Formula One teams revved up and ready to go
Unanswered questions hanging in the air are serving to heighten the simmering anticipation surrounding the start of the Formula One season in Bahrain on Sunday.
Rewind 12 months and it was already clear who had the best car and the best chance of winning the World championship even before a wheel turned for the first race in Australia.
Astonishingly it was Jenson Button, a perennial under-achiever who had always seemed more interested in financing his lifestyle than winning races.
But in the right place at the right time, Button found himself in a car that was better than all the rest, thanks to the engineering genius of Ross Brawn.
With its controversial “double deck diffuser” the Brawn GP car — born out of the remnants of a monolithic Honda operation — was two steps ahead of the chasing back from day one and they never quite caught up.
How different the picture is today as Button and Co prepare to begin the 2010 season at the purpose-built desert circuit at Sakhir in Bahrain.
There are different regulations, different team configurations and two official pre-season test sessions at Jerez and Barcelona proved inconclusive.
The four-day Jerez test, which saw more than 30,000 Spanish fans turn up to pay homage to Fernando Alonso on his Ferrari debut, was disrupted by bad weather and although Button, ousted from a now Mercedes-branded Brawn team to make way for a returning Michael Schumacher, emerged top of the lap charts on board a McLaren, his performance was treated with some scepticism.
After all, Robert Kubica in a Lada-branded Renault produced the second best lap and excitable Japanese Kamui Kobayashi was third quickest for Sauber.
Barcelona looked more representative with Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) fastest at the end of the four days but Mark Webber (Red Bull) and Felippe Massa (Ferrari) were just fractionally slower.
Alonso, Schumacher and Sebastien Vettel (Red Bull), three of the bookmakers’ favourites, created a lot of off-track headlines but rarely figured at the top of the timing screens.
Indeed, Schumacher, back after his three-year vacation, was often out-paced by his talented team-mate Nico Rosberg who has swapped places with Rubens Barrichello, switching from Williams to Mercedes.
Over at Ferrari, the men from Maranello manoeuvred Kimi Raikkonen off the grid to make room for Alonso alongside the tifosi’s current favourite son, Massa.
The volatile Spaniard is renowned for throwing his toys out of the cockpit if he perceives he is not being pampered enough.
Vettel and Webber are also uneasy bed-fellows at Red Bull but the biggest source of acrimony is likely to be at McLaren where Hamilton will surely be intent on ensuring he stays No.1 despite the arrival of the incumbent World champion Button.
In the past Hamilton has refused to take prisoners and the casualties have included Alonso and Heikki Kovalainen as well as the team’s once all-powerful boss Ron Dennis.
Eddie Irvine, never short of an opinion, has said he thinks Button will be “murdered” by Hamilton. Not too many disagree.
But it is the change in regulations, bringing an end to re-fuelling during races, which is adding an extra dimension to the pre-season uncertainty.
Although there will still be pitstops to replace tyres, cars must carry a full race-distance fuel load.
It raises the question — who has the most fuel-efficient engine?
Less fuel means less weight and therefore a quicker car.
All teams, but especially Mercedes and Ferrari, have been at pains to keep the figures under wraps, and in truth the answer may not become apparent until the final laps on Sunday.
Oddly, perhaps, it may play into Button’s hands. He is acknowledged as one of the smoothest drivers in F1, possessing an almost effortless ability to let the car flow through corners — in contrast to the aggressive, all-action style of Hamilton.
But it is the questions, the unknown factors, which make this the most intriguing F1 season in years. Bernie Ecclestone is rubbing his hands in glee.