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motorsports

F1 champ, Ferrari look to get back to winning

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003

IMOLA, Italy -- On a January morning in Barcelona, Michael Schumacher climbed into a Formula One car after a three-month vacation and crashed on the first lap.

Three months later, Schumacher is still trying to shrug off mistakes in his quest for a record sixth title. In the first three races of 2003, he hit a curb, clipped another car and aquaplaned into a tire barrier. It's his worst start to a season since 1996.

"I have made so many mistakes in these first races that I hope I have used them all up," Schumacher, 34, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

Going into Sunday's San Marino Grand Prix, he's tied for sixth in points -- 16 behind McLaren's championship leader, Kimi Raikkonen. The race in Imola, south of Bologna, is one of his Ferrari team's two "home" Grand Prix. The 3.065-mile Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari is named after the team's founders.

Last season, Schumacher won 11 of 17 races, including his third win at Imola in four years, and earned a top-three place in every outing in the F2002 car.

"When you have won so much and unexpectedly stop winning, then people start asking questions," Schumacher said. "But that's racing."

Ferrari is having problems of its own. After planning to introduce the F2003-GA car in Imola, Ferrari changed its mind last weekend. The engine of the car -- which carries the initials of the late Fiat SpA chairman Giovanni Agnelli -- failed while Schumacher was testing.

"It still has some reliability problems," said Ferrari's sporting director, Jean Todt. "There is no need to take unnecessary risks."

The new model should be ready for the next race, the Spanish Grand Prix on May 4, the team said.

"There's no need to panic," Schumacher said. "Who knows? Maybe we can send the F2002 car into retirement with a victory."

Schumacher's slips may have helped boost TV audiences. After he won last season's title six races early, ratings fell by as much as one-third in Europe.

For the most recent race in Sao Paulo, Brazil, viewing figures rose in the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany. Schumacher was one of 11 drivers to crash on a rain-soaked track. The United Kingdom's ITV had its third-highest race audience since 1998, with 7.2-million people tuning in -- 1-million more than last year.

Italy's RAI channel said its figures rose by 260,000 to 11.6-million, about the same as RTL in Germany, which had an extra 200,000 viewers. The resurgence comes after the sport's ruling body introduced changes to make the sport less predictable, including restricting qualifying to one lap per driver.

MORE MONEY, MORE WRECKS?: Even in the early years when the Winston, NASCAR's nonpoints all-star race, only paid $200,000 to win, drivers would wreck their cars and others' if they thought it would get them to Victory Lane.

So now that the winner's share for the 2003 Winston has been raised from $750,000 to $1-million, imagine the destruction of sheet metal on the last lap.

"I wouldn't bring my very best, number one car to the Winston," said Mark Martin, driver of the No. 6 Ford. "I did that two years in a row and tore 'em up."

He expects a similar situation this year, when the green flag drops May 17 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.

Like last year, the race will be run in three segments with a "survival of the fastest" format. After the first 40-lap segment, the field of at least 23 drivers will be narrowedto 20. The second segment, a 30-lapper, will cut the field to 14, which will then run 20 laps for the lion's share of the $3.5-million purse, the richest per mile in NASCAR racing.

The field consists of Winston Cup race winners from the current and previous season, plus active champions and any other driver who has won the Winston in the past five years.

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