Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, March 7, 1998

Formula One Stars Rev Up for Opener

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - The starting flag drops on the 1998 Formula One season in Melbourne on Sunday. But the psychological struggles between the drivers started some time ago.

Michael Schumacher, a two-time world drivers' champion and one of this year's favorites, said this week that he did not expect to win the season's first race.

On the other hand, Craig Pollock, who is involved with managing Jacques Villeneuve, said Villeneuve's goal ''is to try and beat Juan Manuel Fangio's five championships.'' Villeneuve won his first drivers' championship last season, so he still has five more to go.

Schumacher's statement suggests he is not a threat to win the Australian Grand Prix. But insiders remember a remark by his little brother, Ralf, at the French Grand Prix last season. Michael had just won pole position after much complaining about his car.

''When Michael complains that things are going to be difficult, that's when you have to watch out,'' Ralf said.

At Friday's free practice session in Melbourne, Michael Schumacher clocked the fastest time in his Ferrari at 1 minute 33.826 seconds around the 5.302-kilometer track. Villeneuve was third in a Williams, at 1 minute 35.023 seconds, just behind Mika Hakkinen in a McLaren, at 1 minute 34.432 seconds.

The practice did not count for places on the starting grid; those will be decided Saturday, but it did take the psychological battle to the track and Schumacher won the first round. The practice also confirmed that Ferrari, McLaren and Williams start the season as the three fastest teams.

Both Jean Todt, Ferrari's team manager, and Schumacher have said that Ferrari must win a title this year. Schumacher came within four points of the drivers' title last year. Ferrari has not won a drivers' title since 1979, or a constructors' title since 1983.

McLaren gained three victories last year, and its test times this winter were impressive. Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, the McLaren drivers, now have the experience to fight for the title. McLaren is the first of the top teams to change to Bridgestone tires; on some tracks it will have a clear advantage over Ferrari and Williams on Goodyears. The car is designed by Adrian Newey, whom McLaren recruited from Williams last year.

Although Williams has been weakened by Newey's departure, it can nevertheless count on Villeneuve and his hungry No. 2, Heinz-Harald Frentzen..

The Benetton, Jordan, and Prost teams are likely to fight for the rest of the points, which go to the first six finishers in each race. Benetton has two new drivers, Giancarlo Fisichella, who has moved from Jordan, and Alexander Wurz, who replaced Gerhard Berger for three races last year. But the team is in transition after the loss of its top designers to Ferrari and its managing director to retirement.

Prost and Jordan traded engines over the winter. Prost is in a partnership with Peugeot, and Jordan, dropped by Peugeot, uses Prost's discarded Mugen-Honda engines. Both teams are still adapting the engines to their chassis. Prost used three drivers last season and has kept the two strongest, Olivier Panis, and Jarno Trulli. Jordan has recruited Damon Hill, the former world champion, and Ralf Schumacher.

Farther back on the grid, Arrows has a new designer, John Barnard; a new engine, built by Brian Hart, and a new driver, Mika Salo.

The Stewart team finished second in Monaco last season, but was a disappointment from then on. Ford is now helping to develop the car, and the team has invested nearly $10 million in research and development.

Sauber will finally have two strong drivers, the eternal hopefuls Johnny Herbert and Jean Alesi. With 248 races between them, they are the two most experienced drivers on the grid. Alesi has only one victory, but he has 16 second-place finishes and 14 thirds.

That leaves the Tyrrell team battling with Minardi at the back of the grid.

One of Minardi's drivers will be Esteban Tuero, 19, the third-youngest ever to race in Formula One.

Meanwhile, Pollock bought Tyrrell in December with help from B.A.T. Villeneuve's manager is thus forbidden entry into the Williams garages or motor homes to see his client.

''You can't be the owner of one team and hang around in the garages of another team,'' a Williams spokesman said.

Ken Tyrrell, the team's founder, retired last month after Pollock hired Ricardo Rosset, a driver with little experience, but lots of money. Rosset brought a budget of $5 million

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