By Andrew Benson
Formula One embarks on a new season in Australia on Friday with hopes high for an end to Ferrari's domination.
Renault have shown well in testing and are fancied to do well
Ferrari star Michael Schumacher starts as favourite but the indications from pre-season testing are that he will be challenged by McLaren and Renault.
Toyota driver Ralf Schumacher said: "By the look of it, you would say Ferrari are not the benchmark anymore. It's going to be a tough season for them."
The first Melbourne practice session begins at 0000 GMT on Friday.
A major series of rule changes are expected to spice up the racing.
For the first race at Melbourne's Albert Park, attention will be focused on the effect of these rules, particularly the requirement to use only one set of tyres throughout qualifying and the race.
This is expected to lead to lead changes late on in races as drivers who have conserved their tyres try to pass those who have worn them out seeking an early advantage.
This rule will play into the hands of drivers who have a smooth style that will help keep their tyres in good condition.
Among these is Englishman Jenson Button, who is aiming to improve on his career-best third place finish in last year's drivers' world championship for BAR-Honda and win his first Grand Prix.
"Our success last season is a tough act for us to follow, but we have made good progress over the winter and our last couple of tests have given us a much better idea of the car's real potential," Button said.
"We are a team who is moving forward and I'm hoping that our first win is just around the corner.
McLaren's all-star driver line-up is expected to raise the team's game
"We knew we had to make a lot of changes if we wanted to challenge Ferrari.
"We've made a good step forward with the new car - we've pushed it as close to the limit as we can with the new regulations.
"So we'll be very disappointed as a team, and I'll be very disappointed personally, if we don't get a win this year."
Most F1 observers, though, believe BAR will probably head the pack attempting to keep up with Renault, McLaren and Ferrari in Australia.
Renault and McLaren have looked particularly impressive in winter testing, notwithstanding the fact that lap times recorded in those conditions are a notoriously unreliable indication of form.
The form of Ferrari is the big unknown - and after five consecutive world titles for Schumacher there is an understandable concern the team will turn up at the first race and dominate.
But the hope of a competitive season is enhanced by the fact that Ferrari are using an updated version of their 2004 car for the first few races and that it might not quite be on the pace.
There has also been no repeat of what happened in 2004, when at their final pre-season test at Imola in Italy, Ferrari set lap times that made it clear they would be in a league of their own.
"It was true to say that from the moment Ferrari did that long run at Imola before Melbourne last year, you could say 'forget it'," says Patrick Head, director of engineering at BMW Williams.
"We haven't seen anything like that so far. The most impressive and intimidating runs were the ones Renault did at Barcelona in mid-February."
Williams, who won the last race of 2004, say they do not expect to be competitive in the first few races.
They join Toyota, who have a budget rivalled only by Ferrari, as a team under severe pressure to perform this season.
The season will start in a poisonous atmosphere of political upheaval as two rival camps dispute the future of the sport.
That tussle, already four years old, is likely to overshadow the racing for much of the season.