The count down to the start of the FIA Formula One season and the Australian Grand Prix is almost over. This weekend will see the Formula One circus descend on Melbourne's Albert Park and when the lights go green some of the questions surrounding the 2001 season will be answered.

So who is going to win? And who's going to be fastest? And who will make all that testing count? Ferrari start the season with the number one firmly fixed on their cars - something they haven't done in 21 years - and Michael Schumacher looks surely destined to take the win this Sunday. The German has gone well again in testing and Ferrari has produced a reliable beast in the F2001. Schumacher has already been praising it and the German has said he is the best prepared he has ever been for the start of the season.

The Ferrari number one said: "The F2001 has behaved very well from the first to the last day of testing. It has performed brilliantly at Fiorano and Mugello. I can say that never before have I been able to carry out such a preparation in my career and that sends me to Melbourne full of confidence."

He added: "I'm anxious for everything to start. I think I have an excellent car and cannot wait to measure myself against my rivals to see where both they and we are. I want to race and fight on every circuit. I think it will be another great duel between McLaren and us. I am looking forward to battling with Mika (Hakkinen) again. We have had some great races and battles in the past. It is going to be another very hard season."

Schumacher then will start the Australian GP as favourite. He has the machinery, the reliability, and the full backing of the team and to top it all he's the best driver in F1 (if not the world). Schumacher may not have won at Melbourne until last year but this season he looks set to make it two in a row and start the 2001 campaign as he means to go on.

Last year Ferrari started the year with a one-two and Schumacher went on to win the first three races. McLaren have already had reliability problems with the MP4-16 and don't be surprised if the cars fail them for the third year running. In 2000 both Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard suffered from engine problems and signs from testing are that the Woking team is in for a tough few early races.

There is no doubt that the Adrian Newey McLaren MP4-16 is already the fastest car on the grid but the big question is: Will it go the distance? Hakkinen has already admitted he is not holding his breath and although a McLaren front row on Saturday seems likely don't expect the team to repeat that on the Sunday.

The Finn said: "We have had far too many problems and that doesn't make me optimistic for Melbourne." He added: "The first race of the season is always exciting as it provides the opportunity to see how the car truly performs. I feel very motivated this year - last season's result has increased my desire to try and win, something that is now stronger than ever, and I intend to do my best to win back the drivers' title and help the team win the constructors' championship."

David Coulthard has promised that this year he will be more focused than ever. At the McLaren launch he said: "To do the job properly doesn't allow a great deal of time for other things, so my main focus this year is to get the maximum out of myself driving the car and working with the team. That means that planning weddings and other social events are on the backburner. With each year, I gain confidence and a renewed focus. For me, it's only about winning."

Coulthard's remarks were then followed by allegations in the tabloid press that he had had a fling with model Ruth Taylor and as we approach the Australian GP it will be interesting to see how David handles this intrusion into his private life. Whatever happens though there is no doubt the McLaren's are more fragile than new Ferraris.

Reliability then will be a major issue in Melbourne and indeed in the opening few races. All the cars are relatively new and all the teams will be keeping their fingers crossed that their machines go the distance. Don't be surprised if we end up with less than 10 runners at the end and don't be surprise if the McLaren duo has fallen by the wayside.

Rubens Barrichello meanwhile could be there to take the glory if Schumacher Senior slips up. He has said: "I don't want to create any expectations for the season. I want to be concentrated and relaxed in my work. I have the team on my side, we work well and the material to do well is there. The fight will always be between Ferrari and McLaren and Hakkinen will be among them, but Michael and I will also be there. We will start on the same level and I just want to say that this year I will give my best, I will never give up."

The Brazilian then must certainly be - considering the fact McLaren will be lucky to go the distance - the second most likely to win after Schumacher. But if it comes to a choice between them team orders will have to dictate that the Brazilian gives way to the team's number one - Won't they?

Of the rest it's difficult to say. Williams, BAR, and Jordan will probably be fighting for the remaining points finishes and my bet would be in that order. Williams unlike BAR and Jordan know what it is like to win championships and I believe this will give them the edge at the Australia GP and throughout 2001. The new BMW engine has gone well and in Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya they have a strong driver line-up. True Montoya may take the first few races to get up to speed but the Colombian is going to be no Alex Zanardi (or for that matter a Michael Andretti). He could spring a surprise on his German teammate. Of Montoya Frank Williams said: "To be a good driver you need to accumulate a huge data bank about your car, which means that as time goes by you will remember exactly how your car behaves and this will save a lot of time. Juan Pablo hasn't built up this data bank yet and this will take some time. But he is a quick driver and very hard headed and I think he will do very well in F1."

Ralf Schumacher meanwhile said: "I feel good travelling to Australia because of our ever-improving form. We are off to Melbourne with extensive data about the FW23 from the winter testing sessions. It is, however, difficult to give a prognosis about our position among the other teams because they have been testing on different tracks during the winter."

