Sources: --- ---
Key changes will be important on and off the track: After a season of one-lap qualifying Friday and Saturday, a two-lap system (Saturday only) comes in this year. Drivers will be limited to one engine per race. They'll be demoted 10 positions on the starting grid for using a spare engine.
The new Formula One season starts on 7 March with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne and includes a set of rule changes designed to cut costs and raise excitement. Many racing fans also hope that the rule changes will further close the gap on reigning world champion Michael Schumacher of Ferrari, who last season claimed a record-breaking sixth world title.

The introduction in 2003 by the ruling body FIA of one lap qualifying and the ban on driver's aids - click here for 2003 rules - were seen as pivotal in closing the gap on the Italian marque and making last year's championship the most exciting in years.

The ongoing weakness of the US dollar, combined with the astronomical cost of running a Formula One team has made cost-cutting one of the priorities of the 2004 season for even the larger teams.

The most significant change introduced by the ruling body FIA this year is that a driver has to use the same engine from the start of practice Friday until the end of the grand prix weekend. This move is intended to help especially the smaller teams such as Jordan and Minardi reduce costs over time. However, it also means that should a driver crash in qualifying, his team would have to change the engine into the spare car to avoid incurring a penalty of dropping 10 places on the starting grid.
When the new F1 One season kicks off at the Australian GP on March 7, the drivers will literally be starting in a new way. Or, to be more accurate, starting in a more old-fashioned but still high-tech way. Launch control has been banned this year. This was the system that allowed the driver and car to make a computer-perfect getaway from the standing start of a Grand Prix race. This year, drivers will have to use the clutch again. However, it is a hand-operated clutch and once the car gets rolling, the still legal traction control can kick in.

In the past when the red lights went out to start a Grand Prix, the driver basically pushed a button to engage the launch control, smashed the accelerator pedal to the floor, and steered. The computer system controlled the delicate clutch engagement to perfection, controlled rear wheel spin, and shifted gears at the optimum millisecond. It was a case of may the best software win.

"It's one more mistake that the driver can now do on the start," says Williams BMW driver Ralf Schumacher. "It was quite easy to blame a bad start on the team, but now it is back in my control. It is good because we will have less consistent starts, so therefore more overtaking and more surprises."

Two other factors that come into play here are traction control and the ban on fully automatic gearboxes. Traction control is still legal after the teams convinced the FIA rule makers that is something impossible to police. So, once the car is underway, the traction control still kicks in to maximize traction by controlling rear wheel spin.

But the driver still has to get the car underway, and feeding the power while engaging the clutch at just the right tempo requires finesse. In the interest of keeping the front of the car as narrow as possible, F1 cars have only a brake and accelerator pedal, while a paddle behind the steering wheel operates the clutch.

Fully automatic gearboxes are not legal this year, however, so the driver can no longer let the computer do the shifting. Thus, as he is blasting away, he has to flick the paddle behind the steering wheel to shift gears.

Semiautomatic gearboxes do not require the use of the clutch once the car is rolling. So this is not old-fashioned shifting involving pushing in the clutch pedal on the floor and moving a gear lever on the side of the cockpit. And on downshifts none of that tricky heel-and-toeing, double-declutching skill is needed. The driver just flicks the paddle behind the steering wheel for both the up and downshifts.

It's taken the drivers a little while to get used to even just having to let their fingers do the work. There's some wonderful irony here that actual F1 drivers had to get used to their 'F1 paddle shifters,' as they are called when they are fitted to road cars.

Ralf Schumacher adapted quickly. "I did all my downshifts any way," he says, "and up shift doesn't matter too much. It's just a matter of getting used to it again. I had a few difficulties on the first day when I forgot to shift a few times, but it is fine now."

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