me that there are also some now and then in Formula 1. Of course, a single-seater is not made to run into a wall".
As it happened to Ralf Schumacher. On his return from the United States, the German driver went for physiotherapy in Germany, in Bad Nauheim, with Dr Feil, the same doctor to whom Michael Schumacher had turned when he broke his leg. To be thorough, Feil wanted to repeat X-rays and MRI scans, discovering the two vertebral fractures that the American doctors had not diagnosed.
Moral: three months' stop. On Sunday, Marc Gene will race, then we will see. The place in Williams interests many, including Jacques Villeneuve. On Friday, 2 July 2004 at Magny-Cours it rains and Formula 1 almost gives up trying, as on Saturday and Sunday sunshine is forecast. Before the water disrupts the classic Friday work, Ferrari is in time to set the two best times of the morning. Then, between the two Maranello cars, Cristiano Da Matta enters, who takes advantage of a glimpse of serene weather. Details. It's a pity, because the innovations in the field were interesting. Williams presents a single-seater that has been extensively revised in its aerodynamics: Juan Pablo Montoya destroys it on the third lap against the crash barriers, after having risked capsizing. Completely new is instead the McLaren-Mercedes: David Coulthard scores the eighth time, Kimi Raikkonen the tenth, neither more nor less than the old car, maybe it will behave better on the dry asphalt. Saturday will be a day of forced work for technicians and mechanics, who in the two free practice sessions will have to concentrate all their work on preparing the car for qualifying. Those who usually find the right set-up quickly, like Ferrari, will have an advantage. In 2003 the French Grand Prix was one of the most difficult for the Maranello team, overwhelmed by a Williams one-two. Now Michael Schumacher presents himself as a dominator. In the first half of the season he dominated eight out of nine Grands Prix.
"Here at Magny-Cours we will also fight for success".
Although he has never won a race, Rubens Barrichello is the only driver who has always placed. With his 62 points a year ago he would have been leading the classification:
"Yes, I still dream of becoming World Champion, but I have to win at least three races".
The others are far behind. Excluding the Ferraris, Jenson Button in the BAR-Honda and Jarno Trulli in the Renault are fighting in the earth championship. The Italian driver is still voiceless: he has a lump on his vocal cords and will probably have surgery at the end of the season. In the meantime Max Mosley clarifies why he will resign as Federation president after eleven years:
"I am in good health and I am not issuing any ultimatums. I am simply tired of listening to the chatter of ten billionaires (the heads of the Formula 1 teams, ed) who defend to the death their particular interests and lose sight of the general ones. They make me waste whole days that from now on I will spend reading a good book or in the sun by the sea".
Any chance he will repent?
"None. I don't run a stable, so I don't change my mind every five minutes. I will leave in October because I want to achieve the last goal I set myself: to slow down Formula 1 to make it safer".
If the teams do not come up with a unanimous plan, the FIA will make three proposals. If the teams continue to fail to agree, the decision will be imposed from 2005. The Federation is working on three points. Tyres: one race set. Engine: duration lengthened to two races next year; in 2006, reduction of cylinders from 10 to 8 and displacement from 3000 cc to 2400 cc (those who do not comply will have to fit a rev-limiter). Aerodynamics: the new features will be presented within about ten days. Surprisingly, on Saturday 3 July 2004 Fernando Alonso took pole position: a phenomenon in 2003, the Spaniard had got a little lost this year. Then McLaren-Mercedes: here in France, the fourth different car in the last twelve months is making its debut.
It seems that this one is working, as David Coulthard is third and the unflappable Kimi Raikkonen, ninth, is close to enthusiasm:
"I made a few mistakes, but I finally understand what the car does".
Finally the Williams-Bmw, also extensively revised in aerodynamics. Juan Pablo Montoya, sixth, was fastest in the first two sectors, then missed his chance to take pole position with a skid in the chicane.
"I was pushing too hard. The positive thing is that we found the right rhythm again".
The Ferraris? Good Michael Schumacher, bad Rubens Barrichello. The German will start from second position, alongside Fernando Alonso. He too has the last sector of the circuit on his conscience. Rubinho, on the other hand, missed pre-qualifying due to a problem with the deba F2004 hydraulic system. According to the regulations, he had to face the real qualifying first.
"I was penalised because the asphalt improved as the cars went round. I lost 0.5 seconds".