Of those other teams BAR and Jordan will both be looking to get one up on the other at the first race to establish early on who is the top Honda team. Furthermore while Jordan are definitely good - Heinz Harald Frentzen and Jarno Trulli both very capable - BAR may just have the edge, Jacques Villeneuve giving them the extra vital tenths of a second. The Canadian said: "I expect that the first race will be as good as last year (when he finished fourth). I love going to Melbourne there is a great atmosphere. It is often our best showing of the season and I am looking forward to racing there". Expect Oliver Panis to be on the pace too and it will be interesting to see how the Frenchman goes after a year testing for McLaren in 2000. For him it must surely be a make or break year.

As for Jordan Heinz Harald Frentzen was equally confident when he said: ""I am looking forward to going to Australia. It's a great country with a wonderful atmosphere and I'm particularly excited about racing again and being back in action after the winter break. We have had some good results in pre-season testing so I think we can do well in Melbourne as it's an important race and my aim is to get points."

Next up has to be Benetton and Jaguar. Benetton look set to struggle all year and the Australian GP will be no exception. There is no doubt Giancarlo Fisichella and Jenson Button are a talented pair but technical director Mike Gascoyne has already said the team has problems and approaching the first GP that is not good. Throughout testing the Benetton's have been well off the pace and I can't see them coming away with much from Melbourne.

Gascoyne said: "There are two or three main problems which will take a long time to fix. It's important that we don't take the short-term view of putting all our resources into this car. My aim for 2001 is to put the programme in place that will help win the world championship for the team."

Jaguar too will be lucky to score points. In testing they've been reliable but don't expect much from a car branded "too slow" by its number one driver Eddie Irvine. Team owner Bobby Rahal has already signalled the extent of his hopes by saying: "As far as I am concerned if both our cars finish in Australia it will be a good start."

He added: "Now it is time to stop talking and go racing. I have said before that I consider this to be the first true year of racing for Jaguar and we are a very young team. We still have a lot of work to do this year but our aim is to be in a position to take advantage of any situation and to show a steady improvement as we progress through the year. Reliability is fundamental in this respect"

Luciano Burti is also another unknown quantity at Jaguar. The tester turned racer from 2000 has been impressive in testing out pacing Irvine but the real question will be how will he fare in the limelight of a grand prix? (he hardly set the world on fire last year when he stood in for Eddie Irvine at the Austrian GP)

That now brings us to the '2000 Ferrari' powered teams - Sauber and Prost. The Prost team have been impressive in testing and Jean Alesi has already said the car is very different to the one that he used in 2000. Alesi also broke the lap record in testing at Estoril, Portugal so the early signs are promising.

The Frenchman said: "Last year's car was bad. It can't be compared to this year's one. I wish I was already in Melbourne to know what the car is really capable of. The performance of the car and the way it handles are all different."

Alain Prost was also in confident mood when the car was launched. He said: "I feel we are finally ready to step up and achieve credible gains this year. In the pre-season, the team and its technical partners Ferrari and Michelin have worked very hard and their efforts have paid off. The AP04 ran on the track quite early and since its first test, it has performed well and consistently."

"Our initial focus has been on reliability and we seem to have achieved that. Our next objective is to improve upon our already good performance of the winter tests. An intense development programme has been put in place and will be carried out throughout the season. I am confident," Prost concluded, "that Prost Grand Prix and its partners will see positive results from the very first races of the season."

As for Sauber they go to Australia with Nick Heidfeld and Kimi Rakkonen. Heidfeld has yet to prove himself and Rakkonen is making the jump up to F1 at a mega early stage. His experience could be written on a postage stamp and that suggests he will be in for a tough time in Melbourne. Indeed he has only had 23 single seater races.

Despite this though the youngster remain in good spirits for his F1 debut. He said: "My first grand prix is going to be a big challenge, but I'm ready and I'm looking forward to it. Jacky Eeckelaert and the engineers back in the Hinwil factory have given me advise on the course, but a map of a track is still just that; I can't wait to see it from the wheel of the C20 for my first experience of it. It's been my life's dream to become an F1 driver, and I will be going to Australia determined to do my very best for the team."

Of Minardi and Arrows - what can you say? - Arrows have opted for the Asiatech engines in 2001 and god alone knows why. The team will be using effectively the Prost-Peugeot engines of 2000 and why anyone would chose to use the hopelessly underpowered and overweight Peugeot's is mystery to me. Jos Verstappen and Enrique Bernoldi lead the team at Arrows and why Bernoldi was chosen over Pedro de la Rosa is another dubious choice. Another two candidates for the DNF column would be where my money is going.

As for Minardi - well they've made it. But don't expect them to do anything more than make up the numbers (as usual). The team has been put together over the last few weeks so if the cars go the distance they deserve a prize. Paul Stoddart said: "If I am standing on the grid with two cars in Sunday's race, that's the reward that we need. We're starting our testing on Friday morning on the track with two drivers (Fernando Alonso and Tarso Marques) who have never seen the place before. The perfect scenario for me would be for one car to finish on Sunday, that will be like winning the world championship."

Of course there is also the impending tyre war between Bridgestone and Michelin so don't be surprise if the race winner turns out to be the second or third placed man across the line. There has already been speculation about how much wear will be deemed legal and some team bosses have already predicted that a few early races might go to an appeal.

Despite all this though nobody really knows what will happen in 2001 until 'the fat lady sings' but my money is on Ferrari.

The opening grand prix for the FIA F1 World Championship season kicks off on Sunday - Enjoy.

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