Toro Rosso rivals wave red rag in the face of menacing charge

Where would Formula One be without its age-old companion, controversy? The start to the 2006 season may not have the feeling of unalloyed petrol-head enthusiasm that is the hallmark of the traditional championship-opener at Melbourne, but the arguments and backbiting remain unchanged.

Honda and Ferrari went on orange alert when they tested here in February and Tonio Liuzzi from the upstart new team Scuderia Toro Rosso went fast enough to split Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello in their V8 Hondas. Liuzzi's "crime" is to be driving for the only team that has opted to rely on a rev- restricted V10 engine.

Max Mosley, that arch rulemaker at the FIA, the sport's governing body, mandated that anyone who did not have access to the new V8s - on which he had insisted - could use a V10 provided it was fitted with an air restrictor to limit its engine power. If they have complaints, he is the man the disgruntled should be seeking out, but yesterday it was the Toro Rosso team owner, Gerhard Berger, the former driver, who bore the brunt of them.

When Liuzzi momentarily set the second fastest time yesterday afternoon (which remained good enough for sixth overall), several team owners nodded their sage heads and vocalised their dissatisfaction faster than hoboes chasing a freight car. Besides the potential speed of the maverick car, their ire centred on the fact that the dispensation had been granted to help impoverished Minardi out of a hole, and that now Berger co-owns the team with the energy drink magnate Dietrich Mateschitz, who is spending money in the sport faster than the average student can down a vodka Red Bull.

"They could have up to 10 per cent more horsepower than the V8s," wailed Norbert Haug, the motorsport director of Mercedes-Benz. "They also have more torque. They were strong in testing here. They were not even far from Honda. They can go for a podium, I am convinced.''

"It is a good question," conceded Berger when asked if the equivalency formula was fair. "But you have to remember that we have been testing here, then we used fresh tyres for our lap time this afternoon while a lot of the others kept quiet saving miles on their engine. There was certainly an advantage on our side today because of that. Regarding the engine, I hear a lot of discussions going on. We took over the engine contract from Minardi and that's what we have, so we try to do our best. We have built up the team, we try to make it stronger, and it was the goal of the FIA to do the engine this way to make it competitive.

"For sure it is not the best engine, but it is not the worst either. We just want to have a fair chance. All this discussion is not right. If you look at the speeds, I think it's fair the way it is at the moment. I believe it is completely wrong to keep talking about it day by day, because we have to run it all year. And in any case, performance isn't all about the engine, the chassis is improving too." Welcome back to Formula One, Gerhard. The other piranhas are hungry.

On a more positive note, however, they might also be close to an agreement that will safeguard the sport's future through to 2012. Both Flavio Briatore of Renault and Ron Dennis of McLaren (albeit in a more long-winded manner) suggested that the so-called "rebel" manufacturers - Renault, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Toyota and BMW - are moving nearer to agreeing terms with Bernie Ecclestone to sign up to a new Concorde Agreement from 2008. Ferrari, both Red Bull teams, Williams, Midland and Super Aguri have already done so. Briatore suggested something could happen within the next week, heading off for good all the possibility of a rival championship and doing so before Mosley controversially closes the entry for the 2008 series early in April.

Poor Anthony Davidson! All of this rather overshadowed yet another of his fine performances for Honda as he set the fastest time to beat Michael Schumacher by almost half a second. Davidson was, however, disappointed.

"I wanted more from today," he admitted, "not just for me but for the team. It was disappointing to lose the first session to a gearbox problem but we made the best out of the situation this afternoon and completed most of the tyre programme."

While their third driver was doing the important stuff on a day on which data gathering is always crucial in helping to determine tyre choice and race strategy, Davidson's Honda team-mates, Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, were able to preserve their machinery for the big effort tomorrow.

David Coulthard ended in the bottom half of the grid, in 19th, one place behind Barrichello. The Scotsman admitted that Red Bull's chances are still up in the air. "It's still uncertain as to where we are after those two sessions, as we were lap limited," he said. "We're having a few problems with the front wheels locking too."