Given the situation, it is likely that Ferrari has devised a tailor-made strategy for him. While Michael Schumacher is expected to make the first of three pit stops along with most of his rivals, Rubens Barrichello will have enough petrol to run a few more laps with the track clear. There he will play his comeback, as Magny-Cours offers little chance of overtaking.
"I once won starting from eighteenth place (Hockenheim 2000, ed), I am certainly not scared of tenth place today. I'm aiming for the podium".
There is no alarm among the men of the Maranello team, and one would miss it in the current classification situation. But concern yes. The French Grand Prix, the tenth round of the year, promises to be the most difficult of this so far triumphant season. Suddenly all the rivals are very close. Within half a second there are eight single-seaters, from Renault to BAR, from McLaren to Williams.
"We expected it".
Michael Schumacher and Jean Todt argue. Magny-Cours is the home track of Michelin, which supplies tyres to all the top teams except Ferrari, which runs Bridgestone. The asphalt is special: the smoothest in the World Championship. If it is sunny, the temperature of the road surface will exceed 40 °C. No one has tested in these conditions and the race will hold more than one unknown. For Alonso, the 23-year-old Spaniard from Oviedo, it is the third pole position in the chamber. The previous ones were in 2003 in Malaysia and Hungary, where he took the only victory of his career. In front of notepads and cameras the pious Spaniard still shows some embarrassment:
"I am happy for me and Renault, which is performing here in front of its public. I hope to do well. My season starts now. I want to leave behind the bad luck that has haunted me in Monte-Carlo, Nurburgring, Montreal and Indianapolis. I only have 25 points, too few for this car. Today I would have expected to finish in the top five, I didn't expect to set the best time".
Also optimistic was his team-mate Jarno Trulli, who will start from fifth position:
"The true value of the Renault was shown by Fernando. I made too many mistakes".
Behind him will start Juan Pablo Montoya and Takuma Sato, two drivers with an easy crash.
"I will not look over my shoulder. I aim ahead. A good start is not just a question of reflexes: you have to make a split-second decision and hope to get it right".
David Coulthard's third place is perhaps the biggest surprise. At the age of 33, the Scottish driver is in danger of ending his Formula 1 career, as his single-seater in 2005 will be entrusted to Juan Pablo Montoya. But he can still get some satisfaction. In the general classification he is one point ahead of his team-mate and in the race he is aiming for the podium:
"The new MP4/19 represents a good step forward in terms of both engine and chassis, even though we have not yet had time to assess its reliability. I'm almost sorry to be only third. You see, I still didn't have much confidence with the car, otherwise I would have dared more. After all, Schumacher was only 0.016 seconds ahead of me".
On Sunday 4 July 2004 at the start of the French Grand Prix the two Renaults get off to a good start: Fernando Alonso maintains first position, ahead of Michael Schumacher and Jarno Trulli, who moves into third place ahead of Jenson Button, David Coulthard, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Räikkönen. Rubens Barrichello also recovered a couple of positions, who after overtaking Marc Gené at the start also overtook Takuma Satō on lap four. The Japanese driver, who is suffering engine problems, then retires on lap 15 due to an engine failure. At the head of the race Fernando Alonso seems able to control Michael Schumacher, although the German manages to set the fastest lap several times during the race. The two quickly gain a decent margin over their pursuers, led by Jarno Trulli. At the end of lap 11 Michael Schumacher returns to the pits to make his first pit stop, as does Kimi Räikkönen. On lap 14 Fernando Alonso also pits. The Spaniard returns to the track in first position. On the other hand, Rubens Barrichello takes advantage of the first series of stops, overtaking Kimi Räikkönen and gaining seventh position. The Brazilian recovered another position when Juan Pablo Montoya spun on lap 17, being overtaken by Felipe Massa (who had not yet refuelled) and Kimi Räikkönen. The latter overtook the Sauber three driver on lap 20, moving up to seventh place. Meanwhile, at the front of the race, Fernando Alonso took advantage of some lapping to keep Michael Schumacher at a distance, but he was faster than the Spaniard and during the second series of pit stops, opened by Kimi Räikkönen on lap 28, he passed his rival, taking the lead. Behind the leading duo Jarno Trulli and Jenson Button precede Rubens Barrichello, who in the meantime has also passed David Coulthard; the Scot is followed by his team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen, and Juan Pablo Montoya. Schumacher increases his advantage over Fernando Alonso: in an attempt to get the better of the Spanish driver, having failed to overtake him on the track, Ferrari has changed the German driver's strategy, providing as many as four stops. The Ferrari driver refuels on lap 42, making a short stop and re-entering the track in second position. Fernando Alonso returned to the pits on lap 46, again handing over the race lead to his rival. At this point Michael Schumacher pushes hard to have enough of a gap over the Renault driver to make another stop and get back in front. The manoeuvre succeeds and on lap 58 Michael Schumacher, having made his fourth stop, rejoins the track in the lead, with a substantial advantage over Fernando Alonso. In the final laps, Jarno Trulli, Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button, separated by a few tenths of a second, fight each other for third place.
