After chops and changes, new season promises plenty of fireworks
Here we are again, on the cusp of another Formula One season. And here's the good news: despite the retirement of a certain German gentleman, the sky hasn't fallen in on the sport. Possibly, because of his absence, the new season looks like being a cracker.
The paddock is looking forward, not back. So, it seems, is Michael Schumacher. While Ferrari and most other teams were in Abu Dhabi to celebrate the awarding of a race there from 2009, he was up the road in Dubai to watch golf.
Of course, Ferrari face up to the new season with more than one familiar face missing. Ross Brawn, the veteran technical director, has gone on a sabbatical. On top of that Jean Todt, the team boss, has been promoted to CEO of the whole Ferrari company. The team who Michael made are no more.
Despite all that, the prancing horse has been fast in testing. Allied to that a genuinely fast pair of drivers, and Ferrari are likely to hit the Melbourne grid at the front. Kimi Raikonnen will benefit from the reliability of his new team's car, but will he fit in well at an outfit used to doting on a very different team leader? For that matter, will he establish himself as the team leader? Felipe Massa can see his big opportunity to assert himself, and Ferrari fans can only hope the competition pushes the team forward.
This year might well be the season that McLaren get their act together. No grand prix win last year would have hurt Ron Dennis, but things are looking distinctly rosier this time round. First off, the winter runs suggest the car, which is always ultraquick, won't need breakdown assistance quite so much as last year.
Secondly, they have world champion Fernando Alonso on board. One of the reasons the Spaniard won the title twice with Renault is that he can win races in cars that, strictly speaking, he shouldn't be winning in. In that respect he is Schumacher-like, and that will be in stark contrast to Raikonnen.
It will be an intense season for his teammate, Lewis Hamilton. the GP2 champion last year, who's stepping up to Formula One, a tough move, especially with such a big team. Then there's the fact he happens to be black. I'm sure you would have read at least one headline suggesting he's the Tiger Woods of motorsport. In as much as he's a young rising star and, as a black sportsman in a sport not bursting with similar role models, I guess there is a similarity. But he needs to forget all the hoopla and concentrate on being fast.
And so to Renault. When I spoke to Flavio Briatore recently he seemed like a man without a care. He always appears this way, but he has reason to be concerned this season. Put simply, his car is off the pace. Without Alonso to pull rabbits from a hat, the team may have to say goodbye to their constructor's title. It will be a rebuilding year for them, especially with rookie Heikki Kovalainen on board. But he is a Briatore protege, just like Alonso, so don't expect Renault to be in the doldrums too long.
Will Honda be as woeful in Australia as they've been all winter, and can Williams arrest their seemingly terminal decline? These and other issues will have to wait for another column.
One issue that I don't have to address at the start of the season for once is politics.
The past few seasons have been fraught with infighting over the future direction of the sport, but praise be, peace has broken out. Part of me misses the plotting, but to be honest it's a joy to be able to concentrate on the racing. It is one of the most wide open seasons for a long time, and for that, we should all be thankful. Let the racing begin.