Schumacher was cautiously optimistic about the apparent competitiveness of his Ferrari.

"It's been a fairly positive day for us," the former champion said. "We've completed the programme that we planned for ourselves and we worked well. Compared to the other teams, we are looking competitive but in order to see whether we really are quick enough to aim for the top, we need to wait until everybody is running on low fuel and with new tyres."

Fernando Alonso, the world champion, had an easy day, with fifth fastest time, but rival Kimi Raikkonen stopped with an electronic problem.

Today it will all be different as the lead drivers start to push hard and go into the new knockout qualifying format in the afternoon. That is when the 2006 title fight will really begin.

On the grid with the Red Bulls and the prancing horse: How the teams and drivers line up in 2006

Renault

2005 position: 1st
Drivers' titles: 1
Constructors' titles: 1
Engine: Renault V8
Tyres: Michelin
DRIVERS: Fernando Alonso (Sp) GPs: 71, Wins: 8; Giancarlo Fisichella (It) 150, 2

Arguably Renault have the best driver of them all in the flawless Alonso, and it would be a brave man who would put money on the Spaniard failing to challenge strongly for a second title. Giancarlo Fisichella could also grab some glory if he is luckier than in 2005.

McLaren

2005 position: 2nd
Drivers' titles: 11
Constructors' titles: 8
Engine: Mercedes V8
Tyres: Michelin
DRIVERS: Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) 84, 9; Juan Pablo Montoya (Col) 85, 7

Neither Kimi Raikkonen nor Juan Pablo Montoya suffer fools or misfortune gladly. Both are said to be looking elsewhere for 2007, but a good year could see one of them stay put to partner Alonso next year. Raikkonen has proved his speed, but a fitter Montoya could run him close.

Ferrari

2005 position: 3rd
Drivers' titles: 14
Constructors' titles: 14
Engine: Ferrari V8
Tyres: Bridgestone
DRIVERS: Michael Schumacher (Ger) 233, 84; Felipe Massa (Br) 53, 0

Gone is Michael Schumacher's faithful back-up Rubens Barrichello, and in his place comes the relative newcomer Felipe Massa from Sauber. Michael will be as quick as his car and tyres allow, and it will be fascinating to see if the hungry young Brazilian can get anywhere near him.

Toyota

2005 position: 4th
Drivers' titles: 0
Constructors' titles: 0
Engine: Toyota V8
Tyres: Bridgestone
DRIVERS: Jarno Trulli (It) 149, 1; Ralf Schumacher (Ger) 143, 6

Schumacher and Trulli - will they get the job done for Toyota? In the former's case the answer is no, in the latter's the jury is still out. Trulli is a great qualifier but sometimes loses race pace; Ralf needs to work harder to prove that he didn't get his ride because of his name.

Williams

2005 position: 5th
Drivers' titles: 7
Constructors' titles: 9
Engine: Cosworth V8
Tyres: Bridgestone
DRIVERS: Mark Webber (Aus) 69, 0; Nico Rosberg (Ger) 0, 0

Mark Webber has a thrusting young team-mate with a famous name for 2006, as Keke Rosberg's kid graduates as the GP2 champion. Webber is a great qualifier but needs to find consistent race pace; Rosberg looked good in GP2 and could spring some surprises.

Honda

2005 position: 6th
Drivers' titles: 0
Constructors' titles: 0
Engine: Honda V8
Tyres: Michelin
DRIVERS: Rubens Barrichello (Br) 222, 9; Jenson Button (GB) 100, 0

Honda arguably have the best-matched and most well-balanced driver line-up in the paddock. Both are fast, smooth, experienced and popular, and each has things to prove: Button that he really can win and challenge the very best; Barrichello that he wasn't merely Schumacher's stooge.

