Forecast: Alonso versus Raikkonen

While McLaren and Ferrari both seem confident going into the 2007 season with their new main drivers, doubts remain as to whether Renault can challenge at the top-end this year, writes Elmar Dreher.

With Michael Schumacher enjoying a well-earned retirement after 12 years at the top, the 2007 Formula One season looks like being a straight battle between world champion Fernando Alonso and the German's successor at Ferrari, Kimi Raikkonen. Alonso won the drivers' titles the last two years with Renault but will be lining up for new team McLaren-Mercedes in the opening Grand Prix this season on March 18 in Melbourne, Australia — a race he won last year.

``My target is obviously the title,'' said Alonso, who revealed recently that his next career goal was to become one of the F1 greats by winning a third drivers' title. ``What I have felt at McLaren is good professionalism, a team that is very determined and focused on the championship,'' he said. ``While we clearly have strong opponents, I feel very positive and optimistic.''

Alonso's main challenger Raikkonen failed to take the drivers' crown during his time at McLaren but the Finn now wants to prove he is a worthy replacement for seven-time world champion Schumacher at Ferrari by winning his first title. ``It wasn't my fault or because of any perceived lack of application on my part, but was due to the unreliability of my car,'' Raikkonen said of his failure to lift a title with McLaren-Mercedes.

``Red is much warmer than silver,'' he joked. While McLaren and Ferrari both seem confident going into the 2007 season with their new main drivers, doubts remain as to whether the Renault pairing of Giancarlo Fisichella and Finland's Heikki Kovalainen can challenge at the top-end this year.

Ferrari and McLaren have both put in better lap times during winter testing and Fisichella admits the French carmaker could struggle this year, even if Renault closed the gap during last week's testing in Bahrain. ``For sure, we are still behind Ferrari in particular, they looked very strong,'' he told Renault's official website.

``McLaren are a little bit ahead too, and BMW are competitive as well, but I think we have made a good step forward,'' Fisichella added.

Kovalainen's preparations were far from ideal as he crashed heavily on the Sakhir Circuit during testing in Bahrain, but Fisichella is still hopeful a corner has been turned and the Italian will also be banking on the Renault's renowned reliability. ``I think we have to aim to be on the podium. The reliability of our package is very good at the moment, and that can be a big asset in the opening races,'' he said.

BMW-Sauber look the team most likely to close the gap on the big three this year, but BMW motorsport director Mario Theissen accepts there is still some distance for his team to go.

``Mercedes has a different level of expectations than BMW this season. This year it won't be a battle of equals,'' he said. But BMW is no bit player with its estimated budget of 330 million euros ($ 436 million) and a team of some 770. BMW builds its own engine and chassis in Munich and Hinwill in Switzerland.

Meanwhile McLaren can call on a team of around 800 under team chief Ron Dennis.

With a budget of 375 million euros, Mercedes delivers the engines while McLaren builds the chassis.

BMW-Sauber managed to finish fifth in the 2006 season, two places behind McLaren-Mercedes, and wants to be challenging for the title in two years.

DPA How F1 would run

The use of tyre of a single make by all teams is the most important novelty of the new Formula One season. Bridgestone will be the sole supplier from 2007 to 2010 following the decision by Michelin — Bridgestone's only rival — to pull out of Formula One after the 2006 season.

Another important change will be an expansion of the Friday practice session to generate more action on the circuit.

Bridgestone will supply a total of 14 sets of dry weather tyres per driver over the race weekend. Four sets are for Friday only, and 10 for the rest of the weekend with a choice of a hard or soft compound.

The two Friday practice sessions will be extended from 60 minutes to 90 minutes. Teams will be allowed to use two cars, which may be driven by either of the two race drivers or a nominated third driver.

Other engines can be used in the Friday practice sessions. Any engine change in the first day will not be penalised. The two-races engine rule will now only apply for Saturday's qualifying and Sunday's racing.

The Formula 1 teams have agreed to the early introduction of a testing agreement scheduled for 2008. Each team will have an annual limit of 30,000 kilometres.

During a safety car period no car will be allowed to enter the pits until all of them have lined up in the group following the safety car.

New safety regulations include an improved frontal crash test, the introduction of a cockpit GPS marshalling system which will alert drivers to on-track dangers and an ``accident severity indicator'' to signal the severity of an accident to medical rescue crews.

Jens Marx, DPA