Thursday, March 01, 2007

F1 2007: Ferrari vs Mclaren; Alonso vs Raikkonen?

The interminable winter wait is almost over. In just over a week's time, the F1 teams will be down in Melbourne, Australia and more likely than not, I'll be crawling out of bed in the middle of the night to get a fix of Grand Prix racing after the best part of six months off.

Clash of the titans

2005 was all about Alonso vs Raikkonen and Renault against Mclaren. In 2006, the Mclaren never really seemed at home on its tyres and the interest was in the battle between Alonso and Schumacher, Renault and Ferrari. If I've read the winter testing runes right, and this is not always an easy thing to do, then it looks as though 2007 is going to be about Alonso and Raikkonen once again, and the battle between Maranello and Woking. With Michael Schumacher having departed the scene after what feels like half a life time, it appears that the heirs apparent to his crown have landed up in the best two cars as the 2007 season begins. At first, Alonso seemed a little upset, somewhat unnerved, about the 2007 Mclaren, convinced that it wasn't quite quick enough to take on Ferrari. Of late, though, the noises coming out of Mclaren have been sounding a good deal more positive, and it seems that Ron's boys think they have what it takes to take the fight to Ferrari. Ferrari have never lacked for confidence through the winter, and have topped the timesheets more often than not from the moment their 2007 car first turned a wheel. Everything suggests that they are just a little way ahead of Mclaren, but the gap is too small and winter testing too unreliable a barometer of form to be certain.

A role for the understudies?

If, on the face of it, this year's title battle looks as if it will be between Alonso and Raikkonen, it is worth remembering that some people who ought to know are suggesting both may face an unexpectedly strong challenge from their respective team mates. I wouldn't have fingered Felipe Massa as a serious rival to Raikkonen, but an awful lot of people, including former Mclaren man Jo Ramirez and F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone expect the Brazilian to keep the Finn honest. He does after all have the advantages of incumbency, of a learning year alongside Michael Schumacher, of much greater experience with Bridgestone's tyres and of being managed by Jean Todt's son. All the same, I'd be surprised if his seemingly superior testing form translates into a season-long challenge to Raikkonen. On his day, though, Massa undoubtedly can be very quick, and he makes many fewer mistakes than he once did.

The idea that Lewis Hamilton will be keeping Alonso awake at night is probably still more far-fetched. F1 Racing magazine may recently have insisted Alonso and Hamilton: It will be closer than you think... but they are a British magazine, and this is almost certainly a case of drumming up enthusiasm for the home hero. Hamilton may be very good indeed, but even a Schumacher or a Prost might have baulked at the thought of spending their first year in a front-running team alongside quite possibly the best driver in the field. Even if he has the same raw kind of ability as Alonso, he'll be giving away six years in experience. If he can get anywhere close to the reigning champion, he'll have done a very good job. That said, if he really is as good as he looked in GP2 last year, there will be days when he'll be one to watch.

Renault on the downward spiral?

The chances are, this year will not see Renault bring home the constructors or drivers championship for a third year in succession. Thus far, the R27 has been more noticeable for its truly horrid paint-scheme (Motorsports Ramblings' peripatetic fashion correspondent described it as "looking like someone threw up over the Swedish flag") than for its outright pace. Truth be told, as in 1994-95 the team's success has perhaps owed much more to team work and the sheer genius of its lead driver, than to the outright pace of the team's cars. With the inexperienced Heikki Kovalainen paired with Fisichella - a man we already know is not Alonso's equal - that is one ace card Renault will not have this year. The team have done an awful lot with much more limited resources than their main rivals over the last few years, but I suspect that 2007 may be the year their luck finally runs out. Nonetheless, in Kovalainen, they have a young driver who just might have a very promising career in front of him, and there will be plenty reason to keep ones' eyes on the vile orange devices this season.

The Ultimate Driving Machine?

If Renault have been disappointing in the run up to the 2007 season, BMW look like they might be the team to spring a major surprise. As Sauber, they were kn own for being a solid, competently run operation, but never more than midfielders. A strong injection of German cash, however, appears to have worked wonders at Hinwil, and Autosport, at least, seem to think the car is right there with the Mclarens and Ferraris in terms of pace, even if, for now, they don't appear to be on top of their reliability problems. I would be surprised if they were able to challenge Ferrari or Mclaren consistently, but its certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility that they could leapfrog Renault to be 'best of the rest', or that they could win a race this year.

Their driver line up is probably as good as any outside of the top 2 teams, too. In Heidfeld, they have a man with a strong work ethic who will be exactly as quick as the car. He may not be in the class of Alonso or Raikkonen, but he's probably as good as any of the other established drivers. His team mate, Robert Kubica, is one of a quartet of new drivers who may yet prove to be from the very top drawer. He'll be in his first full season, and I don't doubt there will be mistakes and there will be off-days, but I hope and expect that there are also going to be days when the young Pole is truly sublime.

Troubles in the Orient

Four experienced drivers. Proper funding in place, and Japanese technical know-how on hand. Nonetheless, it just does not appear to be working out for either of the two big Japanese car manufacturers in Formula 1. Toyota look poised to overtake General Motors as the largest car manufacturer in the world this year. Given the resources available to them, one might expect that this year could be the year that they finally start to make a real impact in Grand Prix racing. Unfortunately, all the signs are that this is no more likely to be their breakthrough year than last year. In the hands of Ralf Schumacher, the new car has been steady and unexceptional - rather like its driver. Jarno Trulli, whom it was widely rumoured last year would walk away into retirement, seems even more underwhelmed by the new TF107. Doubtless, they will continue to pick up plenty points finishes in the lower reaches of the top 8, and doubtless too, there will be occasions on which they appear inexplicably far up the grid only to sink back on race day, but I would be surprised if they do any better than they did last year.

