Sun, Mar 09, 2003 - Page 24 News List

Schumacher doesn't like rule changes

STRESSING SKILL In an effort to put the race on a more equal footing, officials have decided to clamp down on high-tech additions to the cars

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE AND REUTERS , MELBOURNE

When the 20-engine Formula One orchestra fires up for its first symphony today in Melbourne, Australia, there will be no sound like it on earth. Over the course of the season, the familiar crescendos and diminuendos of the cars will sound subtly different.

In important ways this season Formula One is changing its tune, putting the emphasis back on the driver and away from the car.

Although Formula One has a larger worldwide audience than any other form of auto racing, and is the world's third most watched sporting event after the Olympics and World Cup soccer, its ratings showed signs of decline in the second half of last season. That, combined with economic hard times, fed a decline in sponsorship -- the series' lifeblood.

The International Automobile Federation, known as FIA, the sport's governing body, reacted with a sweeping rewrite and reinterpretation of the rules to lower costs and improve the show.

Formula One remains unique in motor racing, since every team still builds its own car. To design, build and race such cars, teams require up to 500 people. Not surprisingly, no other series has as much money attached to it. Where the average NASCAR Winston Cup team can take part in the 36-race season for about US$9 million, and the top teams spend up to US$15 million, Ferrari spends up to US$300 million for the 16-race season.

But Ferrari's technical domination, which has made the team the winner of the last four constructors' titles, has caused many spectators to perceive Formula One as a predictable affair where technology, rather than driving skill, reigns.

Many of FIA's new measures aim to reduce the amount of electronics in cars to ensure that the best driver wins, and to reduce technology costs. Starting with the British Grand Prix on July 20, for instance, traction control, launch control and automatic gearboxes will be banned. Also, race qualifying has been tweaked and expanded to make grid positions less predictable by requiring each driver to set his time on only one fast lap.

Michael Schumacher, who dominated last year's series for Ferrari, said the changes will make no difference in the outcome, but regrets the loss of his high-tech toy.

"I am not such a big fan of the changes," said Schumacher, who has raced in Formula One since 1991 -- with and without electronic aids. "I like the challenge of driving the car with electronic aids, because you can get closer to perfection. I don't think the rule changes will have much effect on the top drivers, but some of the younger, less experienced ones might find it more difficult. Also, not having traction control can be dangerous in the wet."

Schumacher roared to pole position for today's Australian Grand Prix as Formula One's rules revolution threw up a familiar Ferrari front row sweep.

Schumacher, winner in Melbourne for the past three years, clocked a fastest lap of one minute 27.173 seconds under the new single-shot qualifying format to start the season just as he finished the last -- leading the field.

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