The Italian driver seems to be able to fend off his rivals' attacks, but right in the last few corners he makes a mistake, having to give way to Rubens Barrichello. Michael Schumacher wins the French Grand Prix and takes the ninth Grand Prix out of ten, crossing the line ahead of Fernando Alonso, Rubens Barrichello, Jarno Trulli, Jenson Button, David Coulthard, Kimi Räikkönen and Juan Pablo Montoya. When the best driver and an exceptional car are not enough, then you need an idea. Luca Baldisserri, coordinator of the Ferrari engineers, had the idea on Saturday:
"Let's try to make four pit stops".
At first they laughed in his face. Then, when he realised that Fernando Alonso was fast enough to win the race, Michael Schumacher pressed the radio button on the right side of the steering wheel and asked the pits:
"I'm further back than expected, I can't pass him. What do we do?"
He was answered:
"Concentrate and go get him".
Michael Schumacher performed and now celebrates a new, umpteenth, unusual record: he is the first driver to win a normal Grand Prix, without safety cars, rain, track invasions, after making four stops to change tyres and add petrol. The show is staged under the eyes of 70.000 fans who colour blue and yellow, the Renault and Michelin colours, the stands of Magny-Cours, perhaps the only circuit in the world where red is in the minority. The top executives of the two French companies are present to witness the expected triumph and the actual fiasco. Fernando Alonso took pole position and led for half the race, before yielding to the Maranello team's strategists. Jarno Trulli took third place with a splendid start and held that third place for 69 and a half out of 70 laps, before surrendering to the grit of Rubens Barrichello. The 2004 World Championship ended here in France, just where it opened last year with a Williams-Bmw one-two. It ended with Ferrari scrambling their opponents at home, after having deceived them, with a brilliant surprise move. Michael Schumacher won Grand Prix number 79 of his career, the ninth of the ten contested this season, the seventh on French soil, equalling the record he had set in Montreal. Barrichello continues the positive series; he is the only driver always in the points. In the Constructors' World Championship standings the Maranello team has 158 points, as in 2003 at the end of the season, twice as many as Renault. The race is not a Michael Schumacher solo. Fernando Alonso starts well and keeps the World Champion at a distance. Surprisingly, it is the #1 Ferrari that pits first. Then all the other top drivers stop. Moral: nothing happens. Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher, Jarno Trulli maintain their positions on a track where - it was said - it is almost impossible to overtake. It is at this stage that the decision matures at Ferrari to adopt the Baldisserri plan, which in the end will be on the podium to collect the prize for the winning team. Ross Brawn explains:
"There was nothing to lose. Michael was stuck even though he had a faster car and still wouldn't have risked losing second place. The strategy turned out to be a winner, well done Baldisserri".
But certain risks can be taken with a driver like Michael Schumacher and a car like Ferrari. The German runs every lap at full throttle, as if it were qualifying. He takes the lead in the merry-go-round of the second pit stop, breaking the track record, holds the lead after the third, increases the advantage over Fernando Alonso by a second a lap before stopping for the fourth time.
A masterpiece of concentration and determination, even if you never see him duel wheel to wheel. Having lost Takuma Sato (sixth Honda engine failure), the spectacle is offered by Rubens Barrichello, who often goes astray in easy situations, but when it comes to using his attributes he is always ready. His overtaking move on Button (lap 51) is to be framed, and the one on Jarno Trulli 200 metres from the chequered flag is fantastic and unexpected. The Italian driver made a mistake at turn 13 and was passed at the next corner. Unrepeatable comments from Briatore, at the Renault wall. Fifth place was for Jenson Button with BAR-Honda, which has the merit of regularity - nine placings - but has lost some of the competitiveness of the first Grands Prix. Then came the McLaren-Mercedes of David Coulthard and Kimi Raikkonen and the Williams-Bmw of Juan Pablo Montoya to close the group.
"It was a dream race".
Jean Todt, general director of Scuderia Ferrari, exults. And he hugs the two drivers to himself:
"They ran 70 laps at 100 per cent of their potential".
