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F1 Hot News
By Andrew Maitland
March 5, 2004


F1 Drivers Hit Melbourne Town
Formula One's top drivers were arguably busier on the day leading-in to the season-opening Australian Grand Prix than during first official practice.

World champion Michael Schumacher made a few appearances, not least of which at a Shell sponsor-event where he gave a seven-year-old boy a lift in a go-kart.

'I just feel great,' he said before a media-scrum.

'I've won everything there is to win so it's pure pleasure now.'

Later, the German went 'head-to-head' with his Ferrari team-mate Rubens Barrichello at a sponsor-event which tested their skills in non-racing sports.

CHASED GIRLS

They shot hoops, putted golf balls and kicked through goals but the highlight of the day was Schumacher chasing grid-girls with a bottle of foaming champagne.

Back-of-the-grid Minardi drivers Zsolt Baumgartner and Gimmi Bruni also enjoyed the girls as they joined Victorian governor John Landy at Governor House.

Sir Stirling Moss, Sir Jack Brabham and Paul Stoddart were also there. 'It's great,' said Zsolt, 'a new thing in my life ... and great women here, too!'

Boss Paul Stoddart worried that the Hungarian was having too-good a time: 'I'm going to remind them that there's curfew in a few minutes. It's a tough life!'

McLaren's three grand prix aces posed on the beach with last year's MP4-17D version where David Coulthard spoke about his ninth annual visit to Melbourne.

'I haven't been about in the town as much as in previous years,' said the Scot. 'I've been here since Sunday but mainly just hanging around at the hotel.'








Schu Has Eye On Barrichello
Never before has reining Formula One world champion Michael Schumacher stared more intensely into his rear-view mirrors at a charging team-mate.

The German said in Melbourne on Thursday that he is concerned with the pace of Brazilian Rubens Barrichello who appears to be getting 'stronger and stronger.

'He's improved his game,' Michael smiled, 'but I just hope he stops it now!'

FERRARI ON TOP

Barrichello, starting his fifth consecutive year at Scuderia Ferrari, said it was 'nice' to hear the compliments from grand prix racing's pacesetter.

'Of course we're hoping that both drivers are on the pace,' said Rubens, 'because the main aim is to put Ferrari as a team on top of things.'

* Scot David Coulthard, who drives for McLaren-Mercedes, believes Renault are most likely to challenge Ferrari and BMW-Williams starting on Friday morning.

'They've taken a step forward,' he said of the Enstone-based ranks, 'but there are also some smaller teams coming up like BAR and Toyota.

'We could be anywhere from the front to the third or fourth row.'

* Struggling F1 team Minardi has announced the enhanced renewal of a sponsorship-deal with Superfund, while MAC Tools become a BAR-Honda partner.

* Michael Schumacher has weighed-in at 13-8 to take-out the F1 championship, but Juan Pablo Montoya might be a better-bet with Victor Chandler at 4.1 odds.








Rain To Fall On Albert Park
Weather sources are forecasting rain for qualifying at Albert Park.

Cloudy skies saw Michael Schumacher lead the pace in opening (Friday) practice and the sources maintain that rain should stay-away from Australia all day.

Saturday, however, looks like being a different story altogether.

75 PERCENT CHANCE

Sources close to one team predicts a 75 percent chance of rain in qualifying, including a top of 21-degrees, ahead of a mostly clear Sunday and 19-degrees.

* Former Jos Verstappen sponsor Trust appears to have bucked legal advice to finalize a sponsorship deal with Silverstone-based Formula One team Jordan.

Team drivers Giorgio Pantano and Nick Heidfeld were photographed at Albert Park on Thursday wearing yellow overalls with the Dutch company's logo on the front.

* Jenson Button laughed-off suggestions that a few promotional laps at the nearly-completed Bahrain F1 circuit has given him an advantage for the race.

'Well, there wasn't any tarmac,' the BAR driver laughed. 'If we were racing four-wheel drives, then maybe. But I had a great visit to the country.'

