On the eve of the San Marino Grand Prix, the fourth race of the Formula 1 World Championship, the media and fans are wondering if Scuderia Ferrari will be able to recover from a truly difficult start to the season. Ross Brawn, how will Ferrari react to the problems encountered in the first three races, especially in view of the San Marino Grand Prix?
"First we are trying to resolve the issue of reliability. You can be as competitive as you want but if you don't finish the race you don't score any points. Then we have to keep working hard to improve our performance. We have implemented a tyre development programme. They allowed us to be fast in the last race, but they didn't last until the end. If we had made a conservative choice we would not have achieved such good lap times. We are now looking for the best combination of performance and tyre consistency. It is imperative that we solve this problem together with Bridgestone".
Were the breakdowns encountered in the last Grand Prix the result of the rush to prepare the single-seater for the third race instead of the fifth?
"Not exactly. Obviously, if the car had made its debut in Barcelona as scheduled, we could have discovered the problems with the gearbox on Rubens' car during testing and ran for cover. Anyway, here we are: it seems to be a matter of tolerance of certain parts of the gearbox only encountered when they are put together. As for Schumacher, he stopped at Sakhir because the sealed hydraulic system failed. It's weird because it's basically the same as last year. However, the problem would have had little influence on the result. Michael probably would have slowed down at the end like Rubens did".
Was it a mistake to start the season with a modified old Ferrari?
"We had no other choice. As soon as we analysed the new rules, we knew we needed a completely new gearbox for aerodynamic and stiffness reasons. The old transmission was in some ways outdated. It was not possible to design and produce a new gearbox in time for the first race".
How satisfied are you with the performance of the F2005?
"It went better than we expected. In the first part of the race in Bahrain, Michael was faster than Alonso. I can assure you that there was little difference in the amount of fuel loaded into the tanks of the two cars. The speed was encouraging, since the track is not a circuit where the cars can demonstrate aerodynamic efficiency".
Progress after the tests in Barcelona and Mugello?
"We have to work hard with Bridgestone to find a solution on durability. The car is part of the problem. It must help the tyres themselves to perform consistently until the end of the race. The miraculous compound does not exist, which is why Bridgestone and Ferrari must work together".
How long will it take to resolve the problems related between the tyres and the car?
"With the commitment made by Bridgestone and Ferrari, I think it's more a matter of weeks than months. Imola won't be a difficult circuit, in Barcelona we could have problems, in Montecarlo the choice will be forced. In the next three races, we will face a critical circuit, the Spanish one. But that will happen in about a month. I hope that in the meantime we will have solved everything with positive results".
Is Renault unreachable at the moment?
"We haven't seen the strengths and weaknesses of the package available to them yet, because nobody really has pushed it so far. When we are able to put pressure on Renault then we will be able to discover their possible flaws. I am convinced that the 2003 script can be repeated, with ups and downs for many teams. There will be races in which you will be beaten and others in which you will be able to defeat your rivals".
How hard is it not to panic at the moment in Ferrari?
"This situation brings many kinds of pressure now. But we are not losing our minds, because we have our successes behind us. Let's not forget that this is the same group of people that won eleven World Championships. We can be criticised for taking our new car to Bahrain but it accelerates the car development program enormously. We now have to work purposefully and precisely to achieve our goals in the coming months. We have faith: if we work in the right way we can improve. The advantage of racing with the F2005 is that we are already in excellent shape for Imola".
In Imola, Michael Schumacher plays at home.
"We're back, we're strong again, we have to do well in front of our fans".
Fernando Alonso accepts the challenge:
"I support Real Madrid. Here at Imola it's like playing at Camp Nou in Barcelona: winning would give me mucho gusto".
The Spaniard is 24 points ahead in the standings.
"It's better this way, he won't dare to risk it".
Is it better that way?
"Well, I certainly don't regret the successes. But it will be fun. I have nothing to lose by attacking, he does. It is a psychological situation that I know well. Fernando is the hare, and I am the hunter".
But Fernando Alonso shrugs:
"The pressure? And what’s the problem? I'm leading the standings and I'm happy about it".
The San Marino Grand Prix turns twenty-five and discovers two leaders, one recovering after a critical start, the other on the rise and already a candidate for the title. A dualism that has been missing in Formula 1 since the times of Schumacher-Hakkinen. It was the last century, just to be clear. According to a cliché, the authentic values of the ten teams are discovered upon returning to Europe: the climate is less extreme and the engineers finally have time to correct design flaws. Ferrari tyres, for example, suffered the over 40 °C in Malaysia and Bahrain, which has nothing to do with the spring sun that warms the asphalt of the racetrack named after Enzo and Dino Ferrari on Thursday, April 21, 2005. While waiting for the engines to restart, there are other values on display. Motorhomes make their début at Imola, the mobile home offices that each team installs in the paddock area. Ever bigger, ever more luxurious. Red Bull Racing holds the record for opulence which until 2004 seemed firmly in the hands of McLaren. Red Bull Racing, making its debut in the circus, brings a gigantic motorhome to the paddock of the Imola circuit, resembling a luxury beer hall or a modern disco, in which there are, only on the second floor - three with a terrace in total - fifteen small and five large television screens, obviously LCDs. Inside, between halls and rooms, there is also a fountain with coloured water jets. The cost remains top-secret. However, we are talking of millions of euros. There seems to be no relationship between pomp and results: Ferrari and Renault have all that is necessary and nothing superfluous. And they continue to be the favourites.
