The wait is almost over...
Today, with the winter testing completed, the competition finally begins in earnest here in Australia. But don't expect to learn too much about the true performance levels today.
Since the single-engine rule came in, everyone is very conscious of the need to conserve their engines. Instead of 400 km on a race weekend, they now have to last twice that. That's why all of the third drivers may well top the time sheets today, because they will only run today and thus don't have to worry too much about mechanical reliability. But don't worry too much either about talk of the main drivers running with 250rpm less than they will tomorrow and Sunday; the general consensus is that this will lose them only a couple of tenths of a second.
So who'll be quick this weekend? Well, you can take it as read that Ferrari must never be discounted, and if you think that Michael Schumacher will be content with six championship crowns, think again. He's as hungry for a seventh as he was his first. And Rubens Barrichello is just as keen to show that he can beat the German this year.
Then there's Juan Pablo Montoya, still driving for the BMW Williams team despite his 'disagreement' with them back at the French Grand Prix last July, but bound to partner Kimi Raikkonen at McLaren Mercedes from 2005 onwards. Montoya may be team mates with Ralf Schumacher but the pair could hardly be described as friends, and beating both Schumacher brothers and taking the number one to McLaren would be the Colombian's ideal way of making his point.
Then there's Raikkonen, narrowly beaten by circumstance and little else in 2003, and fellow rising superstar Fernando Alonso, who became the youngest-ever winner of a Grand Prix in Hungary last year. Both are ready to win regularly.
Throw in Rubens Barrichello, who last year showed many signs of beating Schumacher at Ferrari, and David Coulthard, who would love to rebuild his damaged reputation in what might be his final year in F1. Coulthard will start his 158th Grand Prix this weekend, beating Jacques Laffite's long-standing record of races for one marque with Ligier in the Seventies and Eighties. This will be Coulthard's 133rd appearance for McLaren. Former twice-champion team-mate Mika Hakkinen raced 131 times for the team, and Michael Schumacher has amassed 125 starts for Ferrari.
Jenson Button is bursting with enthusiasm for a BAR Honda that seems to work pretty well, and his underrated but quick team-mate, Takuma Sato, will push him all the way.
We've seen all the new cars, for a start. McLaren showed theirs last year, when it was called the MP4-18 and did only handfuls of test laps before regularly catching fire because aerodynamics had taken precedence over cooling. Now, evolved into the MP4-19, it has been running since December. Then there is the Renault R24, now with a narrow-angle V10 engine based on Renault's 1999 offering while an all-new engine is prepared for 2005. BMW Williams produced a shock when its ugly FW26 appeared with its distinctive tusky front-end treatment, and Ferrari unveiled a conventional-looking update of its F2003-GA, which Frank Williams still believes to have been the best car of 2003.
Winter test times can be notoriously misleading. Who but the individual teams can really be sure what fuel load (and therefore overall weight) any car was running at a given time? All winter Williams have looked strong and, once some transmission gremlins were eradicated, reliable. But the team are being very cautious in their predictions. Ferrari have generally stuck to testing in Italy, so there have been few head-to-head tests against their major rivals. The only one was at Imola recently, when Schumacher was very quick in the new F2004 and left McLaren and Williams in the shade, but the latter both point out how cold that test was. It seems that the two tyre companies, Bridgestone and Michelin, have again created products that work in different temperature ranges. Ferrari's Bridgestones (shared with Sauber, Jordan and Minardi) still appear to like lower temperatures; the Michelins, on which everyone else runs, prefer high temperatures. So drawing firm conclusions from the Imola test would be unwise.
Likewise, the speed of the BAR Honda might also be misleading; some allege the cars might have been running underweight, but insiders deny that vehemently and there is no questioning the air of optimism there. The switch to Michelin has filled them with fresh hope, and Geoffrey Willis's new car certainly looks the part.
McLaren may be lacking horsepower - there have been suggestions that it is 40 bhp down on the latest offerings from Ferrari and BMW - but the MP4/19 also seems to be a very tricky car to set up. Inside sources say it is only fast when the balance is poor, which isn't the way to win races. Dennis and McLaren managing director Martin Whitmarsh make no secret of the fact that a Mark two version of the car is already on the stocks.
It is the Renault that Williams fear more than anything but the Ferrari. Alonso achieved some "scary" race lap speeds during a simulated run in Barcelona, and the R24 is said to be incredibly kind to its tyres. One other rival described the R24 as "the best aero package in the pit lane."
Of the others, Sauber Petronas have high hopes for a car that clearly owes much to last year's Ferrari (including its engine and transmission); Jaguar looked slow all through testing until suddenly posing some fast times in Valencia; Toyota has thus far disappointed but, with Mike Gascoyne now in technical charge, will certainly improve; Jordan's driver line-up of Nick Heidfeld and rookie Giorgio Pantano will wring everything from their new car which now uses the same Ford engine as Jaguar; and Minardi will soldier on, with Hungary's Zsolt Baumgartner partnered by promising Italian Gianmaria 'Gimmy' Bruni.