Monday April 16th, 2001
By Alan Baldwin
Ralf Schumacher's first Formula One win could be the first of several for Williams this season, but a title challenge is unlikely -- that, at least, is how team owner Frank Williams sees the picture, after his team, once the dominant force in Formula One, returned to the top step of the podium after more than three and a half years away.
"We hoped to win one or two or three races this year and that may well be an accurate statement," he declared. "We've got one and maybe we'll do another two by the end of the year."
Williams, who described the team's title chances as "very slim, not impossible," said Ralf would only get stronger thanks to his win in Sunday's San Marino Grand Prix. "He is already a mature Grand Prix driver. This will settle him down, give him a little more confidence," he said. "He will know how to do it."
But Williams also warned that while the BMW-powered team were back in business as Grand Prix winners, rivals could be relied upon to raise their game again. "Those guys who are currently the best in Formula One are very, very good customers. They're tough, they're very efficient, got fine equipment," he said.
Sunday's race at Imola was the least eventful but most significant this season and indeed for some time in Formula One, with the younger Schumacher leading for 62 laps. For the first time in ages, the McLarens and Ferraris lost in a straight fight whereas the most recent win by another team -- Johnny Herbert's for Stewart in September 1999 -- was largely a result of the weather and retirements.
The McLarens swept the front row of the grid in qualifying -- an ominous return to form -- but neither had the pace to pass Ralf. Ferrari meanwhile struggled after poor qualifying.
McLaren and Ferrari's world champion Michael Schumacher, who retired from the race at Imola, took note of the Williams threat which had grown louder since the previous race in Brazil.
"The message that we take home is that we all have a lot of work to do," said McLaren's race operations manager Steve Hallam, who disagreed with Williams' more modest view of the future. "If we did not see the signs in Brazil they were very evident here. BMW Williams is a serious contender for the championship which is good for motor racing and good for F1.
"But it means that we have to work even harder because dealing with them is going to be tough this year."
Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya led for half the Brazilian Grand Prix before being dumped out in a collision as he lapped the Arrows of Dutch driver Jos Verstappen. That earned him huge acclaim as the man to watch and might just have acted as an extra spur to Ralf.
"I'm sure that Ralf, being as human as everybody else and having a proper ego that drives competitive people, will not have enjoyed seeing Juan having so much glory," Williams had admitted after Saturday's qualifying.
Ralf's long-overdue first win, and his older brother Michael's failure to score for the first time in 10 races, left the championship finely balanced after four races.
"The spread of points is quite narrow. No one has made a genuine break for the lead," said Hallam. "Michael and David (Coulthard) are on 26 points each and a lot of others are capable of winning races. What we delivered today shows that we are still not where we need to be in order to fight under all conditions."
McLaren's Coulthard, despite his failure to string two successive wins together, heads to the next Spanish Grand Prix enjoying the best start to a season he has had so far in his career.
McLaren had a one-two finish at Barcelona last year and Coulthard could take a real step forward there in the first race since 1993 at which electronic traction control will be allowed.
It was also revealed after the race by Imola's medical staff that the Scot had set pole on Saturday while suffering from an abscess of the left outer ear. They performed minor surgery on him and treated him again before Sunday's warm-up.
"If the driver earpieces for radio communication are not correctly inserted, they can cause superficial lesions, abrasions and mild infections inside the ear," said a statement. "This was probably the cause of the Scottish driver's ear injury."