http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/columnists/matthew_syed/article5971075.ece Matthew Syed With Jenson Button setting the pace during testing in Spain this month and Lewis Hamilton floundering in what seems to be an uncompetitive McLaren Mercedes, Formula One fans could be about to witness the most dramatic role reversal since Dustin Hoffman donned a wig in Tootsie. The raft of rule changes brought in over the winter have caused what could amount to a spectacular shift in the balance of power in the paddock. Brawn GP, who have risen in spectacular fashion from the ashes of Honda, are looking like genuine contenders, with all manner of regulation-stretching innovations in design, while McLaren are struggling so badly that they took the unusual decision publicly to send out cars with paint on the side to see how the aerodynamics were working. Even Martin Whitmarsh, who has taken over from the formidable Ron Dennis as team principal at McLaren, was forced to admit that the early part of the season could prove troublesome. “A shortfall has been identified that we are working hard to resolve,” he said. “The MP4-24 is certainly not quick enough yet, and certainly not by our team's extremely high standards.” The psychology is intriguing. Hamilton, for all his talent and ambition, has been the beneficiary of unprecedented opportunities since arriving in Formula One, having had access to arguably the best all-round car in each of his first two seasons. He capitalised - just - last year, but aficionados have long wondered whether the youngster would be able to cope if forced to slum it in a mediocre drive, with his competitors getting all the limelight. They may be about to find out. The problem for McLaren is that getting their car up to speed has become appreciably more difficult now that testing has been banned outside race weekends, and with teams restricted to wind tunnels of 60 per cent scale and limitations on the use of computer modelling. Even Hamilton, who crashed in testing in Barcelona and had problems coming to terms with the car, admitted to the difficulties, although he gave them a positive spin. “At the moment, this year's car is a little behind the rest in terms of development, but I'm absolutely confident we will get stronger and grow as the year progresses,” he said. As for Button, the competitiveness of his BGP 001 car represents an opportunity and a career-defining challenge. He has always maintained that he has been the victim of a cruel set of circumstances since his move to BAR in 2003, rarely finding anything approaching a title-winning vehicle except in 2004, when he drove with some style to third place in the championship. Now he must prove he has the nerve, the steel and the ambition to do justice to a car that seems to match his talent. Perhaps the most intriguing question of all is how the British public may react to a possible realignment in the pecking order between the nation's foremost drivers. After Hamilton's championship-clinching drive in Brazil - arguably the most dramatic sporting moment of 2008 - Radio 5 Live was on the receiving end of hundreds of phone calls denouncing the new champion. Much of the negativity focused on his moving abroad to avoid British taxes, but there has always been a suspicion that he has had it too easy. Having to drag an underperforming car to the front of the grid could be the making of the 24-year-old, consummating his relationship with an agnostic public. As for Button, he has never quite managed to shake off his (rather unfair) image as a playboy with too much money, too much glamour and insufficient cutting edge. He has had things far too cushy, it is whispered, living like a prince in the gilded environs of Monaco even though he has won only one race in 155 attempts. This, then, could be the season when Button convinces the doubters and proves, once and for all, that he has the mettle to go with his dimples and foreign bank accounts. The FIA must be congratulated for its rule changes. It is not just that it has given the teams their most radical shake-up in years, shifting the tectonic plates in a way that has set tongues wagging across the motor-racing world; it has also attempted to get to grips with the sport's perennial problem - the processional nature of the races in anything other than wet conditions. As of last season, a performance advantage of two seconds per lap was required to pass another car. Now, on account of enforced changes to the rear wings and front, it is said to be down to half that. Of course, this would not be Formula One without controversy and allegations are already beginning to fly in what has become known as "diffuser-gate". The diffuser system organises the airflow at the back of the car and some are complaining that Brawn GP's system breaches the new regulations. “You can make a very good case for saying that it's legal and a very good case for saying that it's illegal,” Max Mosley, the president of the FIA, said. “I think the thing will probably come to some sort of a head in Australia [with the season-opening grand prix in Melbourne on Sunday] and then that will go to our Court of Appeal and be hammered out.” Whatever happens, it seems that we are in for some ride this season: Hamilton driving in a below-par car, Button back in the limelight, at least for the first few races, and, fingers crossed, the thrills and spills of overtaking. Oh, and Fleetwood Mac's The Chain kicking off the BBC's coverage. After a tricky winter when the credit crunch looked set to bring the sport to its knees, Formula One is back with a vengeance. Go Button!