The Formula One season begins this weekend at the Australian Grand Prix. This time, the hype and anticipation seem more justified than usual, considering the fact that there are some genuine changes coming into force; the FIA is doing more than just amending the qualifying rules this time around. The introduction of the Kinetic Energy Recovery System or KERS, while optional, does seem to hold some promise, of course counterbalanced by reduced downforce and aerodynamic changes; so does the introduction of slick tyres, albeit with the use of both soft and hard compounds in each race still being mandatory.
The whole business of recession has taken its toll on F1. With Honda pulling out and jeopardising the population on the F1 grid, the epitome of reliability, Ross Brawn, came to the rescue with the Brawn GP team. Brawn force with Rubens Barrichello, reminiscent of the good old Ferrari days when a legend called Michael Schumacher stalked the circuits, along with charismatic Brit Jenson Button, should definitely pack some punch and bring life into a grid that is raring for a show of unpredictability. BMW drivers Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld linger on the horizon as men of immense talent, and hopefully this season their consistency will develop into improved performance and race victories. Toyota still remain the sometime-soon-will-prove team, the wins have remained an unrealised dream, and Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock (in particular, after the notoriety he gained following the dubious slowing down at the Brazilian GP 2008) will really have to work some magic to justify their presence on the grid.
Renault seem to have entered the latter stages of convalescence, and after their strong showing at the end of 2008, Fernando Alonso should be a happier man than he has been the past couple of years. Some flamboyant Latino spirit seems imminent this year, with Alonso, Massa and Barrichello promising much. Boys, you'd better deliver.
Force India, through some stroke of luck, are not the last team on the grid in terms of their position on the pit lane; that will not carry them up the grid when it comes to points, sadly, and Giancarlo Fisichella will have much work to do to add to his tally of points as his career evidently enters its last stages. Adrian Sutil, well, is it misfortune for him or luck for Force India? Time will tell, though there doesn't seem to be much on the surprise or unpredictability front coming in from that quarter.
The heirs, the sons of ex-F1 drivers, unfortunately, are yet to create their own identity. Talented but still in the shadows of drivers delivering more consistently or worse still, of their fathers, Nico Rosberg, Kazuki Nakajima and Nelson Piquet Jr. have their tasks cut out for them. With younger drivers waiting in the wings or already on the grid, this is possibly their last chance to get a firm foothold in the sport.
One rule I would recommend the FIA include in next season's changes is a ban on the name Sebastien (or Sebastian- irrespective of the way it is spelt). The Red Bull-Toro Rosso combine seems to have a knack for picking them out, though I'm sure nobody is really complaining. While Sebastien Bourdais was nothing much to talk about last season, Sebastian Vettel proved a stunner, winning the Italian GP. This season, he can well play the role of upstart, if not a potential title contender. That will have to wait until Red Bull take their game up several notches. Sebastien Buemi, much praised and watched out for, replaces Vettel at Toro Rosso as the young 'veteran' slides up into Red Bull. Mark Webber remains at home there, though, still waiting for the performance of a lifetime.
Ferrari remain unmoved from their position of favourites, of course, as Kimi Raikkonen will try to refute all the criticism of last year as critics insisted he was losing focus. Massa will attempt to get over the bitter loss (how cruel it is to lose the championship by a point!), putting his guts in. McLaren-Mercedes, on the other hand, have had a rather rocky start to the season with chassis problems and testing crashes, but can pre-season testing be a true enough indicator of what the races will be like? Lewis Hamiton will drive his heart out before he concedes the championship for sure, Heikki Kovalainen perhaps trying to prove a point beside his more fancied teammate.
This season will not feature races in North America. F1 is growing increasingly Asian in terms of geography as seven of the seventeen races this season take place in Asia or Asia-Pacific. Call me old-fashioned, but I do admire the natural settings of European circuits much better than the polished to perfection, blue-and-grey swanky structures of the new ones springing up all over Asia- not to mention the street circuits among skyscrapers, a patch of harbour and sleek yachts thrown in to relieve the monotony. Whatever happened to the forests, mountains and chateaus? Oh yes, this is F1. It's all about money. And also surprises, plotting, sportsmanship. So what are the odds like for the drivers?
Speculation ends (or begins?) this weekend.