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Motor racing-Formula One countdown enters final month

Motor racing-Formula One countdown enters final month

The Formula One countdown entered its final month on Sunday with Michael Schumacher and world champions Ferrari already showing their competitive edge in pre-season tests.

Schumacher set a lap record at Ferrari's own Fiorano track in the new F2001 on Saturday while Brazilian team mate Rubens Barrichello set the fastest time yet at Barcelona's circuit in last year's car.

"I think we can be very pleased by the times but we should be even more pleased by the reliability," the German said after earlier impressive times on Friday.

"In all my career, I have never had a start with everything working so well from the outset," Italy's Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper quoted him as saying.

The first race of the season is in Melbourne on March 4 and Schumacher said he expected it to be a familiar story of Ferrari against McLaren, who unveil their new MP4/16 challenger in Valencia on Wednesday.

The two teams won every race between them last season and took the lion's share of the points.

"But I think we will see more teams winning races," Schumacher said. "I don't know which but others will have a chance of victory.

"Maybe my brother Ralf will have a chance with the Williams. I see also Sauber and Prost are strong and they are to be mentioned along with Jordan."

Sauber, with the youngest line-up in Formula One, have Ferrari 2000 specification engines as do Prost.

BENETTON HEAD FOR VENICE

Ferrari will continue testing in Italy next week, with Schumacher scheduled to test the new car at the Mugello circuit before being awarded the honorary citizenship of Ferrari's home city of Modena on Tuesday evening.

Barrichello is also due at Mugello.

McLaren will get down to serious business in Spain with their new car after giving some fresh faces a chance in the old car at Jerez last week.

Britons Darren Turner and Gary Paffett, last year's McLaren Autosport young driver of the year, both had outings as did Italian F3 driver Giorgio Pantano.

Benetton will be bucking a trend on Tuesday, going against the season's fashion for low-key launches with what promises to be a spectacular unveiling of their B201 on an island in the Venice lagoon.

The car will have a revolutionary new Renault V10 engine but Italian Giancarlo Fisichella warned last week that it was still too early to say how it would perform.

Benetton will be testing at Estoril in Portugal next week with other teams using Michelin tyres. The Prost team will test their new AP04 chassis.

"There's a lot to be done. In the first three races we will not be competitive but then there will be a big improvement," Fisichella told the Gazzetta last week.

One more piece of the jigsaw should be fitted into place in Italy on Tuesday when the Minardi team say they intend to name one of their 2001 drivers following Australian Paul Stoddart's takeover.

He is expected to be young Spaniard Fernando Alonso, who tested at Vairano in Italy on Saturday, with the second driver to follow a week later.

Minardi are the only team yet to name their line-up.

If Alonso is confirmed, he will be the fifth Formula One newcomer on the grid in Melbourne, not including the returning French driver Olivier Panis at BAR.


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