- Dan Knutson
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The 2009 Formula One season kicks off with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, Australia, on March 29.
Any new racing season begins with question marks, but there are more than ever this year, as F1's status quo is heading for a massive shake-up.
How big? Well, the odds are against reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton winning the season opener, not to mention the next few races, in his McLaren Mercedes.
As for the rest of the teams, it's been too close to call during much of the preseason testing, with Ferrari, BMW Sauber, Toyota and Red Bull all looking strong, while Renault, Toro Rosso, Williams and Force India may serve up some surprising performances.
The extensive rules changes in F1 this year play a major role in shifting the usual balance of power and hierarchy among the teams.
These new rules, which were covered in detail earlier by ESPN.com, include the return of slick tires, a significant reduction in aerodynamic downforce, an adjustable front wing, the introduction of the Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems, cost cuts, and banning track testing during the race season.
Here's a team-by-team preview:
Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
Car -- McLaren MP4-24
Engine -- Mercedes-Benz FO 108W
A year ago, Hamilton started off what would be his championship-winning season with a victory in the Australian Grand Prix. This year, however, he and the McLaren Mercedes team head to Australia on their back foot because the new MP4-24 just isn't fast enough.
In preseason testing, the McLarens of Hamilton and teammate Heikki Kovalainen have been a second a lap slower than the Ferraris. In fact, at a recent test in Barcelona, where all 10 teams were present, seven different cars and 11 drivers posted faster times than Hamilton.
"We are working hard to improve," said Norbert Haug, Mercedes-Benz's director of motorsport. "However, it might take us a few races to significantly improve."
So why is the car off the pace?
"It is a combination of factors," said McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh, who took over the team principal role from Ron Dennis on March 1.
"Our Mercedes-Benz engine is strong -- we saw that last year -- so MP4-24's performance shortfall is clearly chassis-centric. Inevitably, in 21st-century F1, it is a car's aero aspect that confers the greatest pluses and minuses to its overall performance package, and that would appear to be the case with MP4-24. But F1 engineers can do great things when the pressure is on."
McLaren says it has identified the problem. It is thought to be a downforce issue centered around the rear wing and rear diffuser.
For his part, Hamilton wasn't expecting to rest on his championship laurels.
"I haven't arrived here [this season] thinking I'm world champion," he said. "I've arrived thinking I've got a great team I need to push as hard as I can. We've got a lot of work to do to make sure we're ready for Australia."
"Just from looking at the [testing] times, it looks like [Toyota] are doing quite a good job," he added. "But I think a lot of the teams are doing quite good jobs. The Renault doesn't look bad, [and] the BMW doesn't look bad, so there are quite a lot of teams looking pretty impressive at the moment."
It is the same for all the teams, of course, but the new rule that limited each team to 20 test days between Jan. 1 and the first race means less track time to solve problems compared to previous years.
"Ideally, I'd like to drive more," Kovalainen said. "I think everybody would like to prepare better. Thinking about the circumstances, I think we're doing a pretty good job. We are ticking the boxes of what we want to know before the first race.
"I think it's very difficult to say where everybody is at the moment. But if we just keep the focus now and then go to Melbourne, then we'll find out there in qualifying and the race where we are."
Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro
Car -- Ferrari F60
Engine -- Ferrari 056
Last year, in the most dramatic last-lap championship showdown in F1 history, Felipe Massa won and lost the drivers' world championship in the final seconds of the final lap of the final race.
If Lewis Hamilton had not managed to grab fifth place from Timo Glock with just one corner to go, then he would not have snatched the title from Massa by a single point.
Massa handled the defeat with true sportsmanship, which gained him a lot of respect from fans and competitors alike.
The defeat also, he says, made him stronger.
"Everyone is starting from zero," he said of the 2009 title chase.
"In a championship like that as we did last year, you learn a lot. Even if we didn't win the championship, we did a fantastic championship and that is already quite important. It makes you even stronger mentally and in terms of experience. Maybe we will fight with Lewis, maybe not and it will be with another driver. So we need to be ready to fight with whatever driver we are racing against."
The 2009 Ferrari F60 -- the name celebrates Ferrari's 60th season in the F1 world championship -- looked competitive in testing.
