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Formula One's new wave comes of age in Malaysia

Rubens Barrichello sat alongside Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso after the Malaysian Grand Prix and saw Formula One's future.

"I think both are future world champions," said the Brazilian Ferrari driver, second on Sunday. "I just hope I can win the world championship before them."

There was little doubt in anyone's mind that, despite the stifling heat, a wind of change was blowing in Malaysia. The new generation had put themselves on the map.

Finland's Raikkonen, 23, savoured an already overdue first win for McLaren to take over the championship lead from team mate David Coulthard, 32 this week.

Alonso, 21, took a maiden podium for Renault and became the youngest Formula One driver to start on pole as well as the first Spaniard.

Further back, 23-year-old Briton Jenson Button outshone his team mate and former world champion Jacques Villeneuve to take BAR's first points of the season in seventh place after running fifth to the last corner.

Ferrari's five times world champion Michael Schumacher, now 34, meanwhile made his second big mistake in two races under pressure and could only watch the podium celebrations from afar after finishing sixth.

Canadian Villeneuve, 31, did not start when his car broke down after a weekend of feuding with Button, who still outqualified him.

Schumacher, winner of 11 of the 17 races last season, will doubtless be back on top very soon -- possibly before the impressive new F2003GA is raced in anger for the first time.

But the genie of youth has been let loose -- freed in part by significant rule changes this season.

The new single lap qualifying format, with its strategic element that sees cars starting the race on different fuel loads, has certainly mixed up the grid and left Schumacher more in the thick of things.

Australia, thanks to bad weather, and Malaysia have both been action-packed races full of novelty and light years away from the Ferrari one-two processions that characterised 2002 and prompted the changes.

Schumacher will now be as concerned about the threat from Raikkonen as the Finn's British team mate David Coulthard, winner in Australia.

No driver is ever the same after his first win.

"He will be a quicker driver for it because it takes away the pressure," said team boss Ron Dennis, whose team have now won the first two races of the year and have still to introduce their new car.

"The biggest thing is that it will contribute to the process of eliminating mistakes and Kimi doesn't make many. It will be easier for him to make fewer mistakes after the success of his first grand prix win."

Alonso is also very much one to watch.

Renault say their engine is currently more than 100 horsepower -- probably around 130 -- down on their rivals but are working flat out to boost the power.

The chassis is already among the best on the grid and Alonso, calm and collected, showed on Sunday that he is old beyond his years.

"We thought that Fernando has got the spark of a future world champion," said Renault technical director Mike Gascoyne. "And I don't think there's anyone that doubts it. I think Rubens is right, they (Raikkonen and Alonso) are the two guys who are really standing out."

By Alan Baldwin

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