Monday, March 10, 2008

Formula 1 2008: Raikkonen for the double?

It seems to have crept up almost unnoticed on me this year. Maybe it was the endless spy-scandal shenanigans. Maybe it was Max Mosley's weekly pronouncements on the future of the sport, and Bernie Ecclestone's desire to drag the sport away from its traditional heartland and towards any country or venue which will put up the money, regardless of whether there is any local interest. The end result was that I had come to feel a little disillusioned with F1 over this winter.

We're heading into Spring though now. New life, new beginnings, and perhaps most importantly, warmer weather. Enough to affect a change of mood, and sure enough, I find myself as intrigued as ever as to what is going to happen this year - what the season will bring. This is not intended to be a complete who's-where kind of preview. If you want one of those, there are plenty websites which will provide. The Guardian have produced their usual amusing guide for the casual fan, and a host of websites and blogs will get you up to speed on who is driving for whom, and when the races are taking place. Instead, I'm going to run through some of the main talking points of the new season, and see if I can avoid getting things as wrong as I did last time, when I confidently predicted that "the idea that Lewis Hamilton will be keeping Alonso awake at night is probably still more far-fetched"...

Advantage Maranello?

On recent form, we're probably overdue a season in which the Scuderia run away and hide, leaving all their rivals embarrassed and perplexed. They did it in 2002, and again in 2004. Since then, things have been rather more close-run. They were nowhere in 2005, and narrowly lost out with Schumacher in 2006. Last year, they came home with the title by the narrowest of margins, helped immensely by Mclaren's shooting itself in the foot in the final two races.

This time, the signs are that they are going into the new season with a sizeable advantage. Their biggest rivals last year, Mclaren, must surely have been destabilised by the $100m fine handed out to them in the wake of Spygate, and the likes of Renault, Williams and BMW look unlikely to make the quantum leap required to challenge for outright victories. On top of that, their pace in testing, especially at Bahrain, has been ominously fast. About the only chink of light for those who don't particularly want to watch a season-long redwash has been that they seem to lack the single-lap pace of the Mclarens.

Last year, to the surprise of many, Felipe Massa was able to keep Kimi Raikkonen very honest, and for much of the first half of the season actually appeared the quicker of the two. However, there has been little indication from winter testing that Massa will prove capable of repeating the feat now that Raikkonen is fully ensconced within the team. Mark Hughes, of Autosport, observed that Massa seemed harder hit than most by the banning of traction control, and as such, may prove the first casualty of the end of driver aids.

Mclaren on the back foot?

A $100m fine. An operating loss for the first time in years. Talk that the new factory may be bright and shiny but is hardly conducive to building racing cars. An acrimonious split with their double world champion driver after just a single season. Are Mclaren in trouble?

It's true that their testing pace has not quite been the equal of that of Ferrari. Certainly it is possible that with two talented but inexperienced drivers in Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen, they may want for the kind of technical feedback which Fernando Alonso was able to provide. On the other hand, there are reasons to hope that the Woking team may be able to put up a fight against the Ferraris. For one thing, Lewis Hamilton seems quietly confident that, despite Ferrari's superior winter testing pace, he still has a package which will enable him to challenge for the title. As a team, they are much more likely to be pulling in the same direction, now that Alonso has left for Renault and that should at least bring a measure of calm following last year.

Perhaps most importantly, though, observers of winter testing reckon that, over a single lap, Mclaren might have the fastest car of all. Combine that with the pace of a Lewis Hamilton, and that provides the team with a formidable starting advantage. The car may be harder on its tyres than the Ferrari, but if Mclaren can start enough races from the front, given how hard it is to overtake in Formula 1 these days, they might still be in with a shout.

Last year I rubbished the suggestion that Hamilton would offer any threat to Fernando Alonso. It would be tempting to say the same to this year to those who think that Heikki Kovalainen, whose debut year at Renault was hardly stellar, will seriously challenge the Englishman. I'm not so sure. It's a lot easier for a novice to shine in a fundamentally good car than in a problem-child car like last year's Renault. See, for example, Jenson Button's impressive 2000 showing at Williams in comparison with his disastrous second year with the awful 2001 Benetton. Let's not forget that Kovalainen came into F1 with a very strong junior record, and lets not forget either that in the second half of 2007, once Renault had sorted out some of the worst of the car's problems, Kovalainen actually went very well indeed. In the wet at Fuji, he was, along with Hamilton, one of the star performers. The battle between the two sophomore drivers could be closer than you think.

The prodigal son returns

They say you can never go home again. After a stormy season with Mclaren, Fernando Alonso will find out the truth, or otherwise, of that old adage. Renault and Alonso were a giant-killing act in 2005 and 2006, taking on the better-resourced Mclaren and Ferrari and winning. Now he's back with them again, but it remains open to question, whether having previously spurned them for Mclaren, they will be able to rebuild that kind of chemistry again.

All that said, if I were a team boss, and I were simply looking for the best all-rounder in the sport today, I would, perhaps slightly hesitantly, get on the phone to the Spaniard. Not as unflappable as Raikkonen, nor perhaps as outright quick as Hamilton, he had immense knowledge of car-setup, a relentless race pace, and when his head is together, a formidable racing brain.

