At last! The Formula One carousel is about to turn once more. Melbourne is almost upon us. Misleading testing times, bland press releases, optimistic half-truths and gloating rumour ("the new Jaguar is four seconds a lap slower than last year's car") will finally be replaced by real practice, real qualifying and then real racing — the only yardstick that means anything at all.
And, as always, the new season is full of intriguing prospect. The major threat to a good year's racing remains the combined superiority of Ferrari and Michael Schumacher, and I find it difficult to see anything stopping his Fangio-equalling fifth title in 2002. But the rumour mill credits the new BMW engine with almost 900bhp, so Williams should be Ferrari's strongest challenger. McLaren, as usual, remains shrouded in enigma, exacerbated this time around by its switch from Bridgestone to Michelin tyres. Meanwhile Renault, who (as Benetton) started last year disastrously and finished it rather better, is determinedly downbeat. Flavio Briatorv quipped that he is more likely to host a lunch party on the moon than witness a Renault victory this year.
As for the rest, Sauber says bravely it can hang on to its remarkable fourth place in the constructors' peaking order, while Jordan, Jaguar, Arrows and Minardi all predictably vow to improve on their 2001 form. An uneasy peace seems to have broken out between Jacques Villeneuve and new BAR boss David Richards. Toyota has arrived, to find out if a huge budget can produce an overnight miracle; and, sadly but not unexpectedly, Prost has gone.
Almost the only ripple in the surface to show where it sank has been a silly spat between Ron Dennis and Niki Lauda about whether former F1 drivers can make good team bosses. Ron: "There is a trait of naivety when people expect automatic performance from those who have excelled as drivers. A Grand Prix team is a different animal from racing a car — or running an airline. You need an engineering background, and have to know about budgets, motivating people, solving problems and inspiring."
Niki (who did a brilliant commercial and motivational job of setting up and growing a successful airline against a state monopoly) said: "I don't want to be drawn into commenting, because that means looking back into Ron's early years when he wasn't a success."
During the off season, the relationship between each F1 team's pair of drivers has predictably been a major topic in the motor-racing press. In particular Ralf Schumacher's views ofJuan Pablo Montoya, and Montoya's of Raff, have occupied many column inches. So has speculation about how Kimi Raikkonen will get on alongside David Coulthard at McLaren. And underlying it all, there's the hoary old question of team orders.
At Ferrari, of course, there isn't a question at all. Michael Schumacher is undisputed numero uno in every respect. It's a rare occurrence for Rubens Banichello to find himself ahead of his team leader, but Maranello's strategy when it does happen is plain, as we saw in Austria last year: he is told to move aside. And, whether or not Schumacher needs it, there's no doubt that Ferrari's championship challenge is all the stronger for this policy.
The way the Ferrari team is gathered around Schumacher recalls Jim Clark's position at Lotus in the 1960s, when Colin Chapman treated him as undisputed Nol simply because he was always so much more talented than his team-mates. The likes of Trevor Taylor, Mike Spence and Pete Arundell were happy to play a supporting role. But when Jimmy's old rival Graham Hill became his teammate in 1967, they were theoretically joint number one although Jimmy was almost always the faster. Had he not died, he surely would have won a third title in 1968. A decade on, when the Lotus 79s were all-conquering, Ronnie Peterson obediently followedhis-leader to help secure the championship for Mario Andretti only to lose his life, with cruel irony, in the very race when Mario's title was won.
The Williams team's early success came through the Clark-like relationship Alan Jones enjoyed with Frank Williams and Patrick Head, despite the presence of Carlos Reutemann as a powerful, if inconsistent, team-mate. But Frank and Patrick have never minded when there is a battle between their drivers, on and off track. When Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell were paired at Williams they made little effort to hide their mutual loathing. In 1986, they scored 141 championship points between them, while at McLaren, Alain Prost and Keke Rosberg chalked up only 96: yet, with no team orders at Williams, it was Prost who won the drivers' title.
Fifteen years on, Ralf Schumacher, in his third season at Williams and with far more F1 experience than Juan Pablo Montoya, clearly lost the initiative in 2001. In the first 10 races of the season the German outqualified his new team-mate nine times, and scored three victories. Yet it was Montoya that got talked about, with his supeth move on Schumacher M. to lead in Brazil, and his feisty drive at the head of the field in Austria. Then at Silverstone Ralf held upluan badly, despiw instructions from the pit wall, which probably lost the Columbian a podium place. Thereafter Montoya outqualified Ralf five times out of seven, dominated Hockenheim until his engine failed, finally scored his first victory at Monza, was the hero of Indianapolis and a brilliant second in Japan. For that second half of the season he'd made Ralf look like a No2. Now Sir Frank has said that, if it aids Williams' fight for the championship, he will have no hesitation in imposing team orders in 2002. But on whose behalf? With no dear Nol nominated, that puts all the more pressure on the rivalry between the Williams pair in the early races. One way of ensuring you beat your team-mate, if you're powerful enough, is to have it written into your contract that you can veto any No2 you see as a threat. No doubt Michael Schumacher enjoys this privilege to some degree. Even the great Ayrton Senna was prepared to interfere with the signing of a team-mate, for he successfully blocked Team Lotus' attempt to hire Derek Warwick as his No2 a backhanded compliment to Warwick, but it didn't do Del Boy's career any good.
It's an F1 truism that the man you most want to beat is your own teammate. You have, in theory at least, the same equipment, the same horsepower, the same tyres. And however much they try to treat both drivers identically, a team will always be psychologically behind the man most likely to win. At McLaren, Ron Dennis now refuses to adopt any team tactics, at least until very late in the season. It's as though he's expunging the embarrassing memory of Melbourne 1998, the very first round of the season, when a pre-race agreement between Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard was all too obtrusively honoured. It didn't help that there had been collusion between Williams and McLaren in the final race of the previous year, when in return for McLaren not interfering in his championship battle with Michael Schumacher, Villeneuve moved aside. On that occasion, too, Coulthard was asked to let Hakkinen past to score his first F1 victory.
During their six-year partnership at McLaren, sometimes DC was quicker than Mika, but after the first season it was always the Finn who ended the year on top in terms of results until 2001. This season the much-vaunted Kimi Raikkonen is DC's new teammate, with just 17 GPs under his belt against David's 124, and the inevitable learning curve with new team relationships to build and shake down. David should have no difficulty at all in establishing himself as the dear Nol in terms of speed, racecraft and consistency but, if he is outperformed by Raikkonen, it will be a body-blow to his career.
Similarly, Giancarlo Fisichella wants to put himself miles ahead of Takuma Sato at Jordan, which he shouldn't find too hard. At Jaguar, Eddie Irvine won't want the quiet talent of Pedro de la Rosa in front of him too often; Nick Heidfeld must show he's better than new Sauber teenie Felippe Massa; and at Renault, Jarno Trulli will hope Jenson Button hasn't learned the off-season lessons Briatore has been grumbling in his car.
One thing you can't have is team orders in qualifying. Those 60 minutes in Melbourne on Saturday March 2 will be very revealing the first real indicator not only of form between teams, but also between team-mates. In more ways than one, it could set the pattern for the season.