We cannot deny that the controversy last autumn, when Michael Schumacher finally won the championship after a collision with Damon Hill, generated masses of interest in our sport. But it is important that we now demonstrate grand prix racing in its purist form, men and machines competing at the ultimate level of performance.
I am optimistic. I envisage a closely-fought season with more open races. I still think it will come down to the same two drivers for the championship, but I see Formula One breaking the mould of only certain chassis winning races.
It would be nave and unrealistic to expect a totally trouble-free season. When was the last one? I can't remember it. I'm sure there will be hassles and controversies because of all the pressures, the money, the intensity of competition and the calibre of the people involved.
For me, though, that is part of its attraction. The stakes are high, the intrigue endless. We have a group of people operating in a village- like environment, at 16 race venues and numerous test venues around the world. Some aggravation and confrontation is inevitable.
What we're not comfortable with is the tragedies and near-tragedies of last season. You couldn't cope with that year after year. But Formula One has addressed all aspects of safety and I believe it could now be the safest motor racing formula in the world. Yes, we did think that before last year and we were wrong. We were all shaken up. We didn't think that could happen. But when you look at what has been done I think we are entitled to have fresh belief this year.
The attitude of everyone involved has been crucial, and I think "attitude" is the key word. The authorities, safety officials and the drivers, by putting forward one opinion, not 26, have contributed to the cause.
I'm impressed by the changes to the cars and to the circuits. There is no doubt that the new cars feel indestructible - for example, the higher cockpit sides give much better protection to the driver - and the drivers feel less vulnerable. I've seen the crash tests and can understand why.
What you hit is as important as what you hit in, and work on the circuits has been just as diligent. At Imola, for instance, Tamburello, where Ayrton died, has been modified so that we don't have that fast left-hander with a wall on the outside.
We don't want to lose gifted sportsmen like Ayrton Senna. I still can't believe he's dead. It's weird. It will be very strange and, no doubt, very emotional without him in Brazil.
We have to accept that, just as in skiing or horse riding or boxing, there will be other fatalities in years to come, but we've got to be comfortable we've done everything humanly possible and I think we have. The alternative is to stay in bed all day, or wrap yourself in cotton wool, or simply retire from the world.
Because there has been so much to do on the cars, it's been a quietish winter, though all the drivers have been busy raising their fitness levels. Schumacher has set new standards and unfortunately he will have taken them further, but we'll have closed in on him.
Everyone assumed that with a Renault engine at the back of his Benetton, Schumacher would disappear. It's not been happening quite like that in testing and Hill and the Williams have been looking good. Hill surprised me and everyone else the way he finished so strongly last season, and all credit to him. Hill has come through where it matters, at the top, and shown that what you do on the way up is not necessarily a good indicator. He wasn't exceptional in the lower formulae, while lots of other hot-shot kids have come into Formula One only to disappear again.
I'm sure Damon will give Michael a hard time, but it could be very close and go down to the wire. But I just think that when the chips are down and it really matters, Schumacher is the best equipped, physically and mentally, to win back-to-back championships.
I see others winning this year, but it is one thing winning races, another winning the championship.
There would seem to be a lot of competitive cars out there, many of them driven by Britons. Apart from Benetton and Williams, the Jordan looks good, Ferrari also, and I think McLaren will be good in due course. I'm optimistic the Ligier can win, and you may get Sauber and Tyrrell knocking on the door.
I had hoped to be in the McLaren again and I believe continuity would have been better for the team, but Nigel Mansell is a big draw, a huge name in every corner of the world, and I can understand why some elements of the sport have gone to so much trouble to get him. I'm adult enough and realistic enough not to take it as personal. I'm sad and hurt to see him in my overalls, but not bitter.
We now know that he has been forced to miss the first two races because he cannot fit comfortably in the car. There have been reports he had a go at the team. We can all have a go, but then you have got to get in the car and perform. It's easy to criticise, but constructive criticism, which takes the team forward, can be another thing.
Senna used to do it and get away with it because he was the business. I'm sure he was incredibly strong in the team, like Lauda and Prost. It's the same with Mansell and now Schumacher. But you've got to be right.
I think we're getting it right at Ligier and I'll be looking for that first win this season. Above all, I hope that we as a sport get it right. I think we just might.Reuse content