The question, though, is whether Renault can provide him with a car which will enable him to take the fight to Mclaren and Ferrari. On current evidence, the answer would appear to be that they can't. No other team had got to grips so well with the Michelin tyres, and one year on from the switch, they still appear to be struggling with the Bridgestones. On top of which, they are simply not funded to the same level as Mclaren, Ferrari, BMW or Toyota, and perhaps it is beginning to show. If nothing else, this year will be an interesting test of the question of how much difference a mere driver can make in today's technology-led F1.

In making that judgement, much will depend on his pace relative to team mate and newcomer, Nelson Piquet. The son of the 3-times World Champion has a somewhat mercurial reputation. Incredibly fast on his day in GP2, there have been constant suggestions that he lacks the application needed to succeed in F1. Whatever Alonso may want, Piquet doesn't seem the sort to give way to his team mate. Winter testing, though, rather suggests that this will not become an issue in practice, and Piquet may be in for a rather character-building year alongside the double world champion.

Fighting for Bronze

Far from taking the fight to Mclaren and Ferrari, Renault may find that they are constantly looking over their shoulder, fighting a rear-guard action against a gaggle of teams locked in combat to claim the title of 'best of the rest'. Long-time Formula 1 fans like myself will doubtless be pleased to see that the winter has seen an apparent resurgence of form for the Williams team.

With F1 increasingly a marketing and PR operation for many teams, it is heartening to see that Williams - a team of racers which exists only to compete in F1, are still able to take the fight to the car manufacturers, soft-drinks magnates and billionaire businessmen. Thus far, they have looked closer than anyone else to threatening Mclaren and Ferrari, and their pace over long runs, in particular, has been very impressive.

If the team have a weakness, it is probably that second driver, Kazuki Nakajima is not truly ready for F1 yet. In his debut year in GP2 he was, on occasion, very quick, but he was not exactly a model of consistency. His driving style, all opposite lock and Ronnie Peterson slides, was fantastic to watch, but is hardly the way to get the best out of a modern F1 car. Another year in the category might have been a better bet, but it would appear that Toyota were anxious to propel a Japanese driver into F1 - if only perhaps to distract the home audience from the works team's dismal performances. Nico Rosberg, on the other hand, matured into a fine and polished performer after a shaky start in 2006, and is likely to be able to extract whatever performance there is from the rather pretty FW30.

BMW have been curiously disappointing in testing over the winter, but it seems hard to believe that they have forgotten all that they learned during 2007 (hard, but not impossible, look at what happened to Honda last year). In Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica, they have a solid driver pairing, though Kubica's brutal style has been curtailed more than most by the traction control ban, and Heidfeld has not been at home with the new F1.08, which apparently does not suit his driving style. That said, it's not all gloom. They may have been slow elsewhere, but their stunning pace in Valencia hints that, while it may be too much to hope that they can make the last step towards being outright title contenders, it would be unwise to write them off in the battle for 3rd place yet.

The other team which just might be in the running to take the fight to Williams, Renault and BMW is Red Bull. Last year, they proved that Adrian Newey is not, in himself, a magic bullet, destined to instantly catapult any team he works for to instant success. The RB3 showed flashes of real promise, especially in the wet, and especially towards the end of the season. What it was not, however, was either reliable or a consistent rival for Williams or BMW in terms of pace.

Mark Webber, who has made a career out of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, must be hoping that Newey's influence is beginning to make itself felt at Red Bull. Testing form, though, has been inconclusive, suggesting that they might be within reach of BMW, but will struggle to take the fight to Williams or Renault. On balance, what this probably means is that Webber might just have a car that he can launch into the top 10 in qualifying, but that both he and veteran David Coulthard (who, despite scoring more points than his Aussie team mate, was never really a match for him last year) will be squabbling over the scraps in terms of points in 2008. Those, who, like me, suspect that Webber would be every bit as quick as say, Felipe Massa in a Ferrari, will have to hope I'm wrong.

Rising Sun, Setting Sun?

Time was that, while Toyota were making a royal mess of running their F1 team, Honda were doing a pretty good job with the shell of Craig Pollock's old BAR team. Well times change. Honda had an awful season in 2007, scoring points only thanks to Jenson Button's sublime wet weather performances and a hefty slice of luck. The early season testing suggests that 2008 is going to see more of the same is in order this year. For Jenson Button, this means immense frustration, as he watches fellow Briton Lewis Hamilton's meteoric rise, while his own career remains stuck in limbo (perhaps he should set up a self-help group with Mark Webber). For Rubens Barrichello, it guarantees what is more than likely his final season will be something of a sad end to a long and often impressive career.

