The 2004 season is finally upon us and the action starts at Melbourne's Albert Park on Friday after a long winter of waiting by the fans and competitors alike. The most notable rule changes for this year are the one engine per weekend regulation...
The 2004 season is finally upon us and the action starts at Melbourne's Albert Park on Friday after a long winter of waiting by the fans and competitors alike. The most notable rule changes for this year are the one engine per weekend regulation and the banning of launch control and fully automatic gearboxes. The first naturally puts even more emphasis on reliability, while the other two will put the onus on the drivers.McLaren. The Woking squad's MP4-19 has been erratic and Ferrari spent much of its time in private testing, all of which makes predictions nigh on impossible.
Renault has been working away quietly but keeping in touch with, and even bettering, the performances of the front runners. All of the big three broke lap records over the winter, as did BAR, which led to some intense speculation. Jenson Button is hungry for that elusive first podium and BAR could well have given him a car to do it this year.
The 5.3 km street circuit of Albert Park, one of the longer tracks on the calendar, is fast and fairly bumpy and requires medium high downforce. The Australian heat can make it heavy on the brakes but the tyres usually fair well on the smooth surface. The first corner presents the best overtaking opportunity and the race is 58 laps.
Pole sitter in 2003, Michael Schumacher didn't finish in the first three last time around, and Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello crashed out. It was the first time since 1999 that there was no scarlet clad driver on the podium. McLaren's David Coulthard took victory, in what would be the only win for the Scot all season, after leader Juan Pablo Montoya spun his Williams just ten laps from the finish. The Colombian finished second and Kimi Raikkonen third.
Michael Schumacher is puzzled as to why people keep asking him when he's going to retire: "I do not understand why it is so hard for people to understand that I am still driven to win," he said. "If I am not at the top then I will fight to get there again. It is crucial for me that I am in a position to challenge for the title."
There are certainly enough drivers this year who are keen to stop the six-time champion winning races or his seventh title. "I am very confident going into this season," said Williams' Juan Pablo Montoya, one of the favourites to topple Schumacher from his throne. "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."
McLaren's Iceman Kimi Raikkonen is another favourite: "From what we have seen of the testing that has been taking place in the build-up to the season, the signs are that we will have another exciting Championship," said the Finn. "I think it will continue to be very competitive and hopefully enjoyable for the fans to watch. I had my debut Formula One victory in Malaysia last year, and my first aim for 2004 is to better that figure, after that who knows!"
Many think Renault's Fernando Alonso is in with an outside chance at the title this year but the young Spaniard is playing down the speculation. "Of course there are rumours but I promise you I don't know," he said of his chances. "Nobody really knows. We can only wait and see. There's no point getting too excited. But we have big steps planned for the fourth race, the seventh and for later in the season, too."
Tyres, as always, will play a crucial part in the championship. Michelin and its partners have been enthusiastic about the progress over the winter, and BAR has now joined the ranks of teams using the French manufacturers' rubber. Bridgestone only has Ferrari capable of extensive testing, as Jordan, Minardi and Sauber don't have the resources.
However, Bridgestone is not discouraged and claims its progress has been equally considerable. "Bridgestone's engineers have worked hard all winter in preparation for this race and we are looking forward to seeing our latest development tyres in action," said technical manager Hisao Suganuma.
"Whilst tyre performance is always relative to that of your rivals, the progress of Bridgestone's development over the past few months has been significant and there will be more to come during the season."
So, we know the contenders and we have a rough idea how things might pan out. But given some of the previous results of the first race of the season, there's really no predictability for Melbourne. The bookies have Michael Schumacher the favourite to win the Australian GP, closely followed by Montoya then Ralf. Gentlemen, start your engines!