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AS YOU WERE........

A year ago, Ferrari came to Imola with two F2002s for the first time and utterly dominated the event, setting the tone for a summer of red and white domination. This time, Michael Schumacher, whose mother had died earlier in the morning, had to fight a little harder, but he gave the F2002 a suitable send-off.

Entry and Practice

Word has it that this might be the last San Marino Grand Prix. Imola, since its emasculation by chicanes, is really not a particularly exciting place any more. Thereís nowhere to overtake and the track is little more than a series of shortish straights separating slow corners. Nothing which really shows a modern F1 car at its full potential. If Max Mosley is looking to broaden the sportís global appeal then this really might be a good race to drop. And Magny Cours for that matter, but Iíll not get into that again.

Of course, at heart, all this Euro-race dropping has an awful lot to do with the European Union and its fair-minded attempts to protect its citizenry from the evils of tobacco/ obsessive nannying desire to interfere in every aspect of our lives (delete according to political preference). Why on earth else would the powers that be seriously considering Bahrain as a venue for F1 ? Where next ? North Korea ?

It was perhaps amusing to see that Williams are running Niquitin CQ logos on their cars now - perhaps helping all those that started smoking Winfield back in the late nineties give up the habit. One trusts that Marlboro, Imperial Tobacco et al are not overly concerned, and the team at least no longer have the embarrassment of having Worldcom decals on the car. Whatever, the cars were rather quicker than they have been in practice all season, especially that of the younger Schumacher. Ralf Schumacher came within a hundredth of a second of taking pole, despite running in the spare car. That honour, of course, went to the older Schumacher, to form the first all-Schumacher front row in some considerable time. All of which meant that Schumacher had got the upper hand in the Williams civil war for the first time since, well since the last race at Imola really.

After their frankly bizarre win at their 200th Grand Prix in Brazil, it was back down to earth for the Jordan team in practice for the San Marino Grand Prix. Their weekend began with Giancarlo Fisichella belatedly picking up his winnerís trophy from Interlagos, thus removing himself as a potential wild card for "greatest driver never to win a Grand Prix". What with Chris Amon showing up at the Australian Grand Prix and taking an interest in the sport again, its perhaps as well thatís been cleared up. Fisichella ended up qualifying 17th and mystified as to why he was so slow. There was no such mystery surrounding the lack of pace of his team mate Firmanís lack of pace. The Englishman ended up stone last after a lap of quite singular ineptitude. Or almost last, for finally, at the fourth race of the year, somebody put their car in the wall on their hot-lap. That man was Jos Verstappen, so, no great surprise there. As he pointed out himself, all this meant was that he would have to start from the back of the grid, which was about where he expected to be anyway.

If the Jordans were inexplicably slow, then the Jaguars were correspondingly surprisingly fast. Quite what the usually shambolic Anglo-American team have suddenly started doing right isnít clear; the team looks much the same as the one which made a complete pigís ear of 2002 and even the car looks like last yearís lemon. Whatever the explanation, Mark Webber lined up fifth, ahead of both of the McLarens and while he might have been a little lighter on fuel than some, it nonetheless appears that Jaguar have finally put together a decent racing car. Shame one of them is in the hands of Pizzonia, but thereís hope yet that he might come good.

Two men who were going to have a lot to do on Sunday were David Coulthard and Jarno Trulli. The McLarens seemed to be nowhere throughout Friday and Saturday, and Coulthard did nothing for his chances by making a mistake on his quick lap at Rivazza and ending up down in 12th. Trulli, who had been on the front row just a month ago seemed completely at sea with his Renault and ended up qualifying 16th in a spare car set up for Alonso.

What of the rest ? Honda appear to be winning the battle of the Japanese, with their Ferrari-F2002 lookalike machines lining up 7th and 9th, while the Toyotas were back in 10th and 13th. The Saubers were having an anonymous time, much as ever really, and lined up 11th and 14th. Whatever we were to make of the times, the scrap for the final few points was clearly going to be very hard fought.

Race day

Early on Sunday morning, word filtered through that the Schumacher brothersí mother had died at the age of 55. For a while it was unclear whether either brother would race, but in the end, it wasnít perhaps any great surprise to see the two Schumachers get in their cars and take up the front two spots in the grid. What it must be like to lose a parent and then later the same day have to perform in an arena like F1 is hard to imagine, but on track, one would have been hard pressed to tell any difference in either Schumacherís driving. Ralf Schumacher beat his brother down to the first corner, and the two brothers began to engage in a spectacular dogfight. Schumacher Sr did all he could to find a way past, but Schumacher Jr, who has so often been vulnerable to this kind of pressure in the past, and whose frame of mind cannot have been great, did not give in this time, and so he led until the first pit stops.