The parallels between the travails of Honda and Toyota are intriguing. Both had an opinionated, 'difficult' star designer. Both fired their man for reasons that seemed to have more to do with company politics than their job performance. Toyota have now been nearly two whole seasons without Mike 'rottweiler' Gascoygne and it will be interesting to see if they are at last able to turn things around. Perhaps rumours that head office in Japan are considering pulling the plug and going off to Le Mans with a hybrid will be enough to spark some kind of a revival. Testing pace has been hard to read. Trulli pulled out a single lightning fast time at Barcelona last week. Does this mean that they've been sandbagging all winter? Or was last week's time a headliner-grabber set with an underweight car? Only time will tell.

Perhaps of most interest will be whether GP2 Champion Timo Glock can follow in the footsteps of fellow title winners Hamilton and Rosberg and establish himself as a real name to watch. Being stuck in a Toyota perhaps puts him at something of a starting disadvantage, but regardless of how far he is off the absolute pace, if he can keep Jarno Trulli honest, he will have established himself as having earned the right to be on the F1 grid. It might prove to be one of the more intriguing intra-team rivalries, and, if recent seasons are anything to go by, about the only reason to pay any attention to Toyota.

B-Teams and backmarkers

For much of last year, one thing you could be certain about was that the first six cars to be knocked out of qualifying would consist largely of Spykers, Toro Rossos and Super Aguris. Toro Rosso, in particular, may have reason to hope that this will not be the case in 2008. Thus far, Sebastien Vettel, in what is effectively the old Red Bull RB3, has more than matched the pace of the 'works' team's RB4. Whether this is an indication that Toro Rosso is doing a very good job, or that Red Bull is in significant trouble, is hard to tell. In any case, Toro Rosso have been known in the past to put in stunningly fast times in testing, only to sink back into anonymity the moment the season starts.

Also of interest down at Dietrich Mateschitz's B-team is the question of whether, after years of domination in Champ Car, Sebastien Bourdais can prove that he really deserved that F1 break all along. Early testing form suggests that the doubters were perhaps right - Vettel has been consistently faster. That said, Bourdais is enough of an old hand to know that being fastest in the winter is neither here nor there, and he might perhaps be biding his time. That or Vettel really is as good as the likes of Mario Thiessen think he is...

The other B-team, Aguri Suzuki's oddly named 'Super Aguri' squad, look likely to take a big step backwards this year. Hamstrung by a lack of funds, they've been absent from testing virtually all season. Last minute investment from Magma ensures that they will be on the grid, but such niceties as the loss of traction control and electronically adjustable engine braking will be new to them - and other teams have encountered their fair share of trouble in adapting their cars.

More fundamentally, for reasons that are rather lost on me, they're stuck running last year's Honda chassis. Quite why the team didn't opt to go their own way in developing the 2006 chassis with which they regularly embarrassed the works squad last year, I don't know. Sufficen to say that if an experienced, well funded race team couldn't do anything with last year's RA107, it is highly unlikely that an ad-hoc group of ex-Arrows mechanics will have any more luck. A trying year is in prospect for Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson, if indeed the team aren't forced to ditch them for pay-drivers.

Last, but, for once, not least, is Force India, formerly known as Spyker, formerly known as Midland, in turn formerly known as Jordan. With Giancarlo Fisichella, a man who seems every bit as adept at squeezing pace out of bad cars as he is out of bottling it in potentially race-winning cars, and with Mike Gascoygne out to prove a point to old employers Toyota, they might do rather better than expected.

Indian businessman Vijay Mallya has given the team a serious cash injection, which will at last enable them to run a proper development programme. With a bunch of guys from the old Jordan team who still know how to run a racing team, if only they had the money to do the job properly, they could begin to make progress up the grid. At the very least, they should comfortably have the beating of Super Aguri. Early indications suggest they might embarrass Honda as well.

The final point of interest is the intriguing question of how hotly-tipped newcomer Adrian Sutil will fare. There were times, early on in 2007, when he looked very impressive indeed. Later on in the season, however, other than a particularly inspired drive at Spa, he looked disinterested and wasn't nearly as far ahead of Sakon Yamamoto as a promising young star ought to be. This year is make-or-break time. With the advantage of incumbency, he really has to beat Fisichella...

So, set the alarm clocks for 3am (if, like me, you're in the UK, anyway), and let's see what happens...

A final word

Several of us motorsport bloggers, including Clive at Insight F1, Alianora at La Canta Magnifico, Christine at Sidepodcast and Keith from F1 Fanatic are writing for a new Formula 1 site, F1 Pitlane. Check it out and let us know what you think.

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Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

If we assume that aerodynamics remain the prime determinant of performance, then visual inspection of this year's cars reveals that there are only three teams in the top league: Ferrari, McLaren and BMW. It is the complexity of the upper body surface geometries on these three cars that visibly separates them from the rest of the field. There is an order of magnitude difference from the rest of the field. I presume that this order of complexity is the by-product of a highly-developed CFD capability within Ferrari, McLaren and BMW.

Whilst the Williams has been quick in pre-season testing, and indeed scored a podium place today, I suspect that this initial speed is merely a reflection of the fact that the Williams is very well balanced. The aerodynamic complexity of the Williams is visibly beneath than of the Ferrari, Williams and BMW, and therefore I suspect that their ultimate level of downforce is correspondingly lower.

3:03 PM  

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