by Andy Stobart

The time is almost upon us for the 2004 Formula One season to begin so Crash.net has a look at the first race of the season at Melbourne's Albert Park in Australia.

Here we have a look at the teams and their chances for the first race of the season. We also give a brief overview of the track, tyres and the notoriously changeable Melbourne weather.

Ferrari Bridgestone
For a team that's won the last four world championships Ferrari has been curiously quiet coming into the 2004 season. Predictions have been muted and speculation is that Ferrari will find it hard going in 2004. Don't believe it.

The team and its recent success has been inexorably linked with Bridgestone's tyres and everything that caused them success in that time seems to be having repercussions as last year Michelin with more frontrunners on their tyres giving them more data to use. But now Ferrari have yet closer links with Sauber and Bridgestone will be focusing ever harder as they know just how hard they were pushed in 2003.

Michael Schumacher is still the best driver out there and he is partnered once again by Rubens Barrichello, no slouch himself. Once in Australia Schumacher announced himself supremely confident to take a seventh world championship, and there's no real reason to doubt this. He's not perfect and does make mistakes on occasion, but that is true of all his rivals too.

Reliability is one area where Ferrari have been rather fine in the past so adapting to the one engine per race weekend rule shouldn't have caused the Maranello engine boffins too much head-scratching. The entire team in red has worked together so well for so long

As for the car, whilst William's have the radical looking FW26 the Ferrari doesn't look too exciting. The only point of interest to the lay person is the third wing, and the Maranello concern are no doubt certain that it proves more use than McLaren's in 1995.

First GP 1950Team boss Luca di Montezemelo / Jean TodtBased Maranello, Modena, Italy.GPs 686Points 3082.5Wins 167Podiums 528Pole positions 166Podiums 528Constructors titles 13Drivers titles 132003 1st, 158 points

WilliamsF1 Michelin
This year Williams decided to get radical and their 'Walrus' is quite an arresting sight. The possible issues for the team lie with their drivers. Juan Pablo Montoya is off to McLaren next year, and hardly displaying the demeanour of someone well rested and ready for the season ahead at his first press conference down under. The younger Schumacher hasn't a deal in the bag with the team and there's been various things said in the press about that by both Ralf and the team.

All that said, Williams is quite happy to win world championships with drivers headed elsewhere, just ask Damon Hill, Alain Prost or Nigel Mansell so too much store should not be set on their drivers movements as at Williams the car's the star. Lets just hope the drivers can keep it together and take the challenge to Ferrari. They should settle as soon as they get on track and provide plenty of challenge to Ferrari.

Should the car not prove to be as fast as desired in Melbourne that shouldn't provide too much issue as 2003 showed just how deeply the team can dig when it comes to developing their car through the season.

First GP 1973Team boss Frank WilliamsBased Grove, Oxfordshire, UKGPs 478Points 2376.5Wins 112Podiums 287Pole positions 123Constructors titles 9Drivers titles 72003 2nd, 144 points

McLaren Michelin
Kimi Raikkonen is talking up his chances in Melbourne, and he did run Michael Schumacher close last year. But before his arrival in Australia the Finn was also reported as voicing his concerns over whether the car would prove to be as reliable as you'd hope for the first 2004 car to be launched.

Engine reliability doubts are an interesting one as there have also been aspersions cast over the power of the motor. If these doubts are well founded, then there's plenty of work to do at Ilmor.

That said, McLaren are a truly professional effort. David Coulthard won the Australian GP last year, after Juan Pablo Montoya spun off whilst leading the race and the Scot doesn't have anything to lose this year. Great depth and ability should the car not prove what is wanted at the first race, and they are only working on developing the one car this year.

First GP 1966Team boss Ron DennisBased Woking, Surrey, UKGPs 559Points 2886.5Wins 137Podiums 362Pole positions 114Constructors titles 8Drivers titles 112003 3rd, 142 points

Renault Michelin
Returning to the narrower angle V10 and if they keep the chassis excellence from 2003 the French squad could well be right up there. Renault has a very good past when it comes to narrower angle V10s and now its flirtation with the wide angle configuration is over, they could well return to winning ways.

Good drivers in the form of Fernando Alonso and the experienced charger Jarno Trulli, and testing has boded pretty well for the team that ended up 2003 as fourth in the championship behind the 'big three.'

Last year the team made fantastic use of their third driver, Allan McNish. Allan, and the Friday running is no longer there so this could be felt, but the team has shown just how adaptive it can be and has a chassis designed by the highly-rated Mike Gascoyne.

