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Last Updated: Monday, 26 January, 2004, 12:28 GMT
Sun setting on Ferrari era?
By Andrew Benson
Motorsport editor

Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher pose with the new Formula One Ferrari
Schumacher and Barrichello have high hopes of the new car
Writing off Ferrari and Michael Schumacher has proved a dangerous game in Formula One over the last few years, but their extraordinary domination of the sport may be coming to an end.

Ferrari believe the conservative-looking new car unveiled on Monday will extend their record-breaking run of drivers' and constructors' titles.

But there is a sense of changing times in F1 this winter, and the auguries for Ferrari are not that good.

Their biggest rivals, McLaren and Williams, have been out testing their new cars for weeks, yet the Ferrari unveiled in Maranello is still not ready for the track - it is expected to run by the end of this week.

Ferrari will therefore have less than half the preparation time for the new season enjoyed by Williams and McLaren, whose new cars appear to have raised the bar in F1.

Both teams have come up with radically new designs that have been quick straight away.

At the same time, Ferrari have been struggling. This is largely to do with tyres, the single biggest factor in determining the lap times of an F1 car.

Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn, sporting director Jean Todt and Michael Schumacher
Will Ferrari's dream team be able to keep up its motivation?
Michelin, which supplies McLaren and Williams, already had an advantage throughout 2003 and the French company has made dramatic performance improvements over the winter, according to drivers in its teams.

Ferrari supplier Bridgestone, too, has made progress, but broad opinion from the tests is that Michelin has extended its advantage in the dry, although it is still behind in the wet.

There are other factors that could count against Ferrari.

Their team - organisers, designers and Schumacher - have been together for a long time.

On the one hand, this means they have an almost telepathic understanding unmatched in the rest of the pit lane.

But they may also be beginning to feel the fatigue of a battle they have been fighting without a break since 1997.

And while Schumacher remains the best driver of his generation, at 35 he is now at the age when Grand Prix drivers begin to lose their edge.

Some felt they saw the beginnings of this last year, when the great German went into a mid-season slump during which team-mate Rubens Barrichello out-qualified and out-raced him.

Juan Pablo Montoya tests the new Williams-BMW FW26
Montoya and Williams are determined to learn from the errors of 2003
Schumacher hauled himself back into the battle to win two of the final three races and clinch the title, but will he find the same desire if he finds himself in a similar situation this time around?

Many believe he is not being entirely candid when he says he is not motivated by statistics, and last year he knew that he was gunning for a sixth world title.

Winning it moved him clear of the great Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio, whose record of five titles many thought might last forever, and established Schumacher as unquestionably the most successful driver of all time.

With only Ayrton Senna's all-time record for pole positions missing from Schumacher's collection, is that enough to keep him going at the same intensity?

It will need to be, for in McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya of Williams he faces fresh, young challengers with wills of steel.

Both men have already proved they are not intimidated by taking on Schumacher, and each has the chance to grab F1 immortality by being the man who brings in a new era.

Some believe Montoya's challenge may be blunted by his decision to commit to a move to McLaren for 2005.

But what better motivation could the Colombian have than taking the title with him to his new team, giving him an immediate head-start in the looming psychological battle with Raikkonen?

David Coulthard at the wheel of the McLaren-Mercedes MP4-19
McLaren's new MP4-19 has looked very impressive in testing
Montoya's BMW Williams team are also determined to learn the lessons of 2003, when they feel they lost the title rather than Ferrari winning it.

But will their car be good enough to beat Raikkonen in the new McLaren?

The Finn is a man of few words, but his driving leaves no doubt about his intentions.

He heads into 2004 on a high after a brilliant season last year, when he took the title battle to the final race in a car that was beginning to show its age.

His new car, the McLaren MP4-19, has looked extremely impressive in testing, even if its Mercedes engine is still not a match for the Ferrari or BMW.

Basing predictions for the season on winter testing is a fool's pastime, but there is nevertheless a feeling that this could be the first great McLaren since the MP4-13 that dominated in 1998.

If that turns out to be the case, even Ferrari and Schumacher on top of their game would struggle to keep up.




SEE ALSO
Ferrari throw down gauntlet
26 Jan 04  |  Formula One
Ferrari 'face tough time'
25 Jan 04  |  Formula One
Ferrari eye up Raikkonen
25 Jan 04  |  Formula One
Webber: Schumi's reign is over
18 Jan 04  |  Formula One
Schumi keeps options open
15 Jan 04  |  Formula One
McLaren axe to fall on Coulthard
30 Dec 03  |  Formula One


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