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The Australian Grand Prix Preview - The Wait is Finally Over 26 Mar 2009

Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, 25 March 2009 Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, 25 March 2009 Jenson Button (GBR) Brawn Grand Prix.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, 25 March 2009 Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Ferrari.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, 26 March 2009 Nelson Piquet Jr. (BRA) Renault.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, 25 March 2009

At last, after what seems to have been the least conclusive off-season in a long while, the 2009 FIA Formula One World Championship kicks off in Melbourne’s Albert Park on Friday. And, after months in which several teams appear to have achieved good things in testing, we may finally start to get some answers to that crucial question: who will set the pace?

With the new restrictions on testing, Friday’s practice sessions will assume a far greater importance, and nobody is likely to be going anything other than flat out at this meeting in particular as they hone their cars and further develop things such as KERS. Ferrari, McLaren, Renault and BMW Sauber are the teams who have confirmed they are ready to run KERS. Williams, Brawn and Force India have said they won’t.

Brawn, of course, dominated testing once they started running in March, and Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello come to Australia full of hope. Red Bull, however, have indicated that they intend to protest the Brackley car’s diffuser design if it is accepted by the Albert Park stewards.

"From our short but crucial testing programme over the past two weeks, we have reinforced our view that the BGP 001 is a good car and an excellent platform from which to develop performance over the course of the season,” said team principal Ross Brawn. “Our focus during the seven days of pre-season testing was on reliability and developing our understanding of the car in race conditions.

“We are very satisfied with the work achieved and the initial pace seen from the car however we are fully aware that our work has only just begun. The practice running in Melbourne will be crucial and we have to get as much mileage as possible under our belts to allow Jenson and Rubens to refine the set-up of the car to their liking."

Ferrari seem very happy with the development work they have done on the F60, and the only fly in their ointment all winter, reliability issues apart, was Brawn. Felipe Massa says he will adopt the same approach as he did in 2008, when he so narrowly lost out in the title fight with McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton.

“We will work even harder to try to finish most of the races in the points because we saw that maybe one point is enough to lose the championship at the end of the year,” the Brazilian said, “so I think the approach now has to be the same in terms of driving, in terms of working with the team but trying to be a little bit more consistent.

“I think we can have maybe McLaren again fighting for the championship, BMW because they did a good job in the last years and maybe Renault and maybe some surprise, so I think it’s quite difficult to say now who our main rivals will be.”

Kimi Raikkonen has said that he likes the new Ferrari very much. “It looks very nice. I mean, it’s always when you get something new it takes a little while to get used to it, especially now we have, everybody has the same kind of front and rear wings so after the first couple of tests nobody any more notice and talks about it. It doesn’t really matter how it looks. If it’s fast, it’s enough.”

McLaren encountered a significant aerodynamic problem during the Spanish tests in March, but modifications which appeared late in the month in Jerez went some way towards improving the car and world champion Hamilton is feeling optimistic.

“There is no better place to begin the championship than in Australia,” he said. “The weather is fantastic, the facilities are excellent and the people of Melbourne make us all feel extremely welcome. Most importantly, everyone arrives with an air of enthusiasm and expectation. Despite weeks of winter testing, it’s still difficult to know exactly who has the best package, and finding out over the weekend in Albert Park is always fascinating. Perhaps we don’t come to Melbourne with the same prospects to challenge at the front that we experienced in both 2007 and ’08, but the whole team will be working tirelessly to help us move back to the front.”

New team principal Martin Whitmarsh added: “We go into the start of the 2009 season fully aware that we do not yet have the technical package that will allow our drivers to fight at the front. In Formula 1, there is nowhere to hide: that’s what makes our sport so demanding and yet so endlessly fascinating. And as a team that goes grand prix racing with the expectation of winning races and challenging for world championships, we therefore go to Melbourne with realistic expectations. Nonetheless, we begin our season with huge determination to re-assert ourselves at the front and we will not rest for a moment until we have done that. Most importantly, we haven’t forgotten how to win.”

BMW Sauber, Renault and Toyota all believe they have the firepower for victory this season. The Swiss-German team plans to do just that as the next step in its challenge for the world championship, while the two others want success to help justify their continued participation.

“We are heading in the right direction with the BMW Sauber F1.09,” said BMW Sauber team principal Mario Theissen. “Both the drivers and the engineers came back with positive feedback during testing. Plus, Nick (Heidfeld) and Robert (Kubica) carried out full race simulations without suffering any technical problems.

"As far as KERS is concerned, our system will be race-ready. We sent the cars out regularly with KERS during testing and the results were very good. Now it's just a matter of weighing up the pros and cons.”

Renault’s Fernando Alonso comes here aiming for victory, and said: “The first test in Portimao was tough as we had some bad luck with the weather, but when we introduced updates at the later tests we quickly improved the car. We’ve learnt how to optimise the set-up and we now have a car that is easy to drive and consistent. What is important now is that we keep improving and developing it throughout the year.

“With the KERS and moveable wings the drivers now have more work to do inside the cockpit. During testing I have been working hard to adapt to these new systems so that I can get the most from them in Melbourne. I’m really pleased with the KERS system that we have developed and hopefully this will give us an advantage at the start of the season. I’m not sure if it will make overtaking easier, but it will certainly improve lap times.

“Albert Park has been a good track for Renault and so I hope we can have a strong weekend. I think the order of the teams will probably be different from the last few years as we have got used to Ferrari and McLaren dominating, but with the new rules I think there will be lots of cars fighting for the win.”

Besides Toyota, who will be in there pitching, Red Bull and Toro Rosso have very high hopes for their new Adrian Newey-designed cars, while Williams believe their FW31 will be very competitive. Frank Williams’ team - along with Brawn and Toyota - are another to have found a potential loophole in the rear diffuser regulations. Their design could draw protests from rivals, but could also bring invaluable performance gains. Meanwhile, Force India - now with Mercedes rather than Ferrari power - know they have work to do on their aerodynamic package, but are keen to score points early in the season.

Albert Park is a technically demanding, high-speed ‘street’ circuit. Cars reach maximum speeds of 300 km/h (185 mph) and average 225 km/h (140 mph) around the 5.3 kilometre (3.3 mile) 16-turn lap. The track surface is bumpy, particularly in the braking areas, hard on the brakes and slippery at the start of the race weekend before the road rubbers in.

Teams will run relatively high levels of downforce, and everyone will be looking for good front-end grip which is the secret of quick laps here.

In the first race for their new slick tyres, Bridgestone are using the opportunity to launch a new system to show their continued support for the FIA’s Make Cars Green campaign, by marking the softer of the two dry compounds with green sidewalls. For this race they will offer the medium and super soft tyres from their range of hard, medium, soft and super soft rubber.