| SCHUMACHER: Counting on the support of fans
London: World champion Michael Schumacher can turn around his season on Sunday and allow Ferrari fans to marvel one more time at the team’s most successful Formula One car.
“Our aim is to give our fans something to celebrate and where better to start than Imola'” said the German.
Victory in the San Marino Grand Prix would be Ferrari’s 160th win since the first at Silverstone in 1950 and there would be no more suitable place for a party than at a home circuit named after team founder Enzo and his late son Dino.
It would also be a fitting farewell to the breathtaking F2002, given a hasty reprieve from retirement last week after continuing reliability concerns about the new F2003-GA.
The car ran in 15 races last year and was beaten only once —by McLaren’s David Coulthard in Monaco — as Ferrari powered to 15 wins in 17 races including a crushing one-two at Imola in the first race of the European season.
Schumacher’s bid for a record sixth world championship has barely started however and there has been little for the ‘Tifosi’ to celebrate since he won the season-ending Japanese Grand Prix in October.
The German has yet to finish on the podium in 2003 after never once stepping off it last year.
Easter Sunday, with the red-shirted fans and factory workers turning out in force to the dismay of the Church authorities, could see his luck turn.
“I always wait anxiously for Imola. In a way it is my first home race, when we can surely count on the support of our fans,” said Schumacher.
The F2003-GA should be wheeled out for the Spanish Grand Prix on May 4 but there is little doubt that the old car is still setting the pace despite being slowed by human error.
“I have not experienced another car like the F2002. It is simply a fantastic racing car,” said Schumacher, who lags McLaren’s young Finn Kimi Raikkonen by 16 points in the championship.
“From this point of view, maybe it is just special to be able to drive the single-seater that won the world championship; who knows, maybe we can send it into retirement with a victory.”
The last Brazilian Grand Prix, whose outcome was decided five days after the event when Italian Giancarlo Fisichella was declared the winner, was the first time since 1999 that Ferrari failed to score points.
Fisichella will get a rousing reception from his home crowd but he is driving a Jordan and it will be nothing like the frenzy that awaits Ferrari.
The fans will want reassurance that Ferrari, fourth in an unpredictable championship that has so far fallen into McLaren’s lap as teams wrestle with major rule changes, have not lost their way.
“It is clear that we will have to fight all the way, considering that things could have gone better for us recently,” said Schumacher, who has won three times at Imola in four years.
“But the approach would have remained the same if we had been through a successful period because then we would have felt almost obliged to get a result.”
“I really don’t believe that using the F2002 is a disadvantage,” he added. “Reliability is an important factor and so we shouldn’t run even the smallest risk. We will see on Sunday what Imola has in store for us.
“It is certainly not down to a lack of speed that we have won so few points so far.”
Schumacher’s younger brother Ralf won at Imola in 2001, his first Formula One success, while McLaren’s David Coulthard was victorious in 1998.
Both will be in the hunt on Sunday along with Raikkonen and Ralf’s Colombian teammate Juan Pablo Montoya.
“I remember last year that we did not have the smallest chance against Ferrari,” said Ralf. “This time circumstances are different and the most recent test at Le Castellet has taken us another step forward.”
Ferrari’s Rubens Barrichello, giving Schumacher far more of a run for his money this year and unlucky not to win in Brazil when his car ran out of fuel while he was leading, will also be another frontrunner.
McLaren, like Ferrari, will be continuing with their old car at Imola but intend to race their new one next month once they are assured of reliability.