NEWS FEATURE

Ferrari: Schumacher and Irvine

There is a joke in Formula 1 circles which says that Ferrari is in the seventh year of a three-year plan to return to Championship-winning ways. Many a true word is spoken in jest. Ferrari has not won a World Championship since 1983 and Luca di Montezemolo said he wanted to return Ferrari to winning ways when he became President in November 1991.

His first attempt to put together a winning team involved hiring Harvey Postlethwaite to organize the technical team; Niki Lauda to give advice and John Barnard to design the cars. By mid-1993 it was clear that this combination was not working and so Jean Todt was hired. He instigated design studies into the relative merits of V12, V10 and V8 engines, poaching the best and brightest engine men from rival organizations. The V10 looked like being the best bet and in the autumn of 1995 the Ferrari V10 ran for the first time. By then Todt had lured double World Champion Michael Schumacher from Benetton for a vast salary with Eddie Irvine being taken on as the number two driver. Expectations were high.

At the time Schumacher spoke of a need for Italian fans to give the team time to develop into a winning operation.

"I am sure the potential is there for Ferrari to be world champions," he said. "But it will take a while. I think we will use 1996 to get ready to really fight for the championship title in 1997. Right now there is just a little bit missing and it's up to me and Eddie to find that extra."

FIAT boss Gianni Agnelli came to a Ferrari F1 launch for the first time in February 1996. At the launch Montezemelo said that he hoped the team would win three races.

Initial testing revealed that the car had a design problem with the gearbox. The early races were disastrous and the Italian press gave Ferrari a rough ride, demanding that Todt be dropped.

"If you want to destroy Ferrari," Schumacher argued, "you can kick out Todt. If you want the team to grow, let him stay."

The storm passed. The F310 was fundamentally a good car but needed development. Schumacher won the wet Spanish GP in brilliant style but there followed a string of disasters. The pressure from the media returned. This time Montezemolo himself defended Todt.

"I have made a big effort to build up this team in the last three years," he said. "I am not going to destroy it because we lost just two or three races. It is important to achieve the goal we set for the season. I still think we can win two or three races."

Modifications to the car appeared in the mid-summer with a raised-nose and modified suspension. The car was better and Schumacher won at Spa and Monza - although both were opportunist victories when his rivals ran into trouble. The three victories gave Michael third place in the Drivers' World Championship and took Ferrari to second place in the Constructors' World Championship behind Williams.

Over the winter it was announced that the team had hired Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne - who had both worked with Schumacher at Benetton but the 1997 car was a Barnard-inspired development of the 1996.

The men at Maranello were optimistic that they would close the gap to Williams as their development programmes produced a better car.

"I hope to fight for the title," said Michael at the time, "but we face strong competition and it will be difficult even though this car has to be an improvement. I am sure it will be. I just hope the car will be more reliable and perform better than last year's did. I would be quite happy with two wins."

The F310B was unveiled with plenty of time in hand for testing - and Schumacher and Irvine were able to complete 4500 miles of testing between them before the cars were freighted off to Australia.

"The good thing about this year's test programme is that we have two cars which allows us to do more work," explained Schumacher. "Eddie is very good in the direction he goes in testing."

Up against the Williams in testing, however, the Ferrari was still not competitive.

"The level is not where we want it to be," said Schumacher just before the season got underway. "When I first tried the car I could tell it felt more together but it still had some problems. In the first couple of tests I was disappointed. We are not yet up to speed but we have made significant improvements. Thinking back to the first real test of the car in Jerez we were almost nowhere compared to the opposition. At the Estoril test which followed the car was handling very badly but at Mugello we made improvements. We still face a difficult task this year because so many of the other teams have improved over the winter.

"At one point I felt we would be running near the back of the grid but I am happier now. The car being ready earlier made a big difference."

Irvine felt that he would improve this year simply because he would be more confident in the car thanks to the testing.

"Driving the car in testing not only gives you the confidence you need ," he explained. "It also provides you with a physical work out and, more importantly, keeps you mentally sharp."

The arrival of Brawn and Byrne was too late to have any real effect on the F310B but Schumacher was confident that their input will help later this year and, of course, in the design of the 1998 car.

"Now everything is concentrated in Italy and there is a clear line of command," he explained, referring to the fact that John Barnard always refused to work in Italy and ran his design operation from offices at Shalford in England. "We know where the problems lie and we know there is a programme to solve them. So we know where we stand."

In Australia the F310Bs were rather better than expected.

"Our main problem with last year's car was turn-in oversteer and understeer at the exit of the corners," explained Schumacher - who qualified third behind the two Williams-Renaults. "We no longer appear to have this difficulty and the car is undoubtedly better. I think this season will be really interesting and possibly the best season for the last few years."

In the race finished second behind surprise winner David Coulthard. It was rather a flattering result as both the Williams drivers retired from the race.

"I could not have done better," said Schumacher. "I got the podium finish I hoped for and these six points are a good way to kick off the Championship."

