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Montoya ready for battle with Schumi

Alan Baldwin | March 03, 2004 19:00 IST

Sunday's Australian Grand Prix cannot come a moment too soon for Williams driver Juan Pablo Montoya.

The fiery Colombian kicked himself for throwing away a sure-fire victory in last year's season-opener, spinning while leading with a mere 10 laps remaining, and now he is determined to set the record straight.

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Montoya, who joins McLaren next season, is a frontrunner to prevent Ferrari's Michael Schumacher from taking a record seventh Formula One title.

But he is just one of a group, including team mate Ralf Schumacher and McLaren's 2003 runner-up Kimi Raikkonen, who sense that the 18 races ahead will crown a new champion after a closer battle than ever.

"I'm going to try to win the championship. It's very straightforward," Montoya told a news conference in Melbourne on Wednesday before storming out when spoof reporters from a satirical television show hijacked it.

"I am very confident going into this season," he said.

"I can't wait for the racing to start again. Winter testing is hard work and not particularly rewarding because you can't tell where you are in relation to the competition."

FERRARI STRONG

The first race marks the point where the talking stops and the racing starts. Sunday could prick a few bubbles of hype and provide a pointer to the real contenders.

It also marks a change in the rules, with a revised qualifying format and engines having to last for a full race weekend with drivers penalised if they have to change them.

"I think that Ferrari are going to be strong again, like every year," said Montoya, who has finished runner-up in Melbourne for the past two seasons.

"Their reliability has always been very impressive, especially Michael's car, and I think that they will be as reliable as us.

"If they are quicker than us in the first race it doesn't mean they are going to win the championship, if we win the first race it doesn't mean that's it," he added.

Schumacher, chasing a fifth championship in a row after being taken down to the wire by Raikkonen last year, sounded just as confident.

"I am as hungry as at the start of my career and want to win the title again. I am ready," said the 35-year-old German.

"I feel fresh. I feel as motivated as ever," added the winner of three of the last four races in Melbourne. "Every time I sit in a racing car, I feel more than good. To be honest, I am feeling much younger than I actually am."

Raikkonen has been on the podium in Melbourne, where he scored a point on his debut in 2001, for the last two years.

"I am fitter and more motivated than ever for this season so I'm confident we will be able to fight for victories from the start," said the 24-year-old Finn.

British team mate David Coulthard won in Melbourne last year, his second victory at the circuit, and has plenty to prove as he seeks a new home for 2005.

Outside the top three teams, Spaniard Fernando Alonso's Renault and Briton Jenson Button's BAR have caught the eye most in winter testing and a podium for either cannot be ruled out.

Local hopes will focus on Jaguar's Australian driver Mark Webber, a revelation last season when he scored 17 of the team's 18 points but unlikely to make the top three.

Three rookies will make their debuts -- Austrian Christian Klien at Jaguar and Italians Giorgio Pantano and Gianmaria Bruni at Jordan and Minardi respectively.


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