Rubens Barrichello is not convinced. It is not enough for him:
"In the final I was running at 85 per cent, then I glimpsed the possibility of a podium finish and added another 20 per cent. In the end I gave 105%".
Michael Schumacher has to explain to everyone about those four pit stops. Why in the first place?
"If you don't take risks you don't win. Nor do you have fun. We had nothing to lose and it seemed the best tactic. I realised I was going to struggle to pass Alonso".
Who decided this?
"Ross Brawn told me over the radio. We had discussed it on the eve of the race with the engineers: it was our back-up plan. I was unconvinced. In fact, when I heard it I had to laugh".
When did it go off?
"Between the first and second pit stop, I don't remember exactly on which lap".
"Yes, I am proud. It's the first time a driver has come first with this strategy. I believe that our result will become part of Formula 1 history".
The French circuit has a peculiarity: the access route to the pits is very fast because it allows you to skip ima chicane: the whole manoeuvre of topping up and changing tyres takes between 15 and 18 seconds only. There is a precedent: in the 1998 Hungarian Grand Prix Ferrari and Michael Schumacher amazed and defeated their rivals by making three stops. Nobody expected this, because in those days they never went more than two. Strategy, all right, but there is more behind the Magny-Cours triumph; Michael Schumacher thanks the team:
"Well done everyone, as always. At the pit stops the guys were exceptional. Before the start I wasn't very optimistic, then I realised that the Bridgestone tyres improved as the kilometres went by, unlike our rivals. This allowed me to gain ground on them. It was a beautiful and exhausting race. It was tough, but with a car like that everything is doable".
Jean Todt was complimentary and said he saw 70 laps as tight as qualifying.
"I thank him, he's right. But I must admit that in the last ten I finally had the opportunity to catch my breath and control the situation behind me".
In 2002, the German rider celebrated at Magny-Cours the early conquest of the title. The following year, the points system was changed precisely to make the challenge more contested. Thus, despite nine victories in ten Grands Prix, Michael Schumacher only has a 22-point lead over his team mate and 42 over Jenson Button: the championship is virtually his, but the arithmetic still offers many solutions. Perhaps the party will be held in September at Monza. Nostalgia for the old score?
"A little bit yes. I guess the public likes the current mechanism better. These are the rules and I accept them".
The World Champion praises his teammate, the protagonist of a spectacular race that took him from tenth place on the grid to the podium:
"It was great and gave the team enormous satisfaction. We were perfect and showed what an exceptional group Ferrari is. Luck has nothing to do with it. Behind our successes there is hard work. Every Ferrari employee works hard for these results".
The German driver's last words are for Jean Todt, the general manager, who began his adventure at the helm of the Maranello team at Magny-Cours on 1 July 1993:
"Winning in France has a special meaning for him. Moreover, we are committed together in the project against cerebrospinal diseases and this triumph will help us in our battle".
Scuderia Ferrari celebrates 176 victories in 696 races, fourteen of which were achieved on transalpine soil. The victory of the sixth consecutive Constructors' World Championship is now very close and Rubens Barrichello is once again the protagonist. In France he gave a big disappointment to Jarno Trulli, who will probably spend the night brooding over his mistake.
"I feel sorry for Jarno. He is a dear boy and a friend, but we are two professionals and the podium was at stake. On the last lap he slowed down too much at turn 13 and so I was able to pull alongside him at turn 15. It was risky and it would have been a shame to come back from tenth place and then lose everything on the best lap, but I thought it was worth it. He was very correct not to close the line, otherwise we would have touched".
With just a few laps to go, Scuderia Ferrari's technical director, Ross Brawn, had predicted it:
"The podium would be a nice place to meet again later".
Said and done. On Sunday 11 July 2004 the race was held at Silverstone, where Barichello was the protagonist of series overtaking in 2003.
"I will try again".
The ambition to win a World Championship?
"I have 68 points, 22 less than Michael who is going very fast. His moment will end sooner or later".
And the Brazilian smiles.
"The first part of the race was good, with the same petrol as Ferrari, but then after the first tyre change we started to have problems with the tyre set and there was nothing we could do".
Flavio Briatore, Renault's sporting director, says he is satisfied with Fernando Alonso's second place and Jarno Trulli's fourth. But it is clear that, given the premises, he cannot really be. The French team lost the game at home, also in terms of tactics:
"Schumi's fourth pit stop? We understood that Ferrari would come up with something, it didn't surprise us. But we had problems and that's why we couldn't stay behind him. Anyway, Alonso did a good race".
