Two years ago, after the 2007 season that went to the wire, it looked like Formula One just couldn’t get better. And then in 2008 we thought we had a champion, till the final corner of the final race of the season.

Now, at the start of another season, albeit one heavily influenced by economic gloom, the field is wide open.

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Some credit must go to new rule changes (see graphic below) which are expected to make cars more reliable and present drivers with easier overtaking opportunities. The changes in 2009 will be a continuation of efforts by governing body Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) to put the fate of races back into the hands of drivers instead of team engineers.

Champions league: (from left) Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa and new find Robert Kubica will all look to improve on their past performance in a season that promises plenty of surprises and upsets. Photographs by: Carl Court / Bloomberg and Javier Barbancho / Reuters

At rivals McLaren the season has got off to a less than bright start. With the massively successful Ron Dennis—who took the team to seven constructor’s championships—stepping down as team principal after 27 years, Mike Whitmarsh is the new team principal. McLaren’s new car MP4-24 has put in a less than satisfactory performance during the testing rounds and success may be difficult in the opening races.

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Lewis Hamilton in the driver’s seat will be aiming to make it two championships in a row. Partner Heikki Kovalainen, though, will have to put in a much improved performance if McLaren wants a realistic campaign for the constructor title—the team hasn’t won it in 10 years.

The team to watch out for will be BMW Sauber. After a strong 2008 season, it looks the likeliest to upset Ferrari and McLaren. It will surprise none if it betters its 11 podium finishes—including one win—from last year. And with ambitious and competent drivers in Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld, it has sufficient talent to meet that challenge.

The biggest surprise of the season so far has been Brawn F1. Formerly Team Honda, whose participation was left in a limbo after owners Honda Motors backed out in December, the outfit has been topping time sheets in testing after former boss Ross Brawn took over in a desperate last-minute deal. The experienced pair of Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button should be more than a handful in this very fast car.

Renault’s fortunes have dimmed since the consecutive championship wins in 2005 and 2006. What Fernando Alonso could have become if it hadn’t been for his insecurities and persistent complaining, nobody will ever know. However, the fact that Alonso still has the potential to be a feared rival should make Flavio Briatore feel more comfortable.

But in co-driver Nelson Piquet Jr, Renault has a driver upon whom greatness was thrust, only to be squandered. Piquet has wasted several opportunities to do the team good and this could be his last chance to keep a seat.

Toyota finally rescued itself in 2008 with its best performance in Formula One so far. Though none of its drivers was individually exceptional, Timo Glock and Jarno Trulli collectively gathered two podium finishes and 56 points. Toyota was the second team to launch its car for the season, and having got a few rounds of testing in Bahrain and Jerez, the Japanese team should feel satisfied with the performance—expect nothing extraordinary from the outfit.

Sebastian Vettel became the youngest driver to win a Grand Prix when he won the Italian Grand Prix in September for Toro Rosso. He finished the season with 35 points in a top eight finish. Toro Rosso has been exceptionally fast in the pre-season testing but Vettel’s absence will hurt.

Rosso’s loss is Red Bull Racing’s gain. Red Bull Racing should receive a huge fillip to its chances of a good performance this season with the arrival of Vettel. Mark Webber in the second car is an able driver.

Williams-Toyota’s fall from the high perch has been quick and substantial. They have capable drivers but the car has failed to support their ambitions. The year ahead could be tough for Williams.

Force India displayed its new car at a glittering ceremony on 1 March in Mumbai, unveiling a car that now sports the Indian tricolour as its livery. The aim for Force India is to win its first point in Formula One and then consistently finish the races.

All said and done, no amount of testing can prepare a team adequately for the actual racing. Past laurels do not guarantee future glory. So it will be the opening races that will help identify real championship contenders. With the championship going to the driver with most wins, the most ruthless will emerge champions.

The 2009 Formula One season starts with the Australian Grand Prix tomorrow. The season will have 17 races, concluding with the new Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on 1 November.

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