Uneasy sits the crown on Michael's head

Formula One 2004: Schumacher will chase his seventh title relentlessly, but this time the pack could hunt him down The Grand Prix season starts next week, and says David Tremayne, it promises to be a classic
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In poker, the excitement rises in direct proportion to the individual stakes facing each player. That's why the 2004 Formula One World Championship is going to be even better than last year's, which itself mercifully wiped away memories of the 2002 Ferrari-fest.

Six world championships would satisfy most people. It's a feat, after all, that escaped even the real greats, Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and Jimmy Clark. But how much sweeter for Michael Schumacher would a record seventh title be in a season at the end of which it is widely tipped that he will finally hang up his helmet?

Then there's Juan Pablo Montoya, still driving for Williams despite his huge fall-out with them at the French Grand Prix last July but bound to partner Kimi Raikkonen at McLaren from 2005 onwards. It is no secret that he does not like his team-mate, Ralf Schumacher (himself tipped to be heading for Toyota in 2005 because Sir Frank Williams is prepared to pay him only what he thinks he is worth, not what Ralf thinks he is worth). Beating both Schumachers and taking the No 1 to McLaren would be the Colombian's ideal way of making a point.

And don't forget Raikkonen, narrowly beaten by circumstance and little else in 2003, and Fernando Alonso, who became the youngest-ever winner of a grand prix in Hungary last year. Both are ready to win regularly. Throw in Rubens Barrichello, who last year showed many signs of beating Schumacher at Ferrari, and David Coulthard, who would love to rebuild his damaged reputation in what might be his final year in F1. But wait, there's more. What might Britain's next big hope, Jenson Button, achieve in a BAR that seems to work pretty well? Or his underrated but quick team-mate, Takuma Sato, who will one day be the first Japanese driver to win a grand prix?

So far, the poker game has just been warming up. We have seen all the new cars, for a start. McLaren showed theirs last year, when it was called the MP4/18 and did only handfuls of test laps before regularly catching fire because aerodynamics had taken precedence over cooling. Now, evolved into the MP4/19, it has been running since December. Then there is the apparently unremarkable Renault R24, now with a narrow-angle V10 engine based on Renault's 1999 offering while an all-new engine is prepared for 2005. Williams produced a shock when their ugly FW26 appeared with its distinctive front end, and Ferrari unveiled a conventional-looking update of their F2003-GA, which Frank Williams still believes to have been the best car of 2003.

Winter test times can be notoriously misleading, as the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, likes to point out. Outside the teams themselves, who really knows what fuel load (and therefore overall weight) any car was running at any given time?

Williams have looked strong all winter and, once some transmission gremlins were eradicated, reliable. But the team are being very cautious in their predictions. Ferrari have generally stuck to testing in Italy, so there have been few head-to-head tests against their major rivals. The only one was at Imola recently, when Schumacher left McLaren and Williams in the shade - but they both point out how cold the test was.

It seems that the two tyre companies, Bridgestone and Michelin, have again created products that work in different temperature ranges. Ferrari's Bridgestones (shared with Sauber, Jordan and Minardi) still appear to like lower temperatures; the Michelins, on which everyone else runs, prefer high temperatures. So drawing firm conclusions from the Imola test would be unwise.

Likewise, the speed of the BAR might also be misleading; some allege the cars might have been running underweight in order to ensure certain commercial deals - notably with Honda but also, possibly, the sale of the team. Insiders deny that vehemently, and there is no questioning the air of optimism. The switch to Michelin has filled them with hope, and Geoffrey Willis's new car looks the part.

McLaren may be lacking horsepower - there have been suggestions that their car is 40bhp down on the offerings from Ferrari and BMW - and the MP4/19 also seems to be very tricky to set up. Sources say it is only fast when the balance is poor, which is no way to win races. Dennis and McLaren's managing director, Martin Whitmarsh, make no secret of the fact that a Mk II version of the car is already on the stocks.

The Renault is the car that Williams fear. Alonso achieved some "scary" lap speeds in Barcelona, and when it comes to tyre-wear, the R24 is said to be kinder than Mother Teresa. Of the others, Sauber have high hopes for a car that clearly owes much to last year's Ferrari (including its engine and transmission); Jaguar struggled until posting some fast times in Valencia; Toyota have disappointed but, with Mike Gascoyne now in technical charge, will certainly improve; Jordan's driver line-up of Nick Heidfeld and rookie Giorgio Pantano will wring everything from their new car, which now uses the same Ford engine as the Jaguars; and Minardi will soldier on.

The biggest rule-change forces teams to rely on only one engine per weekend and will place a high premium on reliability; those who suffer failures lose 10 grid places. The tyre war will be as hard- fought as ever, and Schumacher may yet win through for Bridgestone if the Michelin runners take points from one another. The battling Williams drivers risk doing just that, which could lead to a replay of 1973, when Jackie Stewart beat Lotus, or 1986, when Alain Prost beat Williams.

Through force of circumstance, eight drivers won races in 2003. It could happen again. When the race begins in Melbourne next Sunday we will finally get the first indications of true performance levels, but it is only the start of a gruelling 18-race season.

So what, who and where is new?

Fresh faces

Takuma Sato: Sato was familiar when crashing Jordans in 2002, but missed all but one race in 2003. Now the best Japanese F1 driver ever is back, and will definitely push BAR team-mate Jenson Button hard.

Christian Klien: The young Austrian was a surprise replacement for Justin Wilson at Jaguar, aided by a new sponsorship deal with Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz. But his perfor-mance shows Mark Webber will have some competition.

The new law

Single-engine weekends: The arguments still rage about whether it has cut costs, but the rule limiting teams to a single engine per race weekend will change strategies. Blow up before the race, and it's straight to the back of the grid.

Tusk, tusk

Williams came in for a lot of stick when the radical new nose shape on their car - like a walrus's tusk - was unveiled. Everyone else says they have already invest-igated the idea, but be sure they'll look again if it works.

Down by the seaside

Those who have already seen the new Bahrain circuit rave about it, even if the sand will have to be "glued" in place so it doesn't make the track surface slippery. Bahrain's economy is rampant, and their GP will give it another huge boost.

Me old China

2004 will be remembered as the year in which F1 really embraced the Middle East and the East, with China hosting its first-ever grand prix in Shanghai, a fortnight before the Japanese race.


7 March: Australian GP (Melbourne); 21 Mar: Malaysian GP (Kuala Lumpur); 4 April: Bahrain GP (Bahrain); 25 April: San Marino GP (Imola); 9 May: Spanish GP (Barcelona); 23 May: Monaco GP Monaco); 30 May: European GP (Nürburgring); 13 June: Canadian GP (Montreal); 20 June: US GP (Indianapolis); 4 July: French GP (Magny-Cours); 11 July: British GP (Silverstone); 25 July: German GP (Hockenheim); 15 Aug: Hungarian GP (Budapest); 29 Aug: Belgian GP (Spa); 12 Sept: Italian GP (Monza); 26 Sept: Chinese GP (Shanghai); 10 Oct: Japanese GP (Suzuka); 24 Oct: Brazilian GP (Sao Paulo).