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Schumacher leads F1 into unknown
Alan Baldwin | March 03, 2003 11:40 IST
Michael Schumacher will lead Formula One into a brave new world in Melbourne next Sunday when he sets out on the road towards an unprecedented sixth title.
The German has the number one painted on his red Ferrari for the third year in a row but will be racing against a changed backdrop.
The biggest shake-up in a generation has occurred since Schumacher took the final chequered flag of 2002 at Suzuka last October in a record-breaking season of Ferrari dominance.
He may still qualify on pole and disappear into the distance, something of a nightmare scenario for world championship organisers eager to serve up spicier fare to prevent bored television viewers switching off in droves.
He may equally find he has a fight on his hands. 'Expect the unexpected' was always Formula One's motto and it holds true more than ever now.
Points, pole and strategy have all changed as the glamour sport fights to cut costs and recapture hearts and minds after a year of dwindling television audiences and processional finishes.
Qualifying has become a single-lap shootout and teams can no longer work through the night rebuilding cars and engines on the Saturday evening before the race.
'Team orders', of the sort that caused a furore in Austria last year when Brazilian Rubens Barrichello gifted Schumacher victory, are banned and many of the electronic 'driver aids' will suffer the same fate later in the year.
Schumacher must now start the race with whatever fuel remains from qualifying and without recourse to the spare car, unless he crashes his F2002.
The warm-up has gone, along with the old points structure. On Sunday, even the eighth-placed driver will score under a new 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 format.
Not since the death of Brazilian Ayrton Senna in 1994, when safety measures were overhauled, has Formula One witnessed anything like the changes imposed by the governing International Automobile Federation (FIA) this season.
The measures are being challenged by Williams and McLaren, second and third respectively last year and unhappy about perceived 'dumbing down' of the sport, but arbitration will take at least a year.
In the meantime, it is time to go racing.
The first outing of the season is traditionally the time when the bluffing stops and the questions are answered.
This year there are more questions than ever -- how will the new rules work? Will the starting grid throw up an immediate surprise? Can Ferrari be beaten?
"I don't think it has ever been so difficult to predict the outcome of a season's opening race," says Ralf Schumacher, Michael's younger brother whose Williams team hope to be challenging for the title.
"I think the consequences of the rule changes will have a more decisive effect than which team has the fastest car. I genuinely have no idea who will be ahead."
That could well be mere wishful thinking.
Ferrari won 15 of last year's 17 races and, despite there being one less race in 2003 due to the cancellation of the Belgian Grand Prix, all the signs are that Schumacher's supremacy will continue.
The F2002 has been beaten just once since its introduction in Brazil last March and the new F2003-GA, likely to appear for the first time at Imola in April, has been even faster in pre-season testing.
Based on testing times, McLaren seem to have closed the gap even though they will be starting with a modified version of last year's car.
So too do Toyota, already tipped as the likely surprise package of the year after designing a new car along similar lines to the Ferrari F2002.
Williams, with a far more adventurous new car, have warned of aerodynamics problems with the BMW-powered FW25 after posting some disappointing times but can count on Ralf and Juan Pablo Montoya to wring as much speed out of it as possible.
Michael Schumacher, who has led the championship since September 2000 and finished every race on the podium last year, says only time will tell.
"We will only know where we stand after the first couple of races," he said last month. "In testing you never really know if a team has really put its cards on the table or not.
"I dare to say that whoever wants to become world champion has to beat Ferrari first but for sure there will not be the domination that there was in 2002."
Just 20 drivers will start the season following the demise of Arrows, with four new faces -- two Britons and two Brazilians.
Antonio Pizzonia is at Jaguar and Cristiano da Matta, the reigning CART champion, joins Toyota. Justin Wilson, the tallest man on the grid, arrives at Minardi and Ralph Firman takes his bow with Jordan.
Spaniard Fernando Alonso returns to racing with Renault, fourth placed last year and now looking for regular podiums, while Schumacher's Dutch friend Jos Verstappen makes his comeback at Minardi.
For Minardi, short of cash and still without a principal sponsor, just making it through the season will be a success.