By Andrew Benson
The new Formula One season starts on Sunday in Australia and three teams look set to be the main contenders.
It is notoriously difficult to judge form on the basis of pre-season tests, but a general picture of the teams' competitiveness has emerged.
Ferrari appear to have an advantage, with McLaren and Renault not far behind and BMW Sauber as speedy dark horses.
But the rest, probably led by Honda and Williams-Toyota, seem to be at least a second a lap behind the big three.
World champions Renault have kept a low profile in pre-season testing, but insiders expect them to be in the mix at the front once the racing begins.
World champions Renault have played it cool during winter testing
The car may lack Ferrari's out-and-out pace, but Renault should benefit from peerless reliability and organisation.
But drivers Giancarlo Fisichella and Heikki Kovalainen may be a weak link.
Veteran Fisichella has yet to show the consistency to win a title and while Kovalainen appears very promising, novices always need time to learn.
Ferrari are poised to start the new Formula One season as they finished the last - as the team to beat.
Ferrari look to have the fastest car going into the first race
Michael Schumacher and technical boss Ross Brawn may have gone, but Ferrari have been fast in all pre-season tests whatever the circuit and conditions.
And they alone of the top three teams have two experienced drivers.
In testing, incumbent Felipe Massa has appeared to have an edge on new recruit Kimi Raikkonen but it would be a major surprise if that is the case in races.
McLaren can surely not fail to improve on their winless 2006 with double world champion Fernando Alonso at the wheel.
McLaren appear to be the closest team to Ferrari on pure pace
The car has been pretty close to Ferrari on pace in pre-season testing, although there are question marks about its ability to make its tyres last.
Alonso is the best all-round driver in the world, and he will extract every ounce of potential from the car.
English rookie Lewis Hamilton has looked quick in testing, but he cannot be expected to match Alonso in races.
Honda appear to be a long way from fulfilling their ambitions of being a major player in Formula One.
Honda's new car does not look likely to fulfil the team's ambitions
They hoped to be regular winners after a breakthrough victory last year.
But pre-season testing suggested they are between a second and 1.5secs off the pace of the top three teams, and have been leap-frogged by BMW Sauber.
Jenson Button looks to have kept a slight advantage over team-mate Rubens Barrichello, but the Englishman must be questioning his faith in his team.
BMW Sauber appear poised to be the surprise package of the new season.
BMW Sauber could well be the surprise of the season
But it would be wrong to suggest - as some have - they are a serious threat to Ferrari, McLaren and Renault just yet.
The new car appears to occupy a position just behind the big three and well ahead of the rest, but it has had major gearbox reliability problems.
Still, it should provide rising Polish star Robert Kubica with a platform to continue his impressive progress alongside steady German Nick Heidfeld.
Toyota is poised to take over as the world's biggest road-car maker - but its Formula One programme looks to have no chance of matching that position.
Toyota do not look likely to win races this season
Toyota's F1 team is struggling, and testing suggests they are nowhere near their ambition of winning races in '07.
Observers say Toyota appear to be near the back of the midfield group, despite a strong driver line-up of Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli.
If accurate, that will be embarrassing for a team of such huge resources.
Great things are expected of Red Bull this season following their recruitment of ace designer Adrian Newey.
Red Bull will be at the centre of attention in Melbourne
But with pre-season testing not going particularly well, it is now clear why team bosses worked have worked hard at dampening expectations this winter.
The new car appears for now to lack downforce and looks poised to battle Honda, Williams and Toyota in midfield.
New recruit Mark Webber and experienced veteran David Coulthard will have been expecting - and deserve - better.
This once-great team are the most difficult of all to assess ahead of Melbourne as they chose not to go to the major two-week test in Bahrain.
Williams appear poised for a revival after a poor 2006
But their work in Europe before that suggested they were neck-and-neck with Honda behind the top four teams.
That will not lead to jigs of joy at this exacting team that dominated Formula One in the 1990s, but it is a step forward after a disastrous 2006.
With steady but unspectacular drivers, this looks set to be a rebuilding year.
Toro Rosso have done minimal pre-season testing, so it is hard to predict exactly where they will fit in at the first race of the season in Melbourne.
Toro Rosso are likely to share the problems of their sister team
But their new car is more or less the same as the one used by sister team Red Bull, but fitted with a Ferrari engine rather than a Renault.
As Red Bull are struggling for pace, the same can be expected of Toro Rosso.
And a less experienced and proven driver line-up of Vitantonio Liuzzi and Scott Speed means low midfield places.
The Spyker team are under few illusions that they will start the new season at the back of the grid.
Spyker expect to be at the back of the grid at the start of the season
The Dutch sportscar company bought Midland in September, and had little time to prepare for 2007.
The team will use last year's car with minor modifications and a Ferrari engine instead of a Toyota.
It has been no surprise to see them slip further behind during the winter, although changes planned for the car could make a difference later on.
Super Aguri look poised to make a significant step forward after a debut season spent at the back of the grid.
Super Aguri will start the season with a lack of preparation
They will use a lightly modified version of last year's Honda car so can be expected to start off at the back of the midfield and ahead of Spyker.
But their almost total lack of pre-season testing following problems passing F1's mandatory crash tests makes an exact prediction difficult.
Drivers Anthony Davidson and Takuma Sato lack little for effort or pace.