Of Jarno Trulli, whom he had already harshly criticised after the US Grand Prix, Flavio Briatore does not speak. He is furious with him. He only lets slip a colourful expression:
"I would wring his neck…".
And indeed Jarno admits:
"I played chicken".
At the last corner he lost the third position he had gained at the start and defended for 70 laps. The Italian driver was overtaken by Rubens Barrichello:
"I tried everything but I couldn't resist him. The car was nervous, the tyres deteriorated and I had traction problems. Rubens was good and so he passed me at the last corner".
Fernando Alonso, who started on pole and was overtaken by the World Champion, could not be happy either:
"Schumi surprised me, then I could no longer keep up his furious pace".
The Spaniard held out for almost half the race, then surrendered to the overwhelming power of the Ferrari.
"We had to change plans in the race, because in the stops we always tried to protect ourselves. Especially in the first one we played defence, but it proved penalising to load all that petrol at the last pit stop. We got the best possible result".
Fernando Alonso recounts his race as follows.
"Very good start, then Schumi anticipated the first stop considerably and I remained in the lead. But he surprised me by anticipating the second: when he came back, he was in front and pushed hard. Impossible to hold on. Even without the fourth pitstop this time it would have been difficult to stay close to Michael".
It was also a weekend to remember for the Japanese tyre specialists, who took great satisfaction in beating their great French rivals Michelin on the road. An early success had already come on Friday, when the FIA announced that it would reduce the number of tyre sets that could be used, but would maintain the current competition regime. At the end of the race Bridgestone took the win and third place for the fantastic pair of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello. Bridgestone Technical Director Hisao Suganuma said:
"We were able to beat our rivals thanks to our consistency in stints and our ability to perform at a high level. The rear tyres, despite the difficult conditions, were reliable and allowed the Ferrari drivers to delay their stops when they needed to. We did not expect Schumacher's four-stop strategy, but we are very pleased that it worked so well".
It pleased, of course, especially Ferrari president Luca Montezemolo, whose thoughts and joy are summed up in one sentence:
"It was the victory of perfection".
Jean Todt was the first to receive the congratulatory phone call.
"The others did well, we did better".
Commented the general director of Ferrari.
"It is a great victory, yet another excellent proof of a great team with extraordinary drivers. Schumacher took his ninth win in ten races this season, Barrichello is the only driver to have scored points in all the Grands Prix. Today the others did well, we did even better".
Even the Pope pays a curious tribute to the Maranello team. About twenty vintage Ferraris, some red and some yellow, are parked in St. Peter's Square under the incredulous gaze of tourists and many Japanese who do not hesitate to immortalise them with their cameras. The Maranello racing cars are then brought under the Pope's windows by an association, the 'Easy Rider', committed to introducing Italians to the pride of the outliers, but also to spreading a positive message about sport. The stop at St Peter's is the last of a two-day tour of Ferraris that has taken in parts of the capital and its province; John Paul II, at the end of the Angelus, greets the Easy Rider Association by paying homage to Ferrari. Ferrari's historical rivals announced a redemption, at least partial, in the second half of the season. Overtaken this year even by BAR and Renault, Williams and McLaren, who in the Constructors' World Championship classification still remain at the bottom, even though at Montreal and Indianapolis they were helped by the misadventures of the Williams team powered by BMW, are experiencing a difficult time. Since the beginning of the year there has only been one real ringing call from the two teams, the pole position conquered by Ralf Schumacher in Canada. For the rest, there have been many disappointments and disasters in series, culminating with the double disqualification in the race held on the Isle of Notre Dame by the Grove team, for the irregularity of the brake air intakes, larger than those allowed. Repeated engine failures, performances below expectations, also the usual disagreements between the drivers, namely between Montoya and his German team-mate. To attempt a recovery, McLaren and Williams presented two deeply modified and redesigned cars at the French Grand Prix. The McLaren MP4/19B has already run at Silverstone in the week before the long North American trip. The first tests were carried out by Kimi Raikkonen (David Coulthard, whose contract was not renewed to make way for Juan Pablo Montoya in 2005, was excluded from the tests). The Finn said he had seen progress, thanks mainly to the work on the engines.
