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Only Ferrari confident about 2003

Formula One needs to rekindle armchair spectators' fading enthusiasm in 2003 after a season of Ferrari dominance, falling viewing figures and financial uncertainty.

But despite measures to 'spice up the show' and give spectators more for their money with a new qualifying format and more points for smaller teams, Ferrari's Red Baron still threatens to be the spanner in the works. Michael Schumacher ripped through the record books on his way to a record-equalling fifth world title in 2002 and few will wager against him collecting an unprecedented sixth crown long before next October.

Eddie Irvine, still without a drive for next year after being released by Jaguar at the end of his contract, fired off a warning months ago. "The guys (at Ferrari) are telling me that they've made bigger steps for next year than they've made between last year and this, already," said Schumacher's former team mate. "It's kind of scary."

Ferrari's F2002 car was introduced late but beaten just once last season, by McLaren's David Coulthard in Monaco, and the groans will be audible worldwide if the Italian team again vanish into the distance in Melbourne next March.

Television viewers will have free access to previously restricted digital images but Formula One needs a fight, a race even, to fire the public's imagination and keep the money flowing in from sponsors.

The Prost team failed before the start of the 2002 season and struggling Arrows have been denied entry to next year's championship, leaving just 20 cars on the grid.

Few, outside of Italy and Germany, want to contemplate a repeat of 2002 when Schumacher added 11 wins to his record tally and became the first driver to triumph more than nine times in a single season. The German has now racked up more points, podiums and fastest laps than any other driver in grand prix history and captured the title faster than anyone else as well, wrapping it up with six races to spare this year.

Ferrari, world champions for four successive seasons, enjoyed what president Luca di Montezemolo called "the greatest moment in the history of our company" and closed out the year with 15 wins in 17 races. But, despite nine one-two finishes including their home races at Monza and Imola, Ferrari did not always cover themselves in glory. Sometimes even dyed-in-the-wool fans of the scarlet 'Scuderia' found themselves turning a similar colour with rage and embarrassment.

Austria marked a watershed, the moment when television viewers decided enough was enough as Brazilian Rubens Barrichello was forced to slow down and allow his more illustrious team mate to win. Schumacher was booed at the finish, stung by hostile questions at a post-race news conference and later fined for pushing Barrichello up to the top of the podium to collect a trophy he richly deserved but had not won. Barrichello got his reward, with four wins including another gifted finish in Indianapolis when Schumacher failed to contrive a dead heat, but the controversy coloured the season to the extent that the governing FIA banned 'team orders'.

Schumacher was pushed harder on the pre-race Saturday, with Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya seizing seven pole positions for Williams and claiming the fastest qualifying lap ever with a blast around Monza. The two also clashed on the track in the first few races, with Montoya coming off worst in Brazil after benefiting in Malaysia when he followed team mate Ralf Schumacher to a Williams one-two.

Ferrari's Schumacher also started seven races on pole and, expert at getting up to speed straight out of the pits, could do even better next year when the new single-lap qualifying format is introduced.

"I think Michael Schumacher will probably have more pole positions in 2003 than 2002," said International Automobile Federation (FIA) president Max Mosley.

Schumacher was on the podium at every race in 2002, an unprecedented feat, and rivals can only look forward to the day when his amazing run of 22 successive races in the points will finally end.

It may prove a long wait but Schumacher, enjoying a long winter break with his family far away from Formula One's regular haunts, is as usual taking nothing for granted. "I expect next season to be tougher as the other teams get closer," he said after winning the final race of the year in Japan. "That will be a challenge. I still think we will be in the fight for the titles and winning races but maybe we will not win races so consistently. We don't need to be as dominant as long as we still win."

McLaren and championship runners-up Williams are both playing catch-up, with McLaren likely to delay the introduction of their new car until four races into the season to give themselves more time for engine developments.

New faces arrive next year as Formula One has said farewell to some old favourites. Irvine may be one of them yet but Finland's Mika Salo will not be back for sure. Neither will Briton Allan McNish, who failed to score a point in his debut season with Toyota, or Jaguar's experienced Spanish driver Pedro de la Rosa.

Former world champion Niki Lauda has been deposed as Jaguar's team principal, the biggest-name casualty of a wave of job losses among the middle and lower-order teams.

Rookies Felipe Massa of Brazil and Takuma Sato of Japan could also take a step back out of the limelight while Australian Mark Webber, the newcomer of the year, moves up to a bigger stage with Jaguar.

Webber's lucky fifth place for Minardi in Australia, after a pile-up had taken out half of the field on the first lap, and Sato's stirring drive to fifth place for Jordan in his home race, were two of the highlights of the year. The Australian has no doubts about what lies ahead however.

"Michael is far and away the number one driver," said Webber. "He's so dominant, he's F1's Tiger Woods. He's a worthy world champion. I can't see anyone else but him winning the championship again next year."

By Alan Baldwin © Reuters

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