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Now or never for younger Schumi

Published on 04/03/2004

4 March 2004

MELBOURNE – The first race of the 2004 Formula One season, the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, takes place Sunday with world champion Michael Schumacher and his Ferrari team again favourites to sweep all before them.

Schumacher claimed a record sixth world title last season while the Italian marque registered its fifth constructors’ title in a row, although Ferrari was pushed closer by main rivals Williams-BMW and McLaren-Mercedes than in recent years.

Only 16 points separated the top three teams in the constructors’ championship and Schumacher needed a ninth place finish in the final grand prix of the season at Suzuka to finally overcome the challenge of McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen in the drivers’ standings by two points.

Williams Juan Pablo Montoya finished only 11 points behind Ferrari’s Schumacher while Williams teammate Ralf Schumacher also briefly challenged for the top honour in 2003 but fell away, failing to win any points in five of the last six races.

This time around, Michael’s younger brother is confident he can challenge all the way.

“We threw away two world titles last year and we want to redress that this time around,” said Schumacher. “That will be quite easy to do. For me, it means now or never so I can’t take Michael into consideration. If I want to be world champion I’m going to have to beat him.”

Schumacher also denied there was any rift with team boss Frank Williams over an extension to his contract at the British-German team.

“Not at all,” he said. “I’m first going to concentrate on my season. Everything else isn’t important to me at the moment. I don’t know how much longer it’s all going to take.”

Teammate Montoya is certainly fired up for Sunday’s race, as evidenced by the Colombian walking out of a press conference during the week after he was sent up by a couple of spoof reporters.

The Williams FW26 will make its racing debut at Albert Park while the Australian Grand Prix will also be the first race for the BMW P84 engine.

Under new rules to cut costs in F1, only one engine will be allowed per race weekend, so the season opener will be a crucial test of reliability.

BMW motorsport director, Mario Theissen is certain that the engine will be able to cope with the increased demands, thanks to 20,000km of testing, 800km of which was carried out in simulated race weekends.

“Starting development early has paid off,” said the German.

Ferrari’s Schumacher also believes the new engine rule will mean his team’s new F2004 will have to be more reliable than last year’s car.

“We had good tests all winter, with no major problems,” said Schumacher. “It is tremendous that the car has been quick and reliable straight out of the box.”

The German said he also favoured the new rule which puts both qualifying sessions on Saturday.

“I am in favour of this rule,” he said. “Last year, the track was often dirty on Friday afternoon, as it had not been used much and other formulae had practised on it in between our sessions.

“This new system should be fairer for the drivers who have to go out early in the first session.”

Subject: German news