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Australia Preview - '08 holds few fears for title contenders 14 Mar 2008

Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Ferrari.
Australian Grand Prix, Rd 1, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, 13 March 2008 (L to R): Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren and Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Ferrari in the FIA Press Conference.
Australian Grand Prix, Rd 1, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, 13 March 2008 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault.
Australian Grand Prix, Rd 1, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, 13 March 2008 Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Ferrari signs autographs for the fans.
Australian Grand Prix, Rd 1, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, 13 March 2008 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren.
Australian Grand Prix, Rd 1, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, 13 March 2008

If you ever needed a testament to the power of development in Formula One racing, consider the ban on traction control and the comments of the men who are arguably the three fastest in the business: Ferrari world champion Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, and former double champion, Renault’s Fernando Alonso.

Speaking ahead of Sunday’s Albert Park race, none of them think the ban will make much difference. It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same!

“I think there was a big difference when we tried before Christmas for the first time with last year’s car,” Raikkonen admitted in Melbourne on Thursday. “It was a lot more difficult but then with the new car we improved in the areas where it was less good and it helped a lot. Now with new tyres you do not feel the difference on the one lap whether you have traction control or not. I think when it is a difficult condition, wet or slippery, then it will be much more tricky but you don’t really notice.”

Hamilton agreed: “It was not really too much of a problem. As I said when they tried to introduce it I thought it was a good idea because all the other categories I have driven in we did not have traction control. I am not going to say if I prefer one to the other because they are both quite different to drive but this one is a challenge and everyone is in the same boat. I think they have done a really good job in working with all the controls but I am sure we will keep on improving. And development has definitely minimized the difference. So time-wise I think you will see that we will all do similar times to when we had traction control.”

“It’s made less difference than I thought, to be honest,” Alonso said. “The first time I test was in Jerez and I was expecting more problems than we had. Okay, in the long run you feel the drop in the tyres and you feel the loss of traction and the braking stability but nothing too big, similar with some times we had last year as well, so as I said not a big difficulty. But it still does change circuit to circuit and at some circuits there is nearly no difference compared to last year and at some others it is a little bit more, so I imagine that every circuit will be different and maybe Monaco and places like this will be a big difference compared to last year. But we will see.

“All the teams are working to try and get the mechanical side and the aero side to what we lost in terms of electronics, so for sure with the set-up and all the other things around the car we are trying to deal with the loss of the electronics.”

None of them says they have changed their driving style to compensate for the loss of the electronic aid, or for engine braking control for that matter.

The one place there could be a problem is at the start, which might see grids reshuffled before first corners. “I could see at the moment much more chance to lose some places now,” Raikkonen admitted, referring to getting off the line. “Before it was more or less automatic. You had a good start or not so good but it was always very close. Now it is up to you and if you make a mistake you are going to be very slow off the grid and you can gain but you can also lose. I think when it is wet conditions it is quite tricky to get a good start.”

All three of the protagonists seemed happy in their own way, as each chases a different goal in 2008. Raikkonen may be the most fulfilled of the three, as the reigning champion. Hamilton looked the most relaxed. And Alonso showed slight traces of tetchiness as he fended off questions about his relationship with Hamilton.

A year ago Raikkonen was about to start his first race for Ferrari, and to win. Twelve months down the road, he returns to Albert Park a champion, and the pre-season favourite. “For sure it is much easier to come now,” he conceded. “It is different because I know the team, know the people, so ... Last year went very well for us. Now it should be easier as I know the team.”

But he isn’t playing up the favourite tag and says he isn’t bothered about the pressure. “No, but I think we have not even started the championship yet, so let’s see what happens. We will do the best job we can but for sure we expect to do well in our team. I think the two main teams seem to be a bit ahead of the others and four drivers, so anything can happen.”

Hamilton was a rookie this time last year, and comes back as the man who nearly won the title in his debut season. “I think it is better,” he said, referring to his situation as de facto McLaren team leader. “There is better preparation. Last year I and my trainer were both rookies and we did the best job we could which was good but there were areas we could improve on and we have done.

“I don’t think there is more pressure, I think there is less pressure than last year. Last year there was a huge build-up and just a lot of weight hanging on my shoulders, really, because no-one really knew if I was going to do well or what. And neither did I. It is a slightly different feeling. I think I know even more now knowing what a season feels like. I am even hungrier and I feel even more determined and just more excited about racing. It has been too long a break. It really has seemed to drag along even though the race is a little bit earlier. It just seems forever since we raced last.”

Down at Renault, Alonso admitted that some of the title-winning confidence was sapped away by last year’s disappointments. “Maybe a little bit,” he said. “Of course after winning two years in a row when I left in 2006 they were confident and they were believing in themselves a lot. Now for sure you know no good results last year, maybe a little bit lacking in confidence now but I think they know that were are able and they are able to do good things. They have nothing to prove to anybody, so it is just a matter of time and good work with everybody to put in a better place again.

“I will try to do the best job we can. For sure coming back to Renault for me is a great challenge and for them too I think because they are extra motivated this year to have the success we have had in the past and I am extra motivated as well so we all have the same goal and the same target.”

On Friday, we will finally see the first true patterns of the season start to emerge, perhaps find out how close to the stars their respective team mates are likely to get. At long last, the season will truly get underway.

David Tremayne