EFF ONE

The cars are lined up on the grid, ready for the off in Melbourne. Excitement is building. As the cameras pan across the front row of the grid, one of the TV commentators starts his year with the sentence: "and if I am not mistaken, this car looks very much like next year's Sauber."

Yes, folks, we are back and it's like the first day of term with everyone wearing their new uniforms and sporting their new haircuts. Having defected from Renault, Mike Gascoyne is wearing the white and red of Toyota, which I have to say does not suit him too well. Mind you, I suppose if someone was paying me $5m a year I would dress up like a chicken and grin and bear the comments.

Gascoyne's departure from Enstone has obviously opened the flood gates for strange tonsorial adventures at Renault, with Jarno Trulli sporting a very bizarre top knot, presumably the result of the Italian's in-depth delvings into 19th century Chinese etchings. The Renault crew are apparently considering drilling a hole in the top of his helmet so that Jarno's "aerial" can poke through.

Team-mate Fernando Alonso has always been adventurous when it comes to hair creations but this year he has taken to experimenting with a new look, and has been sporting a gypsy-style bandana. This may prove to be a mistake as it is quite possible that when the Spaniard pulls into the pits he may find his way blocked with concrete bollards to prevent him from setting up a camp of chrome-embellished caravans in pitlane.

As the team bosses and drivers come out to Oz early in order to acclimatise to the time change there is an opportunity for their team PR gurus to get them doing all sorts of absurd publicity-generating stunts. Paul Stoddart went to visit the local jail (I shall not add any comment to that) and was also spotted riding a tram. Fernando Alonso met some Australian Rules footie players and the Jordan boys did some stunts with the local basketball team. The strangest deal of all was Mark Webber and Christian Klien appearing at the Albert Park bowling green to lob a few black balls at defenceless little pucks.

A whole host of hairy Italian drivers were dragged off to Melbourne Zoo and, given their simian features, I advised their press officers to check before returning home that they were hand-in-hand with their driver rather than some of the local wildlife. Having all these extra drivers on Fridays has made life very complicated, as there are now far too many names go remember. Minardi apparently has more test drivers than it has test days (there were five at the launch and one couldn't make it). The odd thing was that the official Number Three driver was Bas Leinders, who did not have a Superlicence despite the fact that his Formula 1 experience amounted to having done eight corners: six on the race track and two on the Jordan.

Eddie Jordan had however forgotten that nasty experience and was ecstatic to discover that he had finally got an Irish driver into one of his cars. Imagine his disappointment when he discovered that Tim O'Glock was actually a German called Timo Glock. Still, there are some advantages: the team's press officer is now able to offer interviews under the title "Glock On Spiel".

Fortunately, Jordan did not do a deal with sometime Williams test driver Olivier Beretta because with a driver line-up of a Glock and a Beretta he would sound like an arms dealer and be unable to run a dove of peace on the side of his car. The dove deal is part of an arrangement with his new sponsor, the Royal Court of Bahrain. Hopefully he will have more luck with this lot that he did with the Royal Courts of Justice last yearÉ

Keen to keep the team name on the front pages, a further bulletin from the ever-efficient Jordan press babe revealed a sponsorship deal with B&Q China. I have to say that I had no idea that the UK's answer to Home Depot actually made anything from china but I am looking forward to receiving a bright yellow tea set at some point in the near future.

With Bahrain's first GP now just a few weeks away, a few Bahraini journalists were hovering around the Melbourne media room (well, not literally). Unfortunately, the first-ever Bahraini question to be posed in an FIA press conference was met with peals of laughter, when Jenson Button was asked whether it was an advantage to have been the only F1 driver to have driven around the track in Bahrain.

The BAR man did his best to answer politely, explaining that as there was no tarmac on the track at the time, it was of little help, unless they staged the race for SUVs.

However, be assured that even the most wizened of hacks still make mistakes. The doyen of the British press corps, Alan Henry, courageously went down to Minardi to interview Zsolt Baumgartner. The driver was very helpful and very polite and it was not until the third question that he felt obliged to explain to the robust Member of Her Majesty's Press that, as an Italian, his knowledge of Hungarian politics was a little sketchy but that he, Gianmaria Bruni, would be happy to track down Zsolt so that AH would get everything he wanted.

There was more laughter, but not from all parties, at a Williams press conference when a couple of TV comedians invaded the event and set about winding up Juan Pablo Montoya with questions such as "Will you play golf with my mum tomorrow?" In the end the Colombian driver excused himself and cancelled his remaining PR activities for the rest of the day.

In F1 terms, this sort of behaviour (along with weeping and stamping of feet) is known as "throwing the toys out of the pram". How appropriate therefore that the two Williams cars both carry sponsorship from Hamleys, one of the most famous toy stores in the world.

Finally, it was good to see Bernard Ecclestone gracing Australia with a rare visit. Mr E hit the front pages almost immediately thanks a rather natty scarlet sweater which prompted racing legend Sir Jackie Stewart to quip that it was the first time he had ever seen Mr E "in the red".

In fact Bernard made himself a couple of thousand dollars with remarkable speed when the AGP chairman Ron Walker foolishly bet him that he could not find a single cigarette butt lying on the ground in Albert Park. Bernie popped out and found two.

Bernie's passion for keeping things tidy led to massive efforts by Walker to capture all the leaves that had fallen from the trees at one point on the circuit.

"It was a bit of a job,' said the ever-politically-correct Walker. "But there was not enough time to have the trees cut down. That would have taken 24 hours."

Walker later confessed that he would not be seeing much of the Grand Prix as he would be out in the public areas, picking up cigarette butts

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