Doing as well as last year would appear to be a tough target for Honda. Their new RA107 is far and away the most striking new car on the grid, elegantly waisted at the rear, with a very small frontal area in comparison to just about every other car on the grid. There is no getting away from the fact that car just has just not been quick though. Jenson Button, going into his 8th season of Formula 1, is likely to find this immensely frustrating. Rubens Barrichello, who is going into his 14th season, is perhaps more likely to simply go to sleep this year. Already there is talk of a major update to the car at the third race in Sepang but given the extremely limited time in which to sort out the RA107's flaws, this talk is likely more PR fluff than reality. Don't expect the sponsor-less 'earth car' to repeat Honda's Hungary 2006 feat and actually win any races.

Dietrich's Flying Circus

Nick Fry's men can at least console themselves with the thought that at least they are not in Red Bull's shoes. With a Renault engine, Mark Webber on board and an Adrian Newey-penned chassis, 2007 should be the year when Red Bull really start to deliver. Unfortunately, it looks as though this time, the Newey magic has simply not come off. Thus far, the car has been slow, unreliable and can't even comfortably accommodate their lanky lead driver (an echo of Newey's earliest F1 cars, the Leyton Marches of the late 1980s). In theory, Red Bull have the kind of technical strength in depth that should allow them to recover from this rather unpromising position, but in reality, rumours of team instability and discontent suggest it may be difficult to get everyone pulling in the same direction.

Mark Webber must be wondering what he has to do to get into the right car at the right time. Turning down a Renault drive to go to Williams might only look foolish in retrospect, but walking out on Williams to go to Red Bull at least arguably looked like a silly move, even at the time. He might have to content himself with finishing off veteran Coulthard's career. If the Scot can hold his own against Webber, he just might hang on in the sport for another year or two, but it does rather look like this could be his final season of F1.

Looking up down Grove way?

Frank Williams' team had a frankly atrocious 2006. It would be easy to blame the fact that they had customer engines, but all told, the Cosworth V8s were probably the strongest part of the package last year. And if they had a reputation for blowing up, that appeared to have more to do with their installation in the car than anything that was fundamentally wrong on Cosworth's side.

There have been dark murmurings that the team faces a cash crisis, and that it is little more than a Toyota B-Team these days, but in the face of all this, they have actually looked pretty quick in pre-season testing. And they no longer have to pay the engine bills. Nico Rosberg flattered to deceive a little last year, but with a year's experience under his belt, he might finally start to live up to the promise he showed in GP2, and in his first couple of F1 races. Alex Wurz's re-entry into Formula 1 perhaps says more about the decline of Williams and their inability to attract any more promising drivers, but the Austrian test-veteran is competent, hard working and ticks all the boxes apart from the one marked 'inspirationally fast'. Given their recent troubles, he might be just what Williams need right now. If pre-season testing is anything to go by, they could end up embarrassing their vastly richer engine suppliers.

Also Appearing...

With the FIA retaining the 'eliminate 6' qualifying session, we will once again probably see slightly less of Super Aguri, Squadro Toro Rosso and Spyker than we did last year. I'd like to see Spyker win this little battle, firstly because they have developed their own car, and secondly because I happen to think that Adrian Sutil might be someone very special indeed. Unfortunately, this is rather unlikely. The new car is really just an updated Midland M16, and one rather suspects that even with Mike Gascoygne's input, that will struggle against a 2007 Red Bull and a 2006 Honda.

I'd expect Super Aguri, with a mildly updated version of last year's Honda and two experienced drivers in Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson, to emerge the best of this bunch. Sato has vastly more experience than any of the other tail-end drivers, while Davidson spent much of last year testing the car that he will now be racing. Super Aguri are a surprisingly well-drilled team, who were able to achieve a lot more with a five year old Arrows chassis than really ought to have been possible. Inevitably, this battle is likely to be marred by arguments over whether Toro Rosso and Super Aguri should really be on the grid at all, given that they are running a repainted Red Bull RB3 and a lightly reworked Honda RA106 respectively. To my mind, the sensible solution would be not to allow either team to score constructors championship points, but a strict reading of the rules arguably makes this difficult.

As it happens, I suspect that this year Toro Rosso may end up at the very back. Adrian Newey's RB3 is a complex car, much more so than the Toro Rosso/Minardi mechanics are really used to working with. Worse than that, its a rather troublesome car, and while the works team might have the resources to sort it out, the Toro Rosso boys are liable to find life rather harder.

To me, the most interesting thing about this tail-end squabble is that it is being fought out between proper racing drivers. No rich chancers bringing pots of cash to the table - Liuzzi, Speed, Albers, Sutil, Sato and Davidson are all proper racing drivers and if nothing else, like everyone on the grid, they will all be out to beat their team mates.

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Anonymous Clive said...

Nothing much to argue with there - that is certainly how it looks after testing. My only hope (after having backed Button for the championship) is that testing will prove as poor a guide to racing form as it usually is. Then we might see Honda get stronger as the season wears on. Also, I have a feeling that Toro Rosso could do better than anyone thinks; they won't be challenging for points but could embarrass Red Bull quite often.

1:44 PM  

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