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Raikkonen threatens Schumacher's reign

February 26, 2004 11:32 IST
Formula One 'Iceman' Kimi Raikkonen could become the youngest champion in the sport's history this season.

All the 24-year-old McLaren driver has to do is push Ferrari's Michael Schumacher off the throne and end a remarkable reign that started before the Finn first stepped into a grand prix car.

Kimi RaikkonenThe same goes for Renault's Spanish charger Fernando Alonso, still just 22 but already the youngest race winner and definitely one to watch when the season roars into action in Australia on March 7.

Schumacher won his first title in 1994 at the age of 25, barely older than Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi who remains the youngest champion at 25 years and 274 days.

He has been the number one since 2000 and will be chasing an unprecedented seventh title this season. The task for Raikkonen, who made his debut in the same Australian race as Alonso in 2001, will be far from simple.

But nobody doubts that the unflappable Finn, last year's runner-up, and the supremely gifted Spaniard both have what it takes to reach the top.

The question is: 'When?'

Schumacher's team mate Rubens Barrichello saw the writing on the wall when he joined both youngsters on the victory podium at last year's Malaysian Grand Prix with Raikkonen winning and Alonso third.

"I think both are future world champions," said the Brazilian, who made his own Formula One debut when Alonso was just 11 years old and Raikkonen barely a teenager. "I just hope I can win the world championship before them."


Hope springs eternal but, with Schumacher under contract to Ferrari until the end of 2006, the odds favour the young guns getting there first.

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Williams pairing of Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya will be formidable and Briton David Coulthard can never be counted out at McLaren, particularly now that his Formula One future could be at stake.

Yet many people see Raikkonen, who turns 25 in the week before the last race of the season in Brazil, as the favourite after he took Schumacher down to the wire in 2003.

The Finn could have Alonso snapping at his heels and BAR's 24-year-old Briton Jenson Button joining them as a potential race winner.

"I think Michael is going to have to struggle to win the championship this year and I think we are going to have a very, very close championship," said Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone this month.

"For my dollar, for what it's worth, I think I'd back Kimi Raikkonen."

The Finn has done his best to dampen down the enthusiasm, muttering about his car's lack of power earlier this month and questioning reliability after a strong showing before the Christmas break.

"I don't have big expectations for the start of the season, but only in Melbourne will we know where we are," he told Italy's Gazzetta dello Sport.

"Melbourne is a track that I like but the result will depend on the car. If it gets to the finish then I think I can get a good result.

"At the moment it seems unlikely that we'll be able to finish the race," he added. But rivals may choose to take that with a pinch of salt, particularly after Raikkonen set a lap record in testing in Valencia.


Alonso should pick up another win or two. Renault have impressed their rivals with their reliability and speed in testing and a championship challenge from the French manufacturer cannot be ruled out.

To many it seemed that a symbolic baton was passed between the generations when Alonso lapped Schumacher in Hungary last August on his way to becoming the youngest race winner at 22 years and 27 days old.

His pole in Malaysia had already made him the youngest driver to start a race from that position.

He is a flat-out racer, impressive in his consistency but still with plenty to learn.

"I feel better, I feel stronger and for 2004 I'm sure I will be a better driver than I was last season," he said recently.

"I know every time you have a good result, the people expect a little bit more from you. You have a bit more pressure. But for me, it is the same. I am approaching 2004 in the same way as I approached last year."

The same could not be said of Button, now BAR's team leader on the track after the departure of Canadian former champion Jacques Villeneuve.

The Briton, replaced by Alonso at Renault at the end of 2002 and now about to start his fifth season in Formula One, is looking forward to making some headlines.

"If I don't get a podium this year, there will be something very wrong," he said confidently.

Alan Baldwin
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