Finally, the 2006 Formula One season is just about to start. Over the winter we've seen the new cars, debated the pros and cons of the V8 engine and argued if the testing times really mean anything. Many people say that the pecking order of the teams doesn't sort itself out until racing returns to Europe after the early fly-away events, but at this weekend's Bahrain Grand Prix we'll at least see who throws down the gauntlet.
The 5.412km Sakhir circuit made its F1 debut in 2004 and provides a unique desert location, where the heat could provide a baptism of fire for new cars and engines. The track's long straights and low speed corners require aerodynamic efficiency and good traction and the downforce requirements are medium to high. It's also very tough on brakes.
"It is a challenging place to start the year because the circuit is probably the hardest for brakes of the whole season," said Toyota technical director Mike Gascoyne. "The circuit is surrounded by sand and it can also get very hot, which can pose problems with the cooling of a new car. So reliability will be key, especially with this year's switch to V8 engines."
Tyre changes are back and while Bahrain is not a particularly tough track for the rubber, the traction out of the low speed corners can put a strain on the rear tyres. Both Bridgestone and Michelin tested at Sakhir this winter and the manufacturers hope all their respective partner teams will benefit from the exercise.
"Normally, we are limited to testing in the cold of a European winter, when the weather tends to restrict the amount of useful running you can do per day," said Michelin's F1 director Nick Shorrock. "In Bahrain, however, we were able to run from nine until five -- and that gave us ample opportunity to accumulate relevant data."
Of course, there's much speculation about how all the teams and drivers will fare this season but for the moment the focus is firmly on the immediate future. Renault, McLaren, Ferrari and Honda are the popular choices to be fighting it out for the first podium places of the year -- although who knows what surprises may be sprung?
Renault's reigning world champion Fernando Alonso, who won in Bahrain last year, described one of the driver challenges at Sakhir. "It is a unique circuit, because a lot of sand blows onto the surface from outside the circuit. This makes the feeling and driving style quite complex, because as you go into each corner, you don't know what the conditions are like or how much grip you have."
Renault's main rival last season was McLaren and the team narrowly missed out on claiming the constructors' crown. Juan Pablo Montoya was absent from Bahrain in 2005 due to a shoulder injury but teammate Kimi Raikkonen had a podium finish with third. The Finn believes this year's return to tyre changes could mean more aggressive racing.
"It is going to be interesting this weekend to go back to tyre changes in the pit stops," he commented. "We had to adapt driving styles slightly for last year as we didn't have tyre changes, so it may mean people are more aggressive as it is not so important to look after your tyres."
For the first time in what seems like a million years, Michael Schumacher begins a season as a prospective title challenger rather than a defending champion. Bahrain was not kind to him last time around as he retired with a hydraulic failure but the German is optimistic that Ferrari will be up to the task this weekend.
"We are well prepared and want to do well right from the start of the season," he said. "Further, we know the track fairly well as we tested there in mid-February. To be honest, I felt much less hopeful last year even though Bahrain was the third race in the calendar and this year it is the first… This time, I think, we will be more competitive."
Renault appeared to be quick and consistent over the winter, while McLaren and Ferrari were perhaps slightly less so, but Honda was a team that also seemed to be performing well. Still searching for that elusive first win, this year Honda has old hand Rubens Barrichello joining Jenson Button to fight for the top step of the podium.
"There are several overtaking opportunities which always makes things exciting and the fast flowing sections are great," Barrichello said of the Sakhir track. "Testing in Bahrain in February was hugely beneficial for us and we are the only Michelin team to have tested the tyres and our car in the hot conditions prior to the race."
Those four teams should, in theory, be the ones at the sharp end of the grid this weekend -- in actuality it may be a different matter but that remains to be seen. If we say, purely for argument's sake, that those are the prospective top four, the next in line are Toyota, Williams, Red Bull and BMW Sauber.
Toyota certainly got the jump on its rivals by getting the TF106 out on track soon after the end of the 2005 season, but has that been an advantage? In testing Toyota hasn't been particularly noticeable but neither has it been particularly poor either. The car might not be hugely fast but reliability has been the team's focus.
Jarno Trulli put Toyota on the podium in Bahrain last year with second place. "It would be wonderful to achieve something similar again," said the Italian. "The new season brings new challenges in every area… I'm confident that the TF106 can deliver strong results, but as ever we will only find out when we get on track with everyone this weekend."
Williams has pretty much been a mystery over the winter and is tipped to be one of this season's possible dark horses. All these four 'middle' teams have that potential and Williams will be keen to put the troubles of 2005 behind it. Cosworth engines and new blood in the form of rookie Nico Rosberg may give the team fresh impetus.
Compared to the Jaguar era, Red Bull was vastly improved last year and with Ferrari-power and technical whiz Adrian Newey on board expectation is high. BMW Sauber is expecting a tough first season as a factory team but its winter performance wasn't too shabby. Nick Heidfeld has had a long race absence due to injury last year and is impatient to get started.
"I'm desperately looking forward to my first race after a long gap and I can't wait to see what the competition is like," said the German. "It's hard to make any predictions, but my guess is that Renault and Honda will be in the lead to start with, possibly followed by McLaren and Ferrari, and then a group of closely bunched teams. We will probably be in with that group."
MF1 and Toro Rosso may be running under new names but nobody really expects them to be much further up the grid than they were previously. However, a little improved competitiveness could reasonably be expected now they have better financing. As for Super Aguri, reaching the chequered flag is probably the best it can hope for in its first ever race.
So, get ready to sit back and enjoy the show in Bahrain. We can make predictions, place bets and argue our favourites will do well just because they're our favourites, but at the start of this season it's anybody's guess who is going to come out on top. It's impossible to say for sure -- but isn't that how it should be?