Raikkonen remains chilled as title rivals rev up the pressure

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The Independent Online

Was it, you wondered, a snapshot of the season ahead? In the middle, in his smart red clothing, sat the world champion, Kimi Raikkonen. Perhaps a little too red in the face to merit his famed Iceman moniker, but nevertheless looking pretty chilled. To his right was the really cool one, Lewis Hamilton. The man whose rookie season title aspirations Raikkonen smashed in Brazil last October. As ever, Hamilton seemed completely calm and unfazed. And then, to Raikkonen's left, the former world champion Fernando Alonso, slightly unshaven, looking less chipper than he was this time last year chez McLaren.

Arguably the three fastest men in Formula One , they faced the media here at Albert Park yesterday.

Raikkonen raised hopes by suggesting that the ban on traction control might create a situation whereby drivers lose places getting off the line at the start, thus immediately reshuffling the grid. But otherwise, he was his usual deadpan self. "For sure it is much easier to come now," he conceded, when asked how it felt to return to Melbourne as champion. "It is different because I know the team, know the people, so... Last year went very well for us. Now it should be easier as I know the team."

Despite being the pre-season favourite, he says he is not bothered about the pressure. "No, but I think we have not even started the championship yet, so let's see what happens. We will do the best job we can, but for sure we expect to do well in our team. I think the two main teams seem to be a bit ahead of the others."

A year ago, Hamilton was on the verge of his audacious rookie entry into Formula One. Now he said he was feeling more comfortable second time around. "I think it is better," he said, referring to his situation as the de facto McLaren team leader. "There is better preparation. Last year I and my trainer were both rookies and we did the best job we could, which was good, but there were areas we could improve on and we have done.

"I don't think there is more pressure, I think there is less pressure than last year. Last year there was a huge build-up and just a lot of weight hanging on my shoulders, really, because no one really knew if I was going to do well or what. And neither did I. It is a slightly different feeling. I think I know even more now, knowing what a season feels like. I am even hungrier and I feel even more determined and just more excited about racing. It has been too long a break. It really has seemed to drag along, even though the race is a little bit earlier. It just seems for ever since we raced last."

Their respective team-mates, Felipe Massa and Heikki Kovalainen, may well run in the thick of it. So Alonso, quietly admitting that some of the title-winning confidence has been sapped away at Renault by last year's disappointments, knows that, initially, he will be lucky to get a walk-on role. How Formula One times have changed.