Schumi's been strong in upcoming races

Updated: April 5, 2004, 6:39 PM ET
By Alan Baldwin | Reuters

Michael Schumacher
MANAMA, Bahrain -- Ferrari's Michael Schumacher is heading for the best start to a season of his remarkable Formula One career after scorching to a third win in three races in Bahrain on Sunday.

Ferrari was dominant in the desert, finishing the Middle East's first grand prix one-two just as in the opening Australian round.

They could well repeat the feat on April 25 when Imola, the champions' home circuit named after team founder Enzo and his son Dino, hosts the first race of the year in Europe.

Six-time world champion Schumacher has won the San Marino Grand Prix for the past two seasons and four times in the past five years.

After Imola comes the Spanish Grand Prix, a race that the German has won for the last three years.

By the time he gets to Monaco in May, a race where qualifying is crucial, he could easily have stretched his record tally of career wins to 75.

If he triumphs at Imola, Schumacher will have equaled his best ever start of four wins in a row at the beginning of the 1994 season.

Ferrari's rivals are either in disarray or still putting together the building blocks for a genuine championship challenge.

"In race trim, Ferrari apparently are still in a class of their own," acknowledged Mario Theissen, motorsport director of Williams' engine partners BMW, on Sunday.

McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen, Schumacher's closest rival last year, blew up for the third race in a row and has yet to score a point in 2004. The former champions are now a mind-blowing 47 points adrift of Ferrari.

Williams' Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, third overall last year, limped home 13th after losing most his gears.

His team needs to mirror its performance of last year, improving rapidly once the first three long-haul races were out of the way after starting with a car that needed significant development.

By August they looked like title favorites after being written off in the early races.

"We are working very hard and I hope we can repeat what we did last year," said Theissen. "We just have to move on, to push for development ... currently I think it is more about how the tires suit the weather conditions than how the car suits the track.

"Looking forward to Imola, the main issue is temperature in my view. We have had some strong races in Imola as well so generally the track should suit us."

The first three races have been unusually cool, with brief showers and overcast skies in Bahrain, favoring Ferrari's Bridgestone tires over rivals' Michelins.

While Williams and McLaren search for solutions, BAR and Renault are providing the main race day resistance.

Renault's Fernando Alonso was third in Australia, and has scored points in every race from the most unpromising of positions, while Briton Jenson Button has been on the podium for BAR in the last two races.

"Jenson was simply incredible this afternoon and now we must aim for that first win," said BAR boss David Richards.

Ferrari, despite an increasing sense that Formula One is experiencing a re-run of 2002 when they won all but two of the races, is refusing to take anything for granted.

"We deeply believe that the others will catch up strongly and we'd better be prepared, otherwise we have the same situation as last year, and we'd rather finish a bit more comfortably than last year," said Schumacher.