Teams need to renew hopes in Malaysia

Updated: March 17, 2004, 9:24 PM ET
By Alan Baldwin | Reuters

Michael Schumacher
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."