Everything you want to know for the new season

Can Alonso return Ferrari to the top? Who will crash the big boys' party? What will happen on the first corner in Bahrain? <b>David Tremayne</b> answers your questions
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The Independent Online

Q After last season's rows over diffusers and Briatore scandals, are the Formula One chiefs desperate for a good sporting season?

A Definitely. But they should have reason to feel confident. 2010 marks the 60th birthday of Formula One, and as if to mark the occasion, four world champions, Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, are on the grid – something we haven't had since the time of Schumacher, Jacques Villeneuve, Damon Hill and Mika Hakkinen in 1999. This season, which begins in Bahrain this weekend, may well prove to be the hottest competition in decades.

Q Who are the main contenders for the title this year?

A No one's writing off any of those previous world champions, but Fernando Alonso (below) and Lewis Hamilton have the weight of opinion behind them. Alonso has taken Kimi Raikkonen's vacant place at Ferrari alongside Felipe Massa – back from his horrific injury when he almost lost an eye at Hungary last year. There is no doubt about Alonso's ability – this is the man who, at Renault, ended Schumacher's five-year dominance for Ferrari by taking back-to-back titles in 2005-06.

The Spaniard yesterday said he is most looking forward to racing again. "I have driven the car all through winter testing, but that is just preparation and now we can finally go racing," he said, adding that he felt very positive about the move to Ferrari. "When you change team, you need to adapt to the people and their work philosophy and pre-season that has all gone great. I felt very comfortable from day one and we are well prepared, and I'm ready for the fight."

He refused to make predictions, however, but there is no question that the tifosi look to him as the man to restore the magic to the Prancing Horse that has been missing since Michael Schumacher retired.

"We can say that four teams, Red Bull, Mercedes, McLaren and Ferrari can all be favourites to win here," Alonso said, "then there are other teams like Force India and Sauber who could also have some good races. My goal is to win the championship, but I want to be world champion in November, not in March. It will be a very hard job. I have spent all winter getting ready and I have also waited a long time to come to Ferrari, so it has all been about preparing for this moment and we are in a position to fight for the wins."

But Hamilton will be hard to beat. While his main rivals have switched teams, Hamilton is still with the pit lane he knows best. And the rule changes could favour his racing instincts rather than Button's smoother style – which should pay dividends in qualifying.

There was good news for McLaren yesterday when the FIA declared their controversial rear wing to be legal, in the wake of complaints by Ferrari and Red Bull. It is believed that an air inlet on the left side of the monocoque chassis can be opened and closed by movement of the driver's left knee, to direct airflow over the rear wing and help stall it to make the car faster on the straights. It has been described as a "simple but brilliant trick".

Beyond Alonso, Hamilton and Button, Schumacher returns at the ripe old age of 41 to take over Button's old seat at Brawn GP, now renamed Mercedes GP, with up-comer Nico Rosberg moving across from Williams. And Red Bull have Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber again. That's all four champions and a total of seven race winners in the four top teams.

Q Any dark horses to upset the balance of power?

A Force India have two hungry youngsters: Tonio Liuzzi and Adrian Sutil, while BMW Sauber's mercurial rookie Kamui Kobayashi should make an impression. More experienced are the highly rated Robert Kubica at Renault and evergreen Brazilian Rubens Barrichello at Williams.

Q How close will the competition be from race to race?

A Very, since none of the main drivers should be hindered by an underperforming car. "It's exciting that Michael is coming back," Button enthused recently, "and I love racing against Lewis, Fernando, Sebastian, Mark, Felipe, whoever. Michael's return is a big point for Formula One, because he's achieved so much, he's the most famous."

"All the teams are quite close," the Mercedes team principal, Ross Brawn, concedes after four tests in which the question of individual fuel loads made calculating form harder than ever, "so I think it's going to be a super-hard battle this year."

On top of that there are three new teams, which range from the headline-seeking razzmatazz of Richard Branson's Virgin Racing through the sheer passion of AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes' revival of the revered Lotus team and the flat-out-to-make Bahrain endeavours of Hispania Racing (né Campos Meta 1). All of them expand the depth of the sport at a time when grids in other formulae are desperately thin.

Q How will the new rules affect the racing?

A Changes in the points system are a major boost, with a victory now worth seven points more than second place instead of a measly two. That, and the ban on refuelling, will encourage drivers to do their overtaking on the track, rather than waiting to jump rivals during pit stops.

Q What are the new demands on drivers?

A Outlawing refuelling ups the ante by creating a more cerebral F1. Refuelling was reintroduced in 1994 and each grand prix became a series of sprints between refills; now some of the races may be slow-burn events as drivers have to preserve their tyres early on, before exploding into dramatic denouements. "It's going to give us some great racing," Hamilton said recently, with glee.

The triple champion Niki Lauda agrees. "The biggest asset is going to be Schumacher. He's the one everyone is going to watch, to see whether he can still do it or who can beat him.

"And no refuelling means that after each qualifying session we will all know which is the fastest car. It will be much more transparent, but teams will have to juggle whether to qualify on the standard tyres or softer options. Looking after the tyres, when the cars are full of fuel and possibly four to five seconds a lap slower than in practice, will be a major challenge. And we should also see more overtaking on the track. It's going to take us at least two of three races before we really understand things."

Q And when will we first get to see the effects of all these changes?

A At 3pm at the Sakhir Circuit this Sunday. All the hoopla and speculation will be consigned to history once the red lights go out. As Button says: "The good thing is that you can overtake in Bahrain. Turn one is going to be interesting in a car with 160 kg of fuel aboard..."

Q Will Michael Schumacher be able to stand the pace?

A The seven-times world champion is 41 now – and had to cancel a return last season when he struggled to recover from a neck injury sustained coming off a motorbike. But he is fit and the most ruthless of competitors. Ross Brawn, his team principal at Mercedes GP, proved with Jenson Button last year that he can produce fast cars for good drivers, but seems to be suggesting the car will be more competitive after a few races, when extra development has been done.

Q Who will be crowned world champion?

At the moment, for me it's Lewis, because the McLaren looks good and he'll have a slight edge over Jenson. Johnny Herbert

It's impossible to answer right now, based just on indications from testing in Barcelona. All the top cars are within a couple of tenths, so we'll have to wait for the first two or three races to see which cars are reliable and quick. Niki Lauda

Sebastian Vettel: David Coulthard

Fernando Alonso: Martin Brundle

Lewis Hamilton: Eddie Jordan