Stewart close to right formula

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He may be standing somewhere towards the back of the grid, a diminutive figure lost in the blur and anxiety of the pre-race ritual, but there is unlikely to be a more emotional or satisfied man basking among the cars about to be unleashed in the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday.

Twenty-three and a half years on, Jackie Stewart will be back on a Formula One track, this time as a team boss rather than a world champion driver. And this time, he concedes, the pressure and responsibility will be far more intense than anything he experienced along the path to three world titles.

"Nothing you go through as a driver compares with this," he said. "When we eventually line up for that opening race in Melbourne, it will be the culmination of an almost super-human effort by everyone in the team. And, certainly, from my point of view, it will be the single most important race of my career, and a proud day for the Stewart family.

"Responsibility is the biggest difference between driving and running your own team. It's a big weight, a heavy burden. But then I've always been a responsible, conscientious person. I'm desperate to deliver no matter what I'm doing. Maybe that is part of the reason I've enjoyed the success or achievement I have had."

The package Stewart and his son, Paul, have put together, including a five-year "factory" deal with Ford, represents another successful chapter in the remarkable Stewart story. Achieving success in terms of results will, he stresses, be an even greater challenge and the Scot acknowledges there are those who would savour a down-turn in his fortunes.

Stewart, not unlike many achievers in all walks of life, is both admired and envied, and he knows he will find little sympathy out there in the wild grand prix jungle should he be mauled and devoured.

He said: "I don't understand this undercurrent but it seems to be an issue in Formula One. I just think it is part of the business and motor racing is famous for it."

Stewart admits there were times when the demands of assembling a Formula One team plunged him to "the depths of despair", but then he never anticipated a straightforward ascent.

"Whenever you climb a high mountain, you are going to get off the path occasionally, on to ice, snow or loose rocks, and that occurred in the creation of this team," he said. "We were always wearing a safety harness and had security in place, but you still have the concern that you are not going to be able to pull together all the elements.

"We've had people flying around the world, sitting waiting for those commitments. There's always a doubt until the contract is finally there."

Stewart maintains he has absolutely no doubt his team will be hard pressed to cajole one of their cars to the finish in Melbourne and to score more than a couple of points all season.

He said: "Everybody's accused me of under-playing our position but I honestly haven't. To finish top six twice in the year would make me satisfied. That's not trying to con, that's reality. Few have done it straight away. Not even Williams. And now it's more difficult than ever.

"You look at the top teams, they've all got factory car manufacturers and the experience. Williams and Benetton have Renault, McLaren have Mercedes, Ferrari have their own engine. Then you have Jordan with Peugeot, Prost with Mugen-Honda, Tyrrell with a very good Ford V8 and now Sauber with Ferrari.

"Others want to pump up their expectations and image, but I don't feel that is the way to go. I've never made false projections. What do I say if it doesn't work out? I hope to be in a position to compete for the championship in five years, but I can't expect us to be there any earlier."

The task of delivering for Stewart has been entrusted with the Brazilian, Rubens Barrichello, and Denmark's Jan Magnussen. Both are considered gifted, but flawed, young drivers.

Stewart is evidently hoping to turn the doubts about their commitment and discipline to his advantage. He said: "If I was offered a second take, I wouldn't change them. They're gelling well with each other and with the team. Rubens is very driven to improve his fitness and knows his career is on the line. And Jan knows the jury's out for him.

"There comes a time when you say: 'Who am I? Are they right or can I prove them wrong?' And you use all your energies to prove them wrong. I will be allowed more time than they will."

Stewart looks forward to the time when he might compete with his mentor, Ken Tyrrell, and the son of his old friend and sparring partner, the late Graham Hill. Damon Hill has been dragged down from his world title peak to join TWR Arrows and the others at base camp. For now, Stewart is content to watch the established teams scale the heights of the championship.

"In common with many," he said, "I expect Jacques Villeneuve [Williams] to have the best chance of winning the championship. However, he'll have to be careful. A lot of drivers have done well in their first year and not quite so well in their second. There are a lot of banana skins lying around to slip on.

"Heinz-Harald Frentzen [Williams] will also have the best car, and he'll be bright-eyed, bushy tailed, and full of energy. He is fast, no doubt. He has made the odd mistake in the past and, although he may not have to push so hard with the kind of dominance Williams have, he'll have to push to be faster than Villeneuve.

"I think McLaren are going to be better than people think and Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard are both going to be potential race winners. David has been there before. He knows how to win a race.

"Mika has never won a race. It would be unlikely for him to win the world championship never having won a grand prix before, but Jacques nearly did it, so it is possible, and McLaren have a good record of knowing how to do it.

"Ferrari's prospects depend upon their reliability. They've got the most expensive driver in the world in Michael Schumacher, who is the best in the world. No question. They've got the most expensive team manager, factory and test track, and yet for 18 years haven't won the world championship, so something's wrong. You cannot keep going like that without recognising it's not been correctly executed.

"But they'll get it right eventually. It could be this year, in which case they've got the right man.

"Benetton? I don't know. I think Gerhard Berger's a very analytical driver, a very thorough journeyman, has won grands prix, never won a championship, hasn't won enough grands prix in a season to be seriously in contention for a championship.

"Jean Alesi has won only one grand prix. That's not appropriate for the skill God gave him, but somehow or other it hasn't been successfully channelled so far. It's a question of whether that can be turned around. He says he's going to moderate his mental attitude, but I don't know.

"On balance, therefore, I have to say it's Villeneuve for the championship."

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