Ferrari's black magic

Michael Schumacher, San Marino GP 2006

Michael Schumacher, San Marino GP 2006 

 © The Cahier Archive

A year ago at Imola, Michael Schumacher's Ferrari, which had done nothing in the early races, suddenly found a huge amount of speed in the San Marino Grand Prix. Michael was second right behind Fernando Alonso's Renault. And yet as the season went on that speed seemed to disappear again and Michael never looked like a winner again, except in Indianapolis where the opposition disappeared before the race had even started.

There was just something about Imola.

A couple of weeks ago down in Australia Michael Schumacher was more than a second off the pace of the fastest cars, but back in Imola suddenly the Ferrari was a rocket ship again, sixth-tenths of a second faster than everyone else in the flat-out second qualifying session.

Achieving such sudden and massive leaps in performance in modern F1 is an extraordinary achievement and one that leaves rival engineers shaking their heads in awe. Everyone in F1 is working flat out and everyone is making progress so to make massive comparative progress is very hard indeed. One could put it down to an improvement in Bridgestone tyres but then again Williams and Toyota have not made the same leap forward relative to the opposition. This seems to be something that is exclusive to Ferrari. Perhaps the Italian team made a mistake on tyre choice in Malaysia and Bahrain. Or perhaps it is just down to the magic that so often touches Ferraris when they run around at Imola. We will see on Sunday which drivers are running with which fuel loads and that may answer some of the questions raised.

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. One day of headlines does not a World Championship make and Ferrari's weird performance at Imola last year must stand as a message to the Ferrari people that a sudden gain in performance does not necessarily translate into a season-long improvement.

Still, a Ferrari running well is never bad for the sport (unless it happens every weekend) if only because we have seen so much Renault so far this year. Variety is the spice of life and does wonders for the TV viewing figures so an unexpected result is never a bad thing.

Equally odd was the fact that the McLarens and Renaults seemed lacklustre and yet Honda was going well so the question of Michelin tyre performance was a bit of a mystery as well.

"We just have to wait and see tomorrow," said Jenson Button, who was second on the grid. "We are reasonably happy that we have solved some our issues but maybe the others are running very big fuel loads. Tomorrow is the important day."

Indeed so.

At a track like Imola, however, track position is a key element of success and so a good qualifying performance is of great importance in the race. If one is ahead one can hold up those behind, even if the other drivers are in much quicker cars (as we saw last year with Alonso and Schumacher at the end of the race). And so it is always possible that Ferrari might be able to win the race despite not having the fastest car in race trim.

And, of course, the other important point is that Imola is narrow and the first laps of a Grand Prix are always pretty exciting here. Some of the favoruites may not be there by the end of the first lap. It is also a track where the cars are worked hard with the cars going up and down through the gears, loading the brakes and generally giving the cars a decent work-out. A reliable car is a vital thing for success.

This year the Imola authorities had, at least, taken away some of the nastiest kerbs around the track which means that drivers are less likely to smash up their cars on the kerbstones.

Mix it all up and we have a fascinating cocktail for the race.

The grid itself features Michael Schumacher ahead of Button and Rubens Barrichello, the second Honda driving finally beginning to show a little more pace. Honda has gone with lighter fuel loads at a lot of races in recent times and so one might guess that this is the strategy again.

We shall see.

What we do know is that it will be an unusual grid with the Ferrari and the two Hondas followed by Felipe Massa's Ferrari, which seemed rather too ragged throughout. A second slower than Michael Schumacher was Fernando Alonso's Renault which was just ahead of Ralf Schumacher's Toyota. Then came the two McLarens with Juan Pablo Montoya ahead of Kimi Raikkonen. And then came Jarno Trulli's Toyota and the Williams of Mark Webber.

The obvious name missing from the top 10 was that of Giancarlo Fisichella who failed to get into the top 10 at the end of the second qualifying quarter-hour. Also out were Jacques Villeneuve's BMW, Nico Rosberg's Williams, David Coulthard's Red Bull, Nick Heidfeld's BMW (which the German spun at the end of the mini-session and Tonio Liuzzi's Toro Rosso, which had done well to get through the first qualifying quarter-hour.

That had put paid to the ambitions of Christian Klien (a very poor showing for him for some reason), Scott Speed and the inevitable Midland and Super Aguri cars.