On the road to success?

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It’s hard to believe, but 20 years have passed since a Ferrari driver last won the World Championship with Jody Scheckter and the 312 T4. For the greatest F1 team of all, that’s a long time in the wilderness.

Today, Ferrari has the passion and ability to correct 20 years of under-achievement. With men the calibre of Luca di Montezemolo, Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher, rarely has Ferrari enjoyed better management, designers and drivers, and just as importantly, such stability among key personnel. After coming so close in 1997 and 1998, is Schumacher on course in 1999 to match Scheckter’s success of 1979?

Both drivers suffered disappointing starts to their seasons, with neither Scheckter nor Schumacher scoring in the first round (at Argentina in 1979, and Australia this year). Matters improved somewhat in the second race, with Scheckter picking up a solitary point for 6th, while Schumacher brought his Ferrari home in 2nd to register his first points of the season.

At least Schumacher has not had to contend with driving an outdated car for the first few races of 1999, as Scheckter did at the start of his championship year. Lotus had dominated the season with the radical ground-effect Lotus 79, and as rival teams developed their own second-generation ground effect cars, Ferrari were in danger of being left behind. The new Ferrari 312 T4 couldn’t come soon enough.

When the new car did arrive on the scene for the third round of the championship in South Africa, the impact was immediate. From second and third on the grid, the Ferraris blitzed the opposition, Gilles Villeneuve heading Scheckter home for a Ferrari 1-2. After a slow start, the Ferrari championship challenge was back on track.

Schumacher, too, was back on course in the third round of the championship, dominating the San Marino GP to give Ferrari their first Imola win for 16 years. A sublime performance at Monaco brought Schumacher another ten points.

The fourth round of the 1979 Championship was a street race at Long Beach, USA. The 312 T4s proved durable as well as quick to score the second consecutive 1-2 for Ferrari, Villeneuve again edging out Scheckter. The Ligier-Ford of Patrick Depailler interrupted Ferrari’s run of wins in the fifth round in 1979 with Scheckter trailing home 4th at Jarama, Spain. This year’s fifth race in Spain also proved a disappointment for Schumacher, though third place at Barcelona was enough to maintain his championship lead.

However, rounds 6 and 7 really cemented Scheckter’s challenge for the championship, with consecutive wins at Zolder in Belgium and in Monaco. Schumacher’s championship, by comparison, has suffered a couple of set backs. The Canadian Grand Prix ended in the wall, while two points for fifth place was a disappointing haul from the French Grand Prix.

There are parallels between Scheckter’s championship year and the first part of Schumacher’s 1999 campaign. Both drivers failed to score in the opening round, and both men saw their team-mates win first. And in 1979 and 1999, the Ferrari team leader won convincingly at Monaco.

Crucially, however, after 7 rounds of the championship Scheckter held a lead he was never to lose, while at the same stage of the season Schumacher is eight points adrift of the championship lead. Michael still has his work cut out if he wants to match the achievements of 20 years ago.