The drivers give their thoughts on the season opener
It is over five months since the 2003 Japanese Grand Prix and, though they've been racking up the testing miles over the winter, the drivers can't wait to go racing again.
Jenson Button, BAR:
"I can't wait for the season to start. We want to be strong from the off and if we can be quick in the first race it's only going to help our confidence and make us push on even more. The car has been very strong during winter testing and I'm expecting us to be reliable and to be fighting for podiums. I've never got a point at the Australian GP, so it would be really nice to start the season with points.
"I love Melbourne and I think it's the perfect place to start the season. It's a fantastic city and has some great restaurants. The track has a lot of straights and chicanes. There aren't many quick corners, but the racing is pretty good there. Qualifying was good there last year. We only did a few laps in practice, but still got a good result in the end. So last year was probably my best year yet.
"I still remember the first time I drove out on the circuit in 2000, I was behind Michael, driving out of the pits. It was pretty weird. I had only just turned 20 and there I was at my first Formula One race, driving out on the track behind Michael with all the leaves falling off the trees. It was just really cool. So that was my best feeling there. It will be pretty exciting to see what happens this year."
Takuma Sato, BAR:
"I am visiting Japan on the way to Australia and will be training hard before the first race. I have raced at Melbourne once before - it was my debut race - but I had a technical problem in qualifying. It was a great place to do my first Grand Prix though and is the perfect race to start the season with. We have been working very hard over the winter and have achieved some good testing results and so I am really looking forward to racing the new car for the first time.
"So many things can happen in Melbourne, and everyone has a chance. Hopefully we will be strong straight away - I am certainly confident and optimistic. Looking at the testing results and progress we have made I am sure we are in a much better position than before, and I am really excited about the first race of the new season."
Mark Webber, Jaguar:
"The winter testing season has been very productive for us and we have learnt a lot about the Jaguar R5. The balance and handling are very good and I am extremely happy with the progress that we have made on this car. Our goal this season is to implement and demonstrate continuous improvement of the car. I've never been closer to the team and we're working very hard together to get the best out of the car in the early part of the season. Reliability is going to be crucial in Melbourne, it's a tough race and with the one-engine rule, reliability will be key. The team in Milton Keynes and at our sister companies, Cosworth Racing and Pi Research have been working relentlessly to ensure progress at all levels. I am excited about getting back out on track and racing the car in anger. Melbourne is of course a special race for me, and in terms of atmosphere you can't beat it, however, this does make my off-track activities a bit hectic. The fans are fantastic though and over the course of the next couple of weeks I will be participating in many events that will allow me to get out and about to see them. I will be arriving in Sydney this week to participate in sponsor and media activities before making my way to Albert Park. There is no doubt that this is going to be a fantastic few days!"
Christian Klien, Jaguar:
"I am incredibly excited about the race and can't really describe the mixed emotions that I feel. I am enjoying my time with the team and I am pleased with the progress that I have made with them, both on a personal and technical level. Many people are talking about the new rules, although since everything is new to me it will make little difference. The testing period has been invaluable to me particularly from the perspective of understanding the tyre performance and limits. In addition, I have been surprised at the level of constant input the engineers make into the car while testing - this was a real education for me! Testing has also been vital from a simulation viewpoint. I have simulated long runs, qualifying runs, race starts and using full manual gear changes in preparation for this season. The learning curve has been vertical in many respects and will continue to be so for most of the season given how few tracks I know. Of all the 18 circuits on the F1 calendar, I have only raced on seven. Friday mornings at race weekends will be especially important for familiarisation purposes and while computer games help a little, there is obviously no substitute for the real thing. A week from now, the 'real thing' will present itself and after so many years of working towards this goal, I cannot wait to start racing."
Bjorn Wirdheim, Jaguar (third driver):
"Although I have only just joined the team last week, I feel as if I have been here a lot longer. I have really settled in well and I am fortunate that there is a really good group of guys at work here. I participated in a shakedown at Silverstone this week with Mark Webber. We generated nearly 400km of mileage with the one R5 we were shaking down. Looking ahead to Melbourne I am enthusiastic about driving on a Friday and I will certainly be doing what I can to learn from the team over the weekend so that I can start being a valuable backbone of information and feedback for both Mark, Christian and the team. My synergy with and understanding of all things Michelin will be crucial towards supporting the Friday test programme and given that I have raced on twelve out of the eighteen circuits, I am confident of generating the desired level of technical feedback."