"Together with McLaren".
Ensures Michael Schumacher. He adds to his speech:
"My optimism? It's a matter of time and we're faster now. The tyres last and the reliability issues have been resolved, even if in this sport you can never rule out a breakdown. All in all, I'm confident".
Will the cold push the F2005?
"I'd like to think so. Many believe that, but I have another theory that I am keeping to myself. We'll see on Sunday".
The turning point came in Bahrain and until the failure of the hydraulic system that caused him to go off the track, his pace was close to that of the Renault. The German driver has won only once in the last eight Grands Prix.
"Let's talk about the number seven, which brings me more luck".
He has won seven world titles, only six - for now - the victories at the San Marino Grand Prix. There has been talk of renewing his contract, which expires at the end of 2006.
"Jean Todt's door is always open. I chatted with him privately. I find myself in the privileged position of being able to address the topic whenever I want. The only certainty is that I will never go to another team. Anyone who knows Ferrari from the inside knows the exceptional people who work there".
The Maranello team sports all-new aerodynamics. The rear wing has been redesigned and two appendages that look like ashtrays have sprung up on the deflectors along the sides. Bridgestone guarantees that their tyres will be fast and have a consistent performance, and the mechanics have been revised over thousands of kilometres of tests, but a few little problems continue to disturb the dreams of engineers.
Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello will take care of the rest, in the unprecedented role of hunters. In Imola, there was also the first public appearance as official driver of Vitantonio Liuzzi, the Italian who took over from Christian Kien. Twenty-three years old, a native of Locorotondo (Puglia), with a Sicilian father, but he always lived in Pescara, a musketeer's goatee and a handsome physique, the boy looks good: 2001 karting world champion (when he beat the guest of honour Michael Schumacher in a championship race), 2004 F3000 champion (7 wins, 9 poles, and just as many podiums), and he also speaks four languages. When he auditioned for Williams, they told him:
"But you're not Italian, you speak excellent English".
Vitantonio Liuzzi says in Italian:
"I'm excited but not under pressure. When they told me I was going to race in Imola, I almost wet myself. But now I'm calm, I know I don't have to overdo it. I obviously dream of a podium, that would be the best, but I'd be happy to set aside a few points. We aim to grow further so that by mid-season we can be closer to the best".
Tonio, as the English call him, wears an earring, a ring on his right thumb and various chains around his neck. His idol?
"I liked Mansell for his combative temperament. Now I have no reference drivers. I respect Alonso, I admire Schumacher who, however, if he stays for a few more years, will annoy the youngsters. Let me be clear that I would do the same if I were in his place. We drivers, at home, get bored after a while, our hands itch. Am I a rebel? No, but sometimes I like to swim against the tide".
"It will be an uncertain championship, with different protagonists who could step into the limelight. After 7 years of Ferrari domination, it was inevitable that things would change. It will be an open challenge for many teams and many drivers".
Liuzzi will go from the role of ghost - that of the test drivers who go to the track on Friday and disappear on Saturday and Sunday - to becoming the official Red Bull, the third Italian, with Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella. On Friday, April 22, 2005, Ferrari returned to the group of the best, with BAR coming back with Jenson Button, then Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello. Nothing new under the skies of Imola, except that the Maranello team is back, and raises the challenge to Renault. Michael Schumacher smiles, as he says:
"We are close, very close".
Only one-tenth from Alonso. And the tyres?
"Very well, they are our strong point".
On Saturday, the German driver will try to take pole position, despite being penalised after his retirement in Bahrain: his turn will be among the front runners, those who are called the sweepers in the paddock because they do their lap when the track is dirty. Worried?
"It will be a small disadvantage, but I am only concerned with what I can change".
San Marino is the Grand Prix of truth for Ferrari's ambitions. It is the fourth appointment of the season. The first three brought little satisfaction: the second place of Rubens Barrichello in Australia, the seventh of his teammate in Malaysia, and a sad zero in Bahrain, where, however, signs of awakening had been seen. The F2005 appeared fit. Will it hold up?
"We worked a lot on reliability".
Ensures Michael Schumacher, who for 38 laps - over half the race - jumps on the curbs of the Imola circuit with newfound aggression. The balance is positive, the car seems balanced right from the start, and the brakes respond well. And then the track at the Variante Alta was modified, making it more difficult without compromising safety, as he likes. Even Barrichello is chomping at the bit, despite the crisis, the Brazilian driver precedes Michael Schumacher in the general standings. Never happened before.
"I had a good day, apart from a small problem with the car at the end of the first session. We have progressively improved the setup, even if I'm not entirely satisfied. There are still two free practice sessions to improve".
Summary: Is it good or bad?
"We have a fun weekend ahead".
