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Bearing mother’s death pain to podium

Imola: World champion Michael Schumacher, grieving the death of his mother hours earlier, gave Ferrari an emotional first win of the Formula One season at their home track on Sunday.

The German, wearing a black armband on the victory podium, started the race after dashing with his younger brother Ralf to mother Elisabeth’s hospital bedside in Cologne for a final farewell Saturday evening. She died Sunday morning, aged 55.

Schumacher was embraced by Brazilian teammate Rubens Barrichello and kept his race helmet on as he was led away from the finish area by Ferrari team boss Jean Todt, the Frenchman’s arm lightly on his shoulder. It was his 65th career win and Ferrari’s 160th.

Schumacher was exempted from post-race ceremonies but he appeared on the podium, fighting back the tears as the German anthem sounded. He did not spray the champagne, which was left unopened by all three drivers.

“My mother loved to be at the karting track when we were in our karts in Kerpen and loved to see us racing,” Schumacher’s spokeswoman Sabine Kehm quoted the world champion as saying. “My mother and father had always supported us. They made it possible to do what we do and she would have wanted that we did this race today, I am sure.”

Todt, who attended the post-race news conference in his driver’s place, said the decision over whether to compete had been left to Schumacher.

“I think it was very important. He decided together with his brother yesterday to go to Germany and definitely he felt in a way more comfortable having been there,” said the Frenchman.

“Today again Michael has shown the dimension of what he is as a driver and as a man. It’s a shame sometimes that people may want not to understand what he is. Today I think he has done a big demonstration and we are very proud of him.”

McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen, now sure to remain as championship leader until well into May, finished second while Barrichello took third in what was set to be the final race appearance of the F2002 car.

After three unpredictable and action-packed races, the fare served up at Imola was straightforward — low on fireworks and far from spellbinding. But Ferrari, cheered on by their factory workers and fans, were relieved.

“It was very important to win today here at Imola, the first Grand Prix in Europe,” said Todt. “It was important to give a good end to this unbelievable car.”

Raikkonen has 32 points to teammate David Coulthard’s 19. Schumacher has 18. McLaren have 51 points to Ferrari’s 32.

“It looks good so far,” said Raikkonen. “We need to push hard and try to keep our lead and then we will get the new car and be able to fight for the wins again.”

While Ferrari plan to bring out their new car at the next race in Spain, McLaren are still a handful of races away from introducing theirs.

Schumacher, without a podium finish since his last victory at the 2002 season-ending Japanese Grand Prix, had started on pole position with Ralf’s Williams alongside him on a family front row.

For a while it seemed as if fate was steering Ralf, his mother’s ‘little one’ who said in a statement on Saturday that he thought about Elisabeth every step of the way in qualifying, towards a poignant victory.

The Williams driver, who took his first win at Imola in 2001, outsprinted Schumacher off the start and led for the first 15 laps, repeatedly shutting the door on the squirming red Ferrari in his rearview mirrors.

Ralf finished fourth, his hopes of joining Michael on the podium dashed when Barrichello muscled his way past at the end of lap 52, and left Imola immediately afterwards.

“I feel terribly sorry for the Schumacher brothers,” said Mercedes motorsport vice-president Norbert Haug. “But they showed everyone their greatness today when, of all people, those two had such a great fight at the start. They’re great boys.”

The Schumachers have dominated the San Marino Grand Prix for five years, with Michael leading a Ferrari one-two last year and winning in 2000 and 1999.

Briton Coulthard was fifth, ahead of Renault’s Spanish driver Fernando Alonso and Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya in a Williams. Briton Jenson Button collected the final point for BAR.

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