Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Step Into The Unknown - F1 2009 Preview

Anyone's game?

In the more than 20 years I've been following Formula 1, I honestly can't remember there being so much uncertainty as to who would be at the front going into the first race of the season. For the last couple of years, it has been pretty clear from Winter testing that the battle at the sharp end would be fought out between Ferrari and Mclaren, and so it proved to be. This year, though, there is no such certainty.

Through the Winter,, Ferrari, Toyota, Williams, Red Bull, BMW, the new Brawn GP team, Renault, and even, right at the last gasp at Jerez last week, the seemingly troubled Mclaren, have shown flashes of real pace. The trouble is, it's hard to read too much in testing times. Without knowing who has been running what fuel loads, who have been concentrating on simply getting miles on the new car, and which teams, if any, have been running low-fuel qualifying-simulation 'glory runs' in order to attract headlines and sponsors, it is hard to know what the times tell us.

A real upset?

Perhaps the biggest question left unanswered by the winter tests has been just how real the apparently scintillating pace of the new Brawn-Mercedes is. If the stopwatch is to be believed, then they've got a car which is kind to its tyres, and about half a second quicker than anyone else round Jerez and Barcelona. But are they running underweight to attract backers? Ross Brawn says they're not, and to be sure, it doesn't seem the sort of thing that an old hand like Brawn would be doing, but, of course, if they were running light, there would be little sense in admitting as much. And if the car isn't underweight, is it legal. Red Bull have already indicated their intention to protest the team's diffuser and if as Helmut Marko claims, it is really worth half a second a lap, Brawn's chances this year are going to hinge on the outcome of that appeal.

But assuming, for a moment, that Brawn really are the team to beat going into 2009, the battle between Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button could be rather intriguing. Barrichello had six years in a Ferrari, so it can hardly be said he's never been given a chance in a title-winning car. However, throughout that time, he had Michael Schumacher as a team mate, and, leaving aside the fact that Schumacher was probably the single most consummate driver of the last 20 years, it's not clear whether Barrichello was often even allowed to race him. So in a sense, this might be his first real run at the F1 title, in his 17th season in the sport.

When he was first paired up with Jenson Button in 2006, it was the younger Button who had the edge and won Honda's only Grand Prix win (in that incarnation, the previous works Honda team, too, also scored a single GP win with John Surtees back in 1967) but last year, it was Barrichello who, in what we had assumed to be the autumn of his career, generally had the edge in the awful RA108. Truth be told, that's of a piece with Button's career as a whole. Given a good car, he's tended to be quick, but in a bad one, like the 2001 Benetton or last year's Honda, and he tends to lose interest.

If the Brawn really is as quick as it looks, then, aside from being a final ironic coda to the disaster that was Honda's return to F1 as a factory team, the battle between two men who, just a couple of months back looked to be out of work, and who must surely have thought their time at the top of F1 was over could be hard fought indeed.

Massa vs. Raikkonen - the Rematch

It is usually fairly safe to assume that Ferrari will be somewhere towards the front of the pack. Neither the loss of Rory Byrne, Jean Todt and Ross Brawn nor the departure of Schumacher appears to have affected that. The winter testing times have been promising too, and it is probably a fair assumption that they will be somewhere near the front this weekend. What will be interesting to see is whether Felipe Massa will be able to retain the upper hand over his better paid team mate into 2009. He certainly had the edge for much of last year, but then Raikkonen was clearly never entirely at home with the understeery 2008 Ferrari. The reckoning is that the 2009 slick tyres will leave the cars more prone to oversteer, with the rear tyres wearing faster than the fronts, and that could give Kimi the upper hand. The only remaining question is that of whether his motivation is quite what it once was, with a world title in the bag and untold millions in the bank. All said, for all that this year looks very open, I think over the season as a whole, with Mclaren seemingly in trouble, Ferrari stand a good chance of seeing off the pretenders to their crown. Which of their drivers will have the edge, though, is another question entirely.

All according to plan at BMW?

Mario Thiessen, BMW’s master planner, had always pencilled in 2009 as the year that the team formerly known Sauber would make a serious bid for the world title. There were moments last year when it seemed they might hit their target a year early, but Kubica’s brief period at the top of the driver’s table notwithstanding, the team abandoned development of the 2008 machine to concentrate on this year’s car. Will that pay off? It’s too early to tell. On the plus side, they are reputed to be further ahead in the development of KERS than any other team, and have had their 2009 car up and running very early on.

