LONDON: Launch time is looming for Formula One, even if blast-off is still two months and half a world away.
The slick pre-season presentations, with teams taking the wraps off new cars and putting a gloss on their prospects, starts in Valencia on Monday when Williams show off their new BMW-powered FW26 challenger.
That is sure to be a launch with an edge, not least because Colombian driver Juan Pablo Montoya has already signed to join Mercedes-backed McLaren next year while Ralf Schumacher's relationship with the team remains prickly.
Montoya's rare situation has already raised doubts about his ability to mount a real challenge for the championship once the season starts in Australia in March, even if his motivation remains the same.
McLaren's November announcement, a surprise only in its timing after widespread rumours of a deal for much of last season, has also rearranged the Formula One landscape.
Apart from focusing attention on McLaren, with Briton David Coulthard's future seemingly elsewhere after nine years with the team, Montoya's move has left one of the best seats in Formula One up for grabs.
The speculation about who is going where will be buzzing louder than ever this year.
Coulthard will be spared awkward questions at launch time, since McLaren will not be having one for the second year running.
The team, who started last season with a revamped 2002 car and continued with it after the new MP4-18 failed crash tests and was deemed too unreliable to race, have already got an MP4-19 on track.
They have no launch plans but will continue testing in Jerez with Coulthard and Kimi Raikkonen, championship runner-up to Ferrari's Michael Schumacher, from Jan 11.
Coulthard's future has meanwhile been given a good airing in the British press, with Wednesday's Sun newspaper printing a cross-eyed picture of the Scot over the headline 'You'll be staring at the chop if you flop.'
“David will have to drive well all season to give us a chance of finding him a competitive seat,” warned his manager and television commentator Martin Brundle.
“He knows only too well what he must do to stand a chance of a top drive for 2005. He has no plans to retire because he wants to continue racing and winning.”
Toyota or Jaguar could be among the teams on Coulthard's list and their launches are on the 17th and 18th of January in Cologne and Barcelona respectively.
Toyota have both a new team principal, Tsutomo Tomita, and a highly-paid new technical director in Mike Gascoyne while Jaguar will be presenting Red Bull-backed Austrian rookie driver Christien Klien.
Jaguar's outstanding Australian driver Mark Webber can expect to be fending off questions once again about his prospects of replacing Montoya at Williams after being repeatedly linked to that team.
Sauber will present their new C23 at Salzburg airport in Austria on Jan 12 with new drivers Italian Giancarlo Fisichella and Brazilian Felipe Massa.
That should give Fisichella, also linked briefly to Williams last season, another chance to talk about his lifelong desire to drive for Ferrari.
Renault, with Italian Flavio Briatore at the helm, take their new car to Palermo in Sicily for a picturesque launch on Jan 29.
Ferrari have yet to name a date for their launch, although sporting director Jean Todt said last month that they aimed to present the new car in January while BAR are aiming for the beginning of February in Barcelona.
That leaves Jordan, who have yet to sign any drivers and are not expected to do so until their sponsorship is sorted, and Minardi. If last year is anything to go by, they will launch as close to take off as possible. – Reuters