The new season is underway - only two weeks to go to Melbourne! All the pre-season testing is out of the way and the excitement is now building.
As we all know, there is no point in taking too much out of the pre-season testing as each team will no doubt bring a slew of upgrades to the Melbourne track. The first races - pre-Europe - tend to be all about reliability over speed. Sure speed is a factor but which chassis/engine/electronics/gearbox etc. survives tends to decide the early races.
Red Bull and Ferrari have racked up enormous mileage over the winter and would appear to be relatively bulletproof under testing - the stresses and strains of a race tend to expose the little (but fatal) flaws which can end a race prematurely.
McLaren have done very little mileage compared to the majority of the (expected) front-runners but, regardless, given their tendency to build reliability into the car and their historically good record in finishing the first race of the season they may well take points away as others drop out. This prediction is based on the lack of form shown in testing where they have shown little in the way of raw speed. The thing is, it could all be smoke and mirrors - running short testing stints on heavy fuel to disguise pace, the concerned comments of the drivers, the overcautious approach confining the car to the garage for long periods - this could all be a bluff! and we won't know their true speed until quali - and their comparitive strength until the lights go out.
Mercedes may be flattering to decieve though the drivers have been much more positive (both in their comments and in their body language) on foot of the final two days of testing. They might be the team to watch - you can never write off Ross Brawn!
Renault are very bullish with all reports saying that they expect to be fighting with Ferrari and Red Bull for wins. I'm a big fan of Heidfeld and really think that, with the right car, he can pull off a win or two. Petrov still has to show his full capability and he really needs to be outdriving his teammate this year if he's to hold onto his race seat next year. I think Kubica is a magnificent racedriver (in F1) and Petrov will need to show he can operate very close to Kubica's skill level. This will require him to outperform Nick on a relatively regular basis throughout the season, otherwise we might see a Kubica/Heidfeld team line-up next year. I'm calling it here first!
I'm hoping Williams will make a big comeback this year. I've made no secret that I'm a big fan of Frank and Patrick and all the webchat and F1 news sites seem to be of the opinion that they have a neat package this year which might see them pushing up the grid. The only two worries I have relate to the new flywheel KERS system which they have produced and whether the car will run a full race distance with the KERS installed. They ran last weeks final test in Barcelona without the KERS but all reports say they have confirmed they will use it in Melbourne. Fingers crossed the Williams performs well.
These are the guys I expect to see fighting for the top six places in the race. The final two points positions may bring Sauber, Force India, or Toro Rosso into the mix. Force India seem to be off the pace (once again based on testing times) so at present I'm expecting that they will struggle to challenge the midfield for the last two points scoring places. Toro Rosso would appear to have the raw pace to look towards the front but I think the complete package may see them as front of midfield in a straight fight with Sauber.
At the back it looks as if Lotus has made a big step from last year and we might see them mixing it with the back of the midfield runners - all the evidence suggests that Virgin and HRT will remain at the back HRT have not turned a wheel in anger in their new car so it's likely Virgin will dominate that particular fight. Virgin's major problem, in my humble opinion, is the fact that the complete design has been built using Computer software. Theoretical computational flow models are all well and good but wind tunnels are better, while track time is paramount. While it is a significant cost saving to the team I think it is not yet viable as a method of producing a competitative F1 car. Probably only a matter of time though...