David Coulthard takes to the grid in Albert Park today hoping that he can step into the driving boots of former team mate Hakkinen as McLaren number one. He has swapped one blindingly fast Finn for another, in the form of Kimi Raikkonen, and although winter testing has gone well the Scot knows it's early days yet. He thinks the MP4-17 is a good car and seems to be faster than last year's, which the team will need to take the challenge to Ferrari. "The good news about the new car is that it appears to be quicker than last year's." He remarked. "I said we needed to take a step forward in performance to challenge Ferrari, and the early indications are that the car is getting round the track with a bit more speed. It will be interesting to see how we go this weekend."
Although the new car is a simlar package to last year's, it's still in the development stage but the early arrival of the new chassis meant there was plenty of time for winter testing. "The level of downforce is significantly increased over last year." Coulthard explained. "Mechanically, we have a similar package, while on the engine side we have a new V-angle, which means that it is still in the early stages of its development, but already it is ahead of last year's unit in some areas.
"During winter testing, we had the most intensive programme we have ever had for a new car and that's because the car was running in January, which is earlier than in the past. This means we have done several thousand kilometres of running with it. That gives us confidence to think we can go the distance here. The preparation and new car build programme has been much better this year and that has allowed to get out and test early."
"We have done three times the distance in pre-season testing this year, compared with last. So we are three times better prepared and done race distances and plenty of pit stop practice, to an extent we did not manage before the start of the 2001 season. Our last test in Valencia was encouraging as we set the fastest lap of the winter there, but you have to remember we were the only team there that day, and conditions on the day can affect the time. So the only time we can be confident about our speed will be after the first qualifying session."
With tyre manufacturer Michelin on board this year, Coulthard knows that there will be a settleing in period before the team catch up with the experience Williams have with Michelin.
"We have a new tyre partner in Michelin and, with that, comes some uncertainty. We have done a thorough job of understanding them and the design philosophy, though, in order to catch up that year's experience which Williams has with the Michelin tyre. I am very impressed with how open Michelin are. They admit to their weaknesses, explaining that it can produce strengths in other areas. That openness will help us build our relationship. I have never before experienced such closeness with a tyre manufacturer."
Naturally in the run up to the season speculation is rife about what kind of progress other teams have made over the winter and Coulthard believes it's all just part of the excitement. "Inevitably, there is a media frenzy that builds as you get closer to the first race, which is part of the excitement of the sport. When I was on the outside, I used to get pulled in by all that. But, from the inside, you just concentrate on the facts and really you only have an accurate idea about your own team as you are aware of your fuel levels and what tyres you are running. You can get a feel for what the others are doing, but you cannot be sure about them. That is a frustration before the start. All you do know is that everyone is giving hundred percent."
New team mate Kimi Raikkonen may be young but as long as he is fast, the Scot thinks his inexperience shouldn't hamper him although obviously Coulthard has been with McLaren for a long time and knows the team well. This is the first time Coulthard has not had Hakkinen alongside him and he says his ex-team mate helped him get to know his new one over the winter.
"This is the first time since I joined McLaren that Mika is not my team-mate. I don't think that the fact that Kimi is younger and less experienced is a problem, because if you have the speed to get to F1, then you build on that. So I don't think I have an advantage over him in a qualifying situation. But, naturally, having been with the team longer, when we are in debriefs or talking about the past, then I have a knowledge advantage. How that translates on the track, we will have to wait and see.
"It is early days in our development, especially as in the early days of winter testing you tend to just have one of the new cars, so you are not both out on the track at the same time, so you swap over with your team-mate without seeing much of him. That is why I was keen to get to know him last year, which I did with Mika's help, having some dinners together to break the ice on the relationship. The strength of the relationship will come when the pressure is on."
As for his own performance this year, Coulthard believes he is capable of winning the title: "If the team and car perform, then I believe I have the ability to win the championship this year. I appreciate that Ron Dennis has supported me on that. Now we just need to do it on the track," he said.