* What would four F1 aces do if they had their grand prix careers snatched-away?

'Maybe an architect,' said Juan Pablo Montoya. 'My dad was one.'

Jenson Button would be a 'second-hand car salesman,' or maybe a 'stunt driver,' as Montoya, the BMW-Williams driver, chimes in. 'Fighter pilot?' says Button.

World champion Michael Schumacher would play soccer, but Jaguar's Aussie star Mark Webber has his eye on the running of an adventure-school in Tasmania.

'I'd also like to drink red wine and eat chocolate,' said the fitness-freak.








Ecclestone Wants More F1 Races
Bernie Ecclestone would like to add more races to the Formula One schedule.

The grand prix impresario has touched-down in Melbourne for the first-time in six racing-seasons and outlined his plan to cut non-race track-testing.

'Testing costs them money,' he said, 'but if they stop it and do more races, which they get paid for, I can't see a reason why we cannot have twenty.'

Bernie, 73, is also eyeing rule-changes to attract new teams to the F1 grid.

He accompanied his beautiful lady-wife, Slavica, to the Albert Park circuit last night and said he wanted to give her a first-visit to the land 'Down Under.'

PERTINENT BUSINESS

Other observers reckon he was on more pertinent racing-business.

'Yeah, he wanted to check on me,' smiled grand prix chairman Ron Walker.

'Ron does a first-class job,' countered Ecclestone. 'Great guy, great guy.'

* Juan Pablo Montoya's wife Connie played a game-boy outside the BMW-Williams F1 garage on Thursday but was asked if her husband was affected by a 'joke' saga.

'He is OK, he is perfect,' the Colombian smiled.

* Michael Schumacher doubts that McLaren veteran David Coulthard can pose a challenge to his world championship at the wheel of a MP4-19 racer.

'If a challenge comes from McLaren,' said the German, 'it comes from Raikkonen. Kimi proved last year that he is faster than David. Still, he's a nice guy.'








Button Wriggles On F1 Future
BAR's Jenson Button wriggled when asked if his F1 future lies at BMW-Williams.

The Briton sat next to outgoing Grove-ace Juan Pablo Montoya in the FIA press conference and said he 'didn't have a choice' to switch teams for 2005.

'It's difficult to say,' said Button, 24. 'All I can think about is this year and no decision will ever be made until part of the way through the year.'

Certainly, if JB's Honda-powered 006 powers onto the podium and looks likely of challenging Williams for a future world title, the Englishman will stay.

BAR AS WILLIAMS?

'I think there's a chance,' he added. 'We don't know if BAR will become a Williams or not. Ask me in eight races if we are as strong as we think we are.'

Button said he 'doesn't mind' which team he wins the championship with.

* Meanwhile, Juan Pablo Montoya confirmed speculation that an in-race radio argument with BMW-Williams partly-triggered his 2005-switch to McLaren.

'That all helped to make up my mind,' said the Colombian. 'It did piss me off but I can tell you that I was already talking to Ron before that race.'

He likened the end to a four-year relationship with Sir Frank Williams and Patrick Head as the point when dating a girl when it 'becomes too much.'

* And Rubens Barrichello has rejected speculation that Ferrari was 'hiding' from its rivals over the winter period by doing most running at Imola and Mugello.

'They're just close to the factory,' he smiled. 'The new car is definitely better than the old one - more complete. It's difficult to say exactly why.'

The Brazilian denied that Friday's practice-times can be analyzed as the true pecking-order in Formula One because teams are running different fuel-loads.

'The same can even apply to Saturday qualifying,' said Rubens.








Out And About In Melbourne Town
Jenson Button reckons a podium-finish is on the cards in Australia.

The British ace, who steers a BAR, was at a pre-event Honda party on Thursday night with his fiancÚ Louise, his dad and a few other hangers-on.

On the same day, boss Dave Richards had predicted JB's first top-three finish.

