Who's optimistic, and who's not, ahead of first practice
If you wanted to define quiet confidence while walking through the paddock yesterday, the Renault camp was the place to stop. The team believe they are in better shape for the start of a season than ever before, and that they are ready to continue the work they have been doing all through winter testing.
We are ready for Melbourne, Fernando Alonso said. We have done a lot of running since the new car was launched, and learned a lot about the R25 - more than in previous winters. In our last big test in Barcelona, we still had some reliability problems, but that is normal at this stage of the year and the team has worked hard to get on top of them since then. I think we understand the car well, and have made good progress with its driveability and performance in recent test sessions. Overall, it was a successful winter for the team.
Both he and Giancarlo Fisichella liked the feedback they get from the R25, and the improvement in handling over last years sometimes quirky R24.
Over at McLaren, the other fast winter testing team, they are trying to play down expectations, but there is that same air of quiet confidence that the homework has been done. We went really, really well over the winter, one insider said. The only thing we are worried about now is whether that will prove to be just one of those things, or whether we really are genuinely as quick as we looked.
Again, McLaren are a team that are very well prepared.
Jenson Button is well up for things at BAR. We know where we are now after our last test in Valencia. We had a difficult test in Barcelona but it was difficult to tell anything from it. Our first test in Valencia went very well, though we lacked a bit of speed compared to Renault and McLaren. We couldnt figure out why we lacked grip. Then we made changes to the aerodynamics and the car really improved and started to go in the right direction. Hondas have made real progress with the engine, particularly the reliability. We didnt have a perfect winter, but were on the right track.
We have been just getting on with what we do best, making progress. McLaren and Renault have been very quick, very consistent over long runs, but we dont really know what they have been doing. I guess well find out come quallie on Saturday afternoon. For me the car is quick, and weve been quicker than Ferrari for most of our testing. But we dont know how quick. Its been very, very unusual. On Saturday itll be interesting to see where we stand over one lap, but as far as tyre performance and durability, and engine reliability, we wont know until the race.
We have done a lot of simulation of the new qualifying and race patterns. In qualifying trim the car feels very similar to last year, but the race will be different. You wont be able to push to the limit every lap so there will be a different way that you plan the race. We have simulated our fuel stops, and qualifying with high fuel loads and old tyres, and have done a lot of running to assess the new rules. Weve taken the time to get to grips with them. We should be strong in the race, and maybe my style will help to conserve the tyres.
Down at the head of the garages, Ferrari exude their usual air of menace for their opposition. Asked whether he thought it would be good for the sport this year if they struggled a bit, Michael Schumacher merely shook his head and said quietly: That would disappoint plenty of people. You dont know how much support we have. I understand the question, but it makes no real sense to do anything from our side.
Button summed up everyone elses feelings about Ferraris likely speed when he said: I dont know if Ferrari are playing games because I havent seen their Bridgestone tyres after a run, but their lap times have been consistent so they are still going to be quick. But whether theyll be quick enough in the race
Elsewhere, Williams expect to be there or thereabouts, but Sir Frank Williams has already gone on record to say that he does not expect the FW27 to be strong enough to win here because of aerodynamic shortcomings, and that the Red Bulls may embarrass his blue and white cars in the first race. Christian Horner and Guenther Steiner at Red Bull are being cautiously optimistic but are aware that this is their first big test; Sauber think they have got to grips with the sleek new C24; and Mike Gascoyne is happy with Toyotas new TF105.
At Jordan everyone is going about learning the new game they are playing, but a question mark still surrounds Minardi. Paul Stoddart still wants to run his cars to 2004 specification in protest against the new rules, but needs unanimity from the other nine teams. Jean Todt at Ferrari may or may not sign, but yesterday Horner said he would not. I sympathise with their position, he said, but rules are rules. The most frustrating thing for us would be for Minardi to finish eighth and us ninth on Sunday, which would mean us losing a point to them. Thats why I cant sign.
The situation will be resolved one way or another by first practice this morning. As usual there will be two one-hour sessions today in which teams must assess their tyre compound/construction options, before making their selection of the set they will then use for the rest of the weekend.