Giancarlo Fisichella, Sauber:
"I like Australia and I like the city of Melbourne. It's always a nice Grand Prix weekend there, especially as it is the season opener. Some of the parts of the track are quite challenging, and it's one of those races where, if you can finish, you can usually take some points. You need a really reliable car there.
"I have a good feeling with the Sauber Petronas C23, especially after our latest tests in Spain and Italy where we did a very good job on set-up and tyre development with Bridgestone. We did a very good time at Imola, using the latest Bridgestones. So I'm feeling optimistic that we can qualify in the first five rows and hopefully score some points straight away."
Felipe Massa, Sauber:
"I'm so happy to be racing again, especially in Melbourne where I made my Grand Prix debut in 2002. There are some new rules since I was last here, notably single-lap qualifying, but that will be okay. I have done some simulation work on that during our tests, and it has gone well for me.
"Melbourne is a good track and I qualified well there in 2002. I believe that the Sauber Petronas C23has a lot of potential. Of course it's always hard to know just where you are after all the winter testing, and Melbourne will give us our first true indication of our position overall and then we will really know where we are. But we have a good car and the latest Bridgestone tyres, which incorporated the new construction and compound, were good at our Imola test. Bridgestone has been working really hard, and it showed there. I'm encouraged by that, and am looking forward to scoring some points in
Nick Heidfeld, Jordan:
"I feel really at home with the Jordan Ford team and I'm happy to be racing with them this year. Our early tests with the EJ14 have been promising as it's been quite a reliable car and I think with any luck we will just keep improving and improving it all year. It's going to be a challenge for sure and we won't make huge steps all at once. But we have a good base and little by little I'm confident we will move forward, score points and keep the competition behind us. I am fully motivated and determined to prove myself."
Giorgio Pantano, Jordan:
"I am so happy to be just days away from my first Grand Prix. It's going to be quite exciting for me and I can't wait to get out on the track - that's when it will all seem real. I have had a limited opportunity to test because I joined the team quite late, but I have enjoyed working with the team so far and I will be giving my all as I really want to guarantee them good results. Jordan is a good environment for me, I can learn from them and from my team mate Nick. This team is one of the few that has won races and they want to fight back to that higher level. With the new car, we can work together to find how to get there. Racing in Grands Prix is my dream and while I don't expect it to be easy, I will do my absolute best. I hope to finish every race and if there's the opportunity to score a point or two, I will go for it."
Juan Pablo Montoya, Williams:
"I can't wait for the racing to start again. Winter testing is hard work and not particularly rewarding because you can't tell where you are in relation to the competition. When you come to the first race, you can see what everybody else has done over the winter and how good you're going to be in comparison.
"I am very confident going into this season; I think that the FW26 is going to be competitive straightaway, unlike the FW25 which needed quite a lot of work before its potential could be exploited. I expect our main competitors will be very strong. We will be fighting with Ferrari and McLaren again, but I think there might be some surprises from Renault and BAR as well.
"With regards to the new rules, qualifying is going to be totally different from last year. I don't think you are ever going to see a true qualifying performance because the first run will be on low fuel but with race set-up which means that the car will suffer with understeer. Not having fully automatic gearboxes is a bit strange but I'm used to it now having run it over the winter. I'm not so worried about the new engine rule as we've had a good reliability record throughout testing.
"I really like Australia, especially Melbourne. I finished second there in '02 and '03, but obviously I'd like to improve on that this time round!
Ralf Schumacher, Williams:
"I am definitely pleased that the season is finally about to start, although you do always wish you had a couple more days of testing just to make sure everything is perfect. However, I think we are better prepared this season than we were last year as the FW26 was launched much earlier.
"Going to Melbourne is always exciting. During testing you can kind of see what the other teams are running, and therefore how they are performing, but it's not until you line up on the grid at Albert Park that you can really compare your car to your competitors'.