For Irvine Melbourne was rather less of a success and he qualified fifth.

"I was struggling," he admitted. "It felt like I was driving on ice. I switched to Michael's settings and found a lot more grip but I made a few mistakes and so I am happy to be fifth on the grid."

Eddie's race ended at the first corner when he ran into Jacques Villeneuve and Johnny Herbert. He claimed that it was not his fault and that he had the inside line and therefore the corner should have been his. No-one else agreed and Eddie was heavily criticized for the move.

There was almost no time to do anything to the cars before the two South American races. The Interlagos circuit was not expected to suit the Ferrari because of its long sweeping corners.

"We guess that in the long corners we build up very high tyre temperatures," explains Schumacher, "And that hurts us a lot. In long corners where you really need a good balance from the entry to the exit we are struggling."

Schumacher's qualifying performance in Brazil was brilliant in what was clearly a very difficult car to drive. He was undoubtedly helped by the fact that Heinz-Harald Frentzen did not have a good weekend and the second Williams was not at all competitive. Thus second on the grid was much the same position as third had been in Australia. What was impressive is that Michael achieved this using hard compound Goodyear tyres. The problems with the car were highlighted by the fact that Irvine was way down in 14th position on the grid, complaining of a lack of rear end grip.

Irvine, it should be said, had not helped himself by pushing too hard and ending up in a snadtrap on Friday, thus depriving himself of much-needed laps to work on improving the balance of the car.

Schumacher's brilliance in qualifying could not be matched in the race, although he made a good start and took the lead at the first corner. Unfortunately the race was then stopped because a number of other drivers - including Irvine - had been involved in collisions with one another.

As a result Eddie had to go into the spare car, which was set up for Schumacher and the Ferrari mechanics were in such a rush to get everything ready that Eddie had to be crammed into the seat with the seat belts done up much too tightly.

"The straps were too short," explained Irvine later, "so it was cutting into me. It felt as though my leg was being cut off - especially under braking. The pain got to be so bad that I have to come into the pits to have them adjusted."

This destroyed any hopes Eddie had of a good result and he finished the day two laps behind in 16th place.

Schumacher took the lead again at the second start but before the end of the lap Villeneuve swept imperiously past Michael and drove away into the distance. Michael later had a fight for second with Gerhard Berger but was unable to keep the Austrian behind him. Later in the race he lost two more positions to Mika Hakkinen and Olivier Panis and so he finished fifth.

"I was hoping for better," he admitted. "But just as I expected our tyres did not maintain their performance level throughout the race. But today's two points will probably prove to be important during the course of the season."

Despite the lack of a competitive car, Schumacher's aim remained the World Championship and collecting points at every opportunity is Michael's plan. At the launch of the F310B Schumacher made an interesting point, commenting that when Keke Rosberg won the World Championship in 1982 he did it with only one race victory, making up for the lack of wins with a string of consistent finishes while his rivals won more races but did not score as many points. It is a nice idea but it is unlikely to be successful because in 1982 F1 was in the process of changing from normally-aspirated to turbocharged engines and the relative competitiveness of the cars changed considerably during the season.

In Argentina - a twistier track without too many fast corners - the Ferrari was a lot better than it had been in Brazil and so Schumacher was able to qualify fourth. Once again it was a similar performance to the first two races, except that Frentzen was back up to speed and the Bridgestone tyres on Olivier Panis's Prost-Mugen Honda gave it a distinct tyre advantage.

"I think we can aim for a podium finish," he commented. "We are ahead of Benetton and McLaren so the performance is not bad."

On this occasion Irvine did better in qualifying, managing to snatch seventh place on the grid.

"The set-up of the car here is good," reported Eddie, "but it is jumping a bit over the bumps and is a little unstable at the rear. I made hard work of it in qualifying."

Michael Schumacher's plans for consistent finishing went a little awry on race day when he crashed into the back of Rubens Barrichello at the first corner after making contact with Panis on the way down to the first corner. It was most out of character. Michael said that he had been unable to see where he was going because oil from Frentzen's car had sprayed across his visor but it looked more like he had simply lost his famous cool.

While all this was going on Irvine was making one of the best starts of his life, which took him from seventh on the grid to third in the first corner. He was passed later in the lap by Panis but as the Frenchman and Heinz-Harald Frentzen both retired later in the race Irvine was able to run second and even led the race for a while because Villeneuve chose to do three stops while Eddie went for only two. Jacques also had a gearbox problems which was making life difficult for him.

At the end Eddie was right behind Jacques and looking for a way to pass the Williams but the result - the best in Eddie's career - was rather more flattering than the performance of the car warranted.

After the two races in South America teams were able to get down to some serious testing in Barcelona with both drivers continuing to develop the new Evolution 2 of the 046 V10 engine and an active differential. For the San Marino GP - Ferrari's home race - it was decided that Michael should risk using a new engine in qualifying. He qualified third once again behind the two Williams drivers - and the gap was smaller than it had been previously.