A Ferrari in good shape is also needed by the organisers, who last year ensured the survival of the event until 2009. Presales are at 50.000, the goal is to replicate the 117.000 attendances of 2004. The weather for now has been favourable, but big clouds are forecasted for Saturday. And circumstances have diverted many fans elsewhere, frightened by the expensive tickets (prices up to 500 euros). Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello are expecting the usual flood of red flags, but they would not despise a little rain, given that they are competitive in the wet. During the first day of practice, Fernando Alonso saves the engine. Just twelve laps, all very fast. And a few words:
"The R25 looks competitive. I am optimistic".
While the pre-sale is struggling at Imola, in two weeks Spain will be sold out. Giancarlo Fisichella, his teammate, curses the regulations. After the accident in Malaysia, he entered a spiral from which he is struggling to get out: he has to qualify among the first and work as a sweeper, so he cannot set a good time, in the race he struggles to recover. The Italian driver therefore proposes to return to the previous qualifying formats:
"Let's go back to the old system, one hour of time and twelve laps available".
For Toyota, the San Marino Grand Prix is historically difficult. On his first run as a dad, Jarno Trulli noticed it:
"But don't tell me that a driver loses a second per lap when a child is born (so claimed Enzo Ferrari, ed). Look at what Michael Schumacher does with two children".
Baptism of Formula 1, however, for Vitantonio Liuzzi, who so far had only taken part in Friday's free practice with the role of test driver.
"The twenty-second time? The important thing was to finish the work programme".
Soon we will see a historic name on the track; Rosberg. This is Nico, son of Keke, World Champion in 1982. Williams-Bmw hired him as a test driver. And the children of Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet are also on the waiting list. Meanwhile, Formula 1 continues to question its own problems, from excessively high costs to the erosion of the public on the circuits. At the moment, the only organiser making a profit is that of Barcelona, where tickets are already sold out thanks to the Alonso effect. The lawyer Federico Bendinelli, in charge of the San Marino Grand Prix, is instead very worried. Very few people are present on Friday: if the weekend becomes an economic loss, it will be hard to go on until 2009, given that 20.000.000 euros are required to renovate the plant. Flavio Briatore spoke on the various topics of discussion. In the afternoon, nine teams, the dissidents - Scuderia Ferrari had not been notified - talk about many issues, but it seems to be in vain.
"We met with Ecclestone and it was a lost hour. We haven't lost some time in a while... In 2006 we will try to have Ferrari with us as well. In Formula 1 you need unity. We discussed tests and qualifying. For tests, the situation is absurd. In the last month we had eight days of testing, the other seven or eight, the Maranello team was on the track for twenty days. It is an unsporting and uneconomic situation, even if Renault, being in the lead, could work harder between one Grand Prix and the next. We have no money problems".
The teams also realized that the racing format does not work. The qualifying sessions on Saturday and Sunday were planned to give visibility to small teams too, but nobody likes them.
"They should be changed, but it will be impossible to do that during the season. No need to rack your brains. If teams earn more, ticket prices could also be reduced. I understand that a family, even coming from Bologna to Imola, can’t use up all their salaries for a race. Let alone if they come from Cuneo... Better to go to my Billionaire club, you would spend less...".
Scuderia Ferrari replies by claiming that, to develop a completely new car in 30 days, it carried out 6.600 km of tests. Renault did 5.300, Toyota and others remained on the 5.000 mark. Overall, however, just over a quarter of the test kilometres carried out by the competitors with the Michelins were covered with Bridgestone tyres. As for the team's absence from the meeting, no one had warned the Maranello team. In any case, the meetings are held in the appropriate locations. It should be remembered that the nine dissident teams did not show up at the last two meetings called by the FIA to discuss the various problems. But let us go back to the facts of Imola. Saturday, April 23, 2005, in the first qualifying session of the San Marino Grand Prix there is the synthesis of Formula 1: the young Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, then Michael Schumacher. They believed - especially Alonso - to have ousted Kaiser, to have given him the decisive push in Bahrain, and instead he is back, with his 36 years and the energy of a little boy. We are 80 kilometres from Maranello: Ferrari has chosen the San Marino Grand Prix to reaffirm its ambitions for revenge, to confirm that the hunger for success has not passed; they chose the circuit named after its founder, Enzo Ferrari, and his son Dino, in front of the expected flood of red flags.
"Here it's not enough to be fast, you have to be fast from start to finish".
Michael Schumacher explains, assuring that Ferrari has succeeded. What more could you ask for?
"That someone else stands between me and Alonso".
Someone who takes away points and allows you to make a comeback?
"Exactly. My goal was and remains the world title. If the challenge extends to more than two drivers, the championship gets really interesting".
That is, are you going to ask Raikkonen to help?
"Kimi was very strong. The important thing, I repeat, is that the competition widens. BAR surprised me a bit: Jenson Button was very fast in free practice. When I saw that he had a higher time than mine, I knew I was going to be among the first. Third place is already a good result".
Is this the signal you were expecting after the disastrous Grand Prix in Bahrain?
"It is certainly a positive sign. However...".
"Those four-tenths of a gap from Raikkonen and Alonso are a lot. I was hoping for better".
How much did having to do a lap almost immediately, on a dirty track, have an impact?
"Not too much: a tenth, two at the most. It wouldn't have changed much".
"Above all, pole position, even if it's a question of strategy".
Do you feel favoured?
"Yes, I finally have a chance to win. I'm confident. We also had a big chance in Bahrain, but we weren't the fastest for long enough".
