And so it becomes ever-more real. After too long a winter we now have the pieces in place, the testing completed. As the teams desperately squeeze the last increments of performance from their Bahrain upgrades, the season is here at last.
The performance of each car will be dependent upon the team's starting point and how good a job has been done during the off-season. But the software inside the helmets is less predictable. What it would be to get inside the minds of Alonso, Button, Massa or Hamilton as they face new and very real challenges. But perhaps most fascinating of all would be to get inside the mind of Michael Schumacher. Just what sort of Michael are we going to see this year?
Testing has confirmed he's generally competitive, but is the searing extra pace still there to call upon when needed? Or will he be having to fall back on a veteran's experience and nous to get the job done, like we saw in times past with such as Niki Lauda or Alain Prost?
The move away from two or three flat-out sprints to something more like the 1980s/early '90s format of racing, with tyre, fuel and brake management critical, will allow Schumacher the opportunity to skin the cat a different way if the last couple of tenths have been lost to him.
Michael Schumacher © LAT
He gives the impression of being a more mellow man now than even his last season of 2006. But the fact that he's coming back at all tells you the fire still burns. You can guarantee his competitive spirit will be as intense as ever once he's in the car. So what happens in those critical split-seconds of high tension, when a great result is threatening to get away from him? Like at Adelaide '94, Jerez '97 or Monaco qualifying '06?
Such moves had the hallmarks not of premeditated fouls, but moments of madness triggered by panic. They were nothing like as cynical, for example, as Ayrton Senna's decision that he was going to take Prost off at the first corner of Suzuka in 1990, if Alain didn't allow him to lead. That was a premeditated plan - as he later admitted.
With Schumacher, it was as if when being pushed hard by a faster car, he was straining so hard for so long against the very edges of feasibility to deliver the 'impossible' result that eventually he made the inevitable error, exposed a hole in his defence and, when this happened, he felt it was unfair and desperately needed to undo it.
The error of glancing the wall when leading Hill's faster Williams at Adelaide; the error of not fully closing the door to Villeneuve's new-tyred Williams at Jerez; the error of clipping the wall in the final sector at Monaco and knowing that would cost pole (and thereby almost certainly victory in a season where he was the underdog fighting a big points deficit): all these things came when striving to do something quite special, and his reaction to them was akin to the cartoon character that's inadvertently just stepped over the edge of a cliff and desperately wants to jump back.
That reaction seemed almost like a default within him, triggered by a certain type of situation. But it has sullied the reputation of the most successful driver of all time. Despite all the unbelievable brilliance, the supernatural feats he regularly performed in a racing car, it must hurt to have all that dismissed as inconsequential because of basically three incidents over a 15-year career. That surely has come more into focus for him in his three years out of the car when, away from the intensity, he has had time to contemplate his career and how it is perceived by the outside world.
So the question is intriguing: when (if) that situation arises again, is that same hair-trigger still set? Or has the mellowing of time and/or the contemplation of his reputation allowed a detent that will intervene? He has the challenge of undoing time in the sense of the passing of the years, but without resorting to undoing it in the split-second of the moment when the special achievement has just slipped from his grasp. It's probably the biggest challenge faced by anyone on that grid.
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