'I didn't know that,' the 24-year-old smiled, 'but I think the car is capable of it. We're quietly confident - the car's good in testing in all conditions.'

Button had a bite to eat and returned early to the Crown hotel.

BANKS OF RIVER

Giancarlo Fisichella spent his evening on the banks of the Yarra River.

'If we can score some points at first race,' said the Sauber-driving Italian, 'then that is a good mental start to the rest of the Formula One season.'

Jaguar aces Mark Webber and Christian Klien were at a local Lawn Bowls club being thrashed by a rival-team made up of a couple of Aussie Rules stars.

'Oh that's not very good,' Mark, the Australian, said after swinging.

'Let's hope that's not a sign of things to come,' smiled a reporter.

Webber fired back: 'Well ... it went quick enough!'

* Belgian test-ace Bas Leinders could not take-part in Friday practice sessions at Albert Park on Friday because the FIA did not grant him a super-license.

A spokesman for the Minardi team told Reuters: 'Basically he did not have the necessary mileage in championships that the FIA recognizes.'








Notes: Friday Practice 1
Michael Schumacher's second lap at Albert Park this season set a new record.

The Ferrari ace was two-seconds faster than his pole-position time of 2003 and more than 1.5 seconds quicker than the third-placed Renault challenger.

Felipe Massa's Sauber broke-down before he completed a timed-lap.

ESCAPE PENALTY

But a spokesman for the Swiss team said the Brazilian's C23 will be ready for the second session and would escape penalty because it was not an engine drama.

Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello only did nine combined laps while the most active teams of the session were Toyota and Jordan with 'third' drivers.







JPM And McLaren No 'Heaven' Match
Montoya and McLaren is unlikely to be a match made in Formula One heaven.

That's the belief of Juan Pablo's current boss Sir Frank Williams who said it's 'unfortunate' to lose the rated Colombian but may yet have the last laugh.

He told The Guardian: '[He] and (McLaren boss) Ron Dennis will be like two bulls in a field, sorting out their patch. It will be a case of whose team is it.'

SPAT DUMMY

Montoya spat the dummy at a press conference earlier this week when he failed to find the humour in a prank played by a couple of Aussie television-comedians.

'Frank [Williams] was ok with it,' said Juan. 'When they stopped being professional there was no need for me to be there so I got up and left.'

Ron Dennis, who will partner 28-year-old Montoya with Kimi Raikkonen in 2005, said the BMW-Williams team should have 'stepped in' to prevent the disturbance.

He told Reuters: 'Putting aside whether Juan Pablo's reaction was the right one or not, it shouldn't have ever happened.'

Montoya 'doesn't care' if his behaviour reflected badly on Formula One.

He also confirmed that there was an altercation with the sponsors behind closed (glass) doors at the Sandown race-track before he sped off in a BMW road-car.

'It wasn't in front of anybody,' he said. 'I told them why I was leaving.'








Shorts: Jordan Promotes Peace
Jordan's new EJ14 promoted peace at the Albert Park track on Friday.

Team chief Eddie Jordan explained that he has closed a deal with Bahrain to promote a number of humanitarian causes on the yellow racer's engine-cover.

'We welcome suggestions from fans ... as to what should be displayed on the cars during the year,' he said, confirming a different emblem at each grand prix.

Australia's emblem is of a peace-dove.

* Mark Webber is 'very happy' with his new Jaguar Racing R5 challenger.

CHIPPING AWAY

'We're chipping-away in a controlled manner,' said the Australian, 9th fastest on Friday, 'and it's very disciplined testing. We are not kidding ourselves.'

* Minardi boss Paul Stoddart has backed a proposed banning - or at least a substantial restriction - of hugely-expensive track-testing in Formula One.

'We plan to do about 35,000kms all year,' said the Ledbury-based Australian at the Albert Park circuit, 'but some teams (in testing) have already done that!'

