The opening World championship round of 2004 looms, and the great airlift to Australia is days away. As always at this stage of the season, Formula One has more questions than answers. You can pick over each team's winter testing times as much as you like, but without knowledge of fuel loads, laps completed, or engine or tyre spec it is almost impossible to assess the true significance of a quick lap here, an engine failure there.
This year the process is even more unfathomable than usual, because among a clutch of regulation changes is the notorious new rule that obliges teams to field engines that will last an entire grand prix weekend. Max Mosley pushed the initiative through as part of his drive to lower F1 's soaring costs, which he rightly believes threaten the very future of the sport "Formula One is now dangerously expensive," he explains. "Everybody wants to get costs down. Otherwise it's doubtful whether the manufacturers will want to remain for the long term. They're in business, so they've got to feel they're getting more out [in marketing terms] than they put in."
Inevitably, the teams have complained that building a race engine to last 500 miles rather than 250 will raise costs, not lower them. Max's reply is tart: "Seen over the long run, those arguments just don't hold water. We can't control manufacturers' R&D budgets, of course. But if we force them to use fewer engines, the cost of replacement parts will be less. Once developed, an 800-kilometre piston costs the same to produce as a 400-kilometre piston."
So the will of Mosley prevailed, as it usually does, and no longer will a Saturday-night engine change be almost a matter of routine. Instead, the cost of a blow-up during practice will be measured not in dollars and man-hours but in the handicap of starting 10 places further down the grid. And the teams' dire warnings of disaster have given way to the inevitable bright-eyed optimism that goes with the drum rolls, dry ice and fixed smiles of The Launch.
If you're a big team, with big sponsors, you need to make a big splash when you announce your new car at the start of the year. In January, Renault chartered several aircraft and flew hundreds of journalists from several European airports to Sicily, where on the stage of the immense and historic Teatro Massimo opera house the new R24 was revealed. Then, in the state rooms upstairs, drivers, team bosses, chassis designers and engine men all gave press conferences in various languages. Afterwards, on a makeshift circuit laid out around the streets of the old city, Fernando Alonso and Jamo Trulli took turns to demonstrate the sound and fury of a modem Fl car to the ecstatic populace.
It was a Thursday afternoon, but the Mayor of Palermo had decreed that shops and schools should be closed. Barriers and even grandstands had been erected, and an immense crowd lined the track to see and hear an F1 car for perhaps the first and last time in their lives. The tyre smoke, the doughnuts, the engine's shriek moved them almost to mass hysteria. When Alonso came to a halt with a stalled engine, they swamped the barriers, and car and driver disappeared beneath an excited mass of hundreds and hundreds of people. Alonso managed to escape the tide, but the police, hugely outnumbered, were still beating back the crowd as the journalists were bussed back to the airport. It all seemed a far cry from the Fl launches of a less commercial era, not many years ago. I remember when a handful of favoured journalists were briefly shown the new Williams in a cold warehouse at the Didcot base and then, in lieu of refreshments, a photostat was handed out listing the whereabouts of reasonable pubs in the area. Frank and Patrick were happy to answer informed questions, but there was no hype, no unbridled optimism, no dry ice. And I seem to remember they won the world title that year.
Nevertheless, even the most cynical Fl watcher cannot fail to view the coming season with excitement. McLaren, after failing to get its much vaunted MP4-18 to a race last year, was the first to be ready this time. The 19's testing has gone well, and the team is already working on a midseason development, the 19B. In terms of cockpit talent, Kimi Raildconen is seen by most as the pretender to Michael Schumacher's throne.
Williams has a new car that looks genuinely different from the rest. A couple of seasons ago it lured from Ferrari a talented young aerodynamicist, Antonia Terri, and she has come up with a curious pug nose which, if it works, will be much copied. Juan Pablo Montoya, whose title challenge last season never quite came right, vows that his confirmed move to McLaren for 2005 will not affect his determination to work with Williams and put down M Schumacher. He's just as keen, of course, to put down R Schumacher, his own team-mate, not to mention K Raikkonen, his team-mate of next year.
At Ferrari there is the usual air of quiet confidence. Last year its wind tunnel was running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and from the untold mass of data has emerged a subtly changed car which boasts a variety of carefully developed aero tweaks. The extraordinary Michael Schumacher says he is as hungry for title glory as ever, and you believe him. But the key to his tide hopes probably lies in his Bridgestone tyres.
Ferrari is the only front-running team on Japanese rubber, and for much of 2003 Michelin had the upper hand. Each company has a different approach — Michelin uses a flexible sidewall, Bridgestone a much stiffer construction — and chassis designers have to take careful account of the characteristics of their contracted tyre to come up with a car that will make best use of its rubber. Both firms have been working ceaselessly during the winter, and it is possible that Bridgestone will come out with a magic Michelin-beater. If it does, Michael may start disappearing into the distance again, chased by that most motivated of bridesmaids, Rubens Barrichello. But the general consensus is that, in most weathers and on most circuits, Ferrari may be at a slight disadvantage to the Michelin-shod teams: McLaren, Williams, Renault, Toyota, Jaguar and now BAR.
The change of engine regulations should in theory affect each team equally, but there are signs that they may hurt Renault more. In 2003, the French outfit's adventurous 106 degree V10 didn't rival the 900-plus horsepower of BMW and Ferrari, but it was light and compact, helping the R23 to be one of the best handling cars on the grid. However, its ability to last for 500 hard racing miles was suspect, so Renault has had to make a rapid change in its philosophy and resort to the 72-degree layout last used during 2000. At that Palermo launch, Alonso averred that in testing the R24 already had more usable power than the R23. But team boss Flavio Briatore was more downbeat and said that it would be Imola before the team was realising the more conventional engine's potential.
Renault's aim for 2003 was to turn the Top Three of Ferrari, McLaren and Williams into a Top Four, and it more or less achieved this, helped by Alonso's historic win in Hungary. The team most favoured to make it a Top Five, or even to overtake Renault, is BAR. Honda's engines have yet to reach the levels of competitiveness they enjoyed when they powered Williams and McLaren over a decade ago. But designer Geoff Willis seems to have made a very effective car in the BAR 006— complete with adventurous carbon-composite gearbox — and Jenson Button, always fast, has matured into a resilient, resourceful racer. Certainly, the atmosphere in the team seems more harmonious since the departure of Jacques Villeneuve, and both Button and Takuma Sato have been very quick in testing.
Of the rest, Sauber's new car seems to be as close as it can legally be to a 2003 Ferrari. Jaguar has the very talented Mark Webber, but a tight budget. Toyota, by contrast, has a monster budget, and has lured Mike Gascoyne from Renault to be its technical chief; but its learning curve still seems to be quite steep. The two most impoverished teams remain Jordan and Minardi, and it is hard to see Mosley's efforts to make Fl cheaper moving them very far up the grid in the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, from today's viewpoint the new season bodes very well. What makes any sport exciting is unpredictability. There have been times recently — like the 2002 season — when Formula One has been far too predictable. Last season was better, but this season could see a real change in the balance of power. Perhaps Michael Schumacher will have one more year in the sun. Perhaps BAR will move towards the Top Four. Perhaps Montoya will add some consistency to his undoubted speed. And perhaps, just perhaps, Kimi Raildconen will win his first world title. 111