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Bahrain fired up for F1 debut

Alan Baldwin | March 31, 2004 19:34 IST

The riddle of the sands is keeping Michael Schumacher and the rest of Formula One guessing as they prepare for a landmark race in Bahrain on Sunday.

The first Grand Prix in the Middle East could see Ferrari's six times world champion celebrate a third straight win after he followed up a runaway success in Australia with a narrower victory in Malaysia.

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But while Bahrain has created a stunning oasis in the desert south of the capital Manama, sinking $150 million into the state-of-the-art Sakhir circuit, nature could still have the final say.

Some suspect Sunday's race could even turn into a lottery.

"The big question mark in Bahrain is the sand," said Schumacher this week, focusing on sporting matters after dismissing concerns about security -- which will in any case be tight -- in the Gulf kingdom.

"Everyone's wondering what effect it will have, whether the sand will get into the works or not."

Organisers have sprayed a special glue over sand around the circuit to prevent it damaging engines and reducing grip but Sunday still promises to be the toughest race yet for the 10 teams.

Whereas teams held back in practice for the first two races to save their engines under new regulations limiting drivers to one per weekend, they may have to run harder and longer in Bahrain to learn the lie of the land.

That, coupled with high temperatures, could increase the risk of a costly engine failure.

NEW FACES

Bahrain is one of two steps into uncharted territory for Formula One this season -- the other will be China in September -- and the first new race since Malaysia's Sepang circuit made its debut in 1999.

"The third race is probably going to be one of the most interesting yet," said Jaguar managing director Dave Pitchforth. "It is going to be one of the few times that just about all of the teams have no real track data to work from.

"We don't know how our simulations are going to match up. I think there could be a few curve-balls over the weekend."

Williams are the only team to have lapped the circuit in a modern Formula One car, with Spanish test driver Marc Gene doing demonstration runs in last year's FW25 at the official opening this month.

Whatever data they may have gleaned from that can only help Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher narrow the gap at the top.

"Juan Pablo's second place in Malaysia has shown that we are not that far away from Ferrari as we feared," said Ralf. "But there's still a long way to go before we can beat them."

McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen, last season's championship runner-up, has yet to finish this season while his team have not won for more than a year now.

The chances of the Mercedes-powered outfit improving significantly before the return to Europe next month do not look great, with team boss Ron Dennis ruling out any quick fixes after Malaysia.

"I think it's going to take a little more than one race to get into a position of winning but we will get there," he said.

Renault could have a good chance while BAR, who celebrated Briton Jenson Button's first podium finish at Sepang, are sounding confident.

"We go to Bahrain looking for more of the same and see how we go," said 24-year-old Button.


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