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Williams return to scene of last success

Ralf Schumacher and team mate Juan Pablo Montoya hope to put Williams back on Formula One's winning track when they return to the scene of their last success in Malaysia this weekend.

The BMW-powered team have not won since they last appeared at the Sepang circuit, when Ralf led Colombian Montoya to a one-two finish.

That victory, offering a real hope of Williams becoming title challengers, turned into a false dawn as Ferrari and world champion Michael Schumacher fought back with a new car in a class of its own.

By the end of April, the game was over.

Although Montoya notched up seven pole positions in 2002, Williams had to settle for the overall runner-up slot in the championship with fewer than half the points scored by dominant Ferrari.

Both drivers have reason to be hopeful now that a new cycle appears to have begun with a stunning opening race in Australia ending without a Ferrari on the podium and reviving hopes of a closer battle for the title.

Montoya could have won in Melbourne, heading for victory before he spun with 11 laps remaining. He ended up second behind McLaren's David Coulthard.

"The last two years that we've been there (Malaysia) we've been really quick," Montoya said after Melbourne. "This year we might be really good or we might be 10th. I don't know."

The former CART champion, whose only Formula One win dates back to the Italian Grand Prix of September 2001, collided with Michael Schumacher at the first corner in Malaysia last year.

That allowed Ralf, whose season had started with a massive shunt in Australia, to run unchallenged to victory and the German was relishing the prospect of a return visit.

A disappointing eighth at Albert Park this year, Ralf rates Sepang as a favourite circuit.

"I'm really looking forward to Malaysia," he said this week. "I love the country, I love the track and even the extreme weather conditions don't matter to me.

"I'm well prepared and I think that this track will work perfectly with our tyres and our car. I have good memories of last year's race and I hope I can repeat the experience."

The jury is still out on just how competitive Williams and McLaren really are in relation to Ferrari, with the weather and rule changes muddying the real state of play in Melbourne on March 9.

Sunday's race could mark the start of another Ferrari backlash at a circuit where, until last year, they had always been successful. It could equally confirm the apparent progress made by McLaren.

The fact that Schumacher managed to nurse his damaged Ferrari home in fourth place, still challenging closely for third despite losing his aerodynamic side deflectors, raised a few alarm bells.

Neither Ralf nor Montoya have so far expressed overwhelming enthusiasm for the new car, with Ralf saying it was clear the team still had a lot of work to do.

"Unless we come up with a big step forward on the aerodynamics package, basically more downforce, then we're done," said Montoya.

"But if you look at the car, it's a huge step forward on last year's... Ferrari are still so far ahead but this car could be the base of a really good car."

Williams, once as dominant in Formula One as Ferrari are now, know that the FW25 is far from the complete package, with aerodynamics problems still to be resolved.

BMW motorsport director Mario Theissen was certainly not about to make any bold predictions on the basis of Australia.

"We saw the car works under certain conditions quite well," he said in Melbourne. "So I think there's some potential we have to exploit and that is positive, but when we saw in the final ten laps Michael running without any bargeboards as quick as the others with the complete car, it shows really where Ferrari are.

"Malaysia has been good (in the past) and we are really looking forward to it," he said.

"We were strong enough to win the race (in Australia). Let's wait another two or three races to see where the teams are. The race strategy has become much more important than it used to be. Maybe this will narrow it in the coming races."

By Alan Baldwin

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