Schumacher's talent can level the playing field

What looks like the most competitive F1 season for years opens in Melbourne tomorrow. Derick Allsop assesses the contenders
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It is a good thing Michael Schumacher learnt to cope with responsibility at an early age. This year he could be asked to shoulder not only the burden of fatherhood but also to turn the Formula One championship into something other than a Williams-Renault cavalcade.

The propaganda machinery has whirred away all winter, generating the optimism that tomorrow in Australia we embark on one of the most open and competitive seasons for many a year. We are promised winning potential from half a dozen teams, perhaps more if the return of tyre wars gives the Bridgestone runners a freakish advantage in certain conditions.

Somehow, though, this all sounds familiar. Did we not hear much the same sort of sales patter last year? Only to watch Williams obliterate the rest.

Twelve months on, Benetton-Renault are claiming they are fully rehabilitated after the trauma of losing Schumacher, McLaren-Mercedes declare themselves confident they are sustaining their forward momentum, and the Ligier-Mugen- Honda team, now under the command of Alain Prost, are suggesting they are ready to join the major league.

The one leading team not shouting the odds are Ferrari. They have wintered inauspiciously and their earlier predictions of a title challenge for 1997 have been amended to something that amounts to "forget everything we said before".

Schumacher, in particular, is playing down his and the team's expectations, insisting all they can aspire to is competing for points rather than podium places. "I am just being realistic," he reiterates.

And yet you cannot help but feel that the 28-year-old German remains the most serious threat to the Williams pair, Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz- Harald Frentzen, even in a Ferrari that, apparently, should be outclassed once there are points at stake.

Not that Benetton and McLaren are necessarily overestimating their development, or that their drivers, Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi, for the former, Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard for the latter, are inadequate. It is simply that no one compares with Schumacher.

In almost any other sport, a protagonist and superior to Schumacher would devour every record in the book, but motor racing is unlike almost any other sport in that it is not entirely a sport. It is, also, an engineering test bed, a commercial enterprise and a political minefield.

Schumacher has effectively been handicapped at Ferrari, and, at a million pounds a race, he is handsomely recompensed. But it is grossly unsatisfactory when one so gifted cannot give full expression to his talents. Imagine Muhammad Ali fighting with one hand tied by his side, or Pele playing football in flip-flops.

If the Ferrari can be made nearly as good as the Williams, that might be sufficient. Schumacher, champion in 1994 and 1995, is capable of levelling the playing field and perhaps tilting the contest his way. One who subscribes to this theory is Martin Brundle, taking a seat in the ITV commentary box after losing the one he had at Jordan-Peugeot.

Brundle said: "I've nailed my colours to Schumacher's mast and, although Ferrari have not looked so clever in testing, I'm sticking with him. You have to feel Williams again have the best package but, as Frank Williams has said, they may be thrown off balance by events away from the track."

Ferrari having hired Ross Brawn, at the end of last year, have recently parted company with John Barnard and added another Benetton old boy, Rory Byrne, to their revamped technical organisation. Brundle said: "I don't think it will take Ross and Rory too long to get things sorted and, if they get the Ferrari close to the Williams, Schumacher has the ability to make the difference."

Another factor that might have a bearing on Schumacher's prospects is fatherhood. You have to wonder whether the birth of his daughter recently will compromise his commitment to some degree. If it does not, then Villeneuve and Frentzen could have the Prancing Horse bearing down on them.

Flavio Briatore, still principally boss of Benetton despite other sporting or business ventures, maintains that his drivers, Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi, are primed to be genuine contenders. He argues Berger has never been better prepared and that the arrival of Alesi's baby this winter has stabilised the mercurial Frenchman. Even if the championship is still out of bounds for McLaren, their new-look silver car should be good enough to convey Coulthard to the head of the British rankings. Beating Hakkinen may prove more problematical and this duel is likely to be a feisty affair.

Jordan's position as the fifth best team appears under threat from Prost, who has already secured a Peugeot deal for next year. Olivier Panis made the most of bizarre circumstances to win at Monaco last season, and if Bridgestone tyres are as good in the wet as we hear, he could upset the establishment again.

Damon Hill is banking on the Bridgestone "joker" to help his cause at TWR Arrows-Yamaha. The car-engine combination is certainly not terrifying their opponents. Stewart-Ford, Minardi-Hart and Lola-Ford are the other Bridgestone teams. The rest continue with Goodyear.

Tyrrell look to the reliability to Ford to revive their fortunes and the Sauber will be powered by Ferrari engines under the Petronas badge.

Villeneuve goes into the opening grand prix, in Melbourne, as favourite for the championship and he will endeavour to build a decisive early-season lead over Frentzen, who is expected to challenge more forcefully as the campaign unfolds. Close encounters at Williams would assist Schumacher, who has a dutiful No 2 in Eddie Irvine and has no need to look over his shoulder.

Over the next seven months the championship tour will take in 17 venues on five continents, but the chances are we will see the 1997 champion standing at the top of the podium on Sunday. The last time the winner of the first race did not go on to lift the title was in 1989.