"I am ready," Massa told the official F1 Web site. "We are ready with our preparations. I think we did everything we wanted to do and brought everything that we wanted to bring in terms of development of the car, so I would say that we are pretty prepared for the start of the season."
Kimi Raikkonen won the 2007 Australian Grand Prix and went on to win the championship that year. Last season he won twice early on and then struggled for the rest of the year. He aims to get back in the winning groove this season.
The rules have changed the cars, but does Raikkonen feel different from last year?
"I don't know anything about a different feeling," he replied. "It's a new season, so it's hard to know what to expect. Of course, with the rule changes, the handling of the car changes a little bit, and it can get tricky if it's bad weather, but then that goes for everybody. I am ready to go racing, and then we will see how well we can do.
"It is very difficult to say what everybody is doing, so we better wait until the first race with any predictions."
BMW Sauber F1 Team
Car -- BMW Sauber F1.09
Engine -- BMW P86/9
Last year, Robert Kubica led the championship at midseason after winning the Canadian Grand Prix. The following races saw tension build between the Polish driver and the management of the BMW Sauber team. Kubica thought more effort should have been centered on his championship bid in 2008.
Instead, the team stuck resolutely to its four-year plan: points in 2006, podium finishes in 2007, a win in 2008 and gunning for the championship in 2009.
"In 2009 we are looking to take the next and most difficult step yet: We want to be fighting for the world championship title," BMW Motorsports director Dr. Mario Theissen said. "The F1.09 gives us a good platform to fulfill this aim. Now we have to see what happens in the season's 17 races. What we know for certain is that you can plan your level of performance, but not your results."
Kubica has set his own goal for this year.
"To get 100 percent out of myself and the F1.09 in every race," he said. "Only then we can have the chance to beat the other top teams and still be battling for the title in the final race of the season."
So how does he think the BMW Sauber team is shaping up compared to its rivals?
"As always testing can only give you ideas on where you are," Kubica said. "And it can also mislead you. Our goal is to be best prepared for Australia. And I think we are on a good path. But we have to wait until Melbourne to really see where we are. The qualifying will give all the teams a first impression about the balance of power."
Nick Heidfeld's targets are similar.
"My goal is to get everything possible out of the car and the situation on each lap and each race weekend," Heidfeld said. "What is actually possible is determined to a large degree by our technical performance. The aim of the team is to be involved in the title battle in 2009. In the past few years we have always met our intermediate targets, and I hope we manage to do that again in 2009."
Heidfeld starts his 10th season in F1 still searching for his first grand prix victory.
"In order to win you have to have a car underneath you that is capable of winning," he said. "That's what I'm hoping for, of course, and that's what we are working to achieve."
ING Renault F1 Team
Car -- Renault R29
Engine -- Renault RS27C
After a good start and then a bumpy midseason, the Renault team came on strong in the later races of 2008 as Fernando Alonso scored two victories.
When Renault unveiled its 2009 car, Alonso was very positive about the team's chances in the upcoming season.
"I'm much happier this year and much more optimistic, because I think the rule changes are a big opportunity for all the teams," he said in early February. "If we do a good job we can fight for the championship.
"This year everybody is starting from zero, and if we do a good job we can be up with them. This is what we hope at the moment, and that is our aim."
By the time testing had wrapped up, however, the two-time world champion wasn't as optimistic.
"Ferrari, Brawn, BMW are, right now, unreachable," he told Spanish newspapers. "There are three or four teams ahead of us. Even so, it's not all about winning in Melbourne because the championship is very long."
Renault's technical director, Bob Bell, said: "We feel reasonably comfortable that we have the foundations to have a good season, challenging for podiums and wins, and ultimately that means hopefully challenging for championships. We have always said that has to be our objective. We're not here to make up the numbers; we're here to win."
Like the team, rookie Nelson Piquet came on strong in the latter stages of 2008. His performances earlier in the year, however, made the Renault management think long and hard before rehiring him for 2009.
Piquet says Renault needs to play catch-up.
"Maybe now at the beginning we can be a bit behind," he said during testing, "but then we recover. Other teams can be doing fine now and then find problems later on. These things are very difficult to predict. Worrying is not going to bring us anything, so we will just work on the problems and try to sort everything out. To keep comparing ourselves to other teams is not going to bring us anything."
