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Culture

Schumi Is the Man to Beat

As the Formula One season kicks off, six-time champion Michael Schumacher is the one to watch. Securing the pole position on Saturday, the German Ferrari pilot poses the ultimate challenge for Barrichello and Montoya.

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Off to a flying start -- Michael Schumacher in Australia.

The 2004 Formula One season picked up where the last one left off -- with a victory lap by Michael Schumacher. The six-time world champion put in his best time ever on Saturday to qualify for pole position in the season opener in Melbourne, Australia.

Clocked at 1:24.404 minutes for the just over five kilometer track, Schumacher secured his 56th pole start in his career. It was a full 2.8 seconds faster than last year's qualifier. "I'm very pleased," the German Ferrari pilot said after the race.

Saturday was also a one-two victory for Ferrari as teammate Rubens Barrichello from Brazil came in second, only 74 thousandths of a second slower than Schumi. It is the fourth consecutive time the two drivers will be starting side by side in the front row for the Australian Grand Prix.

Hot on Shumi's tail

Behind the Ferrari pilots will be the Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya starting for Williams-BMW in third position and Jenson Button from England for BAR-Honda. The Spaniard Fernando Alonso (Renault) and Australian Mark Webber (Jaguar-Cosworth) will start in row three.

Juan Pablo Montoya Formel 1 Melbourne Australian Grand Prix 2. Training

Colombia's Juan Pablo Montoya for Williams-BMW.

Montoya, whom some have tipped as the contender for the driver's title in 2004, will be hot on Schumi's tail when the cars race around Melbourne's Albert Park track on Sunday. He finished third in the overall championship last year and is revving for a chance to take on the Germans. His BMW teammate and Schumi's brother Ralf had to settle for eighth spot on the starting grid.

The surprise outcome in Saturday's line-up was the fourth place seating for the young Jenson Button. More disappointing was Kimi Räikönnen's 10th place finish for McLaren-Mercedes. The deputy world champion was 1.889 seconds behind Michael Schumacher, but was confident of pulling ahead in the actual race on Sunday.

"Let's wait and see what the race brings," Mercedes motor sports director Norbert Haug said.

All agree, though, that Schumacher, who has won the Australian Grand Prix three times, has proved that his best times in training runs were no accident. He is the man to beat on Sunday.

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