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Formula One needs a new spark
November 06, 2004
Imagine the effect on Formula One if world champion Michael Schumacher, rather than younger brother Ralf, had signed for Toyota next season.
Imagine if he were then to win his first race there and go on to clinch the title.
Unthinkable, impossible. But what Italian Valentino Rossi achieved in MotoGP this season after switching from dominant Honda to dormant Yamaha is not far off as a headline-grabber.
Rossi won nine races, compared to Schumacher's 13, but whereas the former held the crowds spellbound, there were sometimes muted yawns for the German's achievements.
One conclusion has to be that dominance and familiarity does not have to be boring and that, while Ferrari fans have had plenty to celebrate in 2004, Formula One is crying out for change.
At a time of widespread gloom and uncertainty, with the headlines focusing on the risk of teams folding and political battles being fought on many levels, the sport could use a shot in the arm.
Schumacher has provided that in the past, evidently a sensation from his first race with Jordan in 1991, battling with the likes of Damon Hill and then switching from Benetton to slumbering Ferrari in 1996 as a champion.
Some people would love to see the German, 36 next year, retire sooner rather than later but he is a rare genius whose talents should be savoured while he is around. All he needs is real competition.
This year's big selling point for Formula One was the promise that the German was vulnerable and a new champion would step up at last.
When it became apparent from the very first race that Ferrari were in a world of their own, interest waned. Jenson Button did what he could but he still does not command the following of a Nigel Mansell or a Damon Hill. For that he needs to be a winner.
Rossi is a winner and Formula One has been looking enviously at the 25-year-old for some time. He has dominated his category and boasts charisma by the bucketload.
The Italian stirred things up and came out on top, winning his first race for Yamaha. No other Yamaha rider came close while the Japanese manufacturer's last victory in the top class was in 2002.
Ralf's move to Toyota and Juan Pablo Montoya's to McLaren from Williams, where he will be the fire to Kimi Raikkonen's ice, will spice up the F1 grid next year but there will still be none of the sheer electricity that charged Rossi's change of allegiance.
Wherever he goes now he is asked about Formula One. But four wheels will have to wait.
"I don't know about my future," Rossi acknowledged after last weekend's season-ender in Spain when the issue came up yet again.
"For sure, I have one more year on my contract with Yamaha and that won't be my last in bikes. After two more years I will decide."
That would take Rossi up to the end of 2006, when Schumacher's Ferrari contract also expires.
"Valentino Rossi at Ferrari? We'll see when he's had enough of winning in motorbikes," FIAT and Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo told Italy's RTL radio this week.
"I think Rossi is a great champion, as the results show. He has time and the will to win a lot more in motorcycling. So we shall see. He is a great champion and Ferrari are always thinking about the future."
Rossi has now won the last four championships in motorcycling's blue riband class and tested a Ferrari in Italy earlier in the year.
Whether he could ever emulate Briton John Surtees, the only man to win world titles on four wheels and two, remains questionable.
Surtees has said he believes now could be the time for Rossi to switch but others have played down the hype.
"Just because he's flamboyant and successful we all get a bit excited at the thought of him going into F1," New Zealander Aaron Slight, a former superbike rider turned touring car racer, told Autosport magazine this week.
"I don't rate his chances that highly because of the nature of the business that surrounds car racing, and particularly F1. The driving itself is less of a problem."
Unthinkable, impossible. But it would certainly be worth watching him try.