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Last Updated: Sunday, 3 April, 2005, 16:21 GMT 17:21 UK
How the mighty have fallen
By Andrew Benson
Motorsport editor

Michael Schumacher is surrounded by reporters after his retirement from the Bahrain Grand Prix
Schumacher faces a long, hard battle back into title contention
Fernando Alonso has taken a massive step towards achieving his aim of winning his first world title before Michael Schumacher retires after his victory at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

The Spaniard not only holds a 10-point championship lead - one full race victory - over his closest challenger, he is now a gargantuan 24 points ahead of Schumacher.

To put that into perspective, if the Ferrari driver was to start winning from the next race at Imola, with Alonso runner-up every time, it would take him 12 races to overtake his rival.

But Alonso's Renault team have made such an impressive start to the season that there is no guarantee that Schumacher will be able to get his season off the ropes at the San Marino Grand Prix.

The gamble Ferrari took in starting the season with an updated version of their 2004 car has backfired horribly.

Whether this was rooted in arrogance - as Schumacher's brother Ralf suggested after the last race in Malaysia - or necessity is now beside the point.

Perhaps Ferrari were lulled by their superiority in 2004 into thinking an update of that car would still do the job this season.

Fernando Alonso's Renault is chased by Michael Schumacher's Ferrari after the Bahrain Grand Prix
Schumacher made Alonso work in the early laps of the Bahrain GP
If so, they underestimated the impact that the new regulations restricting aerodynamics would make - adapting the "old" Ferrari to the new rules forced enough of a design compromise on the car to render it uncompetitive.

This is ironic, given that the reason Ferrari decided to delay the introduction of the 2005 car was to give them as much time as possible honing its design to the new rules.

Whatever the reasoning, Ferrari are suffering two-fold.

While the old car might have been slow, it was at least reliable, which was more than could be said of the new F2005 in Bahrain.

Rubens Barrichello was hampered by gearbox problems throughout the weekend, limping home in ninth, while Schumacher retired with hydraulic problems.

The fact that it was the German's first retirement caused by a technical failure in 58 races merely serves to underline how much of a risk Ferrari took in giving the F2005 a debut two races ahead of schedule.

Schumacher did at least underline why it is so foolish to write off Ferrari by qualifying an impressive second in the new F2005 and harrying Alonso in the early laps.

But exactly how competitive the new car is will not become clear until at least the next race.

Schumacher's retirement after 11 laps in Bahrain means the amount of fuel with which the Ferrari started the race with will never be known.

Fernando Alonso celebrates victory in the Bahrain Grand Prix
Alonso is already a hot favourite to win the world title in 2005
But, tellingly, Schumacher was 0.4secs slower than Alonso in first qualifying, the only time it is possible to judge a car's ultimate speed until race strategies have played out.

Part of that deficit was doubtless due to the fact that the Ferrari F2005 is still relatively new, and the team probably do not yet fully understand how to get the best from it.

But the bald statistics suggests that Ferrari still have work to do before they are on a par with Renault.

And the world champions still face the same problem as they did before Bahrain, in that they are up against several competitive teams this season.

Toyota underlined in Bahrain that they have a seriously fast car and look set to be a major force throughout the season.

And McLaren have finally begun to deliver on the potential that has always been in their new car.

With Williams also getting stronger by the race, Ferrari will have to work harder for victories than they have been accustomed to in recent years.

Schumacher insisted after Bahrain that Ferrari were "in good shape", saying the new car was "very competitive".

That might well turn out to be the case but, even with 16 races still to go, it already looks as if it might be too late for Schumacher's hopes of an eighth world title.




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