By Richard Barnes, South Africa
Michael Schumacher faces a task of Herculean proportions if he is to retain his World Championship title, after scoring just two points in the first three races of the season. After Fernando Alonso's second consecutive win, the Ferrari driver trails by 24 points, which would be the greatest points deficit overturned if Schumacher managed to come back. Richard Barnes analyses the reigning World Champion's situation
They came, they saw and, for the first time in seven years, Ferrari failed to conquer with the debut appearance of their season's new design. The F2005, rushed into race action ahead of schedule, performed better than the modified version of the 2004 car that had been raced in Australia and Malaysia. Still, Michael Schumacher's early retirement from the race with hydraulic problems, coupled with Rubens Barrichello's failure to finish in the points, was a bitter wake-up call for the team who have turned debut victories into something of an F1 institution.
There are two ways to view the current Ferrari situation. Team boss Jean Todt opts for the 'glass half full' approach - that Ferrari could have afforded three bad races last season and still romped to easy victory in both Championships.
The 'glass half empty' approach considers historical precedent - and specifically that no driver in the history of Formula One has managed to overcome a 24-point deficit after three races and go on to win the Championship. After three GPs in 1988, Ayrton Senna successfully reversed a 15-point deficit to McLaren teammate Alain Prost, and Michael Schumacher gave McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen a 16-point start in 2003 before steadily overhauling the young Finn. But no driver has bounced back from a handicap of more than 20 points.
Schumacher himself came closest to achieving the miraculous, against the dominant McLaren of Mika Hakkinen in 1998. After six races, Hakkinen had built a 22-point advantage, only to see Schumacher take the Championship right down to the wire at Suzuka. Tellingly, that deficit was a bridge too far, even for Michael Schumacher. In 2005, the seven-time World Champion must go two points better and find a way to overturn Fernando Alonso's current Championship cushion of 24 points.
There are several factors in the reigning Champion's favour. The first is the unprecedented length of the 19 GP 2005 calendar. More races means more opportunities to catch up and more opportunities for Alonso to fail. The second positive factor is the near-certainty that Sunday's retirement from hydraulic failure was a once-off freak event. Prior to Bahrain, Schumacher had enjoyed flawless mechanical reliability for almost three and a half seasons and a staggering 56 starts. Even with the two-race engine regulation in place for 2005, the F2005 will not want for reliability.
Ferrari and Bridgestone will also continue to work closely together in developing the F2005's chassis and tyres as a single bespoke package. There were times during the Bahrain weekend when the F2005 looked frighteningly fast, and the car's performance will likely improve measurably, race by race. But there are also disadvantages and unexpected hindrances to Maranello's Championship aspirations.
The main concern is that Schumacher is not a good Championship chaser - or at least, not a lucky Championship chaser. In 1997 and 1998, when Schumacher had to drive hardest to close the gap to his fast-starting rivals, he turned in some of his best career drives. Yet, in both seasons, mistakes and sheer bad luck prevented him from taking the Championship title. When he finally did manage to win a Championship from behind (in 2003), he almost surrendered it with a curiously lacklustre final third of the season. When Schumacher has the luxury of leading from the start, his momentum builds with each race and he becomes unstoppable. When pressured into playing catch-up, a much more fallible and inconsistent Schumacher emerges.
Ferrari's other expected advantage, that the Michelin runners would take points away from each other in a tight and competitive Michelin pack, has not materialised. Renault not only has the beating of Ferrari, but of every other team too. Jarno Trulli has excelled so far in the Toyota but, for the entire race on Sunday, Alonso gave the impression that he was only driving as hard as he needed to, and could have stretched his advantage over Trulli at will.
Renault teammate Giancarlo Fisichella has also failed (so far) to provide the level of competition that would have taken points away from Alonso and benefited Ferrari and Schumacher. Around Maranello at least, there must be the rueful perception that Renault team boss Flavio Briatore picked the wrong Italian to partner his young Spanish star. If Fisichella can finish ahead of Alonso at Imola, he will relish the support of millions of Italian fans that he never realised he had.
Like Ferrari, Renault will also be counting on superior reliability. Fisichella's Bahrain retirement notwithstanding, Alonso's car has looked bullet-proof all year. If Alonso can just continue finishing in the points for race after race, like Kimi Raikkonen did in 2003, he can almost grind out the title victory on attrition alone.
Historically, Michael Schumacher cannot draw much comfort from his current Championship plight. However, if he is to seek answers in the murky territory of historical precedent and examine how other legends have responded to the challenge of a slow Championship start, Schumacher's focus should be on one driver only - Alain Prost.
As the holder of the previous career benchmark of 51 GP wins (until Schumacher added that record to his CV as well), Prost was the ultimate technical analyst - a driver who, by his own admission, was slow when he looked fast and fast when he looked slow. Yet this wasn't the only seemingly contradictory facet of his driving. Prost was also renowned as the ultimate points accumulator, a driver who could be counted upon to make the best of every opportunity. Yet his Championship record, particularly after three races of each season, tells a different story.
Prost won four Drivers' Championship titles, in 1985, 1986, 1989 and 1993. After three Grands Prix in 1989, he managed to share the Championship lead on 18 points with teammate Ayrton Senna. In all three of his other Championship-winning years, he trailed his main rival(s) early in the season. That is in keeping with the reputation of Prost the Professor, until we examine the flip-side of early season form.
On no less than four occasions, Prost leapt out to an early Championship lead after three races - and lost the title each time. In 1982, he was overhauled by Williams' Keke Rosberg. Two years later, his own McLaren teammate Niki Lauda emerged from retirement and started slowly before pipping Prost to the WDC title by half a point. After winning an improbable title from the faster Williams pair of Mansell and Piquet in 1986, Prost was repaid in kind a year later, seeing an early lead whittled away by Piquet's Williams. A year after that, in 1988, it was Ayrton Senna's turn to unseat the Professor after Prost had led early on. Prost may have been fast when he looked slow, and slow when he looked fast. But he also lost titles when he led early, and often won titles when he trailed early.
Admittedly, Prost never had to overcome the deficit that Schumacher faces, nor did he ever surrender the sort of lead that Alonso currently enjoys. Nevertheless, his career fortunes illustrate the principle that Schumacher should now be holding dear - that F1 Championships are never won in April.
It will take an effort of Herculean proportions for Schumacher to drag himself back into the 2005 Championship frame. If he eventually triumphs, it will be yet another benchmark added to the Schumacher legacy - 'greatest points deficit overturned in winning a WDC title'. But then again, isn't setting new records the hallmark of Schumacher's long and lucrative career?