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By Karl Williams


Sunday, March 16, 2008.


As the Formula 1 Grand Prix season kicks off in the wee hours from Australia, we can see if all those months of winter testing have been worth the wait. Despite all the sand bagging, the cat and mouse games, nothing has really prepared the teams for this year’s opener down under.


For the past five years, McLaren and Ferrari have been the pacesetters. Lewis Hamilton in McLaren and Kimi Raikkonen in Ferrari were tipped to dominate qualifying for Sunday’s race; the Ferrari looked very fast if not quite connected in the corners, but while out qualifying in the first session, Kimi’s car developed a fuel regulator problem and his engine died due to fuel starvation.


As he coasted into the pit lane, his first qualifying session came to an abrupt end, due more in part to one of the new the dreaded regulations. This made the way clear for Hamilton to do pole position battle with his teammate Heikki Kovalainen, and the other Ferrari of Felipe Massa.


I’m slightly disappointed with Ferrari and Massa. They failed to live up to expectations, even with the legendary Michael Schumacher pounding around Fiorano- Ferrari’s private test track, during the winter months. You just know that if Kimi were on song, new rule not withstanding, he would be next to Lewis on the front row. But at least, we are seeing Lewis has got his work cutout with Robert Kubica and his stable mate Kovalainen.


This year, we have a more fitter, focused and determined Lewis Hamilton. He became the most successful rookie in the sports’ history in 2007, missing out on winning the championship by just one point. On Sunday, his hunger showed and he got the job done by winning the Australian Grand Prix.


The real treat for me, apart from Lewis on pole, was Kubica in his BMW Sauber. Last year, we saw how the BMW improved race by race fighting for a place in the top six and I knew it was only a matter of time before the team would be challenging the dominance of the McLaren and Ferrari.


Kubica’s BMW was blisteringly quick in practice, full of promise, if a little irate, unlike the pre-season sandbagging, and you just feel that if he didn’t take such a wide line unto the dirt, he would have taken his first pole position.


He has always been a very formidable drive - right from his early days, when, in 2006, he stood-in and showed promise, for the Canadian Jacques Villeneuve. Let it be noted. Lewis has said Kubica is one driver he keeps a very close eye on.


    "I felt fantastic. I never thought it would have been  

     as physically a breeze as it was. It is great 

     preparation for Malaysia, so bring it on. I am really

     looking forward to it."

 - Lewis Hamilton issuing a chilling warning to his rivals after winning in Melbourne, Australia.


Other drivers to watch out for this year are David Coultard and the Aussie Mark Webber. The Red Bull is the first car, fully designed from the ground-up, by Andrew Newey and the expectation is very high for him and his two drivers.


Newey is the man who masterminded McLaren’s campaigns for many years. Red Bull hired him to make their team the envy of all and they are posed to be a force to reckon with this year. I hope he can do the magic, as it would be nice to see Coultard upfront again in what could be his last Formula 1 season.


We are also in for a very competitive season of racing thanks to a host of new regulations. The most obvious of which, was seen on Sunday; traction control will sort the men from the boys as they slip, slide like a bat-out-a-hell to control 750bhp of raw power.


I'm however not too sure about the no spare-car rule. As of now, when we are in say Japan or China, under monsoon weather, or the carnage seen today, there will be no more running back to the pits to jump into the spare car. And if a car develops technical problems around the parade lap, a driver will be out of the race. No spare car and no traction control spells; recipe for disaster. We’ve always had spare cars; I feel Max Mosley’s gone a little far on this one.    


While we look forward to the new season, it will be very exciting to see how competitive the races could be, without any of the usual electronic aids giving interference and assistance.


Some pundits are saying that Lewis Hamilton could dominate F1 for many years to come, just as Michael did in his days. But they may be wrong.


Now, it seems we’ve got open season on our hands; car control will be the biggest test of the driver’s skill. Trying to keep the thing on terra firma and in a straight line.


And if you thought last year was exciting, this return to the lively cars, teasing the drivers’ sensory powers of concentration, is the most exciting F1 season in a very long time. As Lewis said in Sunday's pole position press conference, bring it on! 


Karl Williams is a London-based freelance journalist and motoring correspondent for The New Black Magazine.


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