The new Formula One campaign gets under way on Monday with the start of preseason testing that will also bring the return of Michael Schumacher at Mercedes GP after three years out of motor racing’s premier sport.
The three-day session at Valencia’s Cheste Circuit will be the first of four in February before the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on March 14.
It will offer the first glimpse of F1’s off-season shake-up, with defending champion Jenson Button’s move to McLaren to join 2008 winner Lewis Hamilton one of many driver changes. Also notably, two-time champ Fernando Alonso shifted to Ferrari.
Polish driver Robert Kubica has joined Renault, while Rubens Barrichello left Mercedes to sign for Williams and partner GP2 champion Niko Hulkenberg - but it’s Schumacher’s return that is the most anticipated.
The 41-year-old Schumacher, who hasn’t raced since retiring from Ferrari in 2006, has taken Button’s place at Mercedes. The team also signed fellow German Nico Rosberg from Williams as it embarks on its first campaign in more than 50 years since buying out constructors’ champion Brawn GP.
Schumacher and Rosberg will both drive on the opening day of testing as it begins its chase for the championship.
“That is what we aim for but we have to deliver and that is our job,” Schumacher said in December when his comeback was confirmed. “Honestly, I can’t wait until the 1st of February when we will officially run the car.”
Schumacher won five of his record seven F1 titles at Ferrari - all in a row, from 2000-04 - but former rival Alonso will now be the main man at the Italian team following a disappointing 2009 season for both Ferrari and the Spaniard at Renault.
Monday’s testing will provide a first clue over whether the iconic red car will rebound. It will also provide Felipe Massa with his first official drive since a life-threatening crash in July before the Hungarian GP forced him to sit out the rest of last season.
Of the front-runners, only Red Bull is missing from the first testing session, with Renault and Williams unveiling their new cars on Sunday and Toro Rosso doing so on Monday.
Button won’t get his first spin in a McLaren until Wednesday, a day after Hamilton takes control.
“Testing is going to be very, very important for the start of the year,” Button said.
Some of the changes to the cars from last year include heavier fuel tanks, with refuelling banned this season.
The KERS system - introduced to boost overtaking - is gone, while engineers will be able to employ the double diffuser despite it being questioned in court before the start of last season.