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Ferrari still the team to beat

Following months of anticipation, the 2003 season is about to start. Will Ferrari maintain their dominance ? How much will the other teams be able to narrow the gap ? Will any of the mid-runners make a significant step forward ? How will the new regulations affect the Formula ?. There are simply too many questions that fans are waiting to see answered at Albert park on March the 9th. 

Ferrari are still the team to beat, while it is hard to read much into testing, Ferrari have been topping the timesheets in both their old and new cars. McLaren appear to be improving while Williams are already admitting that their car isn't a top contender at this stage of the season. Renault have shown some quick times in testing yet at other sessions they were average.
Of the other teams, it seems as if Toyota have made a big step. How big is that step remains to be seen. The fight between the 3 Cosworth powered teams (Jaguar, Jordan and Minardi) will be interesting even though each will be using a different spec engine. Sauber is likely to be strong given that they are running last year's Ferrari engine while BAR may be fast but they are certainly unreliable. 
This year we have 4 new drivers (Ralph Firman - Jordan, Antonio Pizzonia - Jaguar, Justin Wilson - Minardi and Cristiano da Matta - Toyota). There are also 2 drivers returning to Formula 1 after a year's absence, Fernando Alonso with Renault and Jos Verstappen with Minardi.
Jenson Button moved from Renault to BAR, Olivier Panis moved from BAR to Toyota while Heinz Harald Frentzen moved from Arrows to Sauber.
We say farewell to a number of drivers who will not be driving in Formula 1 this year and those are Felipe Massa - Sauber, Takuma Sato - Jordan, Eddie Irvine and Pedro de la Rosa - Jaguar, Alex Yoong - Minardi, Mika Salo and Allan McNish - Toyota and Enrique Bernoldi - Arrows.

As usual, the of the season, the Australian Grand Prix will favour those teams that have sorted out their reliability problems even if they are not as fast as their rivals.
The new tyre regulations that allow each team to have two different compound should make the Michelin runners closer to Ferrari (running on Bridgestone). Both McLaren and Williams use their tyres differently and this regulation will help them.

Trying to predict who will win Pole or even how the grid will be formed is next to impossible. The new qualifying regulations ban refuelling between the Saturday Qualifying and the Race which means that if a top team opts for a heavy fuel load (to stay out as much as possible in the race) they may find themselves in the middle of the grid while a mid running team might take a gamble and qualify on low fuel and take pole only to pit shortly after the start. The teams will eventually find the optimum fuel loads for qualifying but that won't happen until they gain real experience.

Another new addition to the season is the option for 2 hours of testing on Friday before official practice. Teams who chose to go this path will only be allowed 10 days of testing during the season. Renault, Jordan, Jaguar and Minardi have opted for this option. The advantage of course is that those teams can fine tune their cars on the track before each race but the disadvantage will be that they'll have much less testing for development especially as the season progresses.

Here is a team by team review:

Ferrari: They'll be using the F2002 and in terms of reliability it is almost bullet proof. They might not even need to worry about it's speed as McLaren will also be using the old car and Williams appear to be struggling with the new one. A 1-2 finish is likely 
Reliability 9.5/10 - Speed 9.0/10

Drivers: Michael Schumacher will still be the man to beat. However, the new Qualifying format and the banning of team orders may give Rubens Barrichello a chance to fight him. In any case a top 2 finish is likely. 

Rubens Barrichello will need to capitalise on the new regulations to help him get closer to Michael. He'll have no excuse this season and he'll need to put in 101% effort if he wants to stay with Michael. A top 2 finish is likely.

McLaren: They appear to have made a step forward during the off season. Starting with the old car means that they should be almost as reliable as the Ferrari. Speedwise, we'll have to wait and see though. We could see a surprise with one of their drivers winning. Reliability 9/10 - Speed 9.0/10

Drivers: David Coulthard hasn't been making Championship claims this year, in fact he has been relatively quiet. His consistency will help him score points but his speed will prevent him from winning. A top 3 finish is possible.

Kimi Raikkonen will surprise those that don't expect him to challenge Coulthard and even the Ferrari duo. He is now ready to deliver after a year at McLaren. If he keeps his cool (and he does most of the time), we may see him as a surprise winner.

Williams: They appear to be going backwards despite the fact that the BMW engine is going forward!. So what's the problem, it's the chassis. It is a brand new one and by Williams own admission they may have gone too far with it. If they beat Renault, they'll be doing well at this stage. Reliability 8/10 - Speed 8.0/10

Drivers: Juan Pablo Montoya hasn't been vocal (yet) about the Williams lack of pace. He is disappointed no doubt and so are the fans. He is one of the few that go for it. If he doesn't crash out due to frustration, he'll finish in the top 6 and that will be his target.

Ralf Schumacher is already writing off challenging Ferrari in the first few races. Perhaps he is being realistic, perhaps he is just bluffing. It is more likely somewhere in the middle. As with Montoya, he'll finish in the top 6 if the car lasts and if he avoids using a car in front of him as his launch pad!