BAR's Dave Richards agrees, describing the amount of testing completed - with no spectators in the grandstands and minimal media interest - as 'farcical.

'We need to be more global, therefore maybe we need more races,' he concluded.

* Michael Schumacher's race engineer, a Melbourne local Chris Dyer, has mixed feelings about his trip 'home' to Australia for this weekend's grand prix.

'It's quite hectic, this first race,' he said, 'especially as we've got the new car here. So I don't get much time to meet up with my family and friends.'








Shorts: Fans Brought Closer To F1
Mark Webber and the Grand Prix Drivers' Association intends to use 'karting' or 'football' in a new scheme designed to bring fans closer to the F1 world.

'Michael [Schumacher] and I chatted a few weeks ago,' said the Jaguar ace.

'We thought we'd use the pins idea with a raffle so a few fans can come into the paddock and have a photo taken. We'll see if we can do it at some other races.'

Schumacher added: 'We are planning [some] different things.'

* The massively-superior early practice-pace of Ferrari on Friday has everyone worried that Michael Schumacher might run-off with the title as in 2002.

SUPERIOR PACE

'I have nothing against it,' the German smiled, 'but I'm not sure it'll happen.'

* Mark Webber, meanwhile, welcomed a change of schedule on Friday that has canned the first-day of qualifying in exchange for two-hours of practice.

'I thought Friday last year was very strange,' he said. 'The circuit was very dirty and the guys doing well in the championship had it very difficult.'

The home-town hero said the rising level of personal and promotional appearances and local interest in his racing-progress is 'getting worse every year.

'We're trying to control it as best we can,' he smiled, 'but it is very special for me to come here and race. Us Aussies like to see the Aussie do well.'

* Jenson Button has punched-back at 1996 world champion Damon Hill's suggestion that he is 'too normal' to become Formula One's ultimate winner any time soon.

The BAR driver asked: 'Was it Damon who said that? I think it's a compliment. If you're bonkers you can't work. The more relaxed you are, the better.'








Notes: Friday Practice 2
The faces of Ferrari's rivals turned scarlet after Friday practice in Australia.

Michael Schumacher, who smashed the Albert Park record with nearly every lap, and Rubens Barrichello, set times more than a second clear of the nearest car.

But it wasn't all beer and skittles for the world champion and his new F2004.

Schumacher, 35, pulled into the pits after one run with damage to the front wing and under-tray after a huge moment at the final, high-speed Melbourne corner.

The German leapt across the grass and lost a handful of carbon-fibre parts.

INCIDENTS

It definitely wasn't the only incident of the first-action of season-2004.

Juan Pablo Montoya (BMW-Williams, 7th) had a spin at the second-to-last corner and Toyota's Cristiano da Matta (16th) had to pull-over with a burst left-tire.

Fourth-placed BAR-Honda man Jenson Button retired from the session with apparent technical dramas, while team-mate Takuma Sato (12th) nearly crashed - twice!

* The governing FIA has mandated colour-coded camera mountings on all Formula One chargers this season for the purposes of easily-identifying the drivers.

Colours include black (Ralf Schumacher), red (Montoya) and yellow.

* Siemens has replaced TAG-Heuer as the official F1 timekeeper.

Jordan tester Timo Glock, the German rookie, only completed four laps in his Ford-powered EJ14 in second-practice before the V10 Cosworth-engine retired.

Spotters in pitlane noted that many F1 outfits, notably Toyota and BMW-Williams, worked feverishly to adjust ride-height levels for the Albert Park track.

Toyota tester Ryan Briscoe - whose colleague Ricardo Zonta (14th) spun in the session - is only a spectator but he said the TF104 has not got a good balance.

'Hopefully I'll be in the car pretty soon [this season],' said the Aussie.

'I'm just being patient and hopefully my time will come.'








Shorts: Montoya Denies Gearbox Flaw
Juan Pablo Montoya, the Colombian Formula One ace, has rejected speculation that his BMW-Williams FW26 is still slowed-down by a niggling gearbox gremlin.

