Williams must show their teeth as age begins to slow Schumacher

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The Independent Online

Never has the pressure to deliver a world championship been greater on Sir Frank Williams and his technical director and partner, Patrick Head.

Their engine partner, BMW, virtually demands it after last year's near-miss. Fans all around the world demand it, if nothing else as a change to the familiar scenario of Ferrari and Michael Schumacher. But nobody is putting the team from Grove, near Oxford, under greater pressure as this weekend's opening race in Australia approaches than Williams and Head themselves, 25 years after they first started winning grand prix races.

Their last championship came with the now departed Jacques Villeneuve and Renault power in 1997, the year after Williams had first voiced his concerns over the growing red menace. Since then, McLaren and Mercedes had a brief spell in the limelight before the Ferrari onslaught got under way.

The Italian cars - created by a design team headed by the Englishman Ross Brawn and the South African Rory Byrne - have not been beaten to the manufacturer's title since 1998, their five-year streak creating a record. Nor has Schumacher lost his crown since 1999, last year having brought him a sixth title to beat the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio's record.

Williams, however, is not a man to get overexcited about anything. When the Swiss driver Clay Regazzoni drove his FW07 to the team's first victory, at Silverstone in July 1979, Williams' only reaction was a quiet smile.

Pundits make his cars joint favourite with Ferrari's, to which he replies: "My private view is that Ferrari still had the best car at the end of last year, and that eminence was overshadowed by the performance of Michelin. Quite clearly, Ferrari will be the team to beat at the beginning of this season and McLaren will be right with them."

McLaren's managing director, Martin Whitmarsh, said of their new car in January: "I believe it is competitive now, and I believe we are going to make it a quicker car before we go to Australia in March."

Ferrari's sporting director, Jean Todt, meanwhile, sounded his own warning. "The Michael Schumacher we see next year," he said in December, "will be the best Michael Schumacher ever. He is as motivated as he has ever been."

Thus the stage is set for a fabulous world championship fight, as the young pretenders do their best to claw down Schumacher, the old lion who, at 35, still proved better than them over 16 races last year. There were, however, signs of fallibility, as the German maestro made errors in Australia, Malaysia, Brazil, Germany, Silverstone and Japan under the season-long pressure exerted by Juan Pablo Montoya (28 years old), Kimi Raikkonen (24) and Fernando Alonso (22).

These three will be his primary rivals again in 2004, together with his team-mate Rubens Barrichello (31), his brother Ralf (28), possibly the McLaren driver David Coulthard (32 and likely to be facing his final year in Formula One), and Jarno Trulli (29 and desperate to escape from Alonso's shadow).

Adding spice to the mix, the BAR-Honda drivers, Jenson Button (24) and Takuma Sato (27), have both flown in winter testing. It is not yet clear whether their speed owed its origins to technical excellence or a little juggling with the weight of fuel carried, but if the BAR is as quick as it looked there could be five teams fighting for honours.

It is a sign of just how strong Ferrari believe their opposition to be that they are introducing their new car immediately, rather than holding it back until the start of the European season as has been the case in past seasons.

The biggest question mark against it is the performance of Bridgestone's tyres, which were generally adjudged inferior to Michelin's in 2003 even though Ferrari and Bridgestone won the titles. In some ways it does not help Ferrari that they are the only major league team running the Japanese rubber, though they are exploiting their very close ties with Sauber-Petronas (whose 2004 car bears an uncanny resemblance to Ferrari's 2003 contender) to help increase the tyre test mileage.

While the major Michelin runners - BMW-Williams, McLaren-Mercedes, Renault and BAR-Honda - are hoping that they will enjoy a tyre advantage again, Ferrari hope that the Michelin rivals will take points from each other, allowing Schumacher and Barrichello to mop up.

This ongoing uncertainty is all part of 2004's appeal. Then there is the possibility that, after all, this season might be Schumacher's last. Rumours continue to circulate that he could retire if he won a seventh championship.

Eddie Jordan, whose own team will fight to close the gap on their immediate rivals, Sauber, Jaguar and Toyota, believes that the championship will come down to a battle between Michael Schumacher and Montoya, with the odds slightly favouring the former as the Colombian's focus is shaded by his planned departure to McLaren in 2005. But Williams may not favour Ralf Schumacher, since their ongoing arguments over the younger German's worth may yet push him off to Toyota.

"We are disappointed that Juan took the decision to leave but that is irrelevant," Williams says. "He has a phenomenal talent and we will be sad to see it go. That's not a lament, but a recognition.

"We are in better shape than last year. But we absolutely do not believe we are the strongest yet. Ferrari and Renault are looking very strong, and I do believe that Ferrari will be very strong. I don't believe they are going to get it wrong. McLaren won't struggle, either. We have learned never to underestimate them. We have no excuses. We have a good motor, as they say, and the rest is down to us."

Head admits that Williams' driver polemics are unlikely to bring out the team's notoriously non-existent "touchy-feely caring side", and much as they dislike one another Ralf Schumacher and Montoya must work harmoniously if they are to avoid Ralf's big brother playing one off against the other.

"Ferrari are an incredible class act and whoever manages to beat that grouping of Schumacher, Todt, Brawn and Byrne will have done an absolutely stunning job," Head said, adding with habitual understatement, "I just hope we do it first."

FORMULA ONE CALENDAR

Sunday Australian GP (Melbourne)

21 March Malaysian GP (Kuala Lumpur)

4 April GP of Bahrain (Bahrain)

25 April San Marino GP (Imola)

9 May Spanish GP (Barcelona)

23 May GP of Monaco (Monaco)

30 May European GP (Nürburgring)

13 June Canadian GP (Montreal)

20 June United States GP (Indianapolis)

4 July French GP (Magny-Cours)

11 July British GP (Silverstone)

25 July German GP (Hockenheim)

15 August Hungarian GP (Budapest)

29 August Belgian GP (Spa-Francorchamps)

12 September Italian GP (Monza)

26 September Chinese GP (Shanghai)

10 October Japanese GP (Suzuka)

24 October Brazilian GP (Sao Paulo)

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