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 Track Layout (from the FIA)

A change is coming

The 2004 Formula 1 Season is about to start and it certainly looks as it will be a season to remember. The championship last year went down to the wire, this year it may even be closer with a number of drivers and teams fighting it out at Interlagos.

All the teams will be racing with their 2004 spec cars at Albert Park. Ferrari have opted for an evolution on the F2003-GA while Williams and McLaren are both introducing revolutionary cars in the hope of catching up and beating Ferrari. Renault appear to have made a step forward with their chassis but there is a question mark over their new 'old' engine.

The key factors that will determine who ends up on top this season are:

- Ferrari's ability to improve on last year's car the F2003-GA
- Williams' ability to start the season strongly and their drivers behaving maturely
- McLaren's ability to start the season reliably
- Renault's ability to produce enough power from an old design and most importantly
- Bridgestone's ability to match Michelin

It is unlikely that Ferrari will be able to improve as much as the other top teams given their evolutionary approach compared to Williams and McLaren both adopting a revolutionary one. That coupled with the expected gap between Michelin and Bridgestone to remain in Michelin's advantage expect a change this season. Heading that change will be Kimi Raikkonen of McLaren, Juan Pablo Montoya of Williams and possibly Fernando Alonso of Renault (if their engine performance is improved quickly).

This season we have 4 new drivers (Christian Klien - Jaguar, Giorgio Pantano - Jordan, Gianmaria Bruni and Zsolt Baumgartner both for Minardi). There are also 2 drivers returning to Formula 1 after a years absence, Takuma Sato with BAR and Felipe Massa with Sauber. 
Note that Baumgartner raced in last year's Hungarian and Italian Grands Prix for Jordan and Sato raced in Japan for BAR.
2 drivers have swapped teams with Giancarlo Fisichella going to Sauber and Nick Heidfeld going to Jordan.
6 drivers will not be on the grid from last year and those are Jacques Villeneuve - BAR, Heinz Harald Frentzen - Sauber, Justin Wilson - Jaguar, Ralph Firman - Jordan, Jos Verstappen - Minardi and Nicolas Kiesa - Minardi.

The teams have been busy testing in preparation for the first race of the season, they have been setting some very fast times but as always, the real test is in Melbourne.

The race in Melbourne is a tough one as the new cars are not yet fully sorted out. Expect a high failure rate and with the new single engine rule we may even see a few of the front runners starting from the back (a driver will be relegated 10 places on the grid if his engine fails during practice.) 
The qualifying format has remained apart from combining the two sessions into 1 on Saturday afternoon. (Click here for the 2004 Formula 1 Regulations

Albert Park is a medium to high downforce track that will be dirty and slippery on the first day but will improve over the course of the weekend. High temperatures can be expected and that will stress the engines and brakes. 
We may see an additional pit stop employed by some teams as the pit entry has been modified and the pit lane speed increased.

Here is a team by team review:

Ferrari: The F2004 is an evolution of the F2003-GA and that will give them an advantage early in the season due to the F2003-GA's proven reliability. However like the rest of the field, their engine has to run without failure for the whole weekend.
Tyres though will be critical for Ferrari and it is unlikely that Bridgestone will have tyres to match Michelin and so if the other top teams prove to be reliable, Ferrari will struggle to keep up. 
Reliability 9.5/10 - Speed 9.0/10  (Team Preview)

Drivers: Michael Schumacher brushed aside the retirement rumours and insisted that he is as determined as ever to win. We saw him slump mid season last year and if the gap between Bridgestone and Michelin is too big we could see his performance deteriorate again. If Bridgestone come up with the goods though he will be hard to beat.
A podium finish is likely.