What has changed in three weeks?
"We worked relentlessly on our weaknesses. And the results seem to prove us right. Now we are able to maintain a constant pace for all 62 laps".
The others will not stand by and watch.
"Kimi and Fernando are also fast and consistent. Us a little more".
Has Ferrari's weak point, tyre life, become a strong point?
"Engineers, mechanics, test drivers and drivers, we've all been working overtime in the last couple of weeks. We have worked hard to recover".
Besides the tyres?
"We have improved in many areas. Here at Imola we introduced a new aerodynamic package and took particular care of the setup to get the best out of the F2005".
Even the others did not stand by and watch.
"Better, it will be a good challenge in front of our fans".
Raikkonen and Alonso are considered your heirs. A judgment?
"I don't need to talk about their capabilities yet. They are very good and that's it".
In 2006 Red Bull Racing will have Ferrari engines: do you find this a good deal?
"Yes, I think it's a great business. It's good to have a valid partner because the exchange of information enriches us".
What struck you most about Red Bull? The three-story motorhome?
"No, that's the least important aspect. I was quite impressed with how quickly they became competitive. It is a sign of organisation: in a short time they achieved results and closed deals".
The San Marino Grand Prix has great charm, but the facility is old and in some places, the public could climb over the fences: is there a safety problem?
"Security is in order. This circuit has a tradition that Formula 1 cannot give up. It would be a mistake to race only on new circuits because we would lose a piece of the history of our sport. I am the ambassador of San Marino and I defend our Grand Prix".
The competition is very strong and varied: seven different cars in the first seven places. Between Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, there are only 0.003 seconds, about twenty centimetres on the verge of 300 km/h. Michael Schumacher is 0.35 seconds behind but he has an alibi: he qualified on a dirty track and his time is almost as good as that of his colleagues. Fernando Alonso says:
"We started the season in the best way, getting even better results than we expected. The winter tests had provided us with very positive indications and we had arrived in Australia, for the first race, with great confidence in our means. But winning all three races held, with both drivers, is a dream come true. The challenge now is to maintain this level and stay at the top".
Everyone expects the return of Ferrari and Schumacher.
"This seems normal to me. I too am convinced that they will be dangerous rivals. When I was a boy, I knew Michael because I raced go-karts and the big names in Formula 1 were always around. But I had never seen his face until five years ago. Now I can't say we're friends, but he knows who I am and vice versa. We respect each other. I am also convinced that they will return to be protagonists, unfortunately for us. There's a long season ahead and I'm sure they will be able to aim to win again".
So will there be a turning point in the World Championship?
"It's too early to tell. I think July will be the crucial month, with four races to go. After that, for whoever is ahead it’s all downhill. I'm optimistic: Renault is working to further improve the entire car that is being developed in every sector, continuously. We will do everything possible to win the title, but in F1 you never know, until the last two or three races".
And will the adversaries stand by and watch?
"No, for sure. There is room to make progress in our team too, but less so than the others. Everyone is trying to copy our best and most obvious stuff. It always happens like this when one team is faster. You arrive at the first race and discover new solutions found by the other teams. There are now a lot of photographs of our car in the possession of competitors. So it may happen that with the passing of time, the differences decrease. We are not discouraged, but the gaps from the others will be smaller. We hope to keep just a little space behind us. We are not worrying too much at the moment. We have done our job in the winter and have a consistent and competitive car. For this race there is a new aero package, in Spain in the next race we will have a slightly more powerful engine. The team pushes a lot, I don't think they will get to us right away. We have to take advantage of the favourable moment".
You seem to have adapted well to the new rules.
"Personally, I didn't have to change much in my approach to the race weekend. Rather, the innovations have forced us to adapt our working method to the situation. You have to be more careful when using the engine. When racing, if you have the slightest advantage, you need to reduce the engine rpm to protect it and not overheat it. We have to do that. As for the tyres, I think I managed to get the most out of the Michelins in qualifying over one lap, while I have to be a little more careful during the Grand Prix, especially to manage the rear tyres. However, up to now we have been fast and the quality of the tires has made life easy for us. We have always reached the end without problems".
Returning to Imola, what does this circuit require?
"It is a very demanding track for the suspension. We have to go over the kerbs with some violence and the car has to get through these trajectories unscathed. Also, you have to always be aggressive when driving. I really like this, but it's impossible to relax even for a single moment here in Imola. If you make a mistake it's easy to go out or crash into the barriers. When we choose the set-up, it must be taken into account that it is necessary to have the best possible traction. So far on the tracks we've raced in, we've always been very strong. I expect to be the same in the San Marino Grand Prix as well. To beat Ferrari. And all the others".
Followed by a Williams (Mark Webber), a BAR (Jenson Button), a Toyota (Jarno Trulli) and a Sauber (Felipe Massa), all within less than a second. These are the premises for a very balanced, vibrant and hard-fought match from start to finish. And even with the unknown factor of rain. Ferrari would not mind, as long as there is plenty of water (Bridgestones have no grip on damp asphalt), while at Renault they hope this does not happen. Flavio Briatore says:
"Let's hope for a nice sunny day".
Rubens Barrichello is eleventh. The Brazilian does not look for excuses:
"That's how it went. I will try to recover".