"I was 1.3seconds behind them in Argentina but here it is down to seven-tenths so it is half what it was," he reported. "In fact that is due to the nature of the circuit more than to the new engine. We have improved the engine - which has gained us two or three tenths but the rest is down to the nature of the circuit. The car works a bit better here."

Irvine - who had been the fastest driver on Friday - was nearly a second slower than Schumacher which dumped him back to a disappointing ninth on the grid. He reckoned that he had been caught out by changing conditions in the qualifying session although Ferrari boss Jean Todt said that it was probably because Eddie prefers to have a less twitchy car than Schumacher and needs to develop his abilities in setting up the car to his tastes.

Schumacher again made a good start and was able to get ahead of Frentzen and keep his rival behind him until the pit stops. Villeneuve was struggling a little and so did not pull away as he often does and so at the pit stops Frentzen emerged in the lead, having put in two very quick laps when the other two drivers pitted. Schumacher's pit strategy was good as well and Villeneuve was left in third. Michael thus finished second to Heinz-Harald.

"In race conditions we don't seem to be as far away as we are in qualifying," said Michael afterwards. "We seem to be the only team which can go at almost the same speed as the Williams,. That makes me quite happy because there should be some changes coming to our car soon which will give us another step forward.

Irvine made it a good day for Ferrari by finishing third. He made a good start and was fortunate that others ahead of him retired. He fought over third place with Giancarlo Fisichella and was able to get the position at the final pit stop.

Monaco was the next race and this is a track which favors good drivers - and a track at which Jacques Villeneuve does not seem very comfortable. As a result it was not at all surprising that Schumacher and Frentzen were the men fighting it out for pole position.

In the end Frentzen won by a few hundredths of a second.

"I would like to be optimistic for the race," reported Schumacher, "but at the moment the car is not perfectly balanced and I do not know how much we can improve when compared to others."

Irvine suffered badly from the poor handling and he found himself in a dismal 15th position on the grid, which left him depressed and demoralized and pessimistic about what he could achieve in the race because overtaking at Monaco is so difficult.

What neither driver had really taken into account was the fact that the race would be run in very wet conditions and that Williams would make a basic tactical blunder with the choice of tyres - the team chose to start both drivers on slick tyres because the team's weather forecaster said that the rain would pass and that the race would be dry.

Schumacher did not agree and opted for a mainly wet setting on his car. It was a bold move but one which he took because he knew that in dry conditions he would not be able to beat Frentzen. Fortune favors the bold. The track stayed wet and Michael won easily. Villeneuve and Frentzen both made mistakes and retired which meant that Michael found himself leading the World Championship.

"That is always nice," he said, "but what really matters is what happens at the end of the season, not what is happening after five or six races. Winning a race the way we did in Monaco always motivates a team."

Irvine made up for his poor showing in qualifying by driving a spectacularly good race. He started with dry settings but with some extra downforce for the wet and in places, he said, the car felt terrible but it was brilliant under braking and so in the early laps while everyone else was trying to stay on the road Eddie was able to pass cars when he came up behind them. He was fifth by lap 11 and was able to catch Fisichella and Panis because the Jordan was slowing up the Prost badly. Having started with a large load of fuel, Eddie was able to run longer than both men ahead and thus was able to pass both of them and finish third.

As the team left Monaco Schumacher led the Drivers Championship with Irvine third and Ferrari was ahead in the Constructors' Championship. A most unexpected situation.

Schumacher warned that Spain would be a very different story because the track did not suit the Ferrari and he was proved to be correct. Michael qualified seventh with Irvine 11th.

"The car does not sufficient aerodynamic efficiency," he reported, "so all we can do is try to pick up as many points as possible in the race."

And that is what he did. He made a remarkable start to run third but then drifted gradually backwards to finish fourth, a good effort in the circumstances.

Irvine did not have a good race. He was stuck in traffic early on in the race and was a lap behind when he was given a stop-go penalty for blocking Olivier Panis. It combined to leave him in 12th place - and in trouble again.

While Irvine has been producing some good races his qualifying performance has not been impressive when compared to Schumacher. Michael has made the Ferrari look a much better than it really is, although the team has progressed to the extent that it is now ahead of the pack chasing Williams. The Williams is still the dominant car and as the team is constantly developing the package it is going to be very hard for Ferrari to claw back the gap. Ferrari has a constant test programme going but that will only keep the gap to Williams stable while other teams are also showing signs of improvement - notably McLaren and Benetton, both of which did very badly in the opening races this year.

Schumacher's talent and his ability to exploit unusual circumstances may well result in further wins this year, particularly if Williams makes the kind of mistakes it made in Monte Carlo. The aim of winning the World Championship in 1997 seems to be out of Ferrari's reach at the moment but with new parts being developed all the time, it is possible that the team will become stronger as the season progresses - as happened last year.

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