/ 6 March 2008

Formula One set for exciting 2008

Ferrari are back on top, Lewis Hamilton is a title contender and two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso is back with Renault.

Add night racing to all that and one of F1’s most exciting seasons in 2007 is set for a worthy follow-up in 2008.

This year’s Formula One campaign, which begins at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 16, could again be decided at the final race — last year, Kimi Raikkonen snatched the title away from bickering teammates Hamilton and Alonso at the Brazilian GP. It was the closest championship in 21 years.

Raikkonen, who replaced seven-time champion Michael Schumacher, gave Ferrari their first title since 2004. ”The Iceman” still has a way to go to match Schumacher, but he can start by defending his title.

The Finn can expect competition from Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa after sporting director Stefano Domenicali — who replaced new chief executive Jean Todt — said both would be treated as equals, just like last season.

With the number one tag returned to the front nose of the Ferrari, Raikkonen and Massa have driven like equals in winter testing, regularly topping lap times.

But McLaren have stayed alongside their Italian counterparts, especially Hamilton, who is focused on not repeating last season’s mistakes when the 23-year-old British driver blew a chance to become the first rookie champion.

”With the package we have I doubt it very much that Kimi will run away with it,” said Hamilton, Formula One’s first black driver. ”What Ferrari have is a very good car. But if you look at last year in Barcelona [testing], there was a bigger gap, three to four-tenths between us. This year I think it is a lot closer — we have equal cars.”

Hamilton, who finished second in 2007, has a supportive teammate in the soft-spoken Heikki Kovalainen. The Finnish driver traded places with Alonso and brings fresh air after a turbulent season for the British team.

McLaren were fined a record $100-million and lost the constructors’ championship for possessing leaked Ferrari documents.

While McLaren shoots for their first title in a decade, Italian police continue their investigation.

Alonso returns to Renault, where he made his name by becoming the youngest champion with back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006.

The French team have been playing catch-up ever since and offer slight expectations on his return.

Alonso is joined by a rookie teammate for the second straight year in Nelson Piquet Jnr — son of 1987 champion Nelson Piquet. But it’s the number one status accorded to the 26-year-old Alonso that could see Renault surprise.

F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone hopes that is the case.

”I just hope that Fernando’s car is as fast as Lewis’s so we can see some real competition,” Ecclestone said.

Renault should duel with BMW Sauber, Williams and Red Bull for the occasional podium place.

BMW Sauber was meant to contend by now, but winter testing suggests the German team is still off the pace.

Williams, led by Nico Rosberg — son of 1982 champion Keke Rosberg — could snatch third from BMW Sauber if they continue the good form they showed over the winter with their Toyota engines.

Rosberg, driving with Japanese rookie Kazuki Nakajima, is staying grounded after rejecting McLaren’s vacant seat to stay at Williams, who haven’t won the title since 1997.

”We’re aiming for fourth in the constructors’ championship. Maybe some podiums with a little luck, but for that we’ll need a lot of things to fall into place,” the 22-year-old German said.

Honda recruited Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn after a poor campaign that saw them drop to eighth. Driver Jenson Button expects improvements after winning all six points.

Three-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais makes the jump to F1 with Toro Rosso alongside 20-year-old German driver Sebastien Vettel.

Germany’s Timo Glock returns after a three-year absence to replace Ralf Schumacher — who left for German touring series DTM — at Toyota.

Formula One welcomes its first Indian team with Force India, who replace Spyker.

Team owner Vijay Mallya — a flamboyant, self-styled entrepreneur in the mould of Flavio Briatore — is confident enough to expect drivers Adrian Sutil and Giancarlo Fisichella to be pushing for the podium by Interlagos.

Super Aguri will be the Indian team’s direct rival, if the Japanese team can stay on the track amid financing problems.

Night racing will make its debut at the Singapore GP on September 28, while the Spanish GP in Valencia will be the second daylight street race after Monaco.

Hockenheim will host the German GP, while the US Grand Prix is off the calendar. — Sapa-AP