British driver Jenson Button was not part of Thursday’s FIA press conference prior to Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix, the opening race of the Formula One season. Instead it featured the sport’s leading drivers, Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher and Kimi Räikkönen. They finished in the top three positions in last year’s world championship and are likely to be the main protagonists again this year.

There may not have been enough chairs to accommodate the 26-year-old from Somerset, but the other three know they will have to make room for him on the track this year because his Honda team have given him the best- prepared and one of the fastest cars on the grid.

Button is now 100 races into his F1 career, a landmark by which most drivers have already won grands prix. Button is still looking for his first win but, according to reigning world champion Alonso, the Englishman will find the success he craves this year.

“I think my rivals will be Michael [Schumacher] and Jenson Button,” he said this week. “The Honda has been quick since the first time it left the pits and has managed impressive lap times. The team have a different work method from ours – they always look for absolute performance in private testing but there’s no doubt they have a great car. The stopwatch speaks clearly.

“Button and [team-mate Rubens] Barrichello are two solid and tough drivers, able to get to the end of the races without making mistakes. They can win grands prix if they have a chance. They will be tough rivals. I expect Jenson to be the strongest of the two, also because he’s used to working with the team.”

On paper this looks set to be one of the most open F1 seasons for many years. Apart from the years of Schumacher domination, championships have generally been contested by two drivers, usually from different teams. This year the picture looks different, as rule changes reducing engine sizes from V10 to V8 and a general raising of engineering standards have meant that the four leading teams start the season on a remarkably similar level.

The investment of the leading motor manufacturers has taken the sport to a new level of technical competence, with staff numbers of 1,000 a team not uncommon. This year looks set to be the most expensive in the sport’s history, with a total spending bill for the 11 teams of about £1.5bn.

Judging from the extensive winter testing programmes, there is little to choose between the performance of Renault, McLaren Mercedes, Ferrari and Honda.

Honda have done the greatest mileage since the final race last October, a distance equivalent to 85 grands prix. They have left nothing to chance in pursuit of a first world title since Ayrton Senna’s 1991 success.

Although Renault’s car has covered fewer miles and its V8 engine was one of the last to emerge, the French team have been the pace-setter during the winter. McLaren have had to deal with the loss of several engineers and serious reliability problems with their engine. But, in the final pre-season tests, the lap times and reliability were significantly better and Mercedes confirmed this week that a breakthrough had been made with the engine in the past three weeks.

Ferrari’s performance is harder to predict. Constructors’ world champions for six consecutive years from 1999-2004, they lost the plot last year with an uncompetitive package. Over the winter they have not tested often alongside the other leading teams and, when they have, the mileage has been relatively low, hinting at reliability problems. Nevertheless, Schumacher has been bullish about his chances of challenging for an eighth world championship.

“The car seems very good to me, very competitive,” he said. “After a few difficulties at the start, now the situation is clearly better. We are fast but it seems the others are too. It will be very important to start the season strongly, even to win, in order to show the rest that Ferrari are back.”

Although Button has driven the most laps over the winter, Schumacher has put in the hours as well, even if his car has often been up on blocks being repaired. At 37 he shows no sign of taking it easy, nor of preparing to retire from the sport he has dominated for 15 years.

Last week at Ferrari’s test track in Mugello, Tuscany, for example, Schumacher was present all five days, even though he did less than a third of the running he had planned because of bad weather. As one Ferrari insider put it: “A driver who pushes himself like this certainly cannot have ideas in his head about stopping at the end of the year. He still has so much desire, he never lets up, he is the perfectionist of all times.”

But, behind the scenes, the competition between drivers is equally intense. Of the four main title contenders, only Button and Alonso have contracts for next year. The Spaniard’s decision to defect to McLaren, announced before Christmas, has stirred up the driver market and, unwilling to put pressure on Schumacher to decide quickly whether to continue past this year, Ferrari appear to have taken matters into their own hands.

The word from Italy is that McLaren’s Räikkönen has already signed for Ferrari, and this week team chief Jean Todt allowed himself to be drawn into a comment on whether he would hire the 26-year-old Finn. “If
Ferrari needed him and found him available, then yes. He’s very strong, never complains and doesn’t blame others if he loses.”

The switch from 3-litre V10 engines to 2.4-litre V8s is the most significant of several changes to the rules this year. Designed to slow the cars down, it has reduced the power output from 950bhp to about 750bhp and will add about a second to lap times. Nevertheless, the performance of the cars remains sensational. A F1 car will accelerate from 0mph-100mph in 3.6 seconds and come to a stop again in a further three seconds.

There are significant changes to the sporting regulations as well, with qualifying in particular receiving greater emphasis. In place of the unpopular single-car format of recent years, the new system will feature two “eliminator” stages in which the slowest 12 cars will drop out followed by a final 20-minute shoot-out for pole position.

The aim is to put the drama back into qualifying – and with such close competition between the frontrunners, it could well be in the details of how each team approaches qualifying that grands prix and the championship itself may be won and lost.

James Allen is ITV Sport’s lead F1

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