The 2004 Foster's Australian Grand Prix will be the most wide open Formula One race in Melbourne for years, according to the statistics experts at the city's Swinburne University.

While six-time world champion and three-time Australian GP winner Michael Schumacher is favourite after the annual computer simulations by Swinburne's sports statistics unit in its School of Mathematical Sciences, the German superstar's emerging challengers are given better chances this time around.

After simulating the 2004 Grand Prix more than 20,000 times on computer, representing 1.16 million laps and more than 6.15 million kilometres around the Albert Park circuit, Schumacher is given a 19.5 per cent chance of winning the race on March 7 in his Ferrari.

Juan Pablo Montoya is rated a 16 per cent chance, while his Williams-BMW teammate, Ralf Schumacher, is at 14.8 per cent. McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen is a 13 per cent chance, while Rubens Barrichello is at 10.8 per cent in the other Ferrari. The 2003 Foster's Australian GP victor, David Coulthard, is rated only a 5 per cent possibility of a repeat in his McLaren.

Schumacher had been given a 41 per cent chance of winning in 2003 but finished fourth. In 2002 he was rated a 31.1 per cent chance and won the race for the third straight year.

The latest simulations - again done by Jonathan Lowe in collaboration with Professor Stephen Clarke and released at the recent [November 19] launch of the 2004 Foster's Australian GP - have shown the F1 pendulum swinging away from Ferrari, the constructors' world champions the past five years, back towards Williams, the pacesetting team in the mid-1990s.

Williams came close to toppling Ferrari in the 2003 constructors' championship, eventually losing out with 144 points to the Italian team's 158.

Williams was the dominant team in F1 when the Australian GP came to Melbourne from Adelaide in 1996, but it has not won at Albert Park since Damon Hill's victory that first year ahead of his team-mate Jacques Villeneuve.

The Swinburne simulations predict a greater chance of a Williams victory in '04 than a Ferrari win - 30.8 per cent to 30.3 per cent. McLaren is given an 18 per cent chance of winning in Melbourne but only a 4.4 per cent chance of taking the 2004 constructors' world title, for which Williams is favourite at 50.6 per cent to Ferrari's 44.9 per cent.

The simulations are based on historical data and therefore do not take into account the expectations that the new McLaren-Mercedes could be a super car.

Again because of the historical information on which the calculations are done, including that his Jaguar team is ranked seventh of the 10 in F1, Australian star Mark Webber is not seen as being a frontrunner in 2004 - although the simulations have not addressed qualifying, at which Webber excelled in 2003. Indeed, Jaguar Racing says that in Friday qualifying Webber was number 3 for the season, behind only the Ferrari drivers.

The Swinburne simulations have found Webber to be among nine of 20 drivers in F1 with a chance of becoming world champion next season - albeit only a very slim chance. Michael Schumacher is seen as a 36.1 per cent chance of a seventh world title, ahead of Montoya (third in 2003) on 21.7 per cent, Ralf Schumacher (fifth in '03) 20.5 per cent, Raikkonen (runner-up in '03) 12.6 per cent, Barrichello 7.9 per cent and Coulthard only 0.6 per cent.

Webber has been given a 32.5 per cent chance of starting his third F1 season by scoring world championship points (finishing in the top eight) at Albert Park and a 5.8 per cent chance of a podium finish (in the top three).

Despite notching up 17 of Jaguar's 18 points in the 2003 season, Webber's fifth place on debut for Minardi in Melbourne in 2002 remains his best result - and leaves him as the only driver to have scored points for Minardi in the past four seasons. That fifth place remains Minardi's best result since Italian Pierluigi Martini also ran fifth at the British Grand Prix in July 1994.



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