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Teams hope to shake off frustration

Formula One heads to Melbourne this weekend hoping to shake off fears that rule changes could lead to one of the most eagerly-awaited seasons becoming a boring let-down.

A ban on race refuelling, together with a single pit stop strategy, led to a frustratingly dull opening race in Bahrain in which overtaking became a rarity as teams tried to conserve petrol and tyres. However, there is still hope that Sunday's Australian Grand Prix on the street circuit at Albert Park will provide the thrills that were lacking in Sakhir.

Fernando Alonso, who led team-mate Felipe Massa in a Ferrari one-two in Bahrain, was one of many drivers who was sceptical for the remainder of the season after the opening race.

"With no refuelling, it will be difficult to see any overtaking, so after the first lap the positions will be set," he predicted, but the Spaniard, who went directly from Bahrain to Australia to relax and prepare for the races in Melbourne and Malaysia, warned this week against over-reacting.

"I think that many of us have given some hot-headed comments immediately after the race in Bahrain," he said on the Ferrari web site. "It's true that the race in Sakhir wasn't especially spectacular - although for us at Ferrari it was great and exciting - but it's too early to talk about changing the rules. We have to wait and see different races and check the situation, without being emotional. Something that confuses the fans is changing the rules all the time." 

Alonso said Ferrari had gained confidence from Bahrain but would be "starting from square one" in Melbourne.

"Nothing has changed for me: there are four teams and eight drivers who can fight for victory and we have to give it our all to stay ahead of everybody else," he said. "I like the Albert Park track. It's quite a technical circuit with some pretty interesting corners. Overtaking has never been easy and what is even more important now, like on all city circuits, is the result in the qualifying." 

Britain's 2008 world champion, Lewis Hamilton, who had also been disappointed with the lack of excitement in Bahrain, where he finished third behind the Ferraris, sounded more upbeat for Melbourne.

"The racing in Melbourne is always great. And it should be better there than it was in the opening round," he was quoted Wednesday as saying on the McLaren web site. "It's an extremely special circuit: unique. I love street circuits, it's a great place to race on, and the fans are fantastic." 

Hamilton said he was optimistic that Melbourne could also be a good track for the McLarens of himself and reigning world champion Jenson Button, who was seventh in Bahrain and won the Melbourne race last year in a Brawn.

"The Albert Park circuit should work to the strengths of our car. We feel stronger coming into this race than we did going into Bahrain," he said. "Hopefully, both Jenson and myself and can score some more points. We think we'll have a chance of winning this weekend - we've learned a lot from the first race and we can bring that here to Melbourne. It would be great to get that edge." 

Many other drivers also like the Melbourne circuit, including Red Bull's Mark Webber, for whom Albert Park is a home race, and team- mate Sebastian Vettel. Vettel, who led for much of the race from pole position in Bahrain, only to come fourth after a spark plug problem, has meanwhile played down reliability concerns over the Red Bull.

"Well I think coming out of Bahrain, we have a very good car. There is no reason why we shouldn't be competitive here," he told Autosport.

Vettel was on course for a podium place behind Button last year in Melbourne when he crashed with Robert Kubica.

"I like Albert Park, it is a nice track. It is usually quite slippery in the beginning, but I think we had a good race last year. It obviously wasn't a good finish but the car was quick as well, and it should be good as well," he said.

Meanwhile there will still be interest focused on seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, who finished sixth on his comeback in Bahrain, a place behind his Mercedes GP team-mate Nico Rosberg.

"Australia has always been one of the highlights in the calendar of F1, this has never changed for me in all the years," he said on his web site.

Barry Whelan - DPA

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