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Teams need to renew hopes in Malaysia

3/17/2004

SEPANG, Malaysia -- The heat is on
Michael Schumacher's rivals in Malaysia this weekend as they fight to save Formula One from the threat of Ferrari domination.

The world champion and Brazilian sidekick Rubens Barrichello
were a cut above the rest in the Australian season-opener and
there is a real risk of more of the same being served up at
Sepang on Sunday.

A repeat of the Melbourne one-two, while delighting the
Ferrari fans, would add to the sense of doom already shrouding a
championship that many had hoped would be more exciting than
ever after last year's close finale.

Malaysia, only the second round of the season, will be an
acid-test.

If Ferrari again blows away its opponents, there will be
much shaking of heads accompanied by the sound of shutters
slamming down.

Even at their most dominant in 2002, when the team won all but
two of the 17 races, Ferrari was beaten in Malaysia.

"If we can compete there then we are going to be looking
very strong," said Schumacher, twice a winner in Malaysia
and looking forward to what he sees as a truer test than
Australia.

"If we are sort of hanging back then maybe it's going to be
a little bit more tough."

Barrichello, busy testing tires in Spain last week, has
already hailed the new car as a delight to drive and promised to
disappoint all those hoping that Ferrari will fail.

Should Williams, McLaren or Renault perform well then hope of a
real battle for the championship will be renewed.

Williams and Renault look to be the main challengers after
McLaren's nightmarish start to the season.

"I'd be very disappointed if we didn't do a lot better in
Malaysia than we did in Australia," said Williams technical
director Patrick Head.

Ralf Schumacher led Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya in a
Williams one-two in Malaysia in 2002 and the searing heat has
favored their tire supplier Michelin more than Ferrari's
Bridgestones in the last two years.

"If we go to Malaysia ... and Ferrari and Bridgestone are
dominating, then we are in deep trouble," said Michelin
motorsport boss Pierre Dupasquier after Melbourne.

McLaren won last year with Finland's Kimi Raikkonen
celebrating his first victory but the chances of that being
repeated do not look great.

The Mercedes-powered team are staring at their worst start
to a season in years, with Raikkonen's engine failing early in
the season-opener and teammate David Coulthard limping home in
eighth place.

"Our performance wasn't up to where it should be," said
McLaren boss Ron Dennis. "I'm absolutely sure we have the
resources and expertise to resolve the issue. How quickly we do
that we will have to wait and see."

Renault sounds the most confident, their self-assurance
backed up by sweeping the front row in Malaysia last year and
seeing Spaniard Fernando Alonso lead the chase in Australia on
his way to third place.

Both Alonso, a winner in Hungary last year, and Italian
Jarno Trulli can expect to be podium contenders in a car that has improved from last year.

Briton Jenson Button, fourth at Sepang for Renault in 2002, will also be a contender after taking his BAR to sixth place in Melbourne.

"A podium is definitely still realistic," he said in
Australia. "I think ... we are going to make a big step forward
from here because we will know the tires a lot more."