By Andrew Benson
Ferrari's abject results so far this season have tempted many observers of Formula One to believe the world champions will play no major role in the 2005 title battle.
Sitting pretty: Is Schumacher poised for a return to the winners' circle?
But Michael Schumacher is poised to turn those perceptions around at this weekend's European Grand Prix.
The world champion has not won a race since last August - but a change to F1's qualifying rules for Sunday's race at the Nurburgring could well change all that.
F1 introduced an aggregate qualifying system for the first time this season - with a driver's time in the first session on Saturday afternoon being added to that from Sunday morning's second hour.
This system has hurt Ferrari badly for two inter-related reasons:
Their Bridgestone tyres are not as competitive as Michelin tyres over a single flying lap.
- The Bridgestones are particularly uncompetitive when Ferrari are running a low fuel load, as was necessary in the Saturday session.
That has meant Schumacher's qualifying pace has been as much as two seconds slower than he can lap consistently in a race with more fuel in the car.
So Schumacher's races have repeatedly been hampered by being trapped behind slower cars while either Renault's Fernando Alonso or - more recently - Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren have disappeared into the distance at the front.
Alonso and Raikkonen can expect opposition from Ferrari on Sunday
But the aggregate qualifying system has been scrapped, leaving just a single session on Saturday afternoon, with drivers not allowed to refuel between qualifying and race.
The rule change does not remove all of Ferrari's problems in qualifying - the Bridgestones still work at their best after a number of flat-out laps rather than on the first.
But having to qualify on a race fuel load means that Ferrari will not have the handicap of a low-fuel lap from Saturday to exacerbate their difficulties.
And it would allow Ferrari to run a lighter fuel load than their rivals in qualifying to ensure they are closer to the front, even if that means making a first pit stop earlier than would be ideal.
This is unlikely to result in Schumacher qualifying on pole, but it will probably allow him to line up several places higher than he has done so far this season.
And that could spell trouble for his rivals - even Raikkonen, who has demonstrated such stunning pace in recent races.
Schumacher's potential race pace was demonstrated last weekend in Monaco - to those who paid attention, in any case.
The world champion was involved in a crash that brought out the safety car - but rejoined, a lap down, right behind leader Raikkonen.
Despite a much heavier fuel load, Schumacher was able to keep up with the McLaren, suggesting that for a similar fuel load the Ferrari was nearly a second a lap faster than the McLaren.
Had Schumacher been able to unleash that pace from a position near the front of the grid, in the mix with Raikkonen and the Renault drivers, that speed would have been more than enough to win the race.
Of course, it is unlikely to be as straightforward as that.
Ferrari should now be better able to demonstrate their true potential
At Monaco, Schumacher's pace compared to his rivals slowed again as his fuel load came down.
Should this happen again at the Nurburgring this weekend, the pace of the front-runners will see-saw dramatically throughout the race.
That should lead to a tense and exciting afternoon - albeit a worrying one for Alonso and Raikkonen.
And should Ferrari emerge as genuine contenders again, it will add yet another layer of intrigue to a season already emerging as one of the best for years.