On the other hand, though, the car hasn’t stood out in testing – it’s been decently quick, but not on the same pace as the Ferrari. And if they’re going to lodge a title bid, it’s surely going to have to be with Kubica, which might pose a problem on two fronts. Firstly, as one of the sport’s tallest and heaviest drivers, he’ll be more heavily penalised by the extra weight of KERS than most. Secondly, his lacklustre 2007 season was put down in part to a car too oversteery for his liking – and, of course, received wisdom is that the 2009 cars will tend to oversteer. In spite of all this, I still see Kubica as a dark horse for the world title, especially if the other front-runners run into reliability troubles.

The car in front…at last?

Toyota have spent a lot of time and money in F1 since the turn of the decade without achieving much in the way of anything. There are signs that this might be about to change this year. The team appear cautiously confident that the TF109 will be right at the front, and Timo Glock hinted in a recent interview that he thought victory in Melbourne not beyond the bounds of possibility. The team will have benefited more than most from the ‘reset’ provided by the rules changes, and despite budget cuts, they still have more resources than more or less anyone else on the grid.

After an uncertain start, Timo Glock has matured quickly into a very solid F1 performer – about the only team mate Jarno Trulli has ever had who has troubled him as a qualifier on occasion. Trulli, meanwhile, remains the master of the single quick lap. If the latest rules don’t make overtaking easier than it has been in recent years, then given a half-way quick Toyota, that might be enough to secure Trulli Toyota’s first win.

The Renault-powered quartet

None of this year’s F1 cars would win beauty contests, but nothing else is quite so downright ugly as the stubby-nosed Renault R29. Early pace in testing suggested the car might be as bad as it looked, too. Since then, though, Flavio’s team appear to have sorted out the car’s rumoured lack of downforce and Fernando Alonso has been sounding a lot more positive with regards his chances than he did at the same time last year. Certainly if the Renault is anywhere approaching competitive, Alonso can be relied upon to get the most out of it. His troubled year at Mclaren notwithstanding, anyone who can win two races with last year’s R28 can be relied upon to get the job done.

Nelson Piquet Jr’s retention I can only guess is down to the team not being confident that Di Grassi or Grosjean were likely to be any better. There was little indication in 2008 that he will follow in his father’s footsteps though unlike Hamilton, he is at least unlikely to unsettle team mate Alonso to the detriment of the team as a whole.

Renault will also benefit from having been allowed to update their engine to achieve parity with the other engine-makers after they took the engine-freeze regulations a little more literally than anyone else last year. It’s reckoned that alone might give them another couple of tenths of a second, and that will be good news not only for Renault, but for the Renault-powered Red Bulls.

If the Renault is the ugliest car on the grid, then a strong case can be made for the Adrian Newey-designed Red Bull RB5 being the prettiest. After flying in the hands of Sebastian Vettel soon after being unveiled at Jerez, they haven’t really stood out since but all the same, surely it’s time for Adrian Newey to build another world-beater. Perhaps they’re just taking a little longer than others to get on top of their car. However fast the Red Bull does or doesn’t turn out to be, though, the battle between team mates Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel is going to be one to watch. Neither man can afford to be outpaced by the other. Both are clearly quick, but questions remain as to whether either is absolutely first-rate. Webber, the 21st Century Chris Amon, lost much of the winter to a broken leg picked up in a cycling accident – not what he needs as he faces the sternest challenge of his career. On the other hand, Vettel wouldn’t be the first highly rated youngster to come off second best to the Aussie. Ask Pizzonia. Or Wilson, Or even perhaps Rosberg. As I say, one to watch…

Woking in trouble?

It doesn’t matter how much money you have, or how long your pedigree, building a racing car is a tricky business, and the scope to get it horribly wrong is considerable. Early indications are that the 2009 Mclaren is simply not working as it should – that it has fundamental aerodynamic flaws. With the in-season testing ban, it’s going to be very difficult for the team to make up for lost time and ground, though if anyone has the resources to do it, it is Mclaren.

That said, those 1.17 laps at Jerez right at the end of winter testing – are they a sign that the team have got their problems licked? Or just a glory run on a day when the circuit was particularly quick?

If the car is as bad as it seems it might be, it will be an interesting test of Lewis Hamilton’s character. There’s no doubt that the young Briton is outstanding in a good car, but in his whole career, he’s never really experienced the dispiriting feeling of being in an uncompetitive car. If he rises to the occasion, and transcends the limitations of his equipment, as say, Schumacher did at Ferrari in 1996, his reputation will be well and truly sealed. If his head goes down, and he allows himself to be outpaced by Kovalainen, or if he begins to take his frustrations out on the team, his reputation might be destroyed as quickly as it was made.