Panasonic Toyota Racing
Car -- Toyota TF109
Engine -- Toyota RVX-09
The board of directors at Toyota came close to pulling the plug on its F1 project after Honda's shocking announcement in December that it was selling off its F1 team and withdrawing from the series.
"I stressed again and again in the company's executive board meetings there was no way we should pull out, although we have to drastically cut our costs," Tadashi Yamashina, chairman of Toyota Motor Sports, recently told a news conference in Tokyo. "Obviously our negative business reports did cause some doubt. So I was extremely happy that Panasonic decided to renew its contract with us even though they also had some financial trouble. Their understanding of what we are doing allowed us to keep racing."
Like the other big teams, Toyota's budget was over $300 million annually. But Toyota has severely reduced the team's budget for 2009 over and above the cost savings instituted by the sport's FIA governing body and the Formula One Teams Association.
Still, the general feeling is that Toyota must win its first grand prix in 2009 to justify its existence in F1.
Will this be the year Toyota scores its maiden F1 victory?
"We hope so," veteran Jarno Trulli said. "We are definitely optimistic, but nevertheless only the race results will tell us the truth. All in all, this is so far one of the best cars that Toyota have so far made, so I am confident we will be right at the top with the others."
While Trulli says the aim is to be among the top three or four teams, he acknowledges that the competition looks tough and closely matched.
"Ferrari are looking pretty competitive," he said. "BMW are looking competitive, and we are looking competitive. Renault are not bad as well. I was impressed by the Brawn. The Red Bull is looking good, the car looks good, but only the race results will tell us the truth. This will happen in Australia."
Timo Glock feels a lot more in sync with the 2009 Toyota at this time of the year than he did with the 2008 car last March.
"I have to say that my feeling is a lot better than at the same test last year here in [Spain]," he said. "We struggled quite a lot more with the 2008 car to get used to the grooved tires. Now we are back on slicks, which makes it a bit easier. And also in the wet conditions the car is more suited to my driving style, and that makes it more fun to drive. That's positive, and hopefully we are close to the podium in Australia."
Scuderia Toro Rosso
Car -- STR 04
Engine -- Ferrari 056
11 -- Sebastien Buemi, Switzerland
12 -- Sebastien Bourdais, France
After embarrassing some of the bigger teams last year, including sister team Red Bull Racing, Scuderia Toro Rosso has a pretty stiff challenge this season.
"In 2008 our performance exceeded our expectations," admitted Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost. "It's going to be tough to live up to that this year. Within the team we can rely on a good level of stability, as all the key players on the technical side have been in place for some time now. Further stability comes courtesy of the input of Red Bull Technology."
Red Bull Technology designed the chassis for both Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Toro Rosso, but there are considerable differences between the two cars as Red Bull uses a Renault engine while STR runs Ferraris.
Sebastian Vettel was the star at STR last year as he gave the team its first-ever win after outfoxing and outdriving the rest of the field in a rain-soaked Italian Grand Prix. But Vettel has joined Red Bull this year.
"A driver like Sebastian Vettel you would always miss, because he is very talented, he is very fast," Tost said.
Four-time Champ Car title holder Sebastien Bourdais needed time to adapt in his rookie F1 2008 season, and the situation wasn't helped by the fact that the car suited Vettel's driving style but not Bourdais'.
STR took its time deciding whether it wanted Bourdais to return, during which he lost out on a chance to race for a top IRL team, but in the end the team made the wise decision to retain the French driver.
"We have had a very long winter, very difficult and complicated, but it is over now," a relieved Bourdais said.
A pair of seventh places were Bourdais' best finishes last year, something he naturally wants to improve upon in 2009.
"We'd like to score as many points as we can," he said of his goals this year. "If the team can sustain or improve, which seems quite difficult when you know who you need to beat to improve your classification. But if we can score as many points as we did last year as a team -- and obviously if I can score more than last year -- I'd be quite happy."
Switzerland's Sebastien Buemi has been hired as Bourdais' teammate. He is the only rookie in the lineup this year.
"In the end, when you sit in the car it doesn't really matter if you're the only rookie or not," he said. "I just try to concentrate as best as possible on my job, and that's it. You just need to relax and think about what you need to do, rather than the pressure of being the only rookie."
