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Curtain up on spectacular season

LONDON, March 9 – The most competitive, exciting and, quite possibly, spectacular Formula One season for two decades will begin in Bahrain on Sunday.A combination of new driver line-ups, new teams, new rules and a new scoring system have combined to contrive a feast during a 19-race season that embraces a stunning mix of old and new.

From the desert circuit of Sakhir in the Gulf through a truly global series, including races on every continent, and then back to the Gulf for the finale in Abu Dhabi, this F1 title race promises a memorable roller-coaster ride – with drama all the way.

After three seasons in retirement, seven-times champion Michael Schumacher, now 41, is back in an all-Teutonic, Mercedes-owned team run by his favourite pit-wall boffin Ross Brawn.

Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, the last two consecutive world champions, compete in the same all-British McLaren team.

And Spaniard Fernando Alonso, a double champion with Renault, has joined Brazilian comeback kid Felipe Massa in all-Latin line-up at Ferrari.

As if that were not enough, there is also the return of the great Senna and Lotus names among four new entrant teams, a first Russian driver, refuelling has been banned, narrower slick tyres are back and there is a new-fangled points payout.

But the prospect of great racing between 12 – or possibly 13 – teams (depending on whether USF1 are capable of joining the series after missing the opening four rounds), in 19 races in the 61st championship, is also riddled with questions.

Can Schumacher recapture the greatness of his earlier days before that abrupt retirement in 1996?

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Will the happy pairing of defending champion Button and former champion Hamilton survive a season of cut-throat competition?

Schumacher has returned, looking super-fit, confident and relaxed, to lead a newly-created Mercedes Benz factory team, created by buying, and then re-badging, the hugely-successful Brawn operation that took both titles last year.

It is a British team, led by the great manager-designer Ross Brawn, based in Brackley, Northamptonshire, but decorated for a German audience, powered by German engines and running two German drivers, albeit that Nico Rosberg’s father is the original ‘flying Finn’ Keke Rosberg, the 1982 champion.

Perhaps the most extraordinary fact, in relation to Schumacher’s comeback, is that Rosberg, now 24, was only six years old when the sport’s most successful driver of all time made his debut at Spa-Francorchamps in 1991.

It should be taken for granted that the ‘red baron’ will be just as fit and committed as a ‘silver arrow’ man as ever he was in his youth.

Schumacher’s return will not be the only big story this season.

There is the British battle of champions at McLaren and three-way scrap between the British, German and Latin teams, not to mention Red Bull, who nearly took the title last year thanks to Sebastian Vettel.

At McLaren, Button, at 30, is the senior man — more experienced, more worldly in many ways, but lacking the intimate relationship with the team that Hamilton has enjoyed for a decade after growing up under his mentor Ron Dennis.

In a tight scrap, that kind of extra knowledge converts into a winning edge and for all their efforts to be fair and even-handed McLaren will be stretched to make it transparent that Hamilton has no advantage over the older ‘new boy’.

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Form suggests that Hamilton, the hottest driver of the second half of 2009, will be hard to beat whatever Button hopes to do about it.

At the McLaren team’s launch, both stressed the need for teamwork.

Past experiences – and the team’s memory of the ‘war’ between Frenchman Alain Prost and Brazilian Ayrton Senna 20 years before — had informed them.

Much the same message came from Ferrari, stung by last year’s slump in form that also saw Massa survive a terrible accident in Hungary and miss the final eight races and former champion Kimi Raikkonen depart with a year of his contract remaining.

Ferrari’s new car, the F10, simply has to be a winner to save the jobs at Maranello and prove that, for the Italian stable, there really is life after Schumacher.

But in signing Alonso, rejuvenated after escaping Renault, where he was embroiled in so much controversy including the Crashgate affair, to partner Massa, they are courting a classic explosion of temperaments.

The pair have a record of clashes, particularly from 2007, but have pledged to leave past squabbles behind them.

Alonso has also had his fair share of spats with Schumacher and, though he may not say so, would dearly love to secure his third world title at the expense of his old German rival.

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