Giancarlo Fisichella, fifteenth, shakes his head:
"I do not understand. The telemetry says that I always braked in the same way and yet in the qualifying lap the rear wheels locked up for a moment, the car skidded and I lost a second".
After the triumph in Australia, it all went wrong for him. At 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, April 24, 2005, the appeal will take place: second qualifying session, where pole is awarded with the sum of the times. It is the last chance to gain positions because overtaking on the Imola circuit is difficult. Strategy will count more, that subtle calculation on the amount of fuel that allows you to shake up the result of a race. Ferrari was able to get unexpected triumphs in times of difficulty because of this, while Renault was able to capitalize on the new regulations. McLaren? They are disappointed, but they have the same desire for revenge as the hated Ferrari. And they finally managed to get a custom tyre from Michelin that seems to work wonders. The pleasant surprise in the first three races, Red Bull Racing is thinking big: after the motorhome of records, they announced an agreement with Ferrari for the supply of engines. In exchange for $30.000.000 a season. In 2006 and 2007, Dieter Matershitz's team will have the new 2400 cc 8-cylinder engine that will be mandatory from next year. David Coulthard will probably be reconfirmed, Vitantonio Liuzzi must earn his place: Sunday will be his first chance. On Sunday, April 24, 2005, in the second qualifying session Kimi Räikkönen made the most of the lower fuel compared to Fernando Alonso as he jumped 0.5 seconds ahead of him. The two BARs of Jenson Button and Takuma Satō classified in the second row while Michael Schumacher, who had done well in the Saturday session, made some mistakes in his lap obtaining a disappointing sixteenth place, 4 seconds from the leader.
Christijan Albers, the Dutchman from Minardi, did not complete the qualifying lap. The starting grid therefore loomed with Kimi Räikkönen and Fernando Alonso in the front row, followed by Jenson Button, Mark Webber, Jarno Trulli and Takuma Satō. Michael Schumacher started fourteenth, and his teammate, Rubens Barrichello, started from tenth place. In the afternoon, at the start of the San Marino Grand Prix, Kimi Räikkönen got off to a good start, followed by Fernando Alonso, while Jenson Button moved into third position. On the fifth lap, Giancarlo Fisichella crashed at the Tamburello corner and was forced to retire, while during the ninth lap the race leader, Kimi Räikkönen, suffered mechanical problems and was forced to retire, leaving the race lead to Fernando Alonso. During lap 18 Rubens Barrichello stopped due to electrical problems. Fernando Alonso maintained his position until the second series of pit stops when Jenson Button took the lead, but he was overtaken sixteen laps from the end of the race by Michael Schumacher, author of a great comeback in the second phase of the San Marino Grand Prix. Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso returned in first position but was closely followed by Michael Schumacher, who however was unable to overtake the Spaniard, finishing just 0.2 seconds behind. Fernando Alonso won the San Marino Grand Prix. Michael Schumacher waited twenty-four laps before unleashing the most frantic, angry and exciting driver hunt.
The hare was Fernando Alonso, who after the first round of pit stops was driving calmly towards his third consecutive victory, the fourth of his career. Success that he then conquered, but at the price of an adrenaline overdose, for him and the Imola crowd. This time the young Fernando Alonso had to fight and he had to express all his talent to close every trajectory. The duel lasted for twelve laps, ending only at the chequered flag: Renault first, Ferrari second by 0.2 seconds. A riot of flags: red and yellow-blue, which is the colour of Renault and Asturias, the region of Alonso. Scuderia Ferrari's day started badly: Michael Schumacher's mistake in qualifying, fourteenth place on the starting grid. Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso got off to a good start. McLaren broke down on lap ten. Who stayed was Fernando Alonso, who was 35 seconds ahead of Michael Schumacher. Rubens Barrichello also stopped due to an electrical problem. The San Marino Grand Prix promised to be disappointing for the Maranello team. Until lap 24, when they had clean air. The drivers returned to the pits to refuel and Ferrari finally found a way to express its competitiveness to the fullest. The F2005 is a rocket and in the hands of Michael Schumacher even something more. The World Champion began a series of laps at an impressive pace, two seconds faster than Fernando Alonso. Then he stopped in the pits to refuel and returned and the group of drivers who had slowed him down before were behind him: third place, six overtakes in one fell swoop. Another prodigy: with a full tank, the F2005 travels at the same pace. With a series of 1.5 or 2-second gains per lap, the Spaniard's advantage crumbled. We expected a reaction that did not come because Renault was at the limit. Jenson Button's second place did not last long. But it is precisely the time lost by Michael Schumacher in overtaking the English driver that proved to be decisive. After the second and final pit stop, Fernando Alonso was still in the lead. Michael Schumacher tormented him for twelve laps, trying to trick him, attacking him. The Spaniard was very good at artfully slowing down in sections where overtaking is impossible and at maintaining clarity of mind. He did it by avoiding the lapping of newcomer Vitantonio Liuzzi. It is not a gesture of courtesy: it is a trick to avoid trouble when overtaking. Fernando Alonso makes it three and reaches 36 points in the general standings. Jarno Trulli keeps second place, and Michael Schumacher is already third. And above all, he has once again an invincible car in his hands. After Bahrain, Ferrari partially resolved the reliability problems and above all found the super Bridgestone tyres, fast right up to the last lap. If we want to be picky, the performance per lap in qualifying was lacking a bit. But without Michael Schumacher's mistake in the morning, we might have missed out on one of the best races in recent years. At the end of the race, Flavio Briatore also praised Michael Schumacher.
