KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) _ The recent history of Formula One is a tale of one-on-one rivalries: Ferrari versus McLaren, Senna versus Prost, Michael Schumacher versus the world.
Change, however, appears to be afoot.
As the Formula One circus left the Asian tropics of Malaysia this week for the Arabian desert of Bahrain, Ferrari and McLaren are facing up to the real possibility of a three-way struggle for the 2008 drivers' and constructors' titles.
Ferrari left Malaysia revitalized, with Kimi Raikkonen winning to assert his world championship defense and put the woes of the Australian season opener behind the team.
For all the momentum the Finnish driver's win produced for Ferrari, it was the performance of BMW Sauber that was perhaps the most significant outcome of the race.
Robert Kubica's second place in Malaysia gave the team podium finishes in two straight races for the first time. The 11 points BMW Sauber earned in the race were also a record for the team, and Nick Heidfeld turned the fastest lap.
It was the first time in his 136-race career that Heidfeld had recorded a fastest lap. Coming from a driver known more for being tidy than quick, that spoke volumes about the team's potential in 2008.
Ferrari's team principal Stefano Domenicali can hardly fail to see the threat posed by BMW Sauber, which leads the Italian team by eight points in the constructors' championship standings even after the Malaysia win.
"We need to respect them and we will for sure," Domenicali said.
After being clearly the best-of-the-rest in 2007 behind the dominant Ferraris and McLarens, BMW Sauber was aiming for more this year.
"We set two goals for this year," team principal Mario Thiessen said. "One of them was to make the battle in front of us into a three-way battle, and it looks like we are doing that — at least based on the two races so far.
"The other target was to win our first race this year, and I am confident we can do that."
Should it succeed in winning races this year, the competition for the constructors' title, if not the drivers' title, could become the closest since the 2003 season when the top three teams ended up separated by just 16 points.
Certainly, BMW Sauber travels to Bahrain with the least concerns of the top three teams.
For Ferrari, some of the polish was taken off Raikkonen's Sepang win by the failure of teammate Felipe Massa, who spun off the track while in a comfortable second place and under no pressure.
Coming on top of Massa's failure in Melbourne, where he also spun off before retiring, the Sepang mistake prompted further speculation about how long the Brazilian will last at Ferrari, his three-year contract notwithstanding.
Even before the race, Toro Rosso's rising star, Sebastian Vettel, was being linked with the second seat at Ferrari, and Renault's two-time world champion, Fernando Alonso, also has said it was natural he was being connected with the Italian team.
The prospect of Alonso driving for Ferrari may have been boosted by the exit of former team principal Jean Todt, now a team adviser, who had previously spoken of his opposition to recruiting the Spaniard.
McLaren has concerns of its own after an error-ridden performance in Malaysia.
Firstly, its two drivers were relegated five spots on the grid each for causing interference in qualifying.
Then Lewis Hamilton put in a drive more in keeping with a raw second-year youngster than the preternatural prodigy he appeared to be in 2007, when he conceded the championship by one point in the last race of the season.
He flat-spotted and delaminated his tires, both as a result of a loss of grip caused by driving too close to the Red Bull of Mark Webber, and spent much of the race following, and overdriving.
Hamilton — who leads the drivers' championship by three points after his win in Australia and points in Malaysia — was also compromised by a questionable choice of a softer tire in the middle of the race.
Only the timing of the safety car in Australia prevented Hamilton's McLaren teammate Heikki Kovalainen from being level on points with the Briton, and the No. 1 status he appeared to inherit with the departure of Alonso to Renault may not be permanent.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.