First GP 1977Team boss Flavio BriatoreBased Enstone, Oxfordshire, UKGPs 156Points 423Wins 16Podiums 46Pole positions 33Constructors titles 0Drivers titles 02003 4th, 88 points

BAR Michelin
Could be the surprise force of the year with much having been made of the testing form of BAR - the Brackley-based team has certainly been flying. The team has a better focus now any friction between David Richards and Jacques Villeneuve has gone and Jenson Button and Takuma Sato should prove to be a good force this year.

Tyres will be an interesting factor at BAR with the team having moved to Michelins with seemingly great results. Some, like Jaguar's Mark Webber, have said that the team might find things slightly different in race conditions, but that remains to be seen. The highest placed team to be able to use a third driver on Friday with Anthony Davidson at the wheel.

First GP 1999Team boss David RichardsBased Brackley, Northamptonshire, UKGPs 83Points 70Wins 0Podiums 2Pole positions 0Constructors titles 0Drivers titles 02003 5th, 26 points

Sauber Bridgestone
With much Ferrari hardware incorporated in their 2004 challenger, Sauber will be pushing hard to get back on track after a disappointing 2003. A new driver line-up with the experienced and highly-rated Giancarlo Fisichella and the exciting Felipe Massa making a return to the team.

The Swiss run with Bridgestones which was seen as being detrimental last year, but with this year's car ever closer to the Ferrari for which the Bridgestone tyres are optimised and with ever-closer links with the Italian team, there could even be a few surprises from this squad.

With the team's brand new wind tunnel not operational yet a different approach to designing the new car was needed as team tech boss Willy Rampf explains. "The 2003 season soon made us realise where our weakness was. Owing to the fact that our new wind tunnel will not be operational until after the roll-out of the C23, we had to find another way of designing a good car with optimum prerequisites for further development during the course of the season. This approach made it possible for us to reach our stated objective."

On whether that other way of designing a good car was to attack the plans for the Ferrari F2003-GA with blue, green and yellow colouring pencils the jury is out.

First GP 1993Team boss Peter SauberBased Hinwil, SwitzerlandGPs 179Points 141Wins 0Podiums 6Pole positionsConstructors titlesDrivers titles2003 6th, 19 points

Jaguar Michelin
Worries have been voiced about the speed of the Jaguar chassis through most of the pre-season testing, though Mark Webber put in some quick ones at the last test just to show that the car could be quick. The team is looking more stable than it has done for quite some time with a team boss nearly at the squad long enough to get his own parking space at the Milton Keynes base.

Second driver for Jaguar is Chrsitian Klein who has only raced at seven of the eighteen track that F1 will visit in 2004 so the young Austrian faces a steep learning curve. All at the team, including Mark Webber speak favourably of the driver, but they also did at the start of 2003 about Antonio Pizzonia.

The Jag did shine on occasion last year, especially in qualifying with Webbo at the wheel. Whether they can make a step forward from last season, or whether they stay still or fall backwards remains to be seen. Unlikely to be fighting for race victories, nor with the realistic objectives of doing so for the future, which for a factory team is an interesting approach.

Running with Bjorn Wirdheim on Friday.

First GP 2000 (as Jaguar)Team boss Tony PurcellBased Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, UKGPs 67Points 39Wins 0Podiums 2Pole positions 0Constructors titles 0Drivers titles 02003 7th, 18 points

Toyota Michelin
Third year in F1 and the first time they've kept their drivers from the previous year. Mike Gascoyne is now on board on the engineering side so things can only get better to the chassis throughout the season.

With the experienced Olivier Panis and former CART champion Cristiano da Matta the potential for good results is there should the car deliver. Probably another year of learning, with the team probably very strong on occasion, but not necessarily at every circuit. 2005 is when everyone else should be scared.

Running with Riccardo Zonta on Friday.

First GP 2002Team boss Tsutomu TomitaBased Koln, GermanyGPs 33Points 18Wins 0Podiums 0Pole positions 0Constructors titles 0Drivers titles 02003 8th, 16 points

Jordan Bridgestone
Last year was pretty abysmal for the Silverstone squad, and were it not for Giancarlo Fisichella's lucked win in Brazil the team would have scored a mere three points.

If everyone wants to write off the team this year, and that on the face of it seems the logical thing to do, then team boss Eddie Jordan is eager to prove everyone wrong. "2004 is going to be Jordan's fight-back," insists Eddie, "This is a resilient and tenacious team." It's going to need to be. Sponsorship money hasn't been easily come by for the team in recent years and whilst the new television revenue sharing will help, F1 isn't getting any cheaper.

There is no longer the presence of Gary Anderson at the team with a new structure engineering what it excitingly describes as "a lighter and more reliable car with improved suspension characteristics and weight distribution without compromising the aerodynamic optimisation achieved". Whether this equates to results remains to be seen.

