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Alonso chasing elusive hat-trick

Last updated on: March 09, 2007 12:23 IST

Formula One's new post-Schumacher era opens in Australia next week, with Spaniard Fernando Alonso chasing a place among the true giants of the sport.

Only two men in very different eras, Ferrari's now-retired seven times world champion Michael Schumacher and the late Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio have won three titles or more in a row, Schumacher from 2000 to 2004 and Fangio from 1954 to 1957.

And only Fangio won successive championships with different teams.

Alonso, beginning a new chapter in his own already glittering career with the switch from Renault to success-starved McLaren, hopes to join them.

"To win one (title) may have meant you had the best car that year, to win two I feel is a great achievement," the 25-year-old, Formula One's youngest champion, said on the McLaren Web site.

"But to win another, all the big names in the sport and the drivers we remember won three or more world titles.

"If you ask me which is more important, winning three titles with one team or two with different teams, then the answer is easy."

The reality is likely to be far harder. The hat-trick may prove a step too far.

While former champions McLaren -- without a title since 1999 -- seek to re-establish themselves as pace-setters after failing to win a race last year for the first time in a decade, Ferrari are looking ominously quick.

Kimi Raikkonen, one of two Finns stepping into the shoes of champions with rookie Heikki Kovalainen replacing Alonso at Renault, has taken over from Schumacher as the man to lead Ferrari back to the top.

Despite his raw speed he will still find Brazilian Felipe Massa, quickest throughout the final pre-season test in Bahrain, a far from easy team mate to beat.

HAMILTON DEBUT

Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone has already tipped Massa to win the title this year and become Brazil's first champion since the late Ayrton Senna.

He should certainly add to his tally of victories, just as Briton Lewis Hamilton could be the first rookie race winner since Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya in 2001 -- the man he effectively replaces at McLaren.

The 22-year-old's debut is one of the most eagerly awaited of recent years, with Hamilton taking the sport in an exciting new direction as the first black driver.

"Lewis is almost certainly going to win a Grand Prix this year," 1996 champion and compatriot Damon Hill told reporters this week.

Kovalainen, elevated from the role of Renault test driver following Alonso's departure, is another possible rookie winner even if his team say they are behind Ferrari and McLaren on performance.

"It will be harder for us than it has been in the last couple of years but we'll be there to fight," said Renault engineering head Pat Symonds.

"In the last two years, Renault have had a great start to the season but as the year has progressed others have caught up and it will happen again with Ferrari."

ALL CHANGE

BMW Sauber are the pre-season favourites for most improved team of the year while former champions Williams, having slumped to their worst showing in 30 years, must surely climb back up the starting grid from eighth place.

Honda, winners with Briton Jenson Button in Hungary last August, have stripped all the sponsorship off their car and replaced the advertising with a large image of the Earth photographed from space to raise awareness of global warming.

While that makes a change from promising the earth, or the moon, their car has not looked anywhere near as competitive as they had hoped.

Red Bull have a new Renault-powered car designed by championship-winning boffin Adrian Newey.

But that has already sparked a controversy, with rivals saying the car designed for sister team Toro Rosso is in breach of the regulations -- a problem tail-enders Super Aguri have with their Honda-look-alike.

Even if we must wait until March 18 to find out who is hot and who is not, one thing is certain -- the winner in Melbourne will be Bridgestone.

The Formula One 'Tyre War' which has been such a big, if unglamorous, part of the sport is over, with Michelin pulling out at the end of last year and leaving their Japanese rivals as sole suppliers.

There are no new races, with the calendar instead trimmed from 18 to 17 with the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola disappearing and the Nuerburgring and Hockenheim now hosting the German Grand Prix in alternate years.

Belgium returns after a year out and the Japanese Grand Prix switches to Fuji from Suzuka.

Alan Baldwin
Source:
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