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Advantage Ferrari.....

After three flyaway races, the European season got underway in Imola. Already, the championship is crystallising into a three way fight between the current holder Michael Schumacher and the two Williams drivers. So far all the races have gone to a Schumacher, although the one could be forgiven for thinking that Montoya would have won in both Brzil and Malaysia had he not got involved in silly collisions with Michael Schumacher.

Whatever the case may be, it is certainly looking like an unusually fascinating contest. Ralf Schumacher is emerging as a calculating percentage player in the Prost/Piquet mould, a man who drives with his head not his heart. Unsurprisingly, he has always tended to go well at 'technical' circuits such as Imola, where Montoya has tended to struggle. Montoya is a very different kettle of fish. An out and out race whose audacious overtaking manouvres and qualifying pace have inevitably drawn comparisons with the late Ayrton Senna, while his relaxed, insouciant attitude out of the car brings back memories of Gilles Villeneuve. Certainly, he is the sort of man that the Tifosi would love to see in one of their red cars. They have never realy warmed to Michael Schumacher, for all that he is undoubtedly responsible for the most successful period in the team's history. Perhaps they feel he lacks the passion of an Alesi or a Villeneuve. Or perhaps its simply that the Tifosi prefer that the cars do the winning, and the drivers do the losing. Something that one couldn't really say of Schumacher. However, while the older Schumacher may not be able to match Montoya as a crowd-pleaser he wants for nothing on pace. With the technical intelligence of a Prost and the outright speed of a Senna, he is still the most 'complete' driver in the sport today. The question that remains to be answered is whether after four world titles, he still has the same will to win as the Williams pair.

It was thus a surprise to see that, for much of the qualifying session, it was Schumacher's team mate, Rubens Barrichello who topped the timesheets, a clear four tenths faster than anyone else. Undoubtedly he was more than a little disappointed when Schumacher snatched pole by a few hundredths in the dying seconds of the session. Behind the Ferrari duo, Ralf Schumacher outqualified Montoya showing that he has far from lost the struggle to be number one in the Williams camp. Behind them, and some considerable way from the pace were the two McLarens, swiftly followed by Nick Heidfeld's Sauber. Heidfeld must be getting frustrated with the attention showered on his team mates. Last year he outpaced Raikkonen only to see the Finn get the McLaren drive. This year, he has similarly been quicker than Felipe Massa, only to hear the young Brazilian being talked of as a potential replacement for Barrichello at Ferrari.

Further down the order, Honda's new evolution engines seemed to be doing rather more good for BAR than for Jordan, with Villeneuve making the lower reaches of the top ten for the first time this season, and looking like he might represent credible opposition to the Renaults and Saubers. Back down the order, Toyota were having an off weekend, which would not improve, when, come the race, neither car finished for the first time all season. Similar poor reliability did for Jaguar's already disastrous weekend, which saw De La Rosa outqualified by Mark Webber in the Minardi. Alex Yoong failed to make the grid after falling foul of the 107% rule. As his team mate was some three seconds faster, the inevitable implication is that Yoong simply has no real business being in F1.

Race day provided few surprises. Imola is a hard circuit to overtake on these days, since being emasculated by silly chicanes, following the deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger in 1994. Sure enough, we didn't see a whole lot of overtaking over the afternoon. Michael Schumacher simply disappeared off into the distance, and save for a brief moment during the pitstops, was never headed all afternoon. The one man who just might have been able to offer some kind of challenge, Barrichello, got stuck behind Ralf Schumacher for the first half of the race, only making it past at the first pit stops. Behind them, Montoya stayed out of trouble but remained mysteriously off the pace in fourth. McLaren's disappointing season continued with Raikkonen dropping out with suspension problems and Coulthard finishing a distant sixth, outpaced by Button's Renault. First non-points scorer home was Villeneuve, who must have been cursing the generally good reliability of the true front runners. He could console himself with the thought that he at least finished ahead of Trulli's Renault and the two Saubers. Indeed it was Trulli and Massa who provided us with the only real entertainment of the weekend, with Massa pulling off a brave move into Rivazza to take eighth from Trulli towards the end of the race.

After two exciting Grands Prix in Malaysia and Brazil, the race was something of a letdown. There is talk of the number of European races being cut in future, and Bernie Ecclestone could do worse than to remove Imola from the calendar. As a technical circuit, it tends to excerbate the difference between good and bad cars, and lacking any worthwhile straights, it is all but impossible to overtake there. While the fans might have gone home feeling a little bored, Michael Schumacher could take considerable comfort from the gap between his Ferrari F2002 and everything else on the grid. For sure he was helped by the fact that his Bridgestone tyres undoubtedly work better in cool conditions than the Michelins, but with a series of European spring races ahead, this is an advantage he is likely to keep for the meantime.

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