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By David Smith, Evening Standa

By David Smith, Evening Standard
28 February 2005

Ferrari have been criticised for making Formula One boring but, at the start of the new season, they are being hailed as sport's greatest ever team.

You would be hard pressed to find a fiercer competitor than Sir Frank Williams. This is a man driven to win, and in order for his cars to take the chequered flag he is zealously careful not to offer an inch of ground, a ***** of light or the merest hint of weakness to pit lane opponents.

Thus it came as something of a shock when, over dinner the other day, Williams spent a few moments considering the recent performances of his own Formula One team with those of arch-rivals Ferrari and concluded: "We've been made to look silly by a team that really is, in my opinion, the greatest sporting unit the world has ever seen."

What, greater than the Real Madrid side of the late fifties led by Alfredo Di Stefano? Greater than the Montreal Canadien ice hockey team that dominated the Stanley Cup in the mid-seventies? Greater than Joe Montana's San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s? Or the West Indies cricket team under Clive Lloyd?

Williams knows his sport and came to the table armed with a strong argument in favour of the team, driven by the brilliant Michael Schumacher, that will open the defence of the Formula One championship at the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday.

"We're talking nearly six years of domination," he said. "And this is the most complicated sport in the world. We're not talking about putting a basketball in a net or hitting a home run with a baseball bat.

"We're talking about a highly complicated sport and they almost never make a mistake. It's really remarkable, and they make the rest of us look like tossers."

Ferrari have reigned supreme in the championship for the past five years. In that time, Germany's Schumacher has won five successive drivers' titles and 48 of 85 races, 11 more than the rest of the grid combined.

The fleet red cars driven by Schumacher and Brazilian sidekick Rubens Barrichello have together claimed 57 victories, more than double the total managed by the rest of the teams down the pit lane.

Perversely, some critics here in the home of motor racing have blamed the Italian outfit for turning Formula One into a high-speed procession more boring than watching traffic jammed on the M25 in the rush hour.

John Surtees cannot understand such crass dismissal of a glorious sporting dynasty.

The last British driver to win a world title in a Ferrari, 41 years ago, and still the only man to claim world titles on two wheels and four,

Surtees said: "Just imagine what we would be saying if Schumacher had been an Englishman, and if his Ferrari had been a British car.

"This is what makes me a little sad. We need to appreciate excellence."

Surtees is still as enthusiastic now at the age of 71 as when he dramatically clinched his championship with Ferrari on the last lap of the last race of the 1964 season in Mexico.

He currently oversees the karting career of 14-year-old son Henry. And he is heading Great Britain's entry into the new A1 World Cup single seater series devised by Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum Al Maktoum of Dubai's ruling family.

But it is his past experience at Ferrari that makes Surtees particularly qualified to identify the secret of the ongoing run of success.

Back in 1964, when Ferrari were as Italian as spaghetti, Surtees knew that to remain competitive the team would have to become more reliant on non-Italian talent and suppliers.

Had Surtees got his way, who knows if he might have made Ferrari just as dominant as they are now? But he admitted: "Back then, this international theme didn't suit everybody. I loved driving for Ferrari. I really believed I was going to be with the team for evermore.

But we were getting sabotaged from within so I walked away.

"What is happening now at Ferrari is what I was trying to achieve back in the sixties. They have harnessed this wonderful ability and enthusiasm which exists in Italy together with the very best of an international team.

"They've taken the best of Italy, the best of Germany, the best of Britain, the best of France and South Africa and formed this incredible team which has stayed together for a long period of time. That is why they're winning."

Schumacher gets the headlines, but he would be left trailing in the slow lane if it wasn't for those who delight in his traditional victory leaps at the top of the podium.

Jean Todt, a busy little Frenchman who guided Peugeot to the world rally championship and the world sportscar title before moving to Ferrari, is the team mastermind.

Todt is so involved that it is said he personally greets every new member of staff at Ferrari's Maranello headquarters, from the aerodynamic specialist to the humble cleaner.

"Todt is a truly outstanding manager," said Williams. "Ferrari work so smoothly because he fixes problems the moment they arise.

"But Ferrari are strong everywhere. Ross Brawn, their technical director, has an outstandingly logical brain, and the designer Rory Byrne just never stops working."

Ferrari have won the season opening Grand Prix five times in the last six years. If they pull it off again at the weekend Williams may well be dining on humble pie for some time to come.
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