"It's races like this that are good for Formula 1. Two great champions. Duels like this are rare, yet this year we will see more. Emotions? Well, in the last few laps, I wasn't enjoying myself at all. Luckily Liuzzi continued to travel at his own pace and stayed out of trouble. In these cases, lapping can lead to trouble".
The latest twist of the San Marino Grand Prix concerns Jenson Button, who risks disqualification because his car was found to be underweight. Checks continue until late in the evening, then the verdict arrives which acquits BAR-Honda and confirms it with the first podium and first point finish of the season. In the jubilation of Imola, Jean Todt allows only a quarter of a smile. Other than cheering:
"One car finished second, the other stopped due to a breakdown, and we lost more points in the world standings. It's not the time to get into fibrillation".
The goal of the general manager of the Maranello team is a full smile:
"Fifteen wins out of fifteen from now to the end of the year. We've done it before and will work to do it again. And both drivers must arrive at the finish line. Schumacher's run? He had a great car, excellent tyres and some walls in front that gradually disappeared. The last wall resisted".
What were you lacking?
"Two-tenths of a second".
Ferrari is back on track on Tuesday, April 26, 2005, in Mugello with Luca Badoer and Marc Gené. On Wednesday and Thursday, Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher will film simultaneously. Preparations for the Spanish Grand Prix on May 8, 2005, in Barcelona: one more effort to break down the last wall. Ferrari has covered 6.600 kilometres in the last month alone. However, the work of the Maranello team, both technical and organisational, has yielded good results. Forced to bring forward the debut of the F2005, Scuderia Ferrari found itself grappling with many problems to solve: in truth, some still remain to be addressed, given the electrical failure that stopped Rubens Barrichello. However, the tests served to rough up the car and above all to make the tyres work, which had been an element of weakness up to now. It is still too early to say that from now on it will always be a party with the tyres, but the step forward has been significant. It will be necessary to understand if the performance shown in Imola also benefited from the complicity of the cold and cloudy weather. Those sixteen laps completed by Michael Schumacher around and even below 1'22"0 are a blow to the rivals. Especially if you consider that only Jenson Button dropped below the 1'23"0 limit twice. The others, even Kimi Raikkonen who was very fast in the opening laps, never managed to get close. Ferrari fought over the testing issue. A vital fight for the Maranello team, linked to the constant changes in the technical and sporting rules. After having managed always winning cars for six years - each daughter of the previous model of which it was an evolution - Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and Aldo Costa were forced in a short time to design and build a completely new car, just to make progress compared to their rivals. And they paid for the double work they underwent in terms of results. Private tests therefore proved to be essential to recover. The F2005 is an extreme Ferrari. Every technical solution is drawn to exasperation, the design is the result of enormous work in the wind tunnel, and every minimum detail is linked to the others, with brilliant solutions to say the least. However, it is clear that there was a need to check on the track everything that gave signs of improvement in theory. For this reason, the test team, with which not only Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, but also Luca Badoer, Marc Gené and Andrea Bertolini actively collaborated, was subjected to a series of difficult commitments. Working on the tyres with Bridgestone took time because the start with the old F2004 probably led both Ferrari and the Japanese firm down the wrong path. Methodically and by testing hundreds of types of tyres - at least 50.000 pieces will be produced by the end of the year, considering that Jordan and Minardi are also supplied - a positive result has finally been achieved. And so we went from the dust to the podium. That of Michael Schumacher, who at the end of the race admits:
"We worked like crazy, the engineers, us drivers, the whole team. Day and night. They knew the car would be competitive. We just had to fix several details. We succeeded. The race was very fun and difficult, especially in the first part. I couldn't do much to improve my chances. I understood that I had to wait for the pit stop. The wait has paid off".
What were the decisive episodes?
"Let's start with Trulli: he slowed down the chasing group of Alonso and Raikkonen. So when the pit stops began I didn't have an unbridgeable gap. With the refuelling, I was able to pass them all in bulk. Also, with a lot of fuel in the tank, I stayed on track longer than the others and made up ground. But I was also surprised when I reached Button in such a short time. I was lucky. I overtook the Englishman at the chicane: the two Williams were perhaps fighting each other, they threw dirt on the track and the BAR slid on the dirty asphalt".
What would have happened if you had not gone off-track in the morning, compromising qualifying and partly the race too?
"We all know that, but unfortunately that's how it happened. The car loaded with fuel was heavier than usual and the track was still a bit damp from the night's rain. A wheel locked up, also because I was pushing hard".
What does a driver think when he is behind another car for so many laps, as happened with Alonso?
"The only thing you can do, especially on circuits like this where overtaking is prohibitive, is to study your opponent to understand if he has any weaknesses. Alonso was good and never made a mistake in eleven laps. I could also see the tyres on his car, which had some degradation. I tried a couple of times, but he never gave me the chance to overtake".
