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Formula One

Diminished dominance?

The series seeks to make the show more interesting by leveling the field. But how to slow Michael Schumacher?

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 14, 2003


It happened when Andy Granatelli was a threat to the Indianapolis 500 establishment. It's happening now because Michael Schumacher and the Ferrari he drives are miles ahead of the rest of Formula One.

Because of them, rules are being changed.

In 1967 Granatelli's innovative turbine-engine car blew away the Indy 500's conventional piston-driven cars. It led 171 of the 200 laps and was almost a full lap ahead with four to go when a $6 transmission bearing failed. In 1968 his front-running turbine led with nine to go when the fuel shaft broke.

In 1969, turbines, which only Granatelli raced, were banned.

Likewise, while not mentioning any team or driver, the F1 changes appear to be aimed at 2002's runaway champions.

Ferrari won 15 of 17 races in 2002 and its fourth consecutive championship with 221 points to BMW Williams' 92 and McLaren's 65. No team has been this dominant since 1988, when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost of McLaren won 15 of 16.

Schumacher won an F1-record 11 races, his third successive title and fifth of his career, equaling the record of racing legend Juan Manuel Fangio. Schumacher's record 144 points out of a possible 170 were nearly double the 77 of his closest challenger, teammate Rubens Barrichello.

In October, after the season-ending Japanese Grand Prix (which Schumacher won), F1 decided to level the track to try to regenerate interest in its races. The changes were approved by the Formula One commission of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, made up of 12 team representatives, eight race promoters, two sponsors, one engine supplier and one tire supplier.

"We're at a crossroads," FIA president Max Mosley told Autosport magazine. "We have to improve the show . . . if teams and the sport are to survive."

Among the changes:

Points will be awarded to each race's top eight on a 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis; it used to be the top six (10-6-4-3-2-1). Saturday's qualifying order will be determined by inverting Friday's times, cars will run one at a time Saturday (IRL, CART and NASCAR style), and they'll be limited to one lap.

If at least three teams decide before the season to a maximum 10 days of testing from March 10-Nov. 1, they'll be able to test for two hours on the Friday before races.

"We hope these measures will liven things up," said Bernie Ecclestone, who co-owns F1 media rights. "The qualifying procedure should shake the system up."

The FIA rejected more radical changes proposed by Ecclestone and Mosley. One would have given a weight handicap to the fastest car; another would have required each driver to race once for each team.

Ferrari chairman Luca Di Montezemolo expressed dissatisfaction with the change in scoring. "The new system is intended to award regularity, not the winner," he told Milan's sports daily Gazzetta. "Shortly, someone will understand it's a mistake and will change it again. I have a lot of patience, and I hope to have some more in the future."

Schumacher, too, was irked by the decision to help the opposition. "It's for the others to keep up and improve their game. It's not our fault," he told the Associated Press. "In all honesty, I would rather be criticized for being dominant than being too slow."

The reduction in May-November testing could save the sport as much as $300-million a year if all teams agree to it, Mosley said. "We have to look after the smaller teams," he said. But he also said Ferrari, Williams and McLaren -- F1's Big Three -- are unlikely to go along with it. Ferrari's 2002 budget was $390-million, eight times the size of lower-end teams.

The commission also prohibited teams from ordering their drivers to intentionally change positions to alter a race. That resulted from a furor created when Barrichello, under team orders, allowed Schumacher to pass him for the win on the last lap at Austria and Schumacher returned the favor at the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis.

In the British, German and Hungarian grands prix, the three following Schumacher's title-clinching win July 21 in France, television ratings fell in all nine European countries surveyed by TV Sports Markets magazine. That included Schumacher's native Germany, and Italy, Ferrari's home base. Two small-budget teams folded during the season and several others nearly did.

"Schumacher and Ferrari have a clear-cut advantage we haven't seen for many years," said Jackie Stewart, three-time world champion and a director of the Jaguar Racing team. But he added: "No one stays ahead forever in Formula One. Suddenly the scene changes. Teams like McLaren and Williams will be back."

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