F1 teams looking to beat Schumacher
24 February 2004
HAMBURG – The new Formula One season starts on 7 March with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne and includes a set of rule changes designed to cut costs and raise excitement.
Many racing fans also hope that the rule changes will further close the gap on reigning world champion Michael Schumacher of Ferrari, who last season claimed a record-breaking sixth world title.
The introduction in 2003 by the ruling body FIA of one lap qualifying and the ban on driver’s aids were seen as pivotal in closing the gap on the Italian marque and making last year’s championship the most exciting in years.
Schumacher only claimed the title ahead of McLaren-Mercedes driver Kimi Raikkonen by finishing ninth in the final race of the season, the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka.
This could be the final chance for Raikkonen’s team-mate David Coulthard to claim a world title. The Scot will be replaced by Williams driver Juan Pablo Montoya at McLaren in 2005 but will be confident of challenging this season in the new McLaren MP4-19.
However, Raikkonen, who only finished two points behind Schumacher despite racing with McLaren’s 2002 car, will be the favourite of the pair to overtake the German this season if, as the 24-year-old Finn hopes, the new MP4-19 lives up to expectations.
Meanwhile, the other main team challenging Schumacher and Ferrari – Williams-BMW – have yet to solve ongoing internal problems with driver Ralf Schumacher.
Schumacher has said he is prepared to join Montoya and leave the team at the end of this season if stalled talks on a new contract are not resolved.
But team boss Frank Williams seems intent on seeing whether Ralf can mount a credible challenge for the world championship before offering him a new contract.
The ongoing weakness of the US dollar, combined with the astronomical cost of running a Formula One team has made cost-cutting one of the priorities of the 2004 season for even the larger teams.
The most significant change introduced by the ruling body FIA this year is that a driver has to use the same engine from the start of practice Friday until the end of the grand prix weekend.
This move is intended to help especially the smaller teams such as Jordan and Minardi reduce costs over time.
However, it also means that should a driver crash in qualifying, his team would have to change the engine into the spare car to avoid incurring a penalty of dropping 10 places on the starting grid.
The introduction of the single engine rule has meant that Renault have put reliability before performance when developing its new R24 car.
Renault believe the R24 has the potential to improve throughout the season while, in driver Fernando Alonso, they have one of the hottest properties in Formula One.
Any benefits accruing from the introduction of the single engine rule will probably be wiped out if the drop in the value of the US dollar continues.
According to the German business magazine Focus-Money, Formula One teams could lose over USD 100 million (EUR 80 million) this season due to the diminishing value of the American currency and the fact that sponsors pay for their contracts in dollars.
This would mean that Ferrari, who have won the last three drivers’ titles with Schumacher and the last four constructors’ titles, will be competing with a budget that is USD 40 million lower than in 2003.
McLaren and Renault will each have to compete with USD 25 million less, Williams 15 million less and Sauber 10 million.
Add to this the extra cost of competing in Bahrain and China for the first time – Williams estimated the extra costs at USD 1.8 million – and it’s not surprising even F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone has spoken out on the issue.
“We’ve got to reduce costs dramatically. We have to for the survival of F1,” he said.
Meanwhile Schumacher appears as eager as ever to show his rivals that he is still the best driver in the business no matter what the global economy or FIA can throw at him.
“I am 35 years old now and appear to be like a good bottle of wine, the older the better,” the German star said.
“I want to win the title again. I am ready. We are all ready for the new challenge.”
Subject: German news