Thursday, March 02, 2006

Here we go again..... F1 2006

It's that time of year again. Evenings are getting lighter, its meant to be getting warmer (though here in the UK, the weather really hasn't been playing ball these last few days). Spring is approaching, and a new F1 season is almost upon us.

I'm not going to write a comprehensive team-by-team guide to the year ahead - there's plenty other places that you can go to get that (for what its worth, I find that the Guardian have done an excellent casual viewer's guide for the last few years, and Autosport usually produce a pretty good in-depth preview. If you want a blog-preview, take a look at Linksheaven). Instead, I'm going to pick out a few of the most intriguing questions hanging over the new season, and tentatively attempt to answer them.

First off, the new rules. It seems that these days, we can't go a whole season without a major rule change of some kind. This year there have been three. First off, there's qualifying, which will now be run as a knock-out and run-off system. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, and a version of it has been used in Moto GP for some time, but the version that the FIA have implemented is arbitrarily overcomplicated, and is going to make little sense to the casual fan. I'm not going to explain it - Geoff Collins did an excellent job of doing that over at Pitpass. Without going into details, to my mind, the fundamental flaw with it is that it is probably better to qualify 11th than it is to qualify 10th, thanks to the overcomplicated rules regarding fuel loads.

For the first time since 1995, there's been a fundamental change to the engine rules. With power outputs pushing 1000BHP, there was perhaps a case for reining in engine power, and if that is the sole objective, then a switch to 2.4l V8s should do the job. It does rather jar with Max Mosley's stated objective of reducing costs (is there really any more expensive way of cutting engine power than forcing all the teams to develop completely new engines?) but then I can't be the only person who wonders from time to time whether Mosley's stated objectives and his actual intentions might be somewhat, uhm, divergent. If anything, the engine rules change has only demonstrated how small a part of the equation engines really are in modern F1. The cars are not much more than a second a lap slower, despite a cut in horsepower of around 20%, which does rather leave one wondering whether all the effort spent by the manufacturers extracting a few extra horsepower out of their engines was really worthwhile.

Part of the reason that the cars have been slowed only very marginally is the change in the tyre rules. Michelin irritated the powers that be almightily over the Indianapolis debacle and their punishment, it would appear, is an end to the "one set of tyres per race" which so benefitted them last year. The idea behind this is surely to let Bridgestone, the favoured (and from next year the only) tyre supplier, back into the game, but so far in testing, it doesn't appear to have worked out quite that way, and Michelin still appear to have the edge.

Talking of tyres, one of the positive developments for this season is that both tyre suppliers now have a decent spread of top teams signed up. Williams and Toyota join Ferrari on Bridgestones, while McLaren, Honda and Renault remain loyal to Michelin. Apart from anything else, it will be good to have a more accurate gauge of Ferrari's performance. Was the F2005 a case of the team shooting themselves in the foot almightily or was it all Bridgestone's fault? We shall never know for sure. And if Michelin's wet tyres are as hopeless as ever, at least Schumacher will have some competition when it rains.

So who's going to win the title? I'm with the majority who thinks its likely to be one of the following: Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya. I suppose one can't discount the Hondas, but neither Button nor Barrichello strike me as natural world champions. If any of Renault, Ferrari and McLaren are near, never mind on Honda's pace, I can't see either of Honda's drivers winning the title.

Raikkonen is generally reckoned to have the edge over Montoya, but I think once one discounts the Colombian's decidedly shaky start to his McLaren career, there appears to be little between the two on pace - indeed on several occasions he appeared the quicker of the two. If I was forced to choose between the two, I would go for Raikkonen but I don't think Montoya can be discounted. Ine senses that if Montoya can get his head together and eliminate his occasional lapses of concentration, he could be world champion - he came closer than most in 2003 after all.

To my mind, neither McLaren driver is quite on the same level as Michael Schumacher or Fernando Alonso. If either of those two has a clear car advantage, then nobody is going to seriously challenge them for the title - and if the Ferrari and the Renault prove evenly matched (the relative performances of Fisichella and Massa should give us an indication of this) then I think we could be in for a really fantastic title battle between the old king and the heir apparent - something we see all to rarely in F1. We never really saw Moss vs Clark, or Clark vs Stewart and while we saw Prost vs Senna (and what a fascinating duel that was), we never really saw Senna vs Schumacher. Of course, to buy into this, you have to believe that Alonso will ultimately prove himself worthy of inclusion in this list. That remains to be seen but, call it a hunch...

What else is there to hold one's interest this year? There's some fascinating intra-team battles for start. Raikkonen and Montoya I have covered already, but they're not the only ones. Both Honda drivers really have to beat each other. If Barrichello wants to prove now, in the twilight of his career, that he really was more than a good number 2, he has to beat Button. And if Button is to demonstrate that he is worthy of the hype, and indeed the money, which has been showered on him over the past couple of years, he really has to beat Barrichello. Though if the pair of them can win a bundle of races between them, the pressure might ease on each of them a little.