But will he feel nervous sitting in the car on the grid just before the start of the Australian Grand Prix?
"I haven't thought too much about it at the moment," he said. "I will have enough time to think about that on the plane."
Red Bull Racing
Car -- Red Bull RB5
Engine -- Renault RS27C
Red Bull Racing team officials say they take pride that sister team Toro Rosso won the first-ever F1 race for the Red Bull racing family last year. But that doesn't cover up the fact that Red Bull underperformed in 2008.
Mark Webber started off well last season, scoring points in six of the first eight races, but after that, Red Bull's car development tailed off compared to teams such as Renault and Toyota.
Red Bull's overall points haul wasn't helped by the fact that David Coulthard, in his final F1 season, finished in the points only twice.
Webber's offseason training took a serious blow when he badly fractured his lower right leg in a cycling accident while participating in his annual charity challenge trek in Tasmania. While Webber spent the winter in fast-track rehab, Red Bull's chief technology officer, Adrian Newey, was overseeing the design and development of the RB5.
The new RB5 shows Newey's typical attention to aerodynamic detail. The first tests proved that the car is fast, but the team did lose its way a bit with the setup in subsequent tests.
"I haven't really got back to where we were the first time I drove the car, when I was very, very happy with it," Webber said during a test session early in March. "So we're looking into trying to extract that again."
While he is still limping, Webber has had no problems with his injured leg while driving the car. He made his F1 debut in his home Australian Grand Prix in 2002 when he finished fifth driving a Minardi.
Will the Red Bull team be able to bring some last-minute tweaks to Australia so that the car will able to fight at the top?
"I hope so," Webber replied, "but I always hope and sometimes you go there and get destroyed. I know the opposition is always tough at this level. We'll see."
Webber's new teammate Sebastian Vettel will push him hard this season.
"In Mark, Sebastian has the biggest challenge in his young career, and likewise for Mark it will be the biggest challenge in his career to date," team boss Christian Horner said.
So can Vettel add to his wins total this season?
"We have great potential," he said. "The car seems to be all right, so let's see. If we have a package that is strong enough to win, then we have to win -- otherwise, we are doing a bad job."
Does Vettel expect to beat Webber in Melbourne?
"That's the target," Vettel said.
AT&T Williams F1
Car -- Williams FW31
Engine -- Toyota RVX-09
Williams has won world championships, but not since Jacques Villeneuve earned the title in 1997, and it has won F1 races, but not since Juan Pablo Montoya took the victory in the 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix.
While the team had a few bright moments last year, it certainly was not a brilliant season for Williams. It hopes to turn that around in 2009.
"This could be our most important season for a decade," team owner Frank Williams said. "The rule changes give Williams F1 a chance to reestablish itself.
"It's impossible to say where we'll be in Melbourne, but I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll make a step up in performance this year. To be close to the top three would be a big step forward."
This is Nico Rosberg's fourth season in F1 and his fourth with Williams. His contract expires at the end of 2009, and he may not return to Williams in 2010.
"For me it's a crucial year this year," Rosberg said. "Mainly because I want to have success in my sport; that's what I'm racing for. I hope that I'm going to have a car to have good success this year -- it's very possible.
"If not, then I need to see, because at the latest in 2010 I want to be in a really top car. I wish it could be with Williams -- that would be fantastic. It would be something special for me to have success with this team. I really get along well with all the people and it would be great to have success together."
Kazuki Nakajima improved steadily in his rookie year and is now back for a second season with Williams. Like the rest of the team, he hopes that Williams has been able to extract more from the car than their competitors because of all the rules changes.
"I think it's a big chance for us," he said. "At the testing tracks, everybody looks very close, and it's still too early to talk about performance comparisons. But at the moment everything is very positive for us, and I'm just really looking forward to the new season."
"As it's my second year, it's also a crucial year for me," he added. "I need really to put in a better performance in terms of all the aspects. There will be more pressure, but after a full year of experience I'm sure I can do much better than last year."
Brawn GP Formula One Team
Car -- Brawn BGP 001
Engine -- Mercedes-Benz FO 108W
Ferrari driver Felipe Massa issued an ominous warning after the one and only time all 10 teams tested at the same time with their new cars before heading to Australia.
"Brawn GP was unreachable for all of us," he said.
