New movable aerodynamics designed to improve overtaking, slick tyres that work best with a different weight distribution to last year, even longer lasting engines and, for some teams, KERS technology all promise to set a new order and BMW boss Mario Theissen admitted the new rules, particularly for aerodynamics, were "so fundamental" they forced his BMW engineers to start with a blank sheet of paper.
We haven't seen such potential to shuffle the order for years.
Simple signs suggest that although Briton Lewis Hamilton heads into the season with number one on his McLaren and Ferrari's Brazilian Felipe Massa hopes to better second best from last year, their respective countrymen Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello could actually be the ones leading the way with Brawn GP.
But it is notoriously difficult to predict performance from pre-season testing and although teams now have a 'gentlemen's agreement' not to post unrealistic test times by running underweight, it's still tough to compare the times accurately due to the different programmes the teams were running, including the significant effect that is had by running with or without KERS.
There were five main tests before the season — Portimao in January, Jerez and Bahrain in February and Barcelona and Jerez in March, attended by a variety of teams. BMW and Ferrari both did their own private tests in January while Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull and Force India also had one-day shakedown runs.
Comparing the testing times, there are certain factors to ignore. The test in Portimao can be written off completely as Toro Rosso topped it with a 2008 machine, most teams were still sorting out niggles with new cars and there was only one clear day without rain. All private tests, by nature, do not allow relative times between teams to be compared while Toro Rosso and McLaren's times from the February Jerez test should also be discounted as the former again ran the 08 car and the latter ran 08 wings.
That leaves Williams, Ferrari, Toyota, Renault, BMW and Red Bull with three competitive tests from which times can be compared while Brawn, McLaren and Force India have two and Toro Rosso only one.
Taking all that into account, then, what are the patterns?
Well, looking at simple positions in the timesheets (taking the average position of each team's cars in each test) puts Brawn ahead of Williams, Ferrari and Toyota with Renault and BMW evenly matched in fifth and sixth then McLaren, Red Bull, Toro Rosso and Force India.
Comparing the time set by each team's fastest car at each test with the fastest time of the test, on the other hand, shuffles the order a little.
Again, Brawn is at the top of the pile, averaging 0.15 seconds off the fastest time set in the tests they took part, with Williams an average of 0.63 seconds off the leading pace and Renault 1.16 seconds off the pace. McLaren, Toyota, BMW and Ferrari then follow, all between 1.2 and 1.36 seconds off, with Red Bull and Toro Rosso both around two seconds and Force India 2.6 seconds slower.
But with so many factors influencing the reality of these times, perhaps the best way to predict the start of the season is though the talk in the paddock. Brawn has clearly rattled everyone, but BMW and Ferrari seem confident of fighting at the front and Toyota has targeted a podium in Australia. Even Red Bull thinks they are fast, despite the above suggesting otherwise.
And actually, when it comes down to it, Australia is a different place to Jerez, Bahrain or Barcelona — so it may just not be down to who was fastest in the pre-season but who learned most about how to set up their car...
DATE PUBLISHED ON: 24 MARCH 2009