Rarely has a Formula One season promised so much as 2010. Two British world champions at McLaren; Alonso against a fit-again Massa at Ferrari; Red Bull with a strong, unchanged pairing; and the return of Michael Schumacher, alongside Nico Rosberg at Mercedes.

These are the eight drivers who’ll likely fight for the championship, well Nico’s a long shot… Their teams are the old guard(Ferrari and McLaren) and the new pretenders (Red Bull and Mercedes). So who’s got what it takes to claim motorsport’s greatest prize in 2010?

First up, McLaren’s driver pairing

McLaren ended 2009 very strongly, turning a pig of a car in to a race winner within the space of a few months. 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton is joined by reigning king Jenson Button for what promises to be a thrilling inter-team battle.

Jenson won’t faze Lewis. If back-to-back champion Alonso didn’t in 2007 then why would Button? Plenty’s been made of Hamilton’s strong position within the team, though a recent reshuffle of the engineering department should make things a bit more even. And anyway, all McLaren care about is success. Yes, they love Hamilton, but more than that they love winning; they’ll give equal treatment if it means taking home the titles.

Equal treatment or not it’s hard to see Button having the upper hand over Hamilton. Lewis is established in the team, can qualify and race with the best of them regardless of the situation around him, and is as ruthless as Schumacher in his heyday. He may play the polite young gent off the track, but on it he takes no prisoners.

He grew as a racer in 2009, and without now ex-ladyfriend Nicole distracting him with her nightmarish music he should be more focused than ever. If McLaren’s car is as good as the one they finished 2009 with Hamilton will be right at the front. Cue a titanic battle with old foe Alonso.

Teammate Button proved a lot of people wrong in 2009. He was truly stunning in the first third of the season, and did what was required to take the title over the remainder of the year, with the odd wobble.

But his switch to McLaren has people worried. It’s Hamilton’s team, so he’ll have the advantage, right? Ex-Ferrari star Eddie Irvine has suggested that ‘Button will be murdered by Hamilton in 2010’. Why he was relaying this info to journalists and not the police isn’t clear.

Seriously though, is Jenson going to get trounced by Lewis this year? Not if he has any say in it. If he gets his head down and works to his strengths (his super-smooth style, his killer overtaking instinct) he can compete with Hamilton. His qualifying pace fell apart a bit in 2009, and he’ll need to sort that if he’s to beat the always-quick-in-qualy Lewis. But if Button showed anything last year it’s that we shouldn’t underestimate him. He’ll be up there.

On to Ferrari and their two drivers

Massa and Alonso on the slopes... bizarrely with Bernie, although the latter wasn't seen on skis

On to Ferrari, where another intriguing battle is brewing. Fernando Alonso, seen by many as the most complete driver on the grid, joins Felipe Massa at the Scuderia, replacing surly, party loving Finn Kimi Raikkonen. This promises to be fiercely competitive, not just in terms of who can give the most Latin shrug of the shoulders when things go wrong.

Double champion Alonso is among the finest drivers F1 has seen in recent years. He’s got his detractors, and fair enough; spygate and crashgate were pretty damning. But off-track naughtiness aside he’s a demon behind the wheel. A great development driver, qualifier and racer, he was wasted in last year’s woeful Renault.

True he’s only once had one teammate who could challenge him, and he came off worse in that contest. He’s also out of the comfort zone of manager Flavio Briatore’s Renault team and in to a Ferrari squad united behind Massa following his Hungary injuries. But Alonso is a fighter (insert matador pun here) and will do his utmost to unite his side of the garage behind him. He joins Hamilton as pre-season title favourite.

Once seen as erratic and inconsistent, Felipe Massa proved himself a racer of the highest order in 2008. Or should that be qualifier? The Brazilian has a useful habit of sticking his car on the front row of the grid and winning from there. Nine of his eleven F1 wins have come from pole, the other two from second on the grid.

Cause for concern? Perhaps. If 2010 is going to be as competitive as promised regular front row spots will be hard to come by, and Massa may have to fight his way from a bit further back to get wins.

There’s also a niggling worry over how he’ll recover from the injuries sustained at last year’s Hungarian GP. We can’t speculate (what with not being neurologists), and Felipe says he’s fine, but head injuries aren’t easy to predict. Hopefully he’ll be his old self and fighting for wins in 2010. Unfortunately if he does look a bit of colour the media may quickly jump to the assumption that the accident has blunted his edge.

Check back tomorrow for part two of our look at the contenders for 2010