The opening race weekend of a new Formula One season is often likened to the start of a new school year. There is excitement at the fresh faces, new uniforms for cars and drivers alike and the tingling uncertainty at what the months ahead hold. Tomorrow will be no different when 24 cars line up on the grid for the Bahrain Grand Prix. Despite four weeks of testing in Spain last month it is still unclear as to who are going to be hares and who are going to be the tortoises.
The 12 teams who will be challenging for this year's championship have been preparing for this weekend from the moment the final car crossed the finishing line in Abu Dhabi last November to bring an end to the 2009 season. Car design in their respective factories, work on simulators - for those lucky enough to have them - and pounding around the track in testing is all about squeezing as much out of their package as possible in the quest to be fastest on the grid.
Statistically, one thing you can be confident of is that whoever is standing on the top step of the podium at around 5.45 tomorrow afternoon will be considered as the favourite to be crowned world champion come the final race of the season at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi on November 14. Remarkably, only four times in the past 20 years has the victorious driver of the opening race not gone on to be world champion.
When you consider that in the previous 40 years of the championship only 15 men who were overall winners of the series were victorious in the first race, it supports the modern emphasis on being competitive from the first green light of the season. And even on the four recent instances where the driver who won the world title did not come out on top in the season's opener, there was an explanation as to why.
The 2005 champion, Fernando Alonso, ended that season's first race in third position with his Renault teammate, Giancarlo Fisichella, coming out on top. But Alonso had started from the back of the grid after being caught out by rain in qualifying. Although far quicker than Fisichella, Alonso ran out of laps to catch him. Michael Schumacher finished only fourth in Australia in 2003, but had already thrown down the gauntlet by taking pole position before being caught out by mixed weather and an ill-timed safety car period.
Mika Hakkinen's ultimately successful quest for a second consecutive world title in 1999 began on a low note with retirement in Australia, but he had started at the front and had led comfortably until mechanical gremlins sidelined him. The British driver Johnny Herbert, who won three Grands Prix during a career that spanned 161 race starts until his retirement in 2000, was involved in the incident in 1997 that denied the eventual champion Jacques Villeneuve the chance of victory in Melbourne.
Recalling his own misfortune in opening races, the Briton said: "I never really had much luck. Most of the time the opening race was in Australia and I had a horrid record there, both when it was the first race of the year and before that when it was the last race. I rarely ever finished in Australia. "The most frustrating time was in 1997 when I was with Sauber. We had a really quick car and throughout practice I was swapping fastest times with Jacques [Villeneuve] in the Williams and it was looking really good.
"I got a mega start and was fighting for the lead going into the first corner with Jacques, but then Eddie Irvine came down the inside and took us both out, and that was that." As to why the winner of the first race goes on to be the season's top dog, Herbert said: "It is becoming more and more important to be fast at the opening race and to be at the front of the pack if you want to go on and win the championship. In the past a team could start well but then would fall away during the season as another team took control.
"But now with the technology in the sport it is easier to continue to develop the car from the front as the season goes along, with simulators playing a part, and so you can continue to improve your package and thus it is harder to be caught if you are at the front." But while testing can give some indication as to who has done the best job, you can never be certain until racing begins. Interestingly, after the final test in Barcelona last week nearly all the drivers ducked the question of who had the fastest car. Ferrari's Felipe Massa, despite topping the timesheets on a couple of occasions and seeing his teammate Alonso also setting a rapid pace, refused to acknowledge that the Italian team had an edge, and it was the same story with Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button in the McLaren-Mercedes.
A championship for talking down your chances is seemingly just as competitive as trying to win the Formula One World Championship itself. But that just added to the fun, according to Herbert. "It is always an exciting time when you get to that first race as most of the teams have held their cards very close to their chest on what their true level of performance is. You only discover on the Saturday morning of the Grand Prix weekend or during qualifying just who are doing what," he said.
"You don't want to give away too much too early because if you do your rivals can start to catch you and develop their own cars." One famous example of this can be found in the 1988 season. The McLaren-Honda car had looked unremarkable in pre-season testing, rarely showing good pace. Indeed, Ferrari had been pre-season favourites when the time arrived to kick-off proceedings in Brazil. But come that first race in Rio de Janeiro the McLarens were a second a lap faster than anyone else and the season turned into a private duel between their drivers Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, with 15 of the 16 races going the British team's way as they won the constructors' title by 112 points.
Since 1996, Melbourne Park in Australia has been the traditional starting point to the Formula One season, but Bahrain is taking centre stage because of demands to have Melbourne run at the end of March as a "twilight" race - beginning late afternoon and ending at dusk - to make it a better time for TV viewers in Europe.. Tomorrow is only the second time the season is starting in Bahrain. The first was in 2006.
That occasion also was an example of what the future held as Schumacher and Alonso had a thrilling tussle, with the latter coming out on top, as he would do seven months later when crowned champion in Brazil. Testing can sometimes result in false optimism. Many teams have turned up at the first race thinking they are in good shape, only to discover how slow they really are and that they are in for a long and frustrating year.
Damon Hill had won the last race of 1996 to become world champion with Williams, but after a move to Arrows-Yamaha he suffered the humiliation of not even starting the next race in Australia as his car broke down on the parade lap, limping to the side of the track and leaving the thoroughly embarrassed Englishman to walk back to the paddock. Controversy isn't usually too far away either. The 1998 race was memorable for orders as David Coulthard was asked by his McLaren team to move over and allow Hakkinen to pass in the latter stages. The move was condemned, but ultimately proved to be a correct one as Hakkinen only just edged out Schumacher that season.
There were also heated exchanges off the track that year when a second brake pedal - for the rear brakes - was discovered on the McLaren car by a photographer. The fact that they had won in Australia at a canter, a lap clear of their nearest challengers, inevitably led to accusations that the additional brake pedal was illegal and after a protest by Ferrari it was banned. McLaren had kept the device hidden throughout the build-up to the season and then unleashed it to devastating effect.
This year's pretenders to the Formula One crown will all be hoping to have a trick up their sleeve. But only one of them will come out on top tomorrow, and if history has shown us anything it is that the winning driver will be confident of celebrating come the end of the 2010 season. firstname.lastname@example.org