The season starts in Melbourne tomorrow and, from what I have seen at Estoril, the competition is going to be incredibly fierce. But I came away from testing in Portugal feeling good in myself and reassured in the knowledge that I have saved the best for the first race in Australia.
It is actually quite difficult to make a reasonably accurate forecast, if only because so many things have changed since the 1995 season ended in Australia last November. In fact, one of the few constants has been my staying put with Williams at a time when the rest of the top six finishers in last year's championship have swapped teams. While a change of teams can be exciting, having the continuity with such a first-rate team as Williams has many benefits. We know our strengths and weaknesses and the winter has been spent building on the former and dealing with the latter.
After the highs and lows of last year, there has been a lot to think about. While we had a number of setbacks, all the ingredients were there and, over the winter, we have had a chance to hone the operation into shape. Nothing has been overlooked. If 1995 achieved one thing, it was a strengthening of the desire to win the championship and we have examined absolutely every aspect of running the team from reliability to pit stops to very small details which are crucial in a sport where each one-hundreth of a second counts.
For once, I have had time at home, which I really value. In the winter of 1994-95, I was globe- trotting on a promotional tour but, this time, I was able to sit back with my family and get to know my children. After recovering from the shock of having a strange man in the house, I think they took to me quite well.
I now have my own gym at home, which makes regular preparation simpler and more time-efficient. I have always trained hard but the problem has not been quantity: it's the attention to detail which I am hoping will make the difference. I am looking for a five to 10 per cent improvement in all-round performance but, as always, it's the final few per cent which present the greatest challenge.
I certainly feel different and I achieved that after working much more closely with the team's physio and trainer, Erwin Goellner. He took me off to a clinic in Austria, where I think his main ambition was to test my sense of humour. I had to run flat out on a treadmill while a doctor stuck pins in my ear and took blood to test my lactic acid levels. Believe me, if you can laugh after that, you should be able to laugh at anything. Another part of the test involved a reaction time assessment in which I came out top out of the 25,000 sports people who have been tested; I consider that a good result, to say the least...
I attach a great deal of importance to enjoying what I am doing. Of course, if I'm having a hard time in a race, then I'm going to look upset at the end of it: I wouldn't be a competitive person if I didn't get cheesed off by failing to win. But I want to enjoy this championship. There is nothing I would like more than to have some great races and win the championship.
But it would be wrong to raise hopes too high this early because all sorts of twists and turns lie ahead. The one certainty is that no particular driver-car combination stands out as being head and shoulders above the rest.
Naturally, everyone asks me about Michael Schumacher and his move to Ferrari. I think reliability will be the biggest question mark, particularly with the engine. In any case, I think it's too limiting to talk only in terms of Michael. There is going to be a strong challenge from Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger at Benetton-Renault. And, of course, I have my new team-mate, Jacques Villeneuve, who, I believe, has more than enough ability to handle F1.
Jacques has already done more than 9,000 miles of testing in last year's car. He comes from IndyCar as the reigning champion, as well as winner of last year's Indianapolis 500, so he's obviously a very quick and competitive driver.
The first race in Melbourne is a new venue, which means we all started from scratch when practice began on Thursday morning.
Everyone must also get used to a new timetable which now dictates a single qualifying session on Saturday afternoon. Previously, the times established on Friday afternoon also counted towards grid positions. I think this is a new dimension which will add a great deal to the excitement. I have to admit that I never really felt comfortable with the Friday qualifying session because you would do your best but you wouldn't know if that was going to be good enough 24 hours later. Now it's a one-shot situation which gives every driver the opportunity to channel all his ability and aggression into a more concentrated action-packed one-hour session.
It's true to say that, at this time each year, you go into the championship believing it's the best chance you've got and 1996 is no different, particularly as I can draw on a more comprehensive bank of experience. I'm in a better position to enjoy my racing and, come the 16th and final grand prix in Japan in October, I want to have achieved something I can be really proud of. The team is ready, I'm ready. Here's to an exciting and memorable season.Reuse content