How will teams cope with less engines and downforce?
The biggest change in the regulations for 2004 is the rule limiting each driver make to one engine for the entire Grand Prix weekend. Instead of only 400 km, engines that spin at more than 300 revs per second must now last at least 800 km. If an engine fails and therefore needs to be replaced prior to Saturday afternoon's qualifying sessions, the driver loses 10 grid places. If an engine fails in either of the two qualifying sessions, the driver must start from the back.
The idea is to save costs. Some teams disagree that this will be the case, others accept it at face value. It places a huge premium on engine reliability, which of course is Ferrari's strong suit. There have been suggestions, however, that some teams may feel at times that it is better to start from the back with a fresh engine, which will then only have to do a 300 km race distance. That would mean it could be less detuned and would have more horsepower. We'll have to wait and see how that pans out.
There have also been aerodynamic changes. Rear wings may now only use two horizontal elements rather than three, so downforce has been reduced. The engine covers must also be bigger. Now, in order to claw back as much downforce as possible, teams will run the maximum available at many circuits that were only medium downforce last year.
There are changes in the electronics, too. Now banned is the controversial launch control, which virtually guaranteed that all drivers would make excellent starts. Fully automatic gearboxes are also illegal now. Drivers will thus have to fall back on their own skill and judgement again, to a certain extent.
Finally, there is no longer a qualifying session on Friday to determine the running order in single-lap qualifying on Saturday afternoon. Instead, Friday will be a general test day in which teams must sort out their tyre choice. The teams from fifth place downwards in the 2003 standings may also run a third car if they wish, on Friday. After two free practice sessions on Saturday morning there will be an hour-long afternoon qualifying session, the running order for which will be based on the finishing order of the previous race. A second session will then begin just two minutes later, again over a single timed lap and in reverse of the order of the first session times. Anyone who experiences problems in the first hour will thus have their work cut out getting ready for the second session, which determines grid positions.
So how do the team's technical experts view the changes and what preparations have they been making?
Dr Mark Gillan, Head of Vehicle Performance, Jaguar:
"The new engine-rule is going to make it a lot harder for the teams over the first few races as we come to terms with reliability. This will be key to us in the first few races and we will be looking to make the most of any opportunities that come our way. Our new driver Bjorn Wirdheim will also prove crucial during the Friday testing as he provides us with valuable data and feedback in preparation for the race weekend."
Willy Rampf, Technical Director, Sauber:
"The most significant regulation change for 2004, the single-engine rule, will make everyone quite conservative when running on Friday in order to keep the engine at its best for Saturday's qualifying and the race. We will still have to do our tyre comparison and selection then, however, as this must now be decided before the first session of practice on Saturday morning. The new qualifying rules - two sessions on Saturday afternoon - also mean that nobody has any reason to do low-fuel running any more, so everyone will concentrate on race preparation work instead. The first session will really just be a warm-up, with nobody wanting to risk their cars, and the second session, which will form the grid, will obviously be the primary focus.
"The rule change limiting the upper rear wing to only two elements instead of three has resulted in a reduction in downforce and this in turn means that most circuits now will require maximum downforce."
Sam Michael, Chief Operations Engineer, Williams:
"We have put a lot of effort into practising starts as launch control is now banned and the emphasis is mainly back on the driver. The results we've achieved in testing have been encouraging, but we will have to wait and see what happens in Melbourne.
"The new rules have stipulated that one engine must complete the whole race weekend otherwise you will be penalised by dropping ten places on the grid. This has meant that BMW have been working overtime on race simulations and dyno runs to ensure that the engine is capable of long mileage without losing too much performance.
"Race strategy should be interesting and largely different again from last year, in particular with the 100kph pit lane speed limit and the revised pit lane entrance (in Australia). With all of the changes, and the fact that there appear to be many competitive cars out there, I am sure 2004 is going to be an exciting season for the fans to watch but possibly a very stressful one for us on the pit wall!"