Honda stunned the racing world when it announced in December that it was pulling out of F1. A winter of uncertainty followed for the over 700 employees of the team while Honda searched for an appropriate buyer. In the end, a management buyout was worked out, with Ross Brawn taking over the team based in England. It's now officially called the Brawn GP Formula One Team, and Mercedes-Benz V8s have replaced the Honda engines.
Throughout it all, the team, still funded by Honda over the winter, continued to design and build its 2009 car. The project dates back 15 months because once the team realized that its 2008 car was a flop it started working on the 2009 model.
Sacrificing 2008 has paid off. The Brawn BGP 001 was very, very quick despite not making it out on the track a month after the top teams brought out their new cars.
"Even after such a short testing program, I feel that we are ready for the challenge ahead in Melbourne," said driver Jenson Button, who agreed to take a pay cut to help out the team. "However, we will still need every minute of the Friday practice sessions to make the most of our first race weekend."
Brawn, who was one of the key figures behind all seven of Michael Schumacher's world championships, is a technical director and engineer, and he never expected to become a team owner.
"Honda had to consider all possibilities," he said. "They assessed all the options they had and I am glad to say they came down in favor of my purchase of the team."
He is happy with the results of the two test sessions the cars had before being shipped to Australia.
"Our testing program to date has been dominated by the requirement to prove the car's reliability," he said. "However, we are also pleased with the competitive lap times that we have seen from the car over the past two weeks.
"The [final] test in Jerez [Spain] has been particularly useful and allowed the drivers to complete valuable chassis setup work and evaluate the Bridgestone Potenza tire compounds, which we will use in Melbourne. I would like to thank the team and our drivers for all their hard work over the past few weeks as we look forward to the first race and the opportunity to finally see the car in action in a competitive environment."
Having worked with Rubens Barrichello at Ferrari, Brawn is a big fan of the Brazilian driver. So he didn't hesitate in choosing Barrichello to remain with the team rather than opting for rookie Bruno Senna (nephew of the late Ayrton Senna), who also was on the list.
"Over the last four months I preferred to stay silent," Barrichello said. "People were saying I was finished and nobody wanted me, and someone even said that Bruno Senna had already signed for three years with the team. What was important was that during that time [over the winter] I had to keep my faith. I worked hard physically, and I was still only talking with staff members from the team."
This will be Barrichello's 17th season in F1, and thanks to the speed of the new Brawn car, he is really looking forward to it.
"It is a good car it is a good engine, it is a good group, and I think we will be the surprise of the year," he told the official F1 Web site.
Force India F1 Team
Car -- Force India VJM002
Engine -- Mercedes-Benz FO 108W
The former Jordan/Midland/Spyker team heads into its second season as Force India under the ownership of Indian billionaire tycoon Vijay Mallya.
After running Ferrari engines in recent years, this season the team has a technical partnership with McLaren Mercedes for the supply of the engine, gearbox, hydraulics and KERS.
"By using the same drivetrain as another team, Force India now has a high-level benchmark of its own performance," Mallya said. "If performance relative to McLaren -- the 2008 championship-winning team -- is low, there are only a reduced number of variables that need to be analyzed and understood.
"Due to the late signing of the contract and the limited time available for designing and building the VJM02, immediate benchmarking is not possible, but I would hope that by the midseason point Force India will have established itself well enough to accurately analyze its performance.
"The complete supply of a drivetrain has also allowed us to put our expertise in areas where it is needed. In doing this the team can progress at a quicker rate with the rest of the car."
Giancarlo Fisichella has been racing in F1 since 1996 and heads into the 2009 season as motivated as ever.
"For sure it's got to be better than last year," he said, "but I don't know how much better it can be. Our main target is to score some points consistently. If we build a competitive car, anything could happen. We've got a good engine, a good gearbox, and if the car is quick I think we can be there."
This is Adrian Sutil's third year in F1.
"I hope to improve myself again," he said. "You can learn every season, so it's important to learn again this year. We should maybe have better chances, so it could be the first time we can show a little bit more and race the other guys.
"At the moment we don't know, but for sure we have the biggest potential of the last few years. So I'm making sure I'm absolutely prepared fitness-wise, and hope for a good season without any incidents, and a few points at the end."
Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
6dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz