Australia under pressure to provide F1 excitement

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Formula One officials will hope this weekend's Australian Grand Prix can inject life into a championship which stalled on the starting grid at the highly anticipated season-opener in Bahrain a fortnight ago.

Despite the arrival of three new teams and the return of Michael Schumacher among four world champions at Sakhir, the refuelling ban, intended to discourage drivers from playing safe, instead resulted in a procession decided at qualifying.

The underwhelming spectacle, in which most drivers made just one pitstop to change tyres and were largely unable to overtake, prompted F1 bosses to demand quick rule changes to avoid further snooze-fests from tarnishing the championship race.

Unsurprisingly, Ferrari, whose Spanish driver Fernando Alonso led a victorious one-two finish with Brazilian team mate Felipe Massa at Sakhir, have supported the governing body FIA's cautious response to the complaints.

"We have to wait and see different races and check the situation, without being emotional," double world champion Alonso told local media. "Something that confuses the fans is changing the rules all the time."

The threat of a boring Australian Grand Prix is somewhat diminished by the bumpy street circuit's record of spills and upsets but the qualifying positions remain the most likely pointer to the podium places.

In this respect, Australia's long wait for a local winner at their home race could be ended by Mark Webber in his Red Bull, whose cars have been described as "ridiculously faster" than the rest by McLaren's Lewis Hamilton.

Red Bull arrive in Melbourne chasing their fourth win in five races and could have been chasing a fifth but for an engine failure that saw German driver Sebastian Vettel finish fourth after leading for more than two thirds of the race at Sakhir.

Webber, whose image is front and centre on promotional billboards around Melbourne despite fifth being his highest finish, enjoyed his best season last year with two wins but disappointed at Bahrain where he finished a lowly eighth.

"Both Seb (Vettel) and I are certainly in a position to challenge for a good result," the 33-year-old told local reporters this week.

"Being a street circuit, this track evolves a lot over the course of the weekend... It's a very green circuit, with low grip initially and then as the weekend goes on the teams have to adjust to the track, whereas Bahrain is grippy right through."

McLaren drivers Hamilton and world champion team mate Jenson Button, have both forecast a better spectacle but arrive with vastly different memories of their last appearance at Albert Park.

For Button, victory in last year's season-opener in Melbourne with Brawn GP, now Mercedes, was the springboard to six wins in his first seven races that ultimately led to the title.

For 2008 world champion Hamilton, it was the catalyst for a period of ignominy after he was disqualified for misleading stewards at a hearing that promoted him to third place.

The Briton arrives in Melbourne pleased with his podium finish at Bahrain in contrast to his new team mate Button, who managed only seventh after qualifying eighth.

"Bahrain was not a fantastic weekend for me, but I was happy with the progress we made through the weekend," Button told Reuters.

"I think coming here we know maybe the direction we took was slightly wrong, and we know exactly how to verify that here."

Albert Park has proved an uncannily reliable form guide for the world title in recent years, with nine of the last 12 champions saluting at Melbourne - a statistic Germany's Schumacher might well be aware of.

The German, now driving for Mercedes, used his record four wins in Australia as a springboard to four of his seven world titles, and the 41-year-old's ability to improve upon his sixth placing in Bahrain will be of major interest at Albert Park.