Red Bull Racing

2005 position: 7th
Drivers' titles: 0
Constructors' titles: 0
Engine: Ferrari V8
Tyres: Michelin
DRIVERS: David Coulthard (GB) 193, 13; Christian Klien (Aut) 34, 0

Klien has been told quite bluntly by the team owner Dietrich Mateschitz that to stay aboard he has to beat David Coulthard this year. The Scot is yet to pass his prime, however, and will give the young Austrian a hard time. Expect them to be evenly matched.

BMW Sauber

2005 position: 8th
Drivers' titles: 0
Constructors' titles: 0
Engine: BMW V8
Tyres: Michelin
DRIVERS: Jacques Villeneuve (Can) 152, 11; Nick Heidfeld (Ger) 98, 0

Heidfeld returns like a prodigal son to the team that used to be Sauber, after his truncated season at Williams allowed him to show his skill and value. He will be quick again this year. Villeneuve has much to prove, not least that he still deserves an F1 seat.

Midland

2005 position: 9th (as Jordan)
Drivers' titles: 0
Constructors' titles: 0
Engine: Toyota V8
Tyres: Bridgestone
DRIVERS: Christijan Albers (Neth) 19, 0; Tiago Monteiro (Por) 19, 0

Monteiro enjoys the reputation as a man who can bring cars home, and looked good in his first season in 2005 when the team were Jordan. Albers also showed well in a Minardi. The signs are they will keep each other honest at Midland.

Scuderia Toro Rosso

2005 position: 10th (as Minardi)
Drivers' titles: 0
Constructors' titles: 0
Engine: Cosworth V10 (see New Rules, right). Tyres: Michelin
DRIVERS: Tonio Liuzzi (It) 4, 0; Scott Speed (US) 0, 0

Those in the know think Liuzzi is the next Alonso, and remember that he beat Michael Schumacher to the 2001 world kart championship. He is smooth, quick and charismatic. Team-mate Speed comes with a good pedigree from GP2.

Super Aguri

2005 position: N/A (new to F1)
Engine: Honda V8
Tyres: Bridgestone
DRIVERS: Takuma Sato (Japan) 50, 0
Yuji Ide (Japan) 0, 0
The team was set up entirely around Takuma Sato, arguably the best driver to come out of Japan but too erratic to keep his seat alongside Jenson Button at Honda. He has a lot to prove, while fellow countryman and rookie team-mate Yuji Ide has good pedigree in Japan and a steep climb ahead of him.

New rules

All of the major teams have signed an agreement to run the 2.4 litre V8s mandated by the FIA. Dispensation was granted to Scuderia Toro Rosso to run a 3 litre V10, restricted to 16,700 rpm. In both cases, power is around 750 bhp, down from last year's 900.

Drivers may once again change tyres during races. There is also a new 'knockout' qualifying format. After the first 15 minutes the slowest six cars will be excluded from running and will fill the final six slots on the grid. In the next 15 minutes the next six slowest will be excluded and will fill positions 11 to 16.

For the final 20 minutes, the remaining 10 drivers will start afresh. They must then run qualifying with the same fuel load with which they intend to race.

The 2006 calendar

* 12 March - Bahrain (Manama)

* 19 March - Malaysia (Sepang)

* 2 April - Australia (Melbourne)

* 23 April - San Marino (Imola)

* 7 May - Europe (Nürburgring)

* 14 May - Spain (Barcelona)

* 28 May - Monaco (Monte Carlo)

* 11 June - Great Britain (Silverstone)

* 25 June - Canada (Montreal)

* 2 July - USA (Indianapolis)

* 16 July - France (Magny-Cours)

* 30 July - Germany (Hockenheim)

* 6 August - Hungary (Budapest)

* 27 August - Turkey (Istanbul)

* 10 September - Italy (Monza)

* 1 October - China (Shanghai)

* 8 October - Japan (Suzuka)

* 22 October - Brazil (Interlagos)

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