"I'm travelling to Australia a couple of days early in order to acclimatise myself, but I also just love spending time relaxing there before the race weekend starts as the people are so nice. On a personal level, I am fitter and more motivated than ever for this season so I'm confident we will be able to fight for victories from the start."
Cristiano da Matta, Toyota:
"I am certainly happy to be going to Australia to begin my second season as a Toyota F1 driver. The weather has got to be better than the cold, wet and even snowy conditions we have seen in Europe in recent weeks. Even though we have had several test sessions since we launched the TF104 in January, the Australian Grand Prix will be the first time that we can measure ourselves against the other teams. I still believe that it is too early to set goals or make concrete predictions, but we should be aiming for reliability in the race and a points finish. Personally, next week's race will mark my one year anniversary as an F1 driver and over the last twelve months I feel that I have learned a lot. Entering my second year, experience will be the biggest difference; knowing the tracks will definitely be advantageous, but I also believe that I have improved in every area as a driver."
Olivier Panis, Toyota:
"After a hectic schedule of winter testing, in which we have completed thousands of kilometres in the TF104s, I am really looking forward to going racing again. Australia is an ideal place to kick off the season, with a welcoming atmosphere and a challenging track in Albert Park. It is difficult to know where we stand in comparison to the other teams at this stage. Testing times are so difficult to read, but next week's race will offer some indication. The entire team has worked tremendously hard on our new TF104 car, but we know we have to continue to work hard and continuously improve all areas throughout the year. Whatever the outcome in Melbourne, I am determined to start my second season with Toyota is a positive way."
Jarno Trulli, Renault:
(Q: Jarno, you have been coming to Melbourne for six years now. What are your best memories from the city?) "Melbourne is always a special race because it marks the start of a new season, and we all arrive with big hopes for the year ahead. We also arrive early to adjust to the time difference relative to Europe,meaning we get to spend time in the city, and do some training outdoors.The atmosphere is fantastic too: the organisers do a great job welcoming us. Personally, I will be attending a karting event with the Australian Trulli Karting Drivers in Geelong on Tuesday: it is always fun meeting young drivers, and seeing their enthusiasm."
(Q: The team has announced ambitious targets for 2004: does that bring you added pressure?) "Not at all. The team management decide our objectives, and they didn't get them wrong in the past two years. But from a driver's point of view, we push no matter what: unless we are giving maximum effort, there is no point being there. The objectives for the year don't change that in any way."
(Q: And what about your objectives for Melbourne?) "Talking about performance before getting to Melbourne is pointless: we don't know exactly how fast our rivals are and, until we do, how can we say? So far, we know that the R24 is quick in all circumstances, and the engine is performing well. I enjoy the circuit at Albert Park, especially the quick chicane at Turns 11 and 12, and the car will be good there. Every driver dreams of starting the season with a win, and maybe this time, we will be closer than ever before. But like everybody else, I'm looking forward to Sunday and finding out for sure!"
Fernando Alonso, Renault:
(Q: This time last year, you had never scored a point; now you are a GP winner. What's different from your perspective?) "The most important thing is that I go to Australia with more confidence: I know the car, the championship, what it is like to be in a top team. Last season, I had just spent a year on the sidelines testing, so I was apprehensive and not completely sure how things would go. This year, my approach is very different: I feel much more at ease."
(Q: How will the R24 be better at Albert Park?) "The biggest improvement is definitely the engine: we have been reliable throughout testing, and have more power. But everything else has moved forwards too: Michelin have made big progress over the winter with the tyres, and the car has better driveability. The team has done a great job: 100% of our package is stronger."
(Q: What moment of the weekend are you looking forward to most?) "The nice thing about Melbourne is that we get to spend some time in the city before the race. We have a trip to Tokyo for Mild Seven beforehand then will go to Australia to get used to the conditions, and do some promotional appearances: Jarno and I are playing tennis in the city centre with John Alexander and John Fitzgerald (Australian Davis Cup captain) on Wednesday.
There will be lots to do, but all of this just builds towards Sunday: I'm waiting for the lights to go out so we can go racing."
(Q: And finally, imagine it is Sunday evening and you are looking back on the race. What result would you be happy with?) "I don't know, it's so difficult to predict before we all run. Let's say a podium..."
More to follow.