End of an era for Michael Schumacher? 08 Sep 2005
Or could we yet see an eighth world title for the German?
It has been obvious for most of the season, but the statistical moment of truth only arrived with the end of the Italian Grand Prix in Monza. As Michael Schumacher crossed the line in a lowly 10th place, any last chance of retaining the drivers crown he has held since 2000 vanished before his - and the tifosi's - eyes.
Even at the highest point of his season - a hollow victory against a decimated field at the United States Grand Prix - Schumacher's prospects of adding an eighth world championship looked bleak. Once the pace of Renault, McLaren and, occasionally, Williams became clear, it was obvious the Ferrari team were set to struggle in 2005. And as the year has progressed, the team has dropped further and further down the order. The hope now in Maranello will be that zero points at their home race in Monza will in hindsight prove to be the team's lowest ebb.
But how will Ferrari bounce back? And, if the team manages to get back on terms next season, then will Michael Schumacher be able to re-discover his winning form?
Fortunately for the tifosi, on closer examination Ferrari's prospects for next season look surprisingly strong. Most importantly, the team's core technical staff remain intact - the men responsible for taking the team to six back-to-back constructors' championships. Under the direction of Jean Todt and Ross Brawn there's all likelihood that the engineering staff will be able to regroup.
Changes to the technical regulations for next season may also help the team - Ferrari has a proven track record of responding quickly to changes. For 2006 engines will change from 3.0 litre V10s to 2.4 litre V8s (with some teams opting to continue with the bigger capacity engine and rev-limiters) and Ferrari has already been testing their 2006-spec V8. Few would bet against it ending up as one of the most powerful motors on the grid. The team also have access to their own private test track at Fiorano, allowing effectively unrestricted testing during the off season - again important for bedding in a new car.
One of the biggest question marks relates to Ferrari's Bridgestone tyres, reckoned by many to a key reason for the team's uncompetitive performance during the course of this season. Assuming the two companies continue their relationship for next season (as looks likely) then a large part of the responsibility for Ferrari getting on terms with rivals will be down to the Japanese tyre manufacturer. Rivals Michelin have already stated they expect to supply fewer teams in 2006, so in theory more Bridgestone-shod cars on the grid could be good news for Ferrari. More cars mean more development miles and even if Michelin remain dominant, there will at least be less of their cars to beat.
And Ferrari's driver line-up still looks strong. Michael Schumacher might be currently suffering a miserable season, but no other Formula One driver can come close to his experience and knowledge of what it takes to win. As long as he keeps his hunger to win - apparently still intact - in a competitive car Schumacher will still be awesome. Rubens Barrichello's move to BAR will be a disappointment to many of the affable Brazilian's fans - but incomer Felipe Massa's increasingly mature race performances this season suggest that he is likely to prove himself a solid number two driver - and he'll be kept well motivated by the ongoing rumours of Italian bike-ace Valentino Rossi moving to the team. Third driver Luca Badoer remains one of the best testers in the business, too.
So don't write Michael Schumacher or Ferrari off just yet - this is a team that hates to lose, and one that will do everything in its power to make sure that 2005 goes down in the history books as being an unfortunate anomaly in a period of dominance. Remember, this time last year, McLaren were finishing a distant fifth in the standings - 12 months on they are on course for the title. And thats a team with only a fraction of Ferraris Formula One experience.