Third force asserts itself for 2001 World Championship

IT started as a weekend in which Michael Schumacher was intending to get the defene of his world championship firmly back on course. It ended with the Ferrari driver pondering the prospect of having to race his brother Ralf's Williams-BMW with as much focus and determination as David Coulthard's McLaren-Mercedes in what could be the first three-way battle title battle in almost two decades.

Not since Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet pitched their Honda-engined Williams FW11s against Ayrton Senna's Lotus-Renault 98T and eventual winner Alain Prost's McLaren-TAG MP4/2C in a season-long battle for the 1986 championship has formula one had three teams genuinely capable of winning from the front.

In that respect, Ralf Schumacher's victory at Imola quite simply rewrote the contemporary grand prix form book. At the start of the season it had been expected that the Williams-BMW team would be quite competitive, capable of snatching the occasional victory.

Now it has become clear that the Williams-BMW FW23 is not simply a competitive car, it is potentially the most formidable car of all on the formula one scene. Looking ahead over the remaining 13 remaining races this season, it is difficult to find a single track on which Ralf Schumacher and his exciting new team-mate Juan-Pablo Montoya can be discounted as potential winners.

Patrick Head, the Williams team's technical director, is characteristically pragmatic and measured in his predictions about the balance of the season.

"We will just go to each race and try and do our best," he said. "We are not working out a strategy as such to plan a championship, but with 13 races left there is still a long way to go."

Even so, the latest Williams-BMW certainly has all the attributes of a consistent winner. It has possibly the most powerful engine in formula one today, reliably estimated as having at least 20 horsepower more than the rival Ferraris and McLaren-Mercedes.

It has fine aerodynamics and a well-balanced chassis. It is benefiting crucially from being easily the best car in the field running on Michelin tires, the French company having returned to formula one this season after being absent since 1985.

Williams is the only competitive team to have taken the gamble to switch to Michelin, the others being Benetton, Jaguar, Prost and Minardi, all of whom are making heavy weather of things.

It is clear that McLaren, Ferrari and all the other teams contracted to the rival Bridgestone company will have to urgently pressure their Japanese engineers into raising their competitive level.

For the moment, however, there is genuine pleasure amongst Williams's rivals that they are back in the winning business. "We hate to lose," said McLaren chairman Ron Dennis, "but if we have to, we prefer that it is to our good friends and competitors at Williams."

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