By Andrew Benson
Ferrari will almost certainly lose this year's world championship because their tyres are inferior to those used by their main rivals.
That is the belief of Renault technical director Mike Gascoyne, whose team took their first victory of the year in Hungary on Sunday thanks to Spaniard Fernando Alonso.
Ferrari are alone among the title contenders in using Bridgestone tyres, and Michael Schumacher could only finish eighth in Hungary as his lead was cut to one point.
Gascoyne told this website: "I think Ferrari will lose the championship. It was going to be tight before Hungary, and Hungary was a disaster for them.
"Now I would be very surprised if they could hang on. But if anyone can hang on, it'll be Michael."
Gascoyne believes Williams driver Juan Pablo Montoya, the driver who is a point adrift of Schumacher, is favourite for the title ahead of McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen, who is only a point further behind.
"If Montoya doesn't do it now, he might regret it for the rest of his life," Gascoyne said.
"Williams ought to have a solid two or three years in them, but if he moves to McLaren for 2005, how much will Williams support him in 2004 - and are McLaren a team on the way up or the way down?
"This could be the best chance he gets and if he lets it slip, he might not get another one."
Renault driver Alonso still has a mathematical chance of the title, but would need the three drivers ahead of him to fail to score in virtually every race.
Nevertheless, Gascoyne believes his team are competitive enough at least to influence the outcome of the title chase.
"Ferrari won't panic like they would have 10 years ago - [technical director] Ross Brawn will keep them together. It'll be great to watch.
"The good thing is there are lots of competitive drivers and Alonso can alter what happens to all the others."
Ferrari are suffering because they are the only top team running on Bridgestones, Gascoyne said.
"Michelin have had good hot weather performance for the last two years, but they also had a problem with graining [where the tyre heats up and loses grip for a number of laps before coming back up to speed].
"Now, Michelin have kept the good parts and slowly eradicated all the negatives while slowly edging the performance up, and have come to have good tyres in all conditions.
"Before, you were always compromised in how you could run the race weekend even though in ultimate speed they were matching Bridgestone.
"The other advantage is that Michelin have three top teams. It's the ideal scenario. They have two [Williams and McLaren] who have opted for lots of testing between races. And us who can run in the Friday morning free practice session.
"So Michelin have a very balanced programme, while Bridgestone are suffering from putting all their eggs in one basket."
Ferrari sporting director Jean Todt has tried to play down the significance of that fact.
"It would be very unfair to give all credit to one tyre company or to say that it's because of another tyre company that we don't do well because we won so many races thanks to them. So you have to see the whole picture," said Todt.