Australian Grand Prix - Preview

Twelve months on from announcing himself on the Formula One stage in audacious fashion, Lewis Hamilton believes he can place himself firmly on the top step of the podium at Sunday's season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

Making his F1 debut last year in Melbourne, the then 22-year-old qualified fourth on the Albert Park grid, two slots behind team-mate and defending world champion Fernando Alonso.

It was a situation almost everyone thought would reflect Hamilton's approach to his rookie season: follow in the tyre tracks of your double world champion team-mate; watch and learn.

However, what came next gave the first inkling of what was ultimately to prove a torrid season for the McLaren-Mercedes team as they attempted to juggle the ambitions of both of their charges.

Appearing initially to have made a circumspect start, Hamilton almost lost fourth place to the fast-starting BMW Sauber of Robert Kubica.

But, switching to the outside of the track on the run in to turn one, Hamilton not only held off the young Pole but also emerged from the corner in third place - ahead of Alonso.

He subsequently led the Spaniard for two-thirds of the race, only ceding ground during the final round of pit stops. Nevertheless, a podium finish - the first of 12 - was Hamilton's reward, not to mention overnight fame.

Speaking ahead of this year's Australian GP, Hamilton said of his first corner in F1: "If you look at last year's race, the first race, I wasn't really nervous but everyone sort of expected me to fail.

"I started fourth and was going to come out of turn one in about eighth place if I didn't do something about it.

"I made a real split decision, it was right there and then I had to make the quickest decision ever.

"I went down the outside and I managed to come out in third place."

With a full 17 grands prix worth of experience now under his belt, Hamilton reckons that he will be in an even better position to challenge for victory in this year's race.


He knows he has a car that is capable of winning races - McLaren's new MP4-23 chassis having evolved from last year's design and shown the requisite form during pre-season testing.

Hamilton added: "I feel we have a better opportunity this weekend than we did last year at this time.

"Going into this weekend I feel even more positive. We've been working very, very hard through winter making sure the training's even better but also preparing the car."

Of course, Kimi Raikkonen ultimately pipped Hamilton to last year's world championship by a single point - a context which attaches significance aplenty to the Finn's victory in Melbourne.

Having then just joined Ferrari, Raikkonen was, by-and-large, outshone by team-mate Felipe Massa during the opening races of 2007, with the Brazilian only proving unable to challenge in Melbourne after gearbox problems in practice brought about a grid penalty.

However, having overcome the difficulties he initially faced at Maranello to sweep to the title, and also having set an at-times electric pace during testing, Raikkonen starts as favourite this year.

"Personally I feel a huge difference to start this season compared to 2007," he said.

"Now I know the team and the way they work and there won't be any surprises. I've built up a good relationship with my engineers and we understand each other: they know how I want my car to be set up."


Massa will be looking to improve upon the bad luck he has hitherto experienced Down Under and take the chequered flag ahead of Raikkonen; however, in the battle between team-mates, most eyes will be firmly trained on Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen.

Another debutant at last year's race - and one who seemingly offered as much promise at the time as Hamilton - Kovalainen went on to produce a less-than sparkling performance, leaving the road a number of times in his Renault before trailing home in 10th place.

However, the 26-year-old Finn came on strong as the season progressed and, with Alonso leaving McLaren and heading back to Renault at the end of last year, Kovalainen found himself moving in the opposite direction.

Few expect Kovalainen to challenge Hamilton, at least not at first - an opinion the former seems happy to play along with as he plays himself in with his new team.

Nevertheless, the Englishman said on Thursday that Kovalainen was "not showing his cards yet" before going on to hail his new team-mate's "great talent".

That Hamilton suggested Kovalainen was being rather too modest probably stems from the fact that studying times set pre-season can only reveal so much.

Matters have been helped by the fact that few technical rule changes have been made for this year, meaning that teams tend to follow the McLaren route and evolve rather than innovate.

Thus, Ferrari and McLaren head into 2008 apparently with much the same advantage they enjoyed in 2007 over teams such as BMW Sauber, Renault, Williams, Red Bull and Toyota.

But with performance gaps so small in contemporary F1 and with testing comparisons clouded by teams running different programmes - and drivers within a team doing the same - analysis quickly becomes clouded by conjecture.

So who has the upper hand? McLaren or Ferrari? Hamilton or Kovalainen? These are arguably the two most eagerly anticipated questions that need answering but, to say the least, there are plenty more.

And only on Sunday will a clearer picture begin to emerge.

March 16, Australian Grand Prix

Albert Park, Melbourne

Track length: 3.294 miles (5.303 km)

Number of laps: 58 (191.110 miles/307.574 km)

Lap record: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 1min 24.215sec (2004)

2007 winner: Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari)