Formula One pundits believe that the 2009 season might just match a scintillating 2008, in which Britain's Lewis Hamilton grabbed the world champion's crown from Felipe Massa on the last corner of the last race. And that Hamilton, whose McLaren-Mercedes has thus far failed to match its rivals in pre- season testing, could struggle to retain his hard-won title.
First of all, the international governing body of motor sport, the FIA, has mandated a raft of rule changes that have, at a stroke, swept away much of the competitive advantage enjoyed by heavy-hitting teams such as McLaren, Ferrari and BMW Sauber which have built up increasingly powerful technical superiority through heavy investment over a number of years. Rarely has the sport faced such a massive shake-up in its rules, as the technical regulations have been thrown into the melting pot at the same time as significant changes have been made to slash costs as a direct reflection of the global recession.
Will Lewis struggle?
After a series of very disappointing tests with the new McLaren in Barcelona and Jerez, Spain, the new team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, admitted: "When the car ran with an updated aero package, a performance shortfall was identified that we are now working hard to resolve. MP4-24's performance shortfall is clearly chassis-centric.
"Inevitably, it is a car's aero aspect that confers the greatest pluses and minuses to its overall performance package, and that would appear to be the case. But Formula One engineers can do great things when the pressure is on."
Hamilton said: "I've driven for McLaren for two years and, in both those seasons, the team have developed a fantastic car. This year's car is a little behind the rest in terms of development, but I'm absolutely confident we will get stronger."
Last week, however, McLaren made significant progress with a further revised aerodynamic package, and though they may not yet be as quick as the pacesetters Brawn (formerly Honda, for whom Jenson Button promises to reassert his one-time status as Britain's leading contender), Ferrari and BMW Sauber, the signs are that they might not struggle quite as badly in Australia as was initially predicted.
Levelling the playing field
The most obvious rule changes revolve around the aerodynamics. The aims have been twofold: to reduce downforce, or aerodynamic grip, and to change the balance of that grip. Last year the Overtaking Working Group came up with proposals that the FIA has adopted, working on the basis that without change a following driver needed a competitive advantage of 2.2sec in order to stand a chance of overtaking the guy in front. Now they hope that has been reduced to around one second, though nobody wants overtaking to be super-easy. "We wanted drivers still to have to fight for it, so it remains special," said the McLaren engineer Paddy Lowe, a member of the OWG.
Thus the rear wings are smaller this year, and the fronts much wider. It's what has given the 2009 Formula One car its "Ugly Betty" look, but if it promotes more passing, will the purists really be too upset?
The other key element has been to reduce the turbulence that makes a following car lose frontal downforce and understeer helplessly in a leading car's wake. This is what has traditionally militated against overtaking. Now the driver can add an extra six degrees of frontal downforce twice a lap thanks to the first driver-adjustable wings seen in Formula One since 1969.
The most controversial area is the diffuser at the back of the cars which helps to generate downforce. Some teams, notably Brawn, Toyota and Williams have come up with interesting interpretations of the rules which others are expected to challenge in Melbourne.
"To be honest, we were surprised that it even turned into an issue, because for us it was very clearly inside the regulations," said the Williams technical director, Sam Michael. "It was something that we clarified with the FIA well over a year ago.
"During the development, we thought everyone would do it. It wasn't something that we really thought was a trick. If some teams who had not thought about it, instead of putting their hands up and saying, 'We didn't think of it because we weren't looking at the rules hard enough', had actually said, 'We'll try and get it banned,' then we might have delayed."
The FIA president, Max Mosley, has conceded that "some designs are very, very clever," but a spokesman for the governing body recently qualified that by adding: "That does not necessarily mean they are legal. That will be for the scrutineers and stewards to decide." Hmm... Watch this space.
The return to slick (or treadless) tyres in place of the grooved rubber used since 1997 has greatly pleased Formula One aficionados. Slicks offer a wider contact area of rubber on the road and thus enhance a car's mechanically generated grip, which makes them faster in slower corners before aerodynamic grip makes itself felt. However, Bridgestone's new rubber presents some significant challenges.
Banishing the grooves has increased the area of the narrower front tyre by a greater percentage than the wider rear and that has had the effect of changing the inherent balance of the cars. Understeer has been reduced, but oversteer has increased. Maintaining the effectiveness of the Japanese manufacturer's tyres over race stints will be a key factor in developing a winning car.
Formula One goes green
A crucial part of Formula One's new image, and the overtaking package, is Kers, which stands for kinetic energy recovery system. This is one of Mosley's initiatives designed to give Formula One an environmentally responsible image, and once again makes it a valid developmental proving ground for technology to recover the energy generated under braking which would otherwise be wasted. Formula One will act as a crucible.
Kers is optional – and controversial. In these cost-conscious times, development has cost millions of dollars and, in those systems which use batteries, wastage per race could amount to $100,000 (£69,000). The FIA is likely to mandate a standard design for 2010, which makes the development of this year's systems seem even more profligate. But, on the positive side, Kers can give drivers up to an extra 85bhp, for around 6.6sec a lap, effectively giving them their own environmentally friendly "push-to-pass" aid. BMW Sauber, Renault, McLaren and Ferrari will run their systems in Australia, but Brawn are unlikely to consider Kers at all this year.
Problematically, the units affect a car's crucial weight distribution. And actually deploying Kers can have unusual effects on a car's handling and balance, which in turn affects the way it needs to be set up.
BMW Sauber's team principal, Mario Theissen, a leading proponent, says: "This has been a huge challenge. When I look back at how far we have come in such a short space of time, it really is very impressive. Here, Formula One has taken on the role of technology accelerator for series production cars of the future."
Hamilton simply remarked of Mercedes-Benz's system, developed for McLaren: "It's awesome!"
Credit crunch hits F1
To realise the first of a scheduled series of significant cuts in budgets over the next two or three years, testing is now banned outside grand prix weekends; each driver may use only eight engines over the 17 races (the last of which takes place at another brand new venue, Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi); and teams are now restricted to wind tunnels of 60 per cent scale and have limitations on their use of computational modelling.
Engineers have thus faced a tremendous challenge in adjusting to so many fundamental changes in so many areas. Ferrari's chief track engineer, Luca Baldiserri, summarised it when he said: "We have never seen such a revolution in F1."
Finally, there was a proposal to change the scoring system, so the 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 points allocation (for first to eighth) was only used to decide second place downwards or to resolve a tie, after the FIA went halfway towards Bernie Ecclestone's idea that the world title be decided by a series of medals for the first three drivers. The FIA opted for simplicity: whoever wins the most races is the champion. However, this angered the teams, who had suggested a points revision to 12-9-7-5-4-3-2-1, and the winner-takes-all scheme has been delayed until 2010. The current points systems still stands.