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Thursday race preview - Australia 04 Mar 2004

A young boy dreams of one day driving a Ferrari F2004.
Australian Grand Prix Preparations, Rd 1, Albert Park, Australia, 3 March 2004

Who is best prepared for the Melbourne event?

Ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix we check out the teams’ prospects for the coming year.

Why have Ferrari done virtually all of their new-car testing in Italy? What do they have up their sleeve? These are the pressing question as, for the first time in ages, Ferrari debut their new car in the first race of the season. Sir Frank Williams still believes the F2003-GA was the best car of 2003, so only a non-Ferrari fan would expect anything but another brilliant contender from the Rory Byrne/Ross Brawn uber-alliance. The big question will be the performance of Bridgestone's tyres.

What is arguably the ugliest car on the grid may well prove to be the fastest. There's a special air of expectation at Williams' Grove factory, and after two seasons of knocking on the door another world championship beckons. BMW are getting impatient as they go into their fifth season since returning, but Sir Frank Williams and technical partner Patrick Head are even more impatient. Williams are the pundit’s favourite at this stage, together with Ferrari.

Last year's new McLaren was such a disappointment that it never ran more than handfuls of laps in testing, and never managed a race distance. But the evolutionary MP4-19A has been testing since December. The crucial questions here are whether Mercedes-Benz can generate sufficient horsepower to challenge Ferrari and BMW, and whether stories of handling imbalance proved unfounded. Underestimate McLaren at your peril.

When Renault switched from their innovative wide-angle V10 engine to a stopgap based around their 1999 concept, many expected the team to flounder. Instead the new R24 has been very quick, and rivals such as BMW Williams have been staggered by the consistency of its lap times in race trim. With two hungry drivers, Renault are definitely the dark horse.

If all the winter test times can be believed BAR Honda should be a genuine contender for podium finishes, possibly even victories. This weekend will tell us just where the team fit in to the overall equation, but like Williams there is an air of optimism here and in Jenson Button and Takuma Sato the team have a fabulous young driver line-up. This is where surprises could come from.

Quick out of the box, Sauber's 2003 challenger, the Ferrari-powered C23, had a bit of a slump before bouncing back in its last test at Imola. Young lions Giancarlo Fisichella and Felipe Massa are guaranteed to push one another hard this year, so expect some strong performances.

All manner of rumours circulated about Jaguar's latest R5, especially when last year's R4 broke suspension components in winter testing. But just when things seemed bleak new boy Christian Klien and Mark Webber began lapping very quickly at Valencia, suggesting that Jaguar was focusing previously on race and reliability running. Another team that could surprise.

Reputedly the biggest budget in Formula One, the determination of the world's number two car manufacturer, and the talents of design guru Mike Gascoyne. On paper Toyota seem to have many of the vital ingredients. So far the TF104, conceived before Gascoyne's arrival, hasn't been super-quick in testing, but like McLaren, you underestimate Toyota at your peril. They will get it right eventually, and testing times can be misleading.

Eddie Jordan says 2004's motivational motto is 'The Fightback'. Ironically he's unlikely to win a race as he did with Giancarlo Fisichella in Brazil in 2003, but the new season can only be better. Jordan's internal structure has been heavily revised after what he described as "the year of pain" last season, and in Nick Heidfeld and Giorgio Pantano, they have a couple of young chargers.

The defunct Arrows team rides again. Well, part of it does. Having purchased some of Arrows' assets, Minardi owner Paul Stoddart has amalgamated the best parts of the 2002 Arrows A23 with his own latest contender. Don't expect fireworks from Formula One's perennial underdog, but admire their sheer determination to keep racing.