Tuesday March 13th, 2001
By Alan Baldwin
Triple world champion Michael Schumacher will stand alone among the ranks of modern Formula One drivers if he can continue his winning roll in Malaysia on Sunday.
If Schumacher wins at the track where he celebrated his title and the constructors' crown last October, he will be the only living Formula One driver to have won six races in a row.
The late Italian Alberto Ascari won nine between 1952 and 1953 but the most any driver has managed since then is five -- a tally notched up by Britons Jim Clark and Nigel Mansell, Australian Jack Brabham and now Schumacher.
History is on Schumacher's side.
Sepang's state-of-the-art circuit, the newest on the calendar, hosts a Grand Prix for the third time and local fans have yet to see anyone other than a Ferrari driver clamber to the top of the podium.
Eddie Irvine won in 1999 and Schumacher, cavorting in a scarlet wig with the rest of the Italian team, took the honours in 2000.
Schumacher could have been gunning for his Malaysian hat-trick this year had he not moved over and let Irvine win in 1999 after leading for 17 laps.
Concern for Safety
Schumacher is favourite in the race that will be under close scrutiny following the death of a marshal in last week's Australian season-opener.
Speed and track safety are the big issues of the moment, and cornering speeds in particular will be monitored closely by the International Automobile Federation (FIA).
The world body is concerned that speeds have risen sharply as tyre manufacturers Michelin and Bridgestone fight for supremacy and action may have to be taken.
Schumacher's pole in Melbourne was some four seconds quicker than the time set by Hakkinen the previous year.
"We don't want to jump the gun but if Malaysia and Brazil were to confirm, as I fear, the results from Melbourne, the FIA must act quickly," said FIA president Max Mosley last week.
McLaren's Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard are the main candidates eager to end Schumacher's winning run.
Two times champion Hakkinen crashed out in Melbourne while in second place. Coulthard is hungry for a win after finishing runner-up to Schumacher.
"With the opportunities Sepang offers to overtake it should be an exciting race," said Coulthard, who took a holiday in Australia after the Grand Prix.
The Scot's immediate reaction to the first race of the season was to declare that the Ferrari F2001 was ahead of the McLaren MP4-16.
"To reel them in Malaysia is probably a tall order," he said. "Our car will go quicker. Whether that is enough for us to catch up, because as we develop they will develop, we will see."
Hakkinen has returned refreshed after leaving Australia straight after the race to be with his wife and baby son.
Williams, third overall last season, are confident they will be back on the pace in Malaysia after both their cars failed to finish in Malaysia.
Ralf Schumacher was involved in the fatal crash, with a wheel from Canadian Jacques Villeneuve's BAR hitting and killing marshal Graham Beveridge, while Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya suffered an engine failure.
BMW Motorsport director Mario Theissen said the team had fixed the problem.
"It was a faulty pipe connector between oil tank and engine, which from a certain point on simply didn't supply the V10 with enough oil," he said.
Michelin, who supply Williams, have never tested at the track and that should give a clear advantage to teams such as Ferrari and McLaren who use Bridgestone rubber.
The race, hit by poor ticket sales so far, could also be a wet one with rain likely at this time of year.