SAO PAULO: Brazil marked a turning point for Ferrari's world champion Michael Schumacher last year and it could do so again this weekend in the 700th Grand Prix in Formula One history.
The German has yet to appear on the podium after two races this year, and has made rare errors in his worst ever start to a Formula One season, while McLaren emerged triumphant from Australia and Malaysia.
The heat is being turned up on the five times world champion but he can take comfort in the recent past.
Last year, he arrived at Interlagos after younger brother Ralf had led Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya in a Williams one-two in Malaysia, triggering excited talk about the team becoming real title challengers.
Ferrari hit back by hurrying their new F2002 into service for Schumacher, who produced the perfect reply by winning the race for the fourth time.
He ended the season with a record 11 wins and the F2002, still in service this weekend as Ferrari delay rolling out their new F2003-GA, was beaten only once in 2002. Williams did not win another race.
Sunday's Grand Prix at Interlagos could be Schumacher's last appearance in the F2002 and he will be eager to show that the first two races had more to do with misfortune and mistakes than the new qualifying regulations.
“It was the same last year, no-one believed that we could win at Interlagos,” he said this week. “But, in the end, the race went in our favour, but it was close and we weren't the fastest.
“In a way the situation this year is the same: It will be hard, but we can do it.”
Schumacher reminded the fans that Ferrari had the fastest car on the track in Australia and both he and Brazilian team mate Rubens Barrichello set the quickest lap times in Malaysia.
Barrichello at least finished second at Sepang, sandwiched between Finnish winner Kimi Raikkonen and Renault's young Spaniard Fernando Alonso.
The Brazilian, level on points with Schumacher, has his own personal mission after failing to finish his home race for the last eight years in a row.
Ayrton Senna was the last Brazilian driver to win at Interlagos and none has scored a point in Brazil since the great champion was killed at Imola in 1994.
McLaren's David Coulthard, winner against the odds in Australia, will be hoping to regain the championship lead from Raikkonen at the circuit where he won in 2001 and scored his first points of 2002.
Raikkonen has yet to score a point in Brazil.
Montoya, on pole last year and popular race leader the year before, returns in search of his first win since his debut victory at the 2001 Italian Grand Prix.
“Brazil is the closest thing to a home race for me,” said the Colombian. “It is geographically close, but it is also culturally and socially similar.
“Whether it is the people, the heavy traffic or the atmosphere and, of course, the enthusiasm of the fans, it reminds me of home.”
Renault, who swept the front row in Malaysia with Alonso becoming the youngest driver ever to start on pole, are also confident they can make another strong showing.
“I think we'll be very competitive in Brazil,” said technical director Mike Gascoyne.
“We've got new aerodynamic parts, it's a circuit we've gone well at, both drivers are very confident and quite rightly so.”
Jordan, yet to score points this year, hope to get their campaign up and running in their 200th race while Brazilian rookies Cristiano da Matta and Antonio Pizzonia make their home debuts for Toyota and Jaguar respectively. – Reuters