Can McLaren-Mercedes’ MP4-20 and Renault’s R25 gain an early-season advantage over Ferrari’s uprated 2004 car? Given the new regulations for the 2005 F1 season, the outcome of Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix may be ultimately decided by tyre endurance.

Can McLaren-Mercedes’ MP4-20 and Renault’s R25 gain an early-season advantage over Ferrari’s uprated 2004 car? Given the new regulations for the 2005 F1 season, the outcome of Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix may be ultimately decided by tyre endurance.

Both Michelin and Bridgestone have admitted that the opening race of the Formula One season, at Albert Park in Melbourne, will foist teams and their respective tyre suppliers into the unknown. Tyres now have to last for qualifying and an entire race distance, adding an extra dimension to the battle between the three Bridgestone-shod teams (Ferrari, Jordan and Minardi) and the remainder of the field. Meanwhile, a reliable engine package will be more important than ever, with penalties if an engine fails to last for the required two race weekends.

Based on the performances of new cars during tests throughout the winter, certain teams look set to endure a much more difficult start with the new rules than others.

Ferrari will start the new season with an evolution of its old car. Fitted with a revised aerodynamic package to conform to the new rules, the F2004 M has not set the pace during testing in the way the old car did.

"We are not on the same level as we were here last year, when we had the new car, which was a very fast toy. But I am sure that many people would be happy to be racing our old car. But we have had an intensive test programme this winter and I am quite happy with what we have achieved," seven-time world champion and Ferrari kingpin Michael Schumacher said this week.

The opening races of the season could see the champions at their weakest, with the opposition having spent the winter preparing new cars ready to debut this weekend. But even if other teams are faster, Schumacher has the guile and experience to extract pace from a race car and, coupled to one of the most reliable engines in the paddock, it would be a major surprise if Ferrari doesn’t start the new season where it ended the last one – at the front.

Renault’s 2004 season ended in disappointment for team boss Flavio Briatore, but the French team head into the new season with renewed optimism after the new R25 proved reliable and consistently quick during recent F1 winter test sessions.

Both Giancarlo Fisichella and Fernando Alonso head to Albert Park expecting big things from their R25s. Fisichella, who returned to Renault at the end of 2004, made the headlines this week when he proclaimed the French team a “favourite” to win Sunday's grand prix after being “quickest everywhere” in pre-season testing.

The Italian’s smoother driving style may give him a slight edge over his Spanish cohort given the new tyre regulations, but no-one can discount Alonso fighting spirit…

”I am much more confident with this car," Alonso said. "It is easy to drive, and you can run on the limit without any nasty surprises in how the behaviour changes over long runs. It is a very consistent car. Michelin have done an excellent job and in terms of performance and consistency, these are the best tyres I have ever had in Formula One”.

Williams-BMW has been playing down expectations ahead of the start of the season. While Mark Webber will undoubtedly wish to impress the home fans on his début for the team, they may have to accept that he doesn’t have the car beneath him to seriously challenge at the very front this time around. With the Australian reportedly disappointed with the early performance of the FW27, and both Frank Williams and Patrick Head admitting the car isn’t fast enough, it’s clear that the team has work to do – although Head has warned that there is no quick fix to the problem.

Webber needs to show why he is being talked of as a potential champion, and the Australian’s new team-mate, Nick Heidfeld, is under pressure to make the most of his long-awaited big chance in F1. After all, Sir Frank has said that Antonio Pizzonia could replace the German if he failed to perform well.

By contrast, the air of expectation at McLaren ahead of the new season is probably greater than at any other team in the paddock. Like the new Renault, McLaren’s MP4-20 has been quick throughout the winter and, with Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya behind the wheel, the silver cars should certainly be much further up the field than they were at points during 2004.

Another plus point is the strength of the Mercedes-Benz engine during pre-season, with no engine failures over the course of the winter. The fact that the team can run a third car in 2005 can only be an advantage and, with two determined drivers, McLaren will hope to kick-start its championship challenge in style. Few would bet against the team being one of the main challengers to Ferrari in the final reckoning.

On Friday morning, McLaren reserve driver Pedro de la Rosa led the way for Ron Dennis' team and opened out a three-tenths gap over team-mate Raikkonen. De la Rosa benefited from running in the opening hour, where he took second fastest time behind Red Bull's Vitantonio Liuzzi, and from the new regulations which give him as many tyres as his team-mates have for the entire weekend, to clock a best lap of 1:25,376.
With Honda now having more of a say in the running of BAR, following its purchase of a 45 per cent stake in the team, the pressure heading to Australia is on the squa

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