Sunday, March 08, 2009


How much to read into testing times? Truth be told, it's probably not wise to make too many assumptions on the basis of fastest laps alone. Remember when, through the winter, the 2005 Honda looked like it was a couple of seconds a lap quicker round Barcelona than anything else? Or when the 2001 Prost was topping the time sheets after an abysmal 2000? In neither case did this turn out to be a reliable guide to what would happen come the season proper. Quite why Honda was so quick in the early months of 2005 I've never been sure, while in 2001, Prost were probably running their car underweight to attract sponsors.

Nonetheless, there's something tantalising and intriguing about the fact that Sebastien Vettel's Red Bull has lapped Jerez nearly a second quicker than anyone else (Hamilton's time can safely be ignored, as it was set using a 2008-spec rear wing). The chances are it was only a single particularly well hooked-up qualifying lap when track conditions happened to be just right. Word has it that it is actually Ferrari and Renault who are quickest right now, with Williams, BMW, Red Bull and Toyota clustered together and snapping at their heels. A big question mark remains over where Mclaren fit into this picture. The fact that they had not until recently been able to run their 2009 rear wing leaves open the question of whether there are fundamental problems with their 2009 car, or whether, as with the early problems with the Renault, too much is being made of too little.

All that said, the radical changes to the F1 rulebook have the potential to rewrite the form book to a degree not seen in recent years. No longer are teams chasing incremental performance gains on well-tested concepts. They are, in a sense, starting from scratch. For all that the technical rules are far more restrictive than was once the case, it is probably still just about possible to find that 'unfair advantage'. The introduction of KERS, in particular, just might allow one team to make a leap which results in a car substantially quicker than anyone else's. I hope this doesn't happen because F1 seasons in which only two cars stand any realistic chance of winning races don't tend to be very interesting. Think 1992, 2002, or 2004.

That said, though, it does depend to some extent on which team finds that unfair advantage. The 1988 F1 season remains to my mind one of the classics because, although there were only two cars in the field with any realistic chance of winning races, they were being driven by Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost - and Ron Dennis was happy to let them race. In a reversal of the situation in recent years, I'd rather it were Ferrari than Mclaren or Renault. In the Schumacher era, a dominant Ferrari meant the race was a foregone conclusion. It is not entirely clear that Barrichello or Massa were often allowed to race the German, but even if they were, neither was capable of beating him on a regular basis. These days, though, the team have no clear number one and provided that management don't impose one, a battle between Massa and Raikkonen would be most intriguing. By contrast, I can't see Kovalainen putting up a serious fight against Hamilton over a whole season, and as for the idea of Piquet Jr. giving Alonso anything to worry about....

Vettel's testing times got me thinking though.... If one team turns out to be head-and-shoulders above the rest this year, wouldn't it be interesting if it were Red Bull? They've certainly produced one of the prettiest cars on the grid this year (it's a relative thing, they've all got stupidly proportioned wings, but you can't pin the blame on Adrian Newey for that...) but is it just possible that they've also produced the quickest?

Who knows, probably it's nothing more than an idle daydream. But if they have, the battle between F1's long-time nearly man Mark Webber and Grand Prix racing's new golden boy Sebastien Vettel could be as fascinating as the battle which ensued when Fernando Alonso went off to Mclaren as a double champion and suddenly found himself having to work very hard indeed to deal with his rookie team mate Lewis Hamilton.

Mark Webber is perhaps the single great unknown quantity in the sport. He's going into his eighth season now, and still I don't think we know for sure quite how good he is. We know he's quick, but there have been odd hints that he's more than merely quick. That he's one of the sport's true greats - a man who could go mano a mano with Kubica, Hamilton, Alonso or Raikkonen if he only had the equipment worthy of his talents.

After all, he put a Jaguar on the front row at Malaysia in 2003, and this in the days before teams had the option of playing with fuel loads and going for Saturday afternoon glory. At Monaco, in 2006, he looked like for a while like a serious challenger for victory in a Williams Cosworth before the engine let go. Over the last two years, he's outqualified his former title-contending team mate David Coulthard 31-4 at Red Bull. And the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji in 2007 might be best remembered for Hamilton's great drive in the wet, but Mark Webber was actually catching him in second before he was punted off the road by... Sebastien Vettel.

For all that, it remains open to question whether Webber is really in quite the same class as, say, Hamilton, Alonso or Kubica. Way back when Renault tested both Alonso and Webber, Pat Symonds reckoned that the Spaniard was the quicker driver. His first year at Williams, was rather disappointing too. Yes, the Grove team's relationship with BMW was on the rocks by then, but he didn't really appear to be any quicker than Nick Heidfeld that year. And Heidfeld may be a solid, professional racer, but after 9 seasons in the sport, I've not seen anything to suggest he's from the very top drawer. Added to that is the question of whether the broken leg he sustained in a cycling accident over the winter might have a more lasting impact. It has often been said that no racing driver is ever quite the same after sustaining a serious leg injury, although it didn't seem to stop Michael Schumacher winning five titles after his leg-breaking crash at Silverstone in 1999.

Up against him is the sport's youngest ever winner, Sebastien Vettel. A man whose career has, in some ways, been the very opposite of Webber's. Where Webber has had to fight hard for every opportunity - not usually getting the best cars in his junior formula days, and not making it to Formula One until he was 25, Vettel's path was eased by backing from both Red Bull and BMW, and he made his F1 debut at the age of just 19, standing in for the injured Kubica at Indianapolis. He did a sensible job, came home 8th and in so doing became the youngest man ever to score an F1 point. A tug of love between BMW and Red Bull was resolved in the latter's favour and by the time of the Hungarian Grand Prix, he was a full-time F1 driver for Toro Rosso.

In the second half of 2008, the Toro Rosso proved to be a rather effective weapon, embarrassing the 'works' Red Bull squad, and when the big boys screwed up in the rain in Monza, Vettel seized the opportunity he was presented with both hands and became the youngest Grand Prix winner in the sport's history. It might have relied a little on luck, but Vettel was consistently there or thereabouts in the latter part of the season - only once finishing out of the points in the last seven races.

But how special is he? On the one hand, Toro Rosso is built around the shell of the old Minardi team - and in that light, his haul of one win, one pole and 35 points looks very impressive indeed. But another way of looking at it is that he had, at his disposal, a Ferrari-powered, Adrian Newey designed car, engineered by the hugely experienced Giorgio Ascanelli. Put that way, the Toro Rosso sounds like an impressive package indeed. Sure, he scored an awful lot more points than his team mate Bourdais, but the midfield pack was so tightly bunched last year, that this did not always equate to a significant difference in pace between the two - especially in race conditions. It is worth remembering that, at Monza, Bourdais, after being delayed at the start, was lapping just as quickly as Vettel in the rain.

Both Vettel and Webber have their reputations on the line this year. Each really has to be quicker than the other, or at least as quick as the other. Vettel need to blow away Webber to maintain his status as the sport's coming man, while Webber needs to get the better of his young new team mate if he's not to become yesterday's man before he was ever really today's. Regardless of how competitive this year's Red Bull is, it's going to be an intriguing rivalry between two seemingly apolitical, straightforward men which much at stake. But if Adrian Newey, Geoff Willis and co. have found something special, then it just might turn out to be one of the most fascinating battles the sport has seen. Roll on Australia.

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