Given the previous records, were you worried about reliability?
"And who had the time? In these situations, you always look ahead".
Is this the first step to reopen the title fight?
"If we look at the points in the standings, I lost two more. The important thing is that we are back at the top and above all, the F2005 has shown that it is capable of maintaining a very promising race pace for the future. The lap times, on average 1.5 seconds better than the direct competitors, also gave us a hand with strategies".
You said you also enjoyed it. How much?
"In Bahrain, where I was on the front row of the grid, I had started to enjoy the competition. Here more, because I started from behind. And I didn't know where I was going. I have only one regret, that I lost time behind Button before the second stop. If the track had been clear, I probably would have been able to rejoin the race ahead of Alonso".
When did you realise you could fight for the win?
"It's easy. When I saw that many cars stopped before me for pit stops and my gap wasn't that big. But honestly, I still had my doubts before overtaking Button".
He stayed behind his brother Ralf for several laps, did that cost you anything?
"I wouldn’t say so. I couldn't do anything, also because my car was heavy, with a load of fuel".
Nice race, but how much does it annoy you not to have defeated the Spaniard?
"It's normal that I'm also a little disappointed. However, if I think about what happened in qualifying, there are many reasons to be happy".
Tyres and car this time were perfect…
"We had some uncertainty for the final laps, but we were the best right in the final stages. As I said, the F2005 has confirmed what we thought it was capable of, and there are still many new things to try and use. But only at the end will we know if the fact that we started the season with the old car was a winning move".
Seeing how he handled the race, one would have said Schumacher was furious.
"Rage is of no use in racing, it doesn't help you. The truth is that I came to Imola with a great dose of enthusiasm and optimism".
The truth: how was the fight with Alonso?
"Nice. I liked it. It is always a joy to battle someone for victory. This year I was sometimes unlucky, not in San Marino".
This was his 215th race. One of the best?
"Definitely, if not the best ever one of the most beautiful".
In the meantime, Flavio Briatore rejoices, enjoying the post-race:
"So I was right, to want Alonso and not Button, huh?"
During the last act of the San Marino Grand Prix, he smiled less, with Michael Schumacher very close to Fernando Alonso's car. Renault's engineers were close together, hanging on uncertainty, afraid of seeing the feat fade out, the team's fourth consecutive victory in the World Championship, the third for Fernando Alonso. Only one man in blue was calm, Fernando Alonso. Which confirms:
"Yes, the engineers were much more nervous than me. They were shouting at me on the radio: four laps to go, three to go, two, one. But I knew what I had to do. We suffered all weekend. The car had problems. The guys from the team between Bahrain and here did a great job, but we had to reduce the laps on the track on Friday and Saturday, and still limit the engine power in the race to try to get to the finish line. With tyres, I could push for most of the race, but in the end, they were worn out. Michael was faster than me, he knew it, or I knew it. The Rivazza and the Tosa were the points where he could pass me. I was careful to stay away from the lapped guys in front of me, and I braked early: to save the rear tyres a little, to have more grip in the corners. And to confuse his ideas. It was just a duel to win here at Imola, nothing else. At first, Raikkonen was getting away, but no more than two tenths per lap When Kimi retired, I had but one idea in mind: to win. Of the three wins I've had so far, this is definitely the best. In Barcelona, in two weeks, there will certainly be a full house for the entire weekend".
And the Spanish driver will arrive in Catalonia with a new engine. Fabio Briatore explains:
"Up until the end we wondered whether to replace the engine, then we decided to keep the old one because it will be important for us to have it new in Barcelona, Fernando's home race. Who today proved that races are also won with brains, a lot of brains because Schumi is a super-driver. The duel between them reminded me of the times of Senna and Prost. We didn't have fun in the pits, but the spectators from all over the world think so. Races like these do great good for Formula 1. In the end, everyone applauded Alonso, even though he had just defeated Ferrari at Imola".
The McLaren illusion lasted nine laps. On lap ten, the Anglo-German car of Kimi Raikkonen slowed down suddenly, letting the nineteen competitors who followed pass by, returning to the pits slowly. Kimi Raikkonen got out of the cockpit and went away without even taking off his helmet. So no one could dream of asking him anything. More than disappointed, the Finn was very angry. Then he calmed down and consoled himself thinking about the next Grand Prix:
"At least we know the car has the right pace both in qualifying and in the race. With some improvements, in two weeks in Spain we will be very competitive".
That's what he said after the first two races. In Bahrain he had managed to get on the podium, in Imola he hoped to win. The premises were all there, from Friday in free practice to pole position, from the start to the pace in the first laps.
"My race didn't last long: the left axle shaft broke. I had to stop".
