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Schumacher can make 2006 season stand out
Alan Baldwin | March 08, 2006 17:06 IST
The Formula One season starting in Bahrain on Sunday could be one of the most memorable in motor racing history.
Significant rule changes, new faces, the youngest defending champion in Renault's 24-year-old Fernando Alonso and what looks on paper like being one of the closest title battles in years are all part of it.
Yet the key figure, the driver who could make 2006 stand out forever even if he fails to win a race, is still Michael Schumacher.
At some point in the coming months, the most successful and dominant driver in the 56-year existence of the Formula One world championship will decide whether or not he wants to continue racing.
It could be that the world has just 18 more chances to witness the Ferrari great in full flow before people start to reminisce about his era and wonder whether his like will ever be seen again.
One of those races, although not his favourite Spa-Francorchamps track now that the Belgian Grand Prix has been cancelled this year, could serve as a backdrop for the German's final victory.
It could equally be that there is more life than people imagine in the oldest driver on the grid and that, even at 37 and in his 16th season, Schumacher can claim that unprecedented eighth title.
Briton Nigel Mansell, the former Ferrari driver who won his title with Williams in 1992 at the age of 39, believes he can. "Ferrari look as though they should be stronger," he told the Times newspaper last week.
"I think Michael is ready and could win another championship."
Schumacher, whose only win last year was a hollow victory at the six-car U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis after winning 13 of the 18 races in 2004, sees four teams challenging for supremacy in a year that also celebrates the 100th anniversary of the first automobile grand prix.
"Renault is still making the best impression so far, followed by Honda, Mercedes (McLaren) and ourselves," he said on his website.
For the first time since 2000, the word 'ourselves' refers to a new Ferrari line-up with Brazilian Felipe Massa replacing compatriot Rubens Barrichello.
Alonso, winner of seven races in 2005, has all the confidence of a man who has made his dream come true and, despite immense expectations at home in Spain, will have less pressure than last year.
He is one of a select handful of drivers to know exactly what his future holds, having agreed a three-year contract with McLaren from 2007.
Finland's Kimi Raikkonen, who also won seven times last year for McLaren, could be distracted by speculation about whether he will stay and become Alonso's team mate or step into Schumacher's shoes at Ferrari.
Raikkonen will also have to contend with a fired-up team mate in Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, who knows three into two does not go and that beating the Finn represents the best way to maintain his market value.
There will be another battle to relish at Honda, the renamed BAR team, with experienced race winner Barrichello lined up alongside Jenson Button.
The Briton has now started 100 races without a win but, with Honda setting the pace for much of the winter, that run could end sooner rather than later.
The new season also sees fundamental change.
Apart from new team names -- with BMW buying Sauber, Red Bull taking over Minardi and renaming them Scuderia Toro Rosso and Midland replacing Jordan -- there are also newcomers in 11th team Super Aguri.
Three rookies, including the first U.S. driver in 13 years, make the starting grid.
Californian Scott Speed, at Toro Rosso, is joined by Germany's Nico Rosberg -- son of 1982 world champion Keke -- at Williams and Japan's Yuji Ide at Super Aguri in the first all-Japanese line-up.
The biggest change of all however is the reduction of engine capacity from three litre V10s to 2.4 litre V8s, although Toro Rosso will continue with restricted V10s.
There is also be a new three-part knockout qualifying format, with the cars whittled down to the fastest 10 on track together in a battle for pole position, and a return to tyre changes during the race.
Off the track, there could also be a solution to the long-running battle between the carmakers and commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone that would end any threat of a rival championship from 2007.
If that were to happen, it would be a truly memorable year indeed for the sport.
Formula One: The Complete Coverage