'We've solved [the problem],' he said. 'The car just goes and goes.

'When we were testing, everything was fine until we got a lot of new parts in January and everything broke. So we went back to what we were using.'

JPM's top-team BMW-Williams has snatched an agreement with Shanghai Circuit and China's TV network CCTV from financially-struggling Formula One outfit Jordan.

'The China GP enables us to discover a new market,' said BMW's Mario Theissen.

NOT ALL BAD NEWS

But it's not all-bad news for EJ; he announced on Friday a 'ground-breaking' partnership with B&Q China that should 'build awareness' for Chinese F1-fans.

* F1's swinging tire-war is likely to be a talking-point of season 2004.

Ferrari ace Michael Schumacher said the team's almost-exclusive relationship with Bridgestone might not be the 'best solution' for a new-era of racing.

The German reckons with 'so many' Michelin partner-teams in 2004 it may give the French marque 'an advantage' but it will only be clear at the end of the year.

'Sometimes it is quality that works rather than quantity,' he added.

Juan Pablo Montoya, who drives a Michelin-clad BMW-Williams, says Michelin is able to collate the information of many top-teams and develop tires quicker.

* BAR star Jenson Button hinted that his purported 'low-fuel' runs in pre-season winter testing may not have been completed with particularly low levels of fuel.

'We dropped it from 100 [litres of fuel] to 60 on those days,' the Briton said.

'The biggest thing is that when we make a change, you can really feel it. Hopefully we are closer to the top teams than last season. We don't know.'








Shorts: Melbourne To Fall-Off Schedule
Melbourne may fall-off the Formula One schedule in 2006.

F1 impresario Bernie Ecclestone is making a rare visit to the Albert Park circuit this weekend and admitted that the Commonwealth Games are on his mind.

'I don't know what we are going to do [to avoid a clash],' he said.

'I think we will miss [the grand prix] for a year.'

Sources are reporting that AGPC chairman Ron Walker is chasing a move from March to April in 2006 but that month is locked-up with other contracted grands prix.

Ron Walker dismissed the notion of a 2006 sabbatical.

PART OF THE GAME

'Bernie keeps me full of joy,' he smiled. 'One minute it's cancelled, then it's back on. Knowing my friend very well, I know that it's just part of the game.'

* F1 team Minardi has planned a test at Ferrari's private circuit at Fiorano on Tuesday to earn newly-signed Friday tester Bas Leinders his super-license.

'He's on his way back to Europe,' said Paul Stoddart in Melbourne, 'so he can do a full grand prix distance. Bas will open his season in two weeks at Sepang.'

* Champion Michael Schumacher refused to berate F1 rival Juan Pablo Montoya for bringing the sport into disrepute by storming out of a recent press conference.

'Our job involves a lot of tension,' said the German, 'and sometimes you do things you don't think about. Everyone has his personal reaction.'

Ferrari's Friday pacesetter also doesn't have an F1-legend to look up to.

'I wasn't interested in that side before I got into F3,' he said at Albert Park, 'so I never got a hero. My only heroes were in football.'

* Jordan declined to confirm a Cosworth engine-failure for tester Timo Glock.

'We're investigating,' said a spokesman at Albert Park on Friday.








It's Not Over Yet: Formula One Bosses
BMW-Williams' chief operations engineer Sam Michael pacified a media contingent on Friday already planning post-race headlines of victory for Scuderia Ferrari.

'We just ran through all the systems for the race,' said the Australian.

Ralf Schumacher, the fastest BMW-powered ace, set a best time good enough for sixth fastest - more than a full second behind the leading-pace of his brother.

'We looked at tyres,' he continued. 'On long runs we look consistent.'

Only on Saturday, said Michael, would Williams chase the FW26's set-up.

DIFFERENT STRATEGIES

Rival top-team McLaren ailed down the order in 8th and 10th places, but CEO Ron Dennis said Ferrari and others may well be running 'different strategies.

