Sat, Feb 28, 2004 - Page 18 News List

New season shaping up to be Schumacher's toughest

REUTERS , LONDON

Michael Schumacher's days as Formula One world champion could be numbered.

His rivals, past and present, suspect that the season starting in Australia on March 7 could witness a scenario in which Ferrari and their 35-year-old German driver are no longer the kings of the road.

"I think Michael probably won't be champion in 2004," says Finland's former champion Mika Hakkinen, who has fought some memorable duels with the German.

"I think that we will definitely have a new champion this year," offers Jaguar's Australian driver Mark Webber. "One of the Williams drivers or Kimi [Raikkonen] will probably win the championship."

"For my dollar, for what it's worth, I think I'd back Kimi Raikkonen," said Formula One's commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone, owner of several billion dollars.

Schumacher was taken right down to the wire by McLaren `Iceman' Raikkonen last year before taking the sixth title that powered him past the late Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio in the record books.

The German has been champion since 2000, before drivers such as Raikkonen or Renault's 22-year-old Spaniard Fernando Alonso made their grand prix debuts, and will not be dethroned without a fight.

He may be beaten this year, with Williams' Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya burning to take the crown with him to McLaren next season, but do not bank on it.

Schumacher has seen off a generation of drivers and starts the season as the only champion on the grid, after the departure of Canadian Jacques Villeneuve, and the sole remnant from the class of 1991.

He now has 70 wins and needs just 10 more pole positions to match the late Brazilian Ayrton Senna's record of 65.

"I am as hungry as at the start of my career and want to win the title again. I am ready. We are all ready for the new challenge," said Schumacher this week.

Last year was tough and 2004 promises to be tougher.

Williams, McLaren, Renault and BAR have all shown an impressive turn of speed in testing while new regulations limiting drivers to one engine per race weekend will put a premium on reliability.

Any driver who has to have an engine changed before qualifying will lose 10 places on the starting grid.

There is also a revamped qualifying format, with one expanded session on the Saturday replacing the previous two over two days.

Fans will get more action than ever before with the season stretching to 18 races and new circuits in Bahrain and China.

Villeneuve, Germany's Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Dutchman Jos Verstappen are among the familiar faces to have disappeared while Austrian Christian Klien makes his entrance at Jaguar.

Italy has two rookies with Giorgio Pantano at Jordan and Gianmaria Bruni at Minardi while Toyota have made probably the most important signing of the off-season by luring technical director Mike Gascoyne from Renault.

Schumacher, who likens himself to a fine wine maturing steadily as the years go by, says he is ready for action. His testing times, including a lap record at Italy's Imola circuit this week, testify to that.

"I feel fresh. I feel as motivated as ever," he said. "Every time I sit in a racing car, I feel more than good. To be honest, I am feeling much younger than I actually am."

"We feel well prepared to go to Melbourne," he added. "We have had some good testing this week ... we have no particular worries about the car.

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