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Alonso aims to take McLaren back to the top
Alan Baldwin | March 14, 2007 18:21 IST
Double world champion Fernando Alonso hopes to get his McLaren career off to a winning start on Sunday in an Australian Grand Prix that is far more than just a season-opener.
Formula One is also entering what promises to be a fascinating new era after the retirement last October of Ferrari's seven times world champion Michael Schumacher, the most successful driver in the history of the sport.
Alonso has moved from champions Renault to success-starved McLaren while the man he replaces, super-quick Finnish 'Iceman' Kimi Raikkonen, has gone to Italian glamour team Ferrari as successor to the departed German great.
The 25-year-old Spaniard was triumphant in Melbourne last year, when that race was the third on the calendar, but despite starting with evident high hopes is refusing to make any predictions this time.
The landscape has changed considerably.
Apart from the driver merry-go-round, Bridgestone are now sole tyre suppliers, engine development has been frozen and two of the top three teams -- McLaren and Renault -- have rookie drivers making their debuts.
Pre-season testing times suggest that the balance of power has changed, with McLaren and Ferrari on the up and Renault losing ground.
"I'm optimistic and confident that we can have a good result. But the first race is always different, anything can happen in Australia," Alonso said in a McLaren pre-season interview.
"We normally see some surprising results, so you never know; you definitely cannot make any predictions."
Raikkonen and Brazilian Felipe Massa, winner of the season-ender in his native Sao Paulo last year, should be Alonso's main rivals.
The Spaniard recognised that the year ahead could be his toughest yet, with McLaren starting with two new drivers after failing to win a race last season for the first time in a decade.
"I think the future will be fantastic for the team, this season we will try hard to win, but for sure the most challenging season we will have together is this one," he said.
Melbourne will also see the debut of an exciting new talent in Briton Lewis Hamilton, the first black Formula One driver, who has already been tipped as a likely race winner by compatriot and former champion Damon Hill.
"It is difficult to absorb it and realise that I am going to be making my Formula One debut," the 22-year-old said.
"My brother and I have always been playing Formula One games on the computer, and now I am going to be one of the cars in those games.
"Always at this time of year I have been looking forward to the first grand prix, getting up early and watching the Australian Grand Prix, but now I'm actually going to be on the grid," he added.
"There are so many different emotions but excitement is definitely the main part. I am just eager to get out there and do the best possible job."
Renault have Finland's Heikki Kovalainen making his debut alongside Italian Giancarlo Fisichella, race winner in Melbourne in 2005, but their chances of a third Australian win in a row look less likely.
BMW Sauber, with Poland's Robert Kubica starting in Australia for the first time after making his race debut in Hungary last August, could be contenders, however.
Their hopes of standing on the podium are certainly brighter than those of home favourite Mark Webber, making his Red Bull debut after a nightmare year with Williams.
"I hope we can finish the race and try and get some points," he said. "They are not exactly ambitious goals but that's where we are right now."
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