Rubens Barrichello is definitely improving but is it enough to get the team behind him rather than Michael ? I doubt that. He needs to have a great start to the season if he wants to achieve his aim of becoming world champion. Most likely though, he will struggle as he doesn't get the same attention from the team as Michael gets. A top 6 finish is likely 

Williams: While testing times don't mean much, looking at the times Williams have been setting makes you wonder how strong they really are. Rarely in the past have they posted consistently fast times in testing yet they go to the race and win. During the winter testing they have been always at or near the top of the timesheets. They will be strong.
They may be less reliable than the Ferrari but they run on Michelins. A 1-2 finish is possible. Reliability 9/10 - Speed 9.5/10 (Team Preview)

Drivers: Juan Pablo Montoya will do well here if he keeps his cool. Last season he spun whilst leading and he repeated that a number of times during the season. If he is to win and become a World Champion he cannot afford those mistakes. He is aggressive and a joy to watch. A win is possible.  

Ralf Schumacher needs to be consistently fast. Many don't consider him a real contender for the title due to his erratic results. If he has a good day he'll be hard to beat otherwise he won't bother finishing. A podium finish is possible if he has a good day!

McLaren: When the MP4/19 made its track debut back in November and shattered lap records everyone thought that this will be the car to beat. A few months later they were mixing it with the midfield runners in testing and struggling with reliability. Now people are doubting their performance. It will be very surprising to see McLaren struggle with reliability in Melbourne given that they have been testing the car the most out of all the teams. Expect a strong performance and they will be close to Williams.
Reliability 8.5/10 - Speed 9.5/10 (Team Preview)

Drivers: David Coulthard is out to impress the other teams as he is set to lose his seat at McLaren in 2005. You read that a lot but if that is what motivates him he should have performed better in the past so that he keeps his seat at a top team. Reality is that Coulthard isn't championship material and will only win if the others struggle just like his win last year in Melbourne. Expect more of the same, consistent points finishes but not enough wins. A top 6 finish is likely.

Kimi Raikkonen was close to snatching the title from Michael last year. This year he is definitely a title contender and if the MP4/19 is reliable enough, he'll show us a glimpse of what he will do this season in Melbourne. A win is possible.

Renault: They have a strong chassis but there are question marks over the power of their new engine (which is based on their old Renault engine that won the title for Williams in '97)
The single engine rule may help them as the engine will be reliable and so they may be slower than the 3 other top teams but will be able to last the distance. As the season progresses they will be introducing some big steps on the engine side however what could negate that is the fact that they have lost their Technical Director Mike Gascoyne to Toyota which means that improvements on the car may not be as effective.
Reliability 9.0/10 - Speed 8.5/10 (Team Preview - Engineers Preview)

Drivers: Jarno Trulli shows signs of brilliance at some races but is average in others. He is highly rated as a qualifier but doesn't perform as well in the races. A points finish is likely.

Fernando Alonso has already proven that he has the potential to become a future champion. If the Renault delivers the power he may become a champion much sooner that most think. He has produced stunning drives in 2003 and expect more of that this season. A podium finish is likely. 

BAR: They have been very fast in testing and one could think that they will be the dark horse this season and be able to challenge the top teams. But time and time again we have seen teams put in very fast times in testing yet in Melbourne they struggle. Expect to see that from BAR. They may qualify well but a team doesn't build a reliable car overnight and their reliability record last year wasn't impressive. We may start to see them improve in the latter part of the season.
Reliability 7.5/10 - Speed 8.0/10 (Team Preview)

Drivers: Jenson Button managed a good season in 2003 but with Villeneuve out and Sato in, will he have the motivation to improve ?. Historically Button seems to have a good season followed by an average one. If that continues, he'll struggle. A points finish is possible if the car lasts.

Takuma Sato is back in Formula 1 thanks to Honda. He does show some speed though but also shows immaturity that puts him in the gravel traps too often. He may have matured after a year in testing but now he'll need to tolerate the failures of the car. It will be hard for him to score points on his return.

Sauber: For the first time Sauber will be running the same engine spec as Ferrari. Sauber are also using a Ferrari gearbox. A close look at their 2004 contender, the C23, and it is very similar to the Ferrari F2003-GA. So will it perform like a Ferrari ? Well it may early in the season but as Ferrari improve their car, the Sauber won't be getting the same improved bits. They are looking good to match or even beat the other midfielders although Bridgestone might spoil that.
Reliability 8.0/10 - Speed 8.0/10 (Team Preview)

Drivers: Giancarlo Fisichella is moving to Sauber hoping to impress enough to be able to move on to Ferrari when Michael retires. For that to happen, the Sauber has to be a good car because Fisichella has shown in the past that he gets disinterested too quickly if a car isn't up to his expectations and that is not good in the eyes of team bosses. He'll fight with Button, Webber and da Matta for points.

Felipe Massa seems to be still crashing cars despite his year off testing for Ferrari. This is his second chance in Formula 1 and not many get that. If he continues to go over the limit and into the tyre barriers he may be out before he knows it. If he has learnt how to reach the limit but not go over it then Fisichella will have a tough fight on his hands. Massa is fast. Points possible if he doesn't lose it!

Jaguar: A works team with a low budget. It just doesn't work like that these days someone needs to tell the Ford bosses that. The team seem to have an excellent technical team but with a small budget they don't have a chance to mix it with the top teams. What is the point then of spending money at all if you're best result is a 5th ?
They'll struggle this season. Expect them to be the last Michelin runner.
Reliability 7.5/10 - Speed 7.5/10 (Team Preview - Technical Preview)

Drivers: Mark Webber will do his best to score points for the team but no matter how good the driver is, the car has to be reasonably fast  to have a chance at scoring points. He'll find it very difficult to score points on merit. His only chance is for the cars in front to struggle and there will be many of them.

Christian Klien comes into Formula 1 with a good record and some good sponsorship. Having Webber as a team-mate won't help him at all. Just remember Pizzonia and Wilson and both were highly regarded. Don't expect points early in the season.

Toyota: They could be the dark horse of the season. With one of the biggest budgets in Formula 1, they are bound to get more competitive. Last year we saw them improve, this year they will improve further and with Gascoyne on board watch out for them from midseason onwards. Early in the season they'll be hoping for reliability to try and score some points.
Reliability 8/10 - Speed 8/10 (Team Preview)

Drivers: Cristiano da Matta did better than his team-mate in his first year in Formula 1. Look out for him this year. He'll probably be the 'best of the rest'. He could score points in Melbourne.

Olivier Panis is a bit like David Coulthard. He is an excellent technical driver but when it comes to racing he isn't up there with the top guys. He too could score points though. 

Jordan: Towards the end of last year Jordan was getting pretty close to Minardi. This year they will be running together. Well with 2 rookies at Minardi perhaps not but they are struggling financially and that means their car lacks development and testing. 
Reliability 6.5/10 - Speed 7.0/10 (Team Preview)

Drivers: Nick Heidfeld swapped seats with Giancarlo Fisichella. Didn't he listen to what Fisichella was saying all last season ? Or is he that desperate for a drive. In any case, points will be impossible unless we have a race like Brazil '03!

Giorgio Pantano is another rookie with a good record. He may make a name for himself if he gets the better of Heidfeld but in a Jordan it will be hard to show. Points not possible!

Minardi: They have opted for last year's Cosworth engine as that is what they can afford. Plus they can afford it blowing up in practice as they will be starting from the back anyway. This way you'll know that the engine is reliable for the race! 
Reliability 6.5/10 - Speed 6.5/10 (Team Preview)

Drivers: Gianmaria Bruni seems to have a reasonable racing record but not impressive. Don't expect him to be the next Alonso or Webber and don't expect points either.

Zsolt Baumgartner while not actually a rookie as he raced at two events last season for Jordan replacing Ralph Firman, I'll classify him as one. He is in Formula 1 purely because of the sponsorships he brings with him. He is the next Alex Yoong.

Bridgestone Preview - Michelin Preview

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