Renault: When they set a target they seem to deliver. This year their aim is to finish on the podium a number of times and challenge for third in the Constructors' Championship. Given the performance of Williams, that might not be too hard. The team were the first to test their new car and engine so reliability should be good. The superb launch control they have will be a plus while it is allowed (will be banned from the British GP onwards) with the new qualifying rules. They can qualify towards the back with a full tank and overtake a number of cars with their launch control. They'll finish in the points and may even get a podium if a few cars in front hit problems.
Reliability 8.5/10 - Speed 8.5/10

Drivers: Jarno Trulli still needs to prove that he is a racer. He is an excellent qualifier yet the new rules make qualifying less important. He knows that he must beat Alonso otherwise he'll be out of Formula 1. It will be interesting watching him dicing with Ralf and Juan Pablo. A top 6 finish is likely.

It will be crunch time for Fernando Alonso, at Minardi in '01 he was very good, now he needs to prove himself with a big team. The signs are that he is still very quick. How will he handle the pressure of a big team. Only time will tell but expect him to pass with flying colours and get the better of Trulli. A top 6 is possible. 

Sauber: Running Ferrari's '02 engine will be a big boost for the team and they could surprise everyone and dice with Renault and Williams. However, they've built a new chassis and that might give them reliability problems. Both cars can finish in the top 10. Reliability 8.0/10 - Speed 8.0/10

Drivers: Nick Heidfeld will have a tough time on the track with his new team-mate Heinz Harald Frentzen. Early in the season he might get the better of him but later on it will be hard. A top 10 finish is likely.

Heinz Harald Frentzen will be driving with a stable team after 2 seasons of uncertainty. He used to do wonders in the Prost and with Arrows. Expect similar performances with Sauber. A top 10 finish is likely.

Jordan: They are one of the teams that are struggling financially and that doesn't help. They also had the least amount of testing (bar Minardi)  and that isn't good for their reliability. It will be very surprising if they manage to finish both of their cars. A top 10 finish is possible if cars in front drop out.
Reliability 7/10 - Speed 7/10

Drivers: Giancarlo Fisichella seems an unlucky guy who is in the wrong at the wrong time. Fisichella will try his best as usual but if his car isn't shaping then he can't do much. A top 10 finish is possible.

Ralph Firman is a rookie and his past experience doesn't give us much indication of how he'll do. Having said that, during testing he's been lapping close to Fisichella and that is encouraging. Being a rookie though, it is unlikely that he'll finish the race.

Jaguar: With Lauda out and 2 new driver to the team, Jaguar are on a steep learning curve. They are also running the new 90 degree Cosworth engine which may give them reliability problems. It will be good if they finish.
Reliability 7/10 - Speed 7/10

Drivers: Mark Webber was simply brilliant at Minardi but was that because his team-mate Alex Yoong was simply pathetic ? Doubt it, he'll do well and may even finish in the top 8 if his car lasts.

Antonio Pizzonia is another rookie but he was a Williams test driver last season so he is familiar with his surroundings. Still it is hard to gauge how he'll do. He maybe hot headed and end up in a wall or the gravel. In any case, the fight between Webber and himself will be intense. It is unlikely that he'll finish his first race.

BAR: They are struggling despite setting some quick times that moves them up a bit. Their problem appears to be the Honda engine reliability. They'll need to drop the revs way back for the car to last the distance and if that happens they'll be at the bottom of the mid-runners. They could finish in the top 10. 
Reliability 7/10 - Speed 7.5/10

Drivers: Jacques Villeneuve must perform this season if he is to stay in Formula 1. His seat at BAR isn't safe anymore and he would only move to a better team and that means he has to beat his new team-mate Jenson Button. If he gets a good car, he'll do that, otherwise he won't be motivated enough. At Melbourne he is unlikely to finish though!

Jenson Button under enormous pressure as well. He'll need to be as close as he can to Villeneuve and that isn't something that can be easily achieved. Until they sort out the Honda engine, Button's chances of finishing are also slim.

Minardi: Could they finally make a move away from the back of the grid ? With Cosworth power they could but it will be very tough and will need a lot of luck. They've had the least amount of testing due to their limited budget and that would affect their reliability. 
Reliability 6.5/10 - Speed 6.5/10

Drivers: Jos Verstappen returns to Formula 1 after an absence of 1 season. He is fast especially in the wet but tends to make a few mistakes. He'll produce some good drives but finishing in Melbourne will be hard. 

Justin Wilson impressed Paul Stoddart so much that the chassis had to be adjusted to fit the tallest guy in Formula 1. In the last 2 years, Minardi had two excellent rookies in Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber. Can Wilson be another one ? We'll have to wait and see. He could finish if he's conservative.

Toyota: It appears that they may have made the biggest step forward of all teams. But that should be unexpected, afterall they have one of the biggest budgets in Formula 1. The disadvantage they have though is the have a new driver line-up although Panis has the experience. They could finish in the points.
Reliability 8/10 - Speed 7.5/10

Drivers: Olivier Panis has been setting impressive times in testing. He is consistent and that is what Toyota must be counting on. If the car delivers he'll do well. A top 8 is possible.

Cristiano da Matta is a rookie who is an ex-CART Champion. We've seen some CART drivers do well yet others do miserably. His testing times indicate the latter but a judgement can only be made after the first few races of the season. If his car lasts and he keeps his cool then he could finish in the top 10.

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