Lewis Hamilton triggered his successful challenge for the 2008 world championship with a dominant victory in the Australian Grand Prix last March.
Twelve months on, returning to Melbourne as the reigning champion, he knows in his heart that it will take a minor miracle just to finish on the podium.
Widespread changes to the rules have sent everything into the melting pot as teams have had to develop new aerodynamic packages around smaller rear wings and adjustable, wider front wings (to promote overtaking). There is a return to slick tyres, kinetic energy recovery systems (Kers) and – perhaps crucially for Hamilton, given McLaren's present problems – a ban on testing once the season starts.
This season, which starts next Sunday, thus promises to be another dramatic one, but the final test sessions revealed that his new McLaren MP4-24 has some serious aerodynamic shortcomings that left it at the bottom of the timesheets and sent the engineers at the team's Woking base scuttling back to their wind tunnels and computer-modelling programmes.
Hamilton and McLaren are on their back foot, but he has taken the setback with his customary fortitude and positivity. "I've driven for McLaren for two years and, in both those seasons, the team have developed a fantastic car," he says. "This year's car is a little behind the rest in terms of development but I'm absolutely confident we will get stronger and grow as the year progresses.
"I have complete faith in my team, everyone at Woking, Stuttgart and Brixworth. They are working so hard at the moment, putting in incredible hours and massive effort. And I'll do my bit too. Both Heikki [team-mate Kovalainen] and I will work together to improve the car's pace. We're totally committed to working with the team to develop the best car possible."
Hamilton's upbeat attitude is genuine, even if he is disappointed he may not have a fully competitive car until the championship returns to Europe in May. Some of it is down to the knowledge that, if any team can react fast enough to pull the fat from the fire at such short notice, it is McLaren. Part is down to his naturally optimistic outlook. And part is due to an off-season in which he has not only had the time to savour winning the crown last year but also to organise his life more efficiently.
In 2007, Hamilton bounced insouciantly into Formula One and finished on the podium in his first nine races. He was imbued with an energy that was a product of non-stop winter training prior to his debut, and he feels that same energy is there to carry him on despite McLaren's problems this year.
"We had a good period where we had time off, no training, just enjoying good food, sleeping well, so coming into the season we just started from there. I've just had a huge lift ... even from the positive stuff you guys have written, positive stuff that's come from fans, positive letters that I get from kids from three years old and upwards. And, yeah, I'm happy where I'm living [in Geneva], I've been spending time with my family.
"Last year I was the best I'd ever physically been up until that point, though in 2007 I was very, very fit because I had nothing else to do but train. This year I've had much better management of my time, so I have trained a lot more. So I believe if I continue on this same curve, I should be fitter."
Along the way, Hamilton has spoken with other sports stars and learnt from their experiences of success. "When you talk to such people, rather than take the opportunity to question them like everybody else does, you talk to them on the same level, talk about life," he says. "I think David Coulthard, years ago, I spoke to him when I was 14 or something, he explained to me how he maintained his long career."
Fernando Alonso, the double world champion who was Hamilton's team-mate at McLaren in that tumultuous 2007 season, says that life in Formula One becomes easier once you have won your first title. "I'm not going to say whether it's going to be easier," Hamilton says cautiously. "Because actually driving the car is going to be 10 times ... well, even harder this year, with the new controls [for Kers and the front wing], the complete new challenges we have in such a short period of time – just five weeks of testing before the cars were shipped out before the first race. It's hugely challenging, but I think perhaps what Fernando was saying was the mental strain, the pressure you put on yourself, the pressure from the outside world, perhaps that's slightly easier to deal with because you've experienced it before."
Certainly success has not diminished his hunger. "It's a really amazing feeling. I want to train more now. I've never wanted to train so much," he reveals. "Adam [Constanzo, his personal trainer] is like, 'Wow!' I'm knocking on his door early in the morning, and he's 'You're usually not here this early,' so he's already seen the differences. But I just feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders and I can start to enjoy it, start chewing away at it again like in 2007. I can't wait to get into the season, and I want to win more races.
"I'm happy with one title. I'm very, very happy with what I've achieved. But you know, now is the beginning of something new. Every year I have got better, every year I have stayed in a category in my whole career I have always got better, have always won a championship in my second year. Throughout my life that's been the way it is. I am already better than I was last year, physically and mentally, and in terms of my balance in life. So things continue to get better, and I can work on my driving and understanding of the car. I see no reason why that won't work."
Despite the new rules, Hamilton says: "Not so much has really changed, except for the appearance of the car. It looks a lot different, but in general the car feels very much the same. Obviously, you notice the low downforce, and you have the new controls. Kers feels pretty awesome.
"There is a slight difference, obviously, between the slick tyres and the old, grooved rubber. You have much more contact area on the front tyres, but the rear tyres feel very similar. There's more mechanical grip but we have less downforce, so things balance out. The level of driveability is the same, except for the degradation of the tyres."
Some suggest that winning is going to be down to how a driver nurses his tyres, but Hamilton demurs. "I don't know. I guess we wait and see. I'm not going into this championship saying this is how I'm going to tackle it. That's not what I am going to do. I'm going to see how things unfold. Wait and see, that's the goal. Then you can make judgements."Reuse content