Monday, March 08, 2010

F1 2010: A Golden Age?

Another new season is almost upon us. It's always a time of excitement and anticipation, when the racing season's big questions remain unanswered, when nobody knows for sure who will be right on the pace, and it is possible to believe that a uniquely close-fought, competitive season awaits us. Sometimes the spell is broken the moment the cars hit the track at the first race, when the dreary reality that somebody, in the first half of the decade it tended to be Ferrari, has built a car which is a second a lap faster than anyone else, and a summer of boring Sunday processions awaits us. But, at the risk of sounding like a screaming Autosport headline, this year just might be very special indeed. Forgive me the lapse into hyperbole, but we just might be right in the middle of a golden age of Formula 1 racing. Hear me out...

The Return of the King

Firstly there's the decision of 7 times World Champion Michael Schumacher to throw his hat into the ring for one last time. Unquestionably one of the sport's all time greats, I still wonder whether his reach might at last exceed his grasp. He's been three years out of the cockpit, he's still nursing a neck injury from a motorbike crash last year, he's the far side of forty, and, dare I say it, he'll be facing a much stronger field of drivers than he did for most of his career. Even if he does have all, or almost all, of his old pace, whether the 2010 Mercedes will be quite quick enough to enable him to fight with Alonso and Hamilton remains open to question. The 2010 car was developed while the team was Brawn GP, running without significant sponsorship, and it's unlikely they'll be able to repeat the double-diffuser trick that helped them to the 2009 driver's and team's titles.

At the very least, though, Schumacher will have to beat team mate Nico Rosberg. Quite how difficult a task that will be is hard to judge. I've never been entirely sure whether Rosberg was a middling driver flattered by a Williams which was far quicker than anyone realised, or whether the Williams was a pretty mediocre car, flattered by a lead driver who is much faster than we realise. If Schumacher isn't quicker than his team-mate, I wouldn't be surprised to see him walk out before the season's end. Though he might cite the lingering after-effects of his neck injury rather than admit he simply no longer quite has it. And nobody will be hoping harder that Schumacher's comeback falls flat than Mr Heidfeld, sitting in the reserve seat at Mercedes.

The Big Guns

Even if Schumacher's return proves a disappointment, we might scarcely notice, because there seems to be so much else to hold our attention. For starters, after a year spent licking their wounds after the bruising 2008 title fight, testing suggests Mclaren and Ferrari have regrouped and will be right at the front of the field this year. And so we have the mouth-watering prospect of the two best drivers of the post-Schumacher era continuing the battle they began as team mates at Mclaren in 2007, this time as the presumed leaders of the two most successful teams on the grid. If, as Mark Twain said, history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes, it's tempting to draw parallels with the intense battle between Mclaren's Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, who had left Mclaren for Ferrari, in 1990. Though there are many differences between them, on track at least, it's not too much of a stretch to cast Hamilton, yellow helmet and all, in the Senna role, and Alonso as the new Prost. One only hopes it doesn't end in such an ignominious fashion.

Battles of the team mates

Except, of course, it might not be so simple as Alonso versus Hamilton, because each faces a fight with a team mate much more able to take the fight to them than either Kovalainen could at Mclaren or Piquet Jr or Romain Grosjean could while Alonso was at Renault. Hamilton, after all, is paired up with no less a man than the reigning World Champion, Jenson Button. Now I'll be honest, I can't help but remember his trouncing at the hands of Giancarlo Fisichella at Renault in 2001, and his inability to get the better of Jarno Trulli there the following year, and I know he's good, but he's not convinced me he's quite in the same league as the other World Champions in the field. But on the other hand, he's undoubtedly pretty quick, and his smooth, unfussed, economical style might pay dividends now that refuelling has been banned and drivers will have to look after their tyres in the early laps. Certainly compared with the aggressive Hamilton, who has had trouble in the past making his tyres last even without the car being filled with 160kgs of fuel.

Then there's Felipe Massa, recovered from the serious head injury he sustained in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix last year. Another driver I can't quite make my mind up about. Just how good is he? Was Kimi Raikkonen never quite as fast as his early years at Mclaren made him look? Or has Felipe Massa developed into a truly first rate driver, one who deserved more credit for getting the better of Raikkonen than he has so far been given. I don't know, but when he goes up against Alonso this year, that question will be answered, one way or the other. If, as seems possible, the Ferrari F10 is the class of the field, let's hope that Massa is able to give Alonso pause for thought.

Where we left off

If we could be sure that this year would be all about Schumacher vs. Hamilton vs. Alonso vs. Button vs. Massa, that would be quite a prospect. But at the end of last season, the fastest car in the field was not the Mclaren, the Brawn or the Ferrari, but Adrian Newey's Red Bull. The last two races were won by Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, and the team retain this drive line-up going into 2010. Early indications from testing suggest their advantage might have been wiped out over the winter, and that the new car is too hard on its tyres, but it would be a brave man who discounted Adrian Newey. As for the drivers, last year Vettel had the upper hand, but then Webber was nursing a leg injury for much of the season, and it's hard to know just how much that affected him. Now fully recovered, can he re-establish himself as the team leader? Or with another year under his belt, will Vettel underline his dominance to a greater extent than ever before? My money's on Vettel, and he's got to be at least an outside bet for the World Title - the new Schumacher usurping the old Schumacher, but it's far from a foregone conclusion.

Bubbling under

If that's the likely race winners dealt with, then what of the rest? There are, I think, three teams that could spring a surprise this year, and each has their strengths and weaknesses. Let's start with Williams. The pairing of experienced Rubens Barrichello with GP2 champion and rising young star, Nico Hulkenberg looks a strong one. Of course it does rather depend on exactly how quick Hulkenberg is, but if Barrichello is perhaps not quite as quick as he was, he was still a decently quick performer at Brawn last year, and outside of the big four teams, Williams strikes me as having the best driver line-up. They're also a team which still contains that core which challenged for the title back in 2003. If I have doubts about their potential, then it's simply that I'm not sure quite what they have going for them this year that they didn't last season. Perhaps the new Cosworth engine will be better than last year's Toyota (not such an outlandish possibility, it was ex-Cosworth men moving to Mercedes' engine team that made the Mercedes V8 the class of the field) but they didn't capitalise properly on the advantage of running a double diffuser from the start, And they didn't really figure in 2009. We'll see whether 2010 is any different, I hope it is, having always had a soft-spot for the Grove team.

If Williams have the best driver line-up, then it is the other former championship winning team in the group which, to my mind, has the best driver. It is hard to know quite what to make of Renault right now. I suspect that the extent of their decline was masked to a degree by the efforts of Fernando Alonso last year, just as the beginning of the old Lotus team's slide into oblivion was hidden for a time by Senna's genius at the wheel. If that's the case, then the decision to hire BMW-refugee, Robert Kubica might prove to be a very smart one. Certainly, a talented young driver with everything to prove, who's prepared to drive the team forward, just might help them recapture the team's glory years of 2005 