Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, March 5, 1999

In Formula One, a 2-Team Contest

McLaren and Ferrari Gearing Up for Season Opener in Melbourne

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - When the Formula One season starts in Melbourne on Sunday, the two teams that battled to the checkered flag last year will start as favorites, not least in their own minds.

''It will be a McLaren-Ferrari duel again,'' said Eddie Irvine, the second Ferrari driver, at Ferrari's annual preseason press conference at its recent winter retreat in Italy.

Certainly the sport's winter testing seemed to bear him out. Michael Schumacher, Ferrari's leading driver, and the man who beat him to the driver's title last year, Mika Hakkinen of McLaren, were nearly always faster than any of their other rivals.

Making comparisons from the sport's winter testing is tricky, however, because the teams tested at several tracks around Europe and in South Africa under different weather conditions, at different times, and at varying stages of their cars' development. Comparisons were made even more difficult this winter because Ferrari and McLaren seemed to be avoiding each other.

But as the teams worry about each other at the Melbourne Grand Prix, they might be well advised to check their rearview mirrors -- others may be catching up. Over the course of the testing, six of the other nine teams gave hints that they were capable of mounting a challenge.

One enigma is the team that has metamorphosed from the impoverished, 30-year-old Tyrrell team into the slick and rich British American Racing team that likes to call itself ''the new kid on the block.'' Craig Pollock, Jacques Villeneuve's manager, bought the team in December 1997.

Thanks largely to British American Tobacco PLC, the team has what is estimated as the third largest annual budget at nearly $100 million. Villeneuve, the 1997 Formula One champion, and Ricardo Zonta, the 1998 Grand Touring Car world champion, set good times in winter practice for the team, and Adrian Reynard, their designer, has made winning cars in every racing series he has entered. The cars will be closely watched in Melbourne since Reynard's chassis have also won their debut races in every new formula.

''This isn't Reynard, it's BAR,'' said Reynard at the presentation of the new car in January. ''But I've never heard that setting one's targets too high is a bad thing. That's what we will try and do.''

The surprise of the winter testing in Barcelona in February came from another relative newcomer, Prost. The team finished ninth in the constructors championship in its second full season last year. But on the last day of testing, the new Prost car, driven by Jarno Trulli, set the fastest lap of the month.

''We have to keep realistic ambitions for '99,'' Alain Prost said. His ambition, he said, is to ''be able to fight with the main pack behind the two leading teams.''

Williams, the dominant team of 1990s, slipped to a distant third last year. It has hired Alex Zanardi, who left Formula One in 1994 after scoring only one point in 25 races. He returns as a star, having won the last two CART championships in North America.

Zanardi's teammate is the ''Mr. Brother,'' Ralf Schumacher. Michael's younger brother joined Williams after two seasons with Jordan. He drove consistently faster than Zanardi throughout most of the testing, but Zanardi's greater experience should help in races.

Jordan, the team that won its first race at the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix, has improved steadily. This year's internal battle between Damon Hill and the new driver, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, should help raise the level of competition.

Benetton's cars set fast times through the winter. But the team has a new director, Rocco Benetton, 29, who has no experience in racing.

Sauber finally has a competitive motor in the 1998 Ferrari engine. Jean Alesi, the team's French driver, set promising times in testing.

At Jackie Stewart's team, Rubens Barrichello set the third fastest time in Barcelona. But problems with the new Ford engine and Johnny Herbert's crash at 300 kilometers per hour (185 miles per hour) down the straight suggest the car still needs development work.

''Like any new chassis-engine package at the start of a season,'' Stewart said, ''there are certain issues still to be resolved.''

The two teams that seem doomed to bring up the rear are Minardi and Arrows. Minardi has an all-new and fast car -- along with the smallest budget in the paddock.

In January, Tom Walkinshaw sold part of the Arrows team to Prince Malik Ado Ibrahim of Nigeria, and another part to the investment firm Morgan Grenfell Private Equity. Last week, the new consortium kicked out Mika Salo, the fast and experienced Finnish driver, in favor of the less-experienced Toranosuke Takagi, whose sponsors will contribute $6 million to the team's budget.

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