Simon Taylor

Whatever anyone says, passion wins races. Motorsport is not, and never has been, a cold-blooded affair. But in the super-cool world of today’s F1, just try and find someone who’ll admit it.

Every driver, before his home race, gets asked the standard questions by the journalists and TV reporters: what does it mean to you to race here, how much extra can you dig out of yourself in front of your fans, what’s it worth in seconds per lap to be willed on by a cheering crowd. And most of them will answer that it makes no difference at all. I’m a professional, and every time I get in a racing car I’m as motivated as it’s possible to be, whatever the race, wherever the track. It makes no difference if the crowd are waving their flags for me or if the grandstands are empty and silent.

Sorry, but I don’t believe it. Just as I don’t believe that a great actor will give his finest performance to an empty theatre, or that a great diva’s most memorable notes will echo round a deserted auditorium.

So when Michael Schumacher sat on the Imola grid, confronting the two silver McLarens filling the front row ahead of him, he must have felt even if he didn’t look at and couldn’t hear the walls of people all the way to Tamburello and crammed onto the hillside above Rivazza, to a man wearing red caps with his name on and waving flags bearing the prancing horse insignia of his car. He’s a Ferrari driver: regardless of his nationality, this was his home race.

As it was for Eddie Irvine, sharing the second row with him. There were four Italians in the race, two of them driving for Italian or semi-Italian teams: but I saw no flags waving for Fisichella, or Zanardi, nor heard the stands erupt when a Benetton or a Minardi came out of the pits. In Ferrari country, Ferraris are all that matter.

It was no different for Nigel Mansell at Silverstone, when his glory was at its height Nigel always acknowledged that the fans raised his motivation, and in front of his home crowd we always saw him at his charging best. The 1987 British Grand Prix, when he came back from an unscheduled pitstop to sell Nelson Piquet a 180-mph dummy into Stowe, was one of his finest days, even if the crowd’s invasive antics afterwards were more what one would expect at a football match. Damon Hill in 1994 and John Watson in 1981 have also tasted the adulation of the Silverstone crowd – Wattie was still signing autographs at 9pm – although Johnny Herbert’s heartwarming win in 1995 seemed to take them more by surprise.

The typical Schumacher fan in Germany, at least in its Hockenheim habitat, is a cruder beast, and curiously Michael has in recent years not had his best races there. Nevertheless, the crowd’s echoing roar in that immense stadium is an astonishing sound. Jochen Mass swears that, bursting into the stadium after making up a place through the forest, he could hear above his engine the patriotic shout of the crowd that greeted him.

But in Italy the extraordinary chemistry between il cavallino rampante and the tifosi has played its role many times. In 1988 McLaren came to Monza in a position of greater F1 domination than any team in 35 years. Ferrari, on the other hand, hadn’t won an Italian Grand Prix for almost a decade. Sure enough Senna had the race wrapped up when, with two laps to go, he unaccountably tripped over backmarker Jean-Louis Schlesser, and left the race to Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto in a glorious Ferrari 1-2. As this happened just weeks after Enzo Ferrari’s death, it was hard to escape the feeling that the crowd’s pulsating will had brought down posthumous assistance from the Old Man, to create a useful little misunderstanding between the enraged Brazilian and the hapless Frenchman.

That incident came back to me the other weekend at Imola. McLaren’s San Marino strategy was to have Mika Hakkinen on a two-stop race and David Coulthard on a one-stop, to cover whatever Ferrari’s wily Ross Brawn might come up with for his boy. Mika accordingly rushed away at uncatchable speed, using his light fuel load to build a big lead, while the heavier-fuelled David held second and looked after Schumacher. But, as the crowd cheered and waved and jumped, Hakkinen made a surprising and completely untypical mistake. He rode the kerb coming out of the Variante Bassa, as he always did, but this time the tail stepped out. He corrected, the car snapped the other way and speared the wall. Mika had no tales, no excuses: it was his fault, and with a rueful grimace he said so.

But Ferrari could not trust to the tifosi will to produce a similar change of fortune for Coulthard. Instead it needed Brawn’s brain. He and Schumi had worked out a cunning plan: start the Ferrari with enough fuel to get to half distance, but decide what to do for the rest of the race once they’d worked out what McLaren’s strategy was. And with Hakkinen gone, it was just DC they needed to second-guess.

The key for Schumacher was to stay with Coulthard in the first half: He did this brilliantly, closing on the McLaren to within little more than a second until, precisely at half-distance, he dived into the pits. That was when Brawn decided to gamble on Plan B, and move Schumacher onto a two-stop strategy. The Ferrari was given no more fuel than would occupy 6.5 stationary seconds. It was in the pitlane, from the line at one end to the line at the other, for just 23.9s.

Four laps later Coulthard came in, and was fed enough fuel to get him through the remaining 27 laps. So he was stationary for almost nine seconds, and his total time in the pitlane was 26.2s. And, as he moved away from his pit, thumb on the rev-limiter button to avoid breaking the pitlane speed limit, Schumacher went past into the lead.

No doubt McLaren had rumbled Ferrari’s game: because of the speed of Schumacher’s pitstop, they must have guessed he’d need a second stop for more fuel. But the Ferrari was lighter at this point than the McLaren, and Schumacher was wringing the maximum out of it. The crowd began to sniff a Ferrari victory.

This was when David needed pile on the pressure, to deny Schumacher the time for his second stop. If he’d just been able to stay close to Michael he would have won the race. But he couldn’t. As he complained bitterly later, he was unlucky with traffic, even getting on the grass trying to bully past Panis’ Prost – which sent Ron Dennis down the pitlane for an angry word with his ex-employee. But Michael seemed to have less problem scything through the same back-markers.

So, rather than shrinking, the gap between them grew, from 5.3s to 9.2s, to 13.1s, and then to more than 20s. Schumacher was on the limit everywhere, lap after lap, driving as much with his heart as with his head: a classic display of joyful attack. With 18 laps to go he went round in 1m28.547s, two-thirds of a second faster than Coulthard’s best lap of the race. The cushion had been built.

A lap later the Ferrari made its second stop, and got out again with 5s to spare, still leading. It was a strategic masterpiece, made possible by the genius that is M Schumacher. And, if ever a crowd’s support spurred on a driver to greater efforts, it did so here.

Taking the flag, Michael’s joy at beating a McLaren in a straight fight was unbounded. Now he let himself think consciously about that delirious crowd, yelling their approval for the first Ferrari win at Imola for 16 years. “It was a great feeling,” he said, “delivering their wish after such a long time. On my slowing-down lap I went very slow to take in the emotion. I looked into the faces of the people.”

This was no longer the super-cool professional. This was someone who could share the crowd’s delight. And you couldn’t help feeling, with Mika’s accident and the way the traffic fell for David, that the will of the tifosi had once again done its bit.

In some future TV-ruled era, when the public aren’t allowed in, when the grandstands have gone and the only spectators are the cameras beaming their digital message to paying customers around the world, will a future Schumacher’s appetite be quite so hungry for that final extra bit of charge to achieve the impossible? Would Che gelida manina sound as good if La Scala, Milan were empty?