'Today's sessions do not contribute to grid positions or qualifying,' he emphasised, 'so it's really just a test in preparation for the real event.'

Mercedes' Norbert Haug was a little more outwardly worried.

'Five Michelin teams were within half a second,' said the German, 'and Ferrari was in a class of its own. Now we've got to work to close the gap.'

Pat Symonds, engineering head at Renault - who put Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso in the top-five - expressed his 'frustration' at the end of Friday.

'We can't obtain all the answers we're looking for in the limited running time,' said the Briton, 'but we made good progress. Our performance is satisfactory.'

Symonds expressed confidence that the gap to Ferrari can be closed.

And Ferrari weren't popping any bottles of champagne despite smashing the old lap record at the temporary street-circuit by more than two seconds.

'The serious business starts [Saturday],' said team chief Jean Todt.








Shorts: 'Back To School' For Schu?
Michael Schumacher laughed-off suggestions that he would join a field of 'back to school' Formula One runners to make mistakes on their track-return.

Renault's Pat Symonds predicted last week that while the drivers test a lot during the winter, they're probably not fully prepared for the first-GP.

'I don't think so,' said the Ferrari star. 'I sometimes do competition in karting in the winter so I'm not rusty. I think it's just coincidence.'

THREE 'OFFS'

But Schumacher, albeit the fastest on the Albert Park track, had three significant 'offs' on his grand prix return as practice dawned in Oz.

Mark Webber reveals how he likes to fine-tune his race-craft in the winter.

'I close up on the guys and feel the disturbed air,' said the Jaguar driver. 'We're not racing but we're still close. Still, Pat may have a point.'

* Schumacher also agrees with Fernando Alonso that some of the best drivers on earth are nowhere near a Formula One car but locked in battle in go-karts.

'Well, in F1 the racing is not as close as karts,' said Michael, 'and that's why I like karts. But it's wrong to say F1 drivers aren't as good as those guys!'

* BAR driver Jenson Button interrupted a questioner in the FIA press conference on Thursday when he referred to Jacques Villeneuve as a 'great' driver.

'... If he's great,' said the Briton, 'then I must be awesome.'

JB stopped on the circuit on his last scheduled lap on Friday and technical director Geoff Willis says BAR will have found a fix by Saturday morning.

Tester Anthony Davidson's run was also halted by a Honda gremlin.








Shorts: You're Not Perfect, Jenson
F1 team BAR-Honda's boss David Richards is busy convincing his Formula One drivers that they are not the best talents to have ever graced a race-track.

He told reporters that Jenson Button and Takuma Sato 'have weaknesses' and are being asked to identify them and suggest to their bosses how to improve.

Richards broke the news to 24-year-old Button while out at lunch.

'[Jenson] said to me: 'This is intriguing because you're taught to believe that you are perfect. But now I can understand how I can improve.''

* Richards also revealed that F1 impresario Bernie Ecclestone advised the BAR principal not to fork-out too many millions to secure the services of Button.

FOCUS AND STRUCTURE

'Others have said that to me too,' the Briton added. 'They were ready to discard him. But I saw a young driver in need of focus and structure.'

* BMW-Williams' Juan Pablo Montoya (7th on Friday) has bid farewell to fired F1 champion Jacques Villeneuve by claiming that the Canadian brought it on himself.

'If he'd done a good enough job,' said the Colombian, 'he would have beaten Jenson and still been here. I think he lost the motivation, slowed down.'

The impassioned Montoya also denied that he had signed a contract with McLaren's ever-corporate boss Ron Dennis forbidding him to speak his mind in 2005.

'Not as far as I remember,' he laughed.

* Bernie Ecclestone enthused about the upcoming Bahrain Grand Prix.

'I've been dreaming of a race in the Arab world for a long time,' the F1 supremo said in Australia. 'I salute Bahrain for its courage and determination.'
 

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