Tuesday April 10th, 2001
Ferrari's Michael Schumacher can match Ayrton Senna in the Formula One record books by qualifying on pole position for Sunday's San Marino Grand Prix.
But that will be little consolation for the triple world champion, who can equal the late Brazilian's remarkable run of eight poles in a row, if he fails to win at Imola before the massed ranks of Ferrari supporters.
Schumacher, whose six successive Grand Prix wins was ended by McLaren's David Coulthard in Brazil ten days ago, has won the last two races at Ferrari's home track but needs to show the fans that the team's supremacy remains.
He has now been on pole at every race since the Italian Grand Prix at Monza last September and another in Italy on Saturday will equal Senna's 1988-89 run with McLaren.
However, Schumacher has never won from pole at Imola, unlike Coulthard who did it in 1998, and some might even see it as a bad omen if the German were to be fastest in qualifying there.
Despite coming home second at Interlagos, Schumacher has still taken 26 points from a maximum 30 so far and leads nearest rival Coulthard by six.
"Thirty might have been better but it's fine as it is," the German told Italy's Gazzetta dello Sport last week. "We have had the confirmation that this Ferrari is really as good as it seemed in winter testing.
"The result (in Brazil) didn't surprise me, I knew that the run of wins could not go on forever, that it was ending. I had hoped it would happen after Imola, instead it happened in Brazil."
McLaren have marked out Imola, the first European Grand Prix of the season, as the race they hope will see them and Ferrari really begin to fight on equal terms.
Former champion Mika Hakkinen, who has scored just one point so far in 2001, has been on pole at the circuit for the past two years and the Mercedes-powered team have promised to introduce some important changes for the race.
"We still have some work to do and are expecting to improve the car and engine even further for San Marino," said Coulthard after beating Schumacher at Interlagos.
The big question awaiting an answer will be whether McLaren have managed to close the early season gap or whether Ferrari have made further advances.
Schumacher was certainly not worried.
"I think Ferrari should be afraid of nothing. We have found many solutions in testing at Fiorano which have allowed us to further develop the F2001," he said.
"I am not worried in the slightest."
Williams will also be at the centre of attention after Ralf Schumacher qualified on the front row in Brazil and Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya led for half the race.
Montoya, shunted out by Dutchman Jos Verstappen in Brazil, has yet to finish in his debut season but Imola is the first circuit he knows well from his days in European Formula 3000.
Brazil showed that Williams could match any team for speed and were now genuine contenders to become the first team other than McLaren or Ferrari to win a race since 1999.
The third place finish by German Nick Heidfeld at Interlagos also brought Ferrari-engined Sauber a first appearance on the podium since 1998 and the Swiss team could do well this weekend.
Imola will also bring down the curtain on a period in Formula One history that started in 1994, the year of Senna's death in a Williams at Imola.
The San Marino Grand Prix will be the last before traction control and other banned driver aids make their legal return at the Spanish Grand Prix at the end of the month.