The wolves are at the door, drawn by the scent of self-inflicted wounds. Will they take their prey or again be defied and left scavenging for scraps?
Any semblance of tension and uncertainty is a positive departure from what became a largely predictable scenario in Formula One last year. Michael Schumacher and Ferrari were simply too cunning and elusive for the rest. But the champions' preparations for the new season, which opens with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on Sunday, have been compromised by problems in the innovative gearbox of their 2002 car. Unwilling to run the risk of a breakdown, Ferrari have elected to rely on their tried and trusted "old" car for the first race.
Ferrari point out that they produced an upgraded version of their 2001 car for the Japanese Grand Prix, the final round of last year's championship, which proved a cut above their closest opposition, so they are hardly having to wheel out an old banger. The Italian camp patently feel that the previous model, incorporating some of the new car's refinements, will still be good enough to fend off McLaren-Mercedes and Williams-BMW.
But will it? And if not, will Ferrari be panicked into taking the new car to Malaysia, for the second grand prix, before it has satisfied their normally stringent reliability standards? The very questions give an unfamiliar and generally welcomed dimension to the contest.
McLaren, hurt and dismayed by their inability to stay on Ferrari's tail last season, have produced a radical car of their own. The word from inside and outside the team is that it will be a significant improvement on its predecessor. David Coulthard, McLaren's senior driver following Mika Hakkinen's decision to take a sabbatical, is assured of all the emotional and technical support he requires. Kimi Raikkonen, his new team-mate, should not be underestimated and may claim his maiden grand prix victory at some stage this year, but it is the Scotsman who carries the burden of the team's expectations.
Williams, restored to the top of the winner's rostrum in 2001 after a cyclical lull, have two potential championship contenders in Ralf Schumacher, the younger brother of the champion, and Juan Pablo Montoya, the Colombian considered by many to be Michael's natural successor.
Sauber, the team who surprised everyone, not least themselves, by finishing fourth last time, look capable of holding their own and even occasionally threatening the top three. Renault are believed to be improving, while the Honda-partnered operations, Jordan and BAR, have suggested cause for optimism. The paddock bristles with eager anticipation.
However, it appears Coulthard, Ralph Schumacher and Montoya are the credible rivals to Ferrari's Schumacher and if only one of them can stay with the 33-year-old German until the closing stages, then Formula One will have a more absorbing spectacle to offer this time.
Schumacher stands at the threshold of further history-making deeds. Having won more grands prix and amassed more championship points than any other driver, he could, this year, equal Juan Manuel Fangio's record of five titles, which has stood unchallenged since the Fifties.
That landmark will confront Schumacher in sharper focus with every race victory and he will doubtless persist with the contention that his achievements cannot be compared with the feat of a man who raced in an age when almost every major accident proved fatal.
Admirable though Schumacher's respect and modesty are, the fact is that the Argentinian legend usually made sure he had the best machinery and his team-mate was expected not merely to move over on the track but also give up his car if the great man's had expired.
Schumacher made improbable champions of Benetton and when he joined Ferrari, in 1996, they seemed in a permanent state of mediocrity. Ferrari have won the constructors' championship for the past three years and Schumacher, the catalyst, has been champion driver for the last two. His enthusiasm and motivation are clearly undiminished. He turned up earlier than scheduled for pre-season testing, reminding his opponents of the pace and commitment they must exceed if they are to deny him a share of Fangio's record.
One of Schumacher's many strengths is his unshakeable public support of the team. He is cute enough to realise that it serves his own purpose to restrict any criticism to the confines of Maranello and the red motor home. So it is entirely consistent of him to have offered no hint of discontent or discord when Ferrari announced that they would be using the old car in Melbourne. He said he concurred with the team's decision.
Much has been made of the privileged position Schumacher enjoys at Ferrari. The team have frequently been denounced by their main opponents for ordering their other driver – who for a third season is the Brazilian Rubens Barrichello – to play a supporting role. It was interesting and enlightening, therefore, to hear Patrick Head, Williams' technical director, recently concede: "If we had a driver who was head and shoulders above his team-mates we might well take the same approach.''
Williams have never shirked from the potentially explosive consequences of having two well-matched and ambitious drivers who would prefer not to share the same garage. Ralf Schumacher and Montoya follow a distinguished line of uneasy bedfellows (Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, and, to a lesser extent, Damon Hill and Coulthard). Schumacher had three wins to Montoya's one last year, but the latter finished the season the stronger and has palpably won the sentimental vote within the team.
Head and Frank Williams maintain that their drivers realise it is in their interests to work together and concentrate on beating the other Schumacher, yet it seems inconceivable that peace and harmony will flourish throughout the 17-race tour. And if there is a collision of wills and egos, the beneficiaries should be Ferrari and McLaren.
Coulthard may have to negotiate one or two awkward domestic situations if the precocious Raikkonen gets into his stride, but although the 22-year-old Finn aspires to becoming Formula One's youngest world champion, he has another two seasons after this to chase that goal.
This is perhaps Coulthard's best opportunity to date. He says he feels more comfortable in the team environment, post-Hakkinen, and has expressed his confidence in the new car.
The joust for fourth place mirrors the main event. Sauber, who are supplied engines and a little more by Ferrari, are the target for the likes of Renault, Jordan and BAR. Renault are said to be on the march, so Jenson Button ought to put behind him the anguish of 2001. He has a new team-mate to beat, Jarno Trulli, having swapped places with his fellow Italian, Giancarlo Fisichella, who returns to Jordan. Trulli is quick but not such a combative racer as Fisichella, so Button and Jordan may have the better of that deal. Jordan are involved in a separate race, with BAR, to deliver Honda the first win of their latest spell in Formula One.
Jaguar apparently still have ground to make up. They have made significant changes to their car since it was launched and parted company with their technical director, Steve Nichols, but arrived in Melbourne bemoaning the limited winter-testing opportunities. Niki Lauda, the team principal, and once a heroic driver, is facing another daunting challenge.
Arrows will hope the partnership with Cosworth, enables them to sustain a level of competitiveness, while Minardi may feel they can see off the newcomers, Toyota. The bankruptcy of the Prost team is a reminder to all teams of the ultimate price of failure.Reuse content