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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 May, 2003, 21:01 GMT 22:01 UK
Ultimate challenge for McLaren
Jonathan Legard
Jonathan Legard
BBC motor racing correspondent

Michael Schumacher could afford to make light of the fire which flared around his ears because, through fire and water, he survived to blaze a trail to his third consecutive victory of the year.

After the finger-pointing which followed his poor performances in the first three races, Schumacher has now struck back to take maximum points in all the subsequent Grands Prix.

Ferrari's Michael Schumacher
Schumacher's return to form has put the pressure on McLaren

And if he wins again in Monaco in two weeks, he will be leading the championship.

While McLaren boss Ron Dennis spoke out against the continued ineffectiveness of the refuelling systems, his main concern will be his new car and the immediate impact it needs to make when it races for the first time.

With Schumacher triumphing behind the wheel of Ferrari's new car for the second race running, the expectation riding on McLaren's MP4-18A - which runs for the first time on Wednesday - has been cranked up even higher.

Consider the facts. Schumacher almost went off the road in qualifying but still made up enough time to edge Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren off pole position.

Then in the race, the German was held up by the safety car and almost went up in flames during a pit stop that delayed him by more than 10 seconds but still charged away to victory.

Once again, Schumacher's Ferrari was the fastest car on the track - at one stage he was lapping a second quicker than the rest.

Money appears to be no object - but winning most definitely is

Ferrari's F2003-GA may not yet be the dominant force last year's model was but, despite the improvements by Renault and McLaren, the champions remain the team to beat.

That is unless McLaren's creative genius, Adrian Newey, knows something the rest of us don't.

Hugely protective one minute, openly optimistic the next, McLaren have led those privileged enough to have seen the car to believe it is a revolutionary masterpiece.

Ron Dennis has admitted the team has completely overhauled its design process to regain its pre-eminent position in F1, with two separate groups looking after two separate cars.

McLaren's Adrian Newey
Newey knows his new car has to produce the goods straight away

Executive director of engineering Neil Oatley has led the development of the MP4/17D while former Arrows technical director Mike Coughlan has overseen the creation of the new car.

What's more, Ferrari's former gearbox guru John Sutton has come up with two different transmission systems - one conventional, one avant-garde - and Pedro de la Rosa has been hired as a second test driver.

Money appears to be no object - but winning most definitely is.

This week's testing will give the first indications as to whether McLaren's title aspirations are realistic.

Dennis accepts the car has to be fast and reliable "straight out of the box" because time is not on his side.

The next race in Monaco is not an option for a race debut.

And Ferrari chief Ross Brawn does not believe McLaren will risk the new car in Canada either.

So with almost half the season gone, that sets up Mercedes' home race at the Nurburgring at the end of June as the most likely launch.

If McLaren fail to hit the ground running, Ferrari could disappear into the distance

By then, Schumacher's new car could have stolen an unassailable march in the title race.

McLaren's drivers just have to hope the old car can keep in touch.

The team knew they had to score as heavily as possible in the early part of the season. Out of six races, both cars have picked up points in four.

But there remains a sneaking fear for those wanting a championship contest instead of last year's walkover.

Ferrari's new car has been racking up miles on the test track for the last three months. It's now stacking up points on the race track.

If McLaren fail to hit the ground running, Ferrari could disappear into the distance.

But if Newey has got it right, F1 could be treated to a classic duel, perhaps even lasting the full distance to Japan.




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