Running with Timo Glock on Friday

First GP 1991Team boss Eddie JordanBased Silverstone, Northamptonshire, UKGPs 213Points 274Wins 4Podiums 18Pole positions 2Constructors titles 0Drivers titles 02003 9th, 13 points

Minardi Bridgestone
Two pay drivers, both effectively rookies and a team that is very far from cash-rich should mean another interesting season from the perennial tail-enders of F1. Paul Stoddart has already been stirring things up with his threat to withdraw his assent for traction control to remain as part of the F1 car's specification unless the major manufacturers agree to supply cheaper engines.

The team historically manages a point every ten races so they're not expected to set the world alight, but they didn't manage a single point last year, despite point scoring now running all the way down to eighth place.

Running with Bas Leinders on Friday.

First GP 1985Team boss Paul StoddartBased Faenza, ItalyGPs 303Points 30Wins 0Podiums 0Pole positions 0Constructors titles 0Drivers titles 02003 10th, 0 points

Rules
After last year's big shake-up, this year things are a little more settled with the big change being the one engine per race weekend rule. This means that drivers must use the same engine

Those with Friday drivers could well leave all the running to that man with the racers merely taking to the track to check that the tyre and setup is appropriate, as that way the bottom six teams from last year's championship can limit the mileage on their racer's engines.

The drivers undertaking third driver duties are different this year with no-one having more than 6 races experience in the last two years being allowed to undertake this task, so it will be interesting to see how they fare.

Right at the start of the race we see another change, and that's the dropping of launch control for this season. With the grid mixed up a little from the current qualifying process, and perhaps a few drivers having had an engine failure, race starts could well be even more exciting.

Upper rear wings now are limited to two elements as opposed to three which should mean faster speeds along the straights, but slower ones through the corners.

Pitlane speeds are up, and this could mean more pitstops and some more interesting strategy options becoming available to teams.

And, finally, it's goodbye to drive through penalties as now penalties will be applied after the race. That's a bit of a shame as there's nothing like a drive through or hard-to-fathom random decision part way through the race to liven things up.

Tyres
Last year the tyre war got messy. Early season there were rumours that Bridgestone were running with different compounds front to rear, and just as it was looking that Michelin truly had the upper hand leading in toward the season's last few races, the French concern found it necessary to change the moulding for their front tyres after there were allegations that they were too wide, despite the tyres being from the same as since Michelin returned to the sport.

This year is set for another great tyre battle. Michelin, since its return to the sport, has tackled F1 as you'd expect the French manufacturer to so that means this year they should should have their best chance of taking the title. Perhaps the biggest endorsement of the Michelin rubber is that BAR moved over to the French tyres despite engine supplier Honda's relationship with their fellow Japanese company.

The only worry for Michelin is having so many top teams in the battle, whereas Bridgestone have only Ferrari in the title hunt. The Japanese tyre company has an all new tyre and ironically there is talk that they will move to a wider front tyre at some point in the future.

The Albert Park track surface is seen as being one of the smoother ones on the calendar and a soft to medium compound tyre is expected to give the best results come race day.

The Track
For the majority of the year the Albert Park circuit is the perimeter road to a tranquil park and nature reserve a short tram ride away from Melbourne's city centre. This is all transformed with the build-up to the Grand Prix.

The circuit provides a challenge to teams, not least because it's the first race of the season and all squads are just coming to grips with their new chassis.

Of particular interest this year is the leaves and dust that's evident on the track. Albert Park has a lot of greenery and whereas once an overheated engine from a blocked radiator would mean an engine replacement there's now the realisation that this will mean a drop pf ten places on the grid come race day.

The circuit is seen as one requiring high downforce and it is one that is heavy on brakes and draws heavily on engines as there is a lot of heavy acceleration from the slow corners. With the race being the first on the calendar reliability is often an issue as the first time teams run to a race schedule and in a real race environment can exposed hitherto undiscovered problems with the cars.

Weather
'Four seasons in one day', the Crowded House classic track, was written about Melbourne and it's easy to understand why - the weather is variable to say the least. Sun, rain, hot and cold can all occur in the space of an afternoon making for an interesting time for anyone, let alone an F1 team trying to decide tyres, setup and strategy.

This week has seen the weather in Melbourne get increasingly hotter, but the weather is expected to change after the 34?C of Thursday. Friday is predicted to be much cooler, with a high of 25?C and a low of 17 ?C with Saturday offering rain and a max of 21?C. For raceday a partially cloudy day is predicted with a high of 19?C and a low of 13?C. All this could change at any moment however...

Predictions
Michael Schumacher to the early negative predictions about the car and the tyres to be very wrong and disappear far off into the distance. Depressing; but a strong possibility.

Who do you thing will come be the winners and the losers at this weekend's start to the 2004 Formula One world championship? Have your say on the Crash Forum.

For further details on the teams and drivers see the profiles section on www.crash.net.