And the third place on the grid. conquered by David Coulthard himself, seemed to confirm that some small step forward had taken place. Even if in the race the Scot then had to be content with sixth place, ahead of his team-mate. The engine built by Mercedes at Ilmor in England proved to be unreliable this year. The very small dimensions, the extreme solutions adopted, highlighted many problems: inadequate lubrication, bearing failure and consequent general breakdown. The evolution proposed in France worked a little better. However, a new V10 engine was designed, with the crankcase about 3 millimetres thicker, in order to finally make amends. The power unit was also mounted on the chassis in an elevated position. It will therefore be more robust, but has forced the Woking team engineers led by Adrian Newey to revise the aerodynamics, especially at the rear. The debut? It has not yet been announced. To avoid risks it could take place, barring any surprises, at Hockenheim, on Sunday 25 July 2004, in the German Grand Prix, where Mercedes will dispute its derby with Bmw on its home track. Williams, however, has also made a single-seater evolution debut. The changes concern in particular the rear of the car, where some aerodynamic concepts seen on the Ferrari are taken up: more tapered side pods and a series of very sophisticated solutions. The walrus nose has remained, however, because a different design would have forced the designers to make other profound changes, unthinkable at this point in the season. The Italian Antonia Terzi, who had conceived this particular solution, does not seem to be particularly in favour after the results obtained on track in the first nine races. At Magny-Cours Juan Pablo Montoya finished eighth, and Marc Gene - who replaced Ralf Schumacher - tenth. It is clear that no one among the top teams will wait for the progress of McLaren and Williams. Ferrari will continue the development of the F2004, Toyota is preparing novelties, as are Renault and BAR, especially at engine level.
In any case, for everyone, it is now too late: it is practically impossible to undermine Scuderia Ferrari in the standings, barring unimaginable results. Indeed, the advance of the more traditional rivals could give new stimuli to the Maranello team, and a concrete hand: taking points away from BAR and Williams, from Jenson Button, Takuma Sato, Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso. Italian imagination and German precision. As in an advertising slogan: Ferrari does not impress just because it wins, but because of how it does it. Four pit stops in a normal race, without incident or accident, had never been seen before. Or maybe they had, but no one had come out on top. The idea, as mentioned, came from Luca Baldisserri, the engineer who coordinates the engineers on the track, from Bologna, 41 years old; the execution was by Michael Schumacher, 35, from Kerpen, record-breaking driver. Baldisserri has worked at Ferrari since 1989 and was formerly engineer to Gerhard Bereer and Eddie Irvine. His friends call him Baldo. He never gets upset but he often jokes. At the end of the season in recent years he has changed his look a few times - hair dyed red or shaved - for bets on Michael Schumacher winning the World Championship.
"Next time we will try to win by making one pit stop".
The Ferrari men were also thinking of a joke on Saturday, during the race preparation meeting, when he came up with a proposal:
"Let's consider making four stops".
They all laughed, including Schumacher. Then Baldisserri put last year's numbers on the table, the lap times, the assessment of tyre degradation. Less petrol also means less tyre wear, a crucial factor on the smooth, hot asphalt of Magny-Cours. Convincing the sceptics, Baldisserri's plan remained an alternative. Also because every stop is a risk. Everything has to work perfectly: the mechanics have to change the tyres and refuel without error, the driver has to make the most of his increased speed in the few laps he has available, there must be no accidents or safety cars, and he has to avoid re-entering the track in the middle of traffic. In short, precise calculations must be made and continuously updated. And, above all, you need Michael Schumacher. At the crucial moment, the German driver gained a second per lap against Fernando Alonso, to build up a good safety margin of 7 seconds. The Renault men were stunned. When he realised, Flavio Briatore turned on the radio and shouted:
"Fernando, that stops again. You have to stay within 17 seconds".
The seconds, however, with all the efforts of the Spanish driver, became 23. Formula 1 is a competition at the limit of every mechanical component and the speed that the drivers manage to achieve in every condition. On the limit is also the interpretation of the regulations. In 1956, swapping cars between teammates is allowed. Peter Collins gives up his Ferrari to the great Juan Manuel Fangio, of whom he is a sincere admirer. Collins is 25 years old, twenty less than the Argentinean star, and he is sure that his time will soon come. In 1958 he died against a tree at the Nurburgring. In 1978 the Brabham-Alfa owned by Bernie Ecclestone exploited a flaw in the regulations and fitted a large fan behind Niki Lauda's engine. These were the years in which the Circus was learning the importance of aerodynamics: thus Brabham responded to the revolutionary Lotus with miniskirts. Besides cooling, the fan kept the car glued to the asphalt and was banned from the following Grand Prix. But Lauda's victory remains. For Arrows, second with Riccardo Patrese, the only possible victory in Formula 1.