The first bout between Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli went inconclusively to Trulli. Schumacher seemed to be fairly comprehensively outpaced, but actually scored more points. I can't help feeling that Trulli is the one with the ultimate pace, but after ten years in F1, if he hasn't found some consistency by now, he probably never will. Ralf's abilities in the car, which while not on the level of Schumacher Sr, are pretty considerable, are often overlooked because he so often behaved like a spoiled brat outside of it. From a distance, Toyota appears to have mellowed him a little but the general feeling that, as Ralf put is, "one Schumacher is enough" persists. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this battle went the same way again in 06 - Trulli making all the headlines, but Schumacher coming home ahead on points by the end.

The Scuderia Toro Rosso drivers are effectively running to a different formula to everyone else (I'll save you my views on that for another day: suffice to say, I'm not impressed). Beating Midland and Super Aguri, therefore, doesn't necessarily mean very much and if they end up ahead of Red Bull, Williams or BMW, it will be all too easy to put this down to poorly implemented engine equivalency rules. Thus, Scott Speed (surely a name straight out of a film!) and Vitantonio Liuzzi really need to beat each other, if either wants to prove anything. Liuzzi has considerably more F1 experience, having raced on occasion for Red Bull last year, and really has to show he is quicker than Speed. Speed, on the other hand, might just get away with merely matching Liuzzi. Either way, there's a lot of talented single seater drivers floating around just on the fringes of F1, and if either of these two fail to impress in their opening year, they're unlikely to get another chance.

The progress of those drivers fighting to save their career will also be well worth watching. Jacques Villeneuve must know that, sooner or later, BMW will be on the pace, but equally, its clear that he's not the flavour of the month there, and after an indifferent, and occasionally embarrassing showing from the 1997 World Champion last year, he's going to have to outpace Nick Heidfeld (whom I reckon is quicker than he is usually given credit for) to remain in the game. My hunch: He'll be out on his ear by the end of the year - he's never really looked quick since he left Williams and I can't help feeling he's doing it for the money now.

Giancarlo Fisichella went in to 2005 being talked of as an outside bet for the world championship (OK, well perhaps not, but I put a fiver on him at 50/1, which might have been foolish but I also had a tenner on him to win the Australian Grand Prix at 10/1, so it all worked out) . In the event, he was utterly crushed by Alonso, and threw away what should have been a redeeming win at Suzuka by practically inviting Raikkonen past on the last lap of the race. This year, he's got to re-establish himself if he wants to stay at Renault (or whoever takes over the team) in 2007. That doesn't necessarily mean beating Alonso - that is probably beyond all but one or two drivers on the grid - but it does mean being a lot closer to the Spaniard's pace than he was in 2005. At the risk of looking foolish yet again - I think he'll do enough to turn it around. Perhaps in spite of the evidence, I still believe he's fundamentally very quick, though probably not mentally tough enough to hack it at the very top level.

Mark Webber was a hotly tipped star of tomorrow when he went to Williams last year, but now he looks in danger of going straight on to being yesterday's man without the intervening period of stardom. On his day he can be blindingly quick, and there were occasions where he got the Williams much further up the grid than it deserved to be, but there were too many mistakes, and in race conditions he wasn't really any quicker than Nick Heidfeld. He did hammer the final nail into Antonio Pizzonia's career on the other hand, which given the enmity between the two from their Jaguar days, he could be forgiven for taking some satisfaction from. Much depends on something entirely out of his control - How good Nico Rosberg is.... One to watch.

Finally, there's what's going on at the back end of the grid.

Firstly, there's the last minute, thrown together Super-Aguri effort. On the plus side, we're back up to 11 teams for the first time since Arrows pulled out half way through 2002. On the minus side, the new team is using Arrows' old tubs. The big question here is - respectable tail end effort or disaster waiting to happen? I suppose we should reserve judgement until the new car comes out some time later in the Spring, but right now it looks like a terrible waste of a great engine. Think what Williams could have done with a supply of V8 Hondas. Hell, they might even have taken Sato to get their hands on them......

Then there's the peculiar Midland team - owned by a Russian steel magnate who appears to have bought an F1 team on a whim and now can't work out to do with it. On a day-to-day basis he leaves it to eccentric Romanian ex-Dentist Colin Kolles to run. This year they seem to have produced a reasonable, modern-ish looking, but hardly startlingly fast F1 car and hired two competent journeymen to drive it. Unlikely to generate any great excitement, but Albers is enough of a livewire (to put it kindly) that there could be turmoil aplenty before the season's out.

So there's a few thoughts on what lies ahead. Give it a week and all will be much clearer.....


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