Behind them, Barrichello and Montoya followed closely, while Raikkonen kept a watching brief in fifth. Mark Webber, who qualified so well, lost out at the start when his launch control all but failed to get his car off the line, and ended up dropping all the way down to 11th on the opening lap. He was at least better off than Pizzonia, who didnít get off the line at all, and who would have to wait a whole lap before his mechanics managed to fire up the car. Webber was, as it turned out, fuelled light, but rather less so than the two Toyotas, Alonsoís Renault and Heidfeldís Sauber, all of which pitted around the eleven lap mark. And remember, Webber had outqualified all of them. Indeed, the Toyotasí lack of pace, given their fuel load, was really quite embarrassing. Alonso was at least going quickly, sufficiently so, in fact, to emerge from the pits ahead of his team mateís car - which was busy holding up Fisichellaís Jordan and ensuring that there would not be even the ghost of a chance of any kind of follow up to Brazil. Not that there was anyway, for neither Jordan was close to the pace, and both would expire in flames before the end.

After the first pit stops, Michael Schumacher emerged ahead of his brother, who had to stop a few laps earlier for fuel, and so the pattern of the race looked set. The McLarens were dark horses, for it soon became clear they were running a two stop strategy when all their rivals were running three-stoppers. The second stops saw a further shaking up of the order. Juan Montoya lost a lot of time when his fuel rig failed and he was forced to stop twice in successive laps. The two McLarens emerged looking set rather pretty. They were never going to live with the Ferraris on pace, but Raikkonen was nonetheless now second on the road, just a couple of seconds behind Schumacher, while Coulthard was firmly in the midst of a battle between the second Ferrari and Ralfís Williams. After the first three races, it was perhaps no surprise to see that F1 had reverted back to a battle between Ferrari, McLaren and Williams, but at least the on-track action was rather closer than it ever was last year. Of course, the sheer impossibility of actually overtaking anyone at Imola meant that we were really watching a high-speed procession, but there was always the chance......

Nonetheless, there was a feeling that the order at the end of the last round of pitstops (Schumacher, Raikkonen, Schumacher, Barrichello, Coulthard) represented the final finishing order. The hard charging Barrichello had other ideas. Like Michael before him, he now found himself running right behind Ralf Schumacherís slower Williams. Again, it was a matter of keeping the pressure on and hoping to push Ralf into a mistake. In the end, the effort paid off - Ralf Schumacher missed his braking point at Rivazza, giving Barrichello the ghost of a chance. He edged alongside Schumacher coming into the braking for the Traguardo chicane, just before the start/finish line. Schumacher missed his braking point again and allowed Barrichello a faster exit out of the corner and into third place. Thereafter, he set about Raikkonen, although to no avail. he caught him on the final lap, but could do absolutely nothing about getting past the Finn.

Schumacher took his first win of the year - the fourth different winner in four races. Raikkonen maintained his strong challenge for the 2003 World Championship by finishing second, Barrichello was third, Ralf Schumacher just held off a rather rapid looking Coulthard for fourth. Fernando Alonso didnít make the podium this time, but given the superiority of the big three when compared to the rest of the grid, he had good reason to happy with sixth, ahead of a delayed Montoya. The final points-scoring position went to a lapped Jenson Button. He might have been happy that his BAR was quicker than the Saubers, Toyotas and Jordans but it still must have been rather dispiriting to discover just how far behind the McLarens, Ferraris and Williams they are.

And the mood canít have been that great in the Williams camp. Qualifying had promised much, but ultimately the new FW25 still isnít even quite a match for last yearís Ferraris and McLarens, never mind the Woking and Maranelloís 2003 machines, whenever they might deign to appear. You can be sure that there will be more aerodynamic tweaks, more Ďupgradesí, but fundamentally it simply doesnít look as though the Williams is quite up to the job. Raikkonen sits pretty at the top of the drivers standings, and must be rather pleased with 2nd place, which is probably more than the car really deserved today. The question is whether, given that the new McLaren is not expected until mid-season, he will be able to maintain that lead over a Ferrari team which have shown over the last three years that they will not be beaten easily.

If Williams have reason to be a little dispirited, then imagine how disillusioned Sauber and Toyota must be. Toyota have spent sums which dwarf even those being lavished by Ferrari and McLaren on becoming a top-line F1 team, and yet still, with a trouble free run, the best they could do today is 9th and 12th. Peter Sauber, whose cars finished 10th and 11th commented only that "We cannot be satisfied.... It was the first regular race of the season, and it showed the limitations of the Sauber Petronas C22". At least neither Ove Andersson nor Peter Sauber have the ignominy of being Jarno Trulli, whose uneventful race brought him home 13th and last bar one - in a car that Alonso brought home in the top six.

And so finally, six weeks into the new Grand Prix season, we were treated to the sounds of the German and Italian national anthems, which had become so familiar last year. Out of the car, Michael Schumacher once again looked a man in mourning, rather than the fastest Grand Prix driver of our time. Nobody could have known that simply from watching him on the track.

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