Friday preview - all systems go in Australia 16 Mar 2007
Tension building ahead of season opener in Australia
Perception is everything in Formula One racing, and until things perhaps get rewritten in todays two free practice sessions in Albert Park the perceived wisdom in the paddock is that Ferrari have a slight edge over McLaren, with Renault a likely third in the pecking order.
Further down the order, Super Aguri unveiled their neat new SA07 on Wednesday and will battle hard with Spyker, who seem unable to stop bringing important new financial deals in every other week.
In between what might be deemed the two extremes, BMW Sauber and Williams are the two teams most likely to spring a surprise in Australia. The German team have been flying in testing and insiders point to impressive race pace. But they may have technical issues still with their new seamless transmission. At Williams, they are happy with their pace so far and are desperately hoping that the FW28s dismal reliability has been exorcised in the new FW29.
Behind them, Honda covertly admit to being off the pace - some say on corrected time by as much as 1.3s a lap - while Toyota, Red Bull and Toro Rosso have all yet to find their true form and remain dark horses.
If Ferrari hold the technical high cards, however, there may be operational issues that could cause the Prancing Horse to stumble. One is the effect of Ross Brawns sabbatical on the teams ability to think on their feet. Title contender Felipe Massa was at pains to dispel that yesterday.
"The new car is definitely a big step forward, the 25 year-old Brazilian reported. It's much more stable, from the aerodynamic point of view it's a big step forward, but we still need to keep improving race by race and we need to keep working as hard as we can.
"Ross was a very important engineer, and key to the team for so many years. But we have engineers who can do a fantastic job like him."
The other issue is whether the Ferrari drivers help or hinder one another, for it is no secret that Massa doesnt see himself playing the shotgun role to incomer Kimi Raikkonen that he did in 2006 with the retired Michael Schumacher.
"Last year me and Michael in a couple of races threw away some important points, especially here in Australia," he admitted. "We were not lucky in terms of reliability at the start of the season and that was important at the end of the championship. We need to be stronger, be intelligent in bringing the car home and make as many points as we can in the first three races."
Raikkonen said: We are pretty happy with how things went in testing. In the last test we had everything, the package, that we have here. We are looking forward but it is too early to say. So many things can go right or wrong, so we just do the best that we can and hopefully we can be up there fighting for all the wins.
The Finn said he felt more integrated with his new team, but concedes the rivalry with Massa could be a problem.
For sure, if we have a good car like it looks like then it will always be a race between team mates. That is always normal; it has always been like that in the past. It is good in a way. We have a good atmosphere in the team, a good relationship, and on the circuit we always want to beat each other. That is always normal. We want to win here, of course, but in the past the Australian Grand Prix has been quite funny. The weather has been very difficult; you see many accidents and safety cars, so hopefully everything goes well.
As Jenson Button kept his head down in the press conference, Fernando Alonso was quietly confident since McLaren have brought new components to further enhance the performance of their new MP4-22 since the last test. Meanwhile, his rookie team-mate Lewis Hamilton shared his hopes for his debut.
I feel fantastic, firstly to be here in Australia for the first time and to be here as a McLaren-Mercedes driver is an amazing thing. Every year this is the most exciting part of the season and usually I am home in sunny England, getting up early on Sunday morning to watch the race. Now I am going to be there out on track. I am really, really looking forward to it. It is an extremely tough learning curve for me coming into my first Grand Prix, but racing is all relative. I have had many years of racing, I have had an intense training programme, and done a lot of mileage in the car. So hopefully having a first race is extremely exciting. I have a job to do but I am really looking forward to it.
Asked if he felt like a superstar yet, he laughed and replied: It is difficult to say. You can say it, but I don't feel like a superstar. I feel like a Formula One driver. So I guess if that means I am a superstar by being a Formula One driver, then so be it. I just feel great to be here.
The first hour and a half practice session kicks off here this morning at 1000 hrs, with the second starting at 1400. No details yet on which teams will run which drivers, but these will be vital in settling in to a very green track and to learning as much as possible about the performance of the two different tyre compounds that sole supplier Bridgestone have brought to Australia.