Motor racing: Ferrari fuel McLaren brake row

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Only one day into the real start of the grand prix season and politics have already overshadowed the action on the track.

As spectators at Melbourne's Albert Park circuit watched the new-style Formula One cars in action together for the first time, and Michael Schumacher did the best job in changeable weather conditions to thrust his Ferrari ahead of the McLaren-Mercedes of Mika Hakkinen and the Williams-Mecachrome of the world champion Jacques Villeneuve, the teams were arguing over interpretations of the new regulations.

Ferrari believe that the braking system of the McLarens contravenes the regulations, and trailed their official letter to FIA, the sport's governing body, up and down the pit garages to sound out support for a protest against the British team.

McLaren are using a revised version of the asymmetrical braking system they ran last season, where braking effort to each driven wheel may be varied when a car is cornering.

A button on the steering wheel enables the driver to reduce braking effort on the outside rear wheel in a corner, thus helping the car to turn into it better and to go round it faster.

The issue is whether the McLaren system contravenes the new rules which say there must be braking on all four wheels.

"The trouble is that other teams lack imagination. They are inadequate," Ron Dennis, the chief of McLaren, said. "Throughout the winter we have been in constant dialogue with FIA regarding our technical ideas, and we are confident that everything we have incorporated on our new car is legal."

The FIA has indicated that McLaren's system is legal, but has advised other teams that they should lodge a protest if they disagree.

"Ferrari's letter offers a compelling argument," said one team owner who did not wish to be identified. "We could end up seeing a winner here who could be protested, which is the last thing that anyone wants to see."

Others believe that Ferrari has been caught napping by McLaren and that their stance is merely an attempt to destabilise the team that they believe will be their strongest rival.

AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX (Melbourne) First practice session: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:33.826; 2 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:34.432; 3 J Villeneuve (Canada) Williams-Mecachrome 1:35.023; 4 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton- Mecachrome 1:35.270; 5 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:35.409; 6 R Schumacher (Ger) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:35.708; 7 J Herbert (GB) Sauber- Petronas1:35.876; 8 J Alesi (Fr) Sauber-Petronas 1:36.095; 9 J Trulli (It) Prost-Peugeot 1:36.231; 10 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Williams-Mecachrome 1:36.741; 11 M Salo (Fin) Arrows-Yamaha 1:36.897; 12 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford 1:37.023; 13 D Hill (GB) Jordan- Mugen-Honda 1:37.102; 14 O Panis (Fr) Prost-Peugeot 1:37.102; 15 R Rosset (Bra) Tyrrell-Ford 1:37.144; 16 J Magnussen (Den) Stewart-Ford 1:37.605; 17 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 1:37.891; 18 P Diniz (Bra) Arrows-Yamaha 1:37.928; 19 T Takagi (Japan) Tyrrell-Ford 1:38.817; 20 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Mecachrome 1:38.860; 21 S Nakano (Japan) Minardi-Ford 1:39.044; 22 E Tuero (Arg) Minardi-Ford 2:16.609.