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Motor racing-New year, new hope for Schumacher

Written by: Staff

LONDON, Mar 2 (Reuters) Michael Schumacher has reason to sound optimistic as he gears up for what could be the final Formula One season of his career.

Last year was a nightmare for the seven-times world champion, the worst since he joined Ferrari from Benetton in 1996.

The indications now are that the Italian team have raised their game. It just remains to be seen how much of a smile the first race in Bahrain on March 12 puts back on the German's face.

''After all the hard work we've put in during the last couple of weeks, I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks it's about time,'' the 37-year-old said on his website, looking forward to the season-opener.

''It looks as though we've got a better package this year than we did last year and we're all ready to compete,'' added Schumacher.

With just one hollow win in the six-car US Grand Prix fiasco at Indianapolis, Schumacher had a dismal 2005 that saw Renault's Fernando Alonso end his run of five world championships in a row.

After scoring a record 148 points in 2004, with 13 wins, Schumacher bagged just 62 in 2005 as Ferrari's dominance evaporated.

New rules, and particularly a return to the tyre changes that favoured partner Bridgestone in the past, could help him to turn the tables.

If they do, Schumacher could stay around for some time yet -- unless he decides to go out on top.

Schumacher has a contract that expires at the end of the year and Ferrari's early season form will help him make his mind up about the future.

''The car has to be competitive,'' he told Germany's Der Spiegel in an interview in January. ''If I didn't stand a chance of winning races and competing for the title, I don't think I would be interested in continuing my career.'' EIGHTH TITLE Ferrari boss Jean Todt has said Schumacher, who has an open invitation to stay on with the most successful team in Formula One history, has no pressure on him to decide.

''Michael is motivated...like all of us, he was very displeased about the 2005 season and really he wants to do something in 2006,'' he said.

''Then during the year he's going to decide whether he's going to continue or not.'' MORE REUTERS DH RAI0650

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