Champion relishes Monaco's mean streets

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The Independent Online

Michael Schumacher will return to the twisting streets of Monte Carlo this weekend with his sights set on equalling the record of six Monaco Grand Prix victories held by the late Ayrton Senna.

The five-times world champion, who made a slow start to the season but has now won three races in a row, including two with the new 2003 model Ferrari, is within two points of the season's leader, Kimi Raikkonen of McLaren, and expects to do well enough here to overhaul him.

"I think that with the F2003-GA, we should have fun in Monaco," said Schumacher, who overcame a fire during a fuelling stop to beat Raikkonen in the last Grand Prix in Austria. "That's why I am keen for Sunday to come round, when I am well aware that our objective is to take the lead in the drivers' championship."

The prospect of racing on Monaco's street circuit again is another spur to Schumacher. "You have to concentrate very hard to avoid getting it wrong, as a mistake invariably means you are out of the race. But in some ways that is one of the major attractions of Monaco," he said.

"Whatever else one thinks about it, the Monaco Grand Prix is just special. Rushing around the track almost touching the barriers not only increases one's motivation but is also a real challenge.

"The real peculiarity about it is that it is really narrow. There are some parts where you cannot even see the apex of a corner until you are actually on it, and that adds to the excitement."

Monaco's uniqueness will be enhanced this season as it will be the first time the race is staged under the new qualifying rules, under which drivers are allowed one lap on Saturday to set a time.

However, the premium on grid position, as passing is always especially difficult in Monaco, will add a different value to the final qualifying session.

"I think, however, that the main impact of the new regulations is felt by the mechanics, who have to do the same amount of work as before, but in a shorter space of time," Schumacher added.

The main obstacle to the Ferrari driver on Sunday could be David Coulthard, of McLaren, who has won twice here in the last three years and is eager to return to the circuit. "It is one of those events that has that little something special about it and it is a race weekend I always enjoy," he said.

Coulthard does not have a new car yet as McLaren's latest model, which was tested at the Paul Ricard circuit in southern France, is not expected to be ready to race until the end of next month. "It was great to see the first run of the MP4-18 last week at Ricard. It is an exciting looking car," he said.

Because of the unique schedule of the race affected by a public holiday, the free practice and pre-qualifying will take place today on the 3.34km (2.08 mile) circuit to determine the position of the real qualifying on Saturday.

Sunday's race will be the 50th Monaco Grand Prix to be staged as part of the Formula One programme. The inaugural event was won by Juan Manuel Fangio, with whom Schumacher jointly holds the record of five Formula One championships.