Synthetic and essential as always. And fast as long as the car supports him. After four races Kimi Raikkonen has 7 points in the standings, 29 less than Fernando Alonso, and 3 points less than Michael Schumacher. Even his former teammate, David Coulthard, is ahead of him, even his current teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, who has been absent the last two races, or poor Rubens Barrichello with all his misfortunes. His team is showing signs of awakening, but it is often the other driver who scores points. Michael Schumacher is in a similar condition to his, with the difference that Ferrari, given the performance at Imola, aims to win all the remaining fifteen races, while he must continue to deal with reliability problems. And the dream of winning the World Championship, once again, seems destined to slip. We will talk about it again in 2006, barring a miracle. On the other hand, Alexander Wurz, 31 years old, Austrian, fourth at Imola, smiles. He had not raced since the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2000. He has a third driver contract, so in Bahrain it would have been his turn to replace the injured Juan Pablo Montoya. Instead, Pedro De La Rosa took to the track, also the protagonist of a good fifth place. A matter of centimetres: 169 those of Montoya, 187 those of Alexander Wurz, 178 those of De La Rosa. Wurz did not fit in the cockpit and the engineers needed time to adapt it to its measurements.
"I ran a tactical race and I'm happy with the result. Thanks to the team for the trust. I hope to have reciprocated them".
For Giancarlo Fisichella, three consecutive retirements are not a record. But such a sudden retirement, on what can be considered one of the home tracks and in front of his fans, is going to hurt his morale a lot. Especially after the stupendous victory in Australia which had ignited great hopes. Now Fisichella will also have to suffer the supremacy within the team of Alonso who has taken flight in the standings.
"I'm disheartened, also because I still don't know what exactly happened. I had a good start and was much faster than Heidfeld in the Williams. Suddenly, coming out of the second corner, the rear of the car started to slide and I found myself against the wall and I could do nothing to avoid it. Obviously, I'm very sorry because I could have at least scored points. In Spain, we will start all over again".
From Renault, a few words for the Italian. In the team's official press release, Flavio Briatore glosses over the subject. Pat Symmonds, the technical director, simply says:
"We are all sorry for Fisichella. As far as we know at the moment, he appears to have been the victim of a technical glitch. And unfortunately, we won't know more until we are able to disassemble the car to do an in-depth analysis".
While the men of the Renault team continue to say:
"We were calm and all of a sudden Schumacher came up behind Alonso".
A joke, of course, because timing, telemetry and computers report the position of each driver in real-time. But Michael Schumacher's comeback, the few laps in which Ferrari recovered the 35-second disadvantage, were spectacular. Also in Bahrain Michael Schumacher had shadowed his rival. The difference is that the rookie F2005 broke after about ten laps, while that of Rubens Barrichello, plagued by a series of gearbox problems during practice, was only able to finish the race in ninth place. What happened?
"No miracle, the F2005 had already shown great potential in Bahrain".
Says Jean Todt, who points out that the F2005 was not designed, built and tested in the last month. It was him, together with his collaborators, who decided to start the season with the F2004M, the old single-seater adapted to the 2005 rules. The splendid challenge between Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso gave new breath to the lost Formula 1 show. The final overtaking failed, but the race thrilled everyone and brought to mind ancient duels and great comebacks of the past, remote and recent. Some have been reminded, perhaps rightly, of the epic battles between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, which, among other things, ended in an accident on two occasions, also triggering violent controversies. In the history of the motorsport circus, however, the hero of the comebacks was an apparently calm driver, the Englishman John Watson. In 1983 at the Long Beach street circuit, Lauda and him, in the McLarens, starting from P22 and P23 were first and second, ahead of the Ferrari of Arnoux. The year before, Watson himself, who was evidently competitive on city tracks, had won in Detroit, starting from P17. It must be said, however, that on both occasions John had been facilitated by an incredible series of accidents which he had been good at avoiding. In second place of the greatest comebacks ever, there is Rubens Barrichello. His feat? At Hockenheim, in 2000. Eighteenth on the grid, the Brazilian went wild with the F1-2000, helped by the entry of a safety car due to the invasion of the track by a worker protesting against Mercedes, but in the final stages, he drove with smooth tyres on the rain-soaked asphalt, doing tricks like a true tightrope walker.
Way back in 1973, Jackie Stewart in South Africa had one of the brightest races of his career driving the Tyrrell. He was in P17 and won, leaving everyone behind, on a day in which Hailwood saved Regazzoni's life - his B.R.M. caught fire - risking his own. For this gesture, he was awarded an important English honour. In a race full of surprises, between rain and sun, Michael Schumacher also experienced a day of glory when at Spa, with Benetton, he was first after starting sixteenth. Apart from last Sunday, the German has almost always started from the front rows, dominating the races in front of everyone. Johnny Herbert was also capable of overturning all predictions with the Stewart in the new Nurburgring (1999), taking advantage of multiple accidents and even more Olivier Panis who won the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix, scoring a sensational, but also the last, success of Ligier. It looked like an elimination race, only seven drivers made it to the finish, including the surprising Frenchman. In the list of the most intense chasers, Alain Prost could not be left out, as he brought his Ferrari to cross the finish line victorious, ahead of his teammate, Nigel Mansell, in Mexico City, in 1990, after obtaining only the thirteenth time in qualification. Going back in time to 1960, we also find a mythical name in Formula 1. New Zealander Bruce McLaren, destined to be the founder of a team that became a point of reference in the World Championship, won in Argentina at the wheel of a Cooper Climax. He was in P13 position and, imposing an impossible pace for his opponents, he went on to win on the difficult Buenos Aires circuit. Michael Schumacher's comeback failed at Imola, but it remains as one of the most beautiful pages of a sport: a Formula 1 that is finally spectacular. It was about time.