Sir Frank Williams believes 2009 represents his team's best opportunity in a decade to re-establish itself amongst Formula 1's front-runners - and in the wake of the sport's sweeping rule changes and cost-cutting initiatives, he is hopeful of being 'close to the top three' when the competitive action gets underway in the curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne at the end of the month.

The top flight's new aerodynamic and mechanical regulations have thrown the playing field wide open as the teams prepare to head Down Under next week, and testing form has given away few real clues as to who lies where in the pecking order ahead of the season-opener.

What has become clear, however, is that those outfits that switched their focus from 2008 to 2009 development earliest last year - including Williams and the pace-setting Brawn GP (formerly Honda) - seem to have stolen an initial march over their competitors. That is an advantage that, with traditional 'grandees' McLaren and Ferrari seemingly struggling on the performance and reliability front respectively - 66-year-old Williams is aiming to exploit to maximum effect.

"This could be our most important season for a decade," the Grove-based concern's co-founder contended. "The rule changes give Williams F1 a chance to re-establish itself.

"It's impossible to say where we'll be in Melbourne, but I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll make a step-up in performance this year. To be close to the top three would be a big step forward in year one."

Drivers Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima are both similarly confident that concentrating predominantly on the long-term gain last year by sacrificing the short-term performance of the FW30 was the right way to go, and was an approach that will yield significant on-track benefits over the coming months - especially given the new ban on in-season testing introduced for 2009.

"The last upgrade on the FW30 was for the German Grand Prix," Rosberg explained. "It made it tough in the latter races of the season, knowing that we were going to find it hard to be competitive, but we had to do what was right for the long-term interests of the team."

"We wanted to run the new car as soon as we could after Christmas," added Nakajima. "We wanted to get as many miles on it as we could before the introduction of the in-season testing ban. We've been able to do that, and I must say that I enjoy driving the new car."

One area in which Williams is reckoned to have gained a leg-up on the opposition is in its innovatively-designed - some have claimed illegal - diffuser [see separate story - click here], whilst the unique flywheel KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) technology being used by the former multiple world champions may also prove to be a real boon in terms of weight distribution as the season progresses, particularly with rival teams struggling so much with the contentious new energy-saving devices.

What's more, the first track test of Bridgestone's 2009-spec slick tyres was conducted back in April - almost twelve months before the start of the new campaign - and one of the team's two wind tunnels was rapidly turned over to development of the FW31.

The position of the gearbox, engine, wheels and fuel tank had to be finalised by mid-May - as the 2008 campaign was in full competitive swing - and the interim FW31B, equipped with 2009-spec front and rear wings, hit the test track at Jerez before the season was even out.

"Once we'd read the rulebook, the first thing we did was look at the geometric differences between last year and this year," explained technical director Sam Michael. "We legalised a car, put it in the wind tunnel and looked at the numbers. The loss in downforce was enormous - about 50 per cent - and we immediately saw these rule changes as a great opportunity to gain an advantage.

"There were so many factors to consider with the new car, but the tyres - being the contact patch to the asphalt - were the most fundamental. How they interact with everything else on the car is fundamental to performance, and those early tests gave us important information about the slick tyres. We've had to do things like significantly stiffen the suspension to cope with the increased forces and change the kinematics, all due to the extra mechanical grip available.

"KERS is a fantastic thing for Formula 1. Although we may not use ours at the first race, it will be effective and it's the kind of technology that Formula 1 should be embracing. The current KERS system is worth about 0.3 seconds per lap, but the lap time benefit will increase as the FIA increases the power and energy available in the coming seasons. Although it's a tremendous challenge right now, we'll all look back in years to come and say it was the right thing to do."

Having claimed no fewer than seven drivers' and nine constructors' crowns in its 30-year history in F1, Williams has not now won a race in the highest echelon since Juan-Pablo Montoya triumphed in the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos back in 2004.