The pressure is on for his team mate, Kovalainen too. Last year, he seemed to be within reach of Hamilton over a single lap, but could not stay with him over a race distance and Mclaren’s failure to capture the constructor’s title from Ferrari could be said to be down in part to their number 2 driver’s lack of race pace. If he’s to remain with Mclaren, or another front running team beyond the end of the season, he’s going to have to be a lot closer to Hamilton than he was in 2008. That said, he does have more experience with bad cars. Perhaps his troubled debut year with the difficult Renault R27 might turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

More of the same for Frank’s boys?

Williams seem to go well every winter, and every season since they fell away from the leading teams around 2004, they have suggested that this time it will be different, and the team will be back at the front. It never seems to work out that way. Recent Williams have tended to be quick out of the box, and with their good mechanical grip, they usually run well on the streets of Melbourne, but the team have been behind the curve when it comes to aerodynamic efficiency, and it’s not clear whether the rules changes will help. The testing times have been encouraging, but then they always are. The team abandoned development of the 2008 car early to concentrate on the 2009 machine, but that would be more likely to pay dividends if it weren’t for the fact that Mclaren and Ferrari aside, pretty much everyone else did the same thing.

On the driver front, it’s crunch time for Nico Rosberg. After a promising couple of years in 2006 and 2007, he struggled to rise above the limitations of his car last year, and with the emergence of Kubica, Hamilton and Vettel, no longer looks like he’s necessarily one of the stars of the future. Kazuki Nakajima acquitted himself well last year, but unless he ups his game this season, he’ll only be in the sport as long as engine-suppliers Toyota think its worth paying to have him drum up interest in the sport in Japan.

Supporting cast

Toro Rosso are unlikely to match the highs of last season, which saw them beating parent-team Red Bull and winning their first race. Whatever happens this year is likely to be something of a come-down. Which is a shame, because there is real potential here. They will still be running a Ferrari-engined Red Bull, which with Giorgio Ascanelli heading up the engineering side, should provide the team’s latest pair of Sebastiens with the means to embarrass the front-runners on occasion. Bourdais has been retained for another year, which was probably the right decision. Armchair enthusiasts might have been keen to see the return of Takuma Sato, but in all honesty, the Japanese driver has had more than his fair share of chances in the sport already, and failed to make the most of them.

The choice of Sebastien Buemi to partner Bourdais seems rather odd, and the only way it makes sense is that he was the only driver on the Red Bull junior ladder with the experience needed to make the switch to F1. He was unexceptional in his time in GP2, and if he doesn’t deliver quickly, the likes of Brandon Hartley and Jaime Alguesuari will be knocking at the door. That said, if he excels in F1, he wouldn’t be the first driver to prove quicker in F1 than in his junior career.

It’s hard to believe that a Mercedes powered Force India is going to be any quicker than a Ferrari powered one, really. Team owner Vijay Mallya has been making optimistic noises which leave me wondering whether he really understands the sport and the sheer scale of the task facing the former Jordan outfit. Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrian Sutil are back for another year. Both are competent enough, but I must confess to feeling a little disappointed that the team aren’t bringing on another promising youngster. Sutil no longer entirely convinces me – a driver who’s really going places shouldn’t struggle to beat Fisichella, and it would have been interesting to see what Grosjean or Di Resta could have done in the car. Expect them to bring up the rear again.

So who’s going to win it?

Pretty much the whole thrust of this piece has been to admit that for once, I really don’t have a clue (not that I’ve got a brilliant track record of picking driver’s champions anyway). At the risk of putting a curse on the Maranello team my hunch is that Ferrari will have the edge over the season as a whole. Brawn might appear to be the quickest of the bunch right now, but there have to be question marks both over the legality of the car, and over whether they have the money to fund the kind of development needed to keep them at the front over the whole season. Toyota have looked promising, but even if the Toyota can match the Ferrari on pace, are Trulli and Glock really able to take the fight to Raikkonen and Massa? Kubica, Alonso and Hamilton all certainly can, but with the possible exception of Kubica, I’m not convinced that any of those three will have the car they need to make a bid for the title. So, forced to choose, I’d tip Ferrari, and forced to pick one of Massa and Raikkonen, I’d back Raikkonen to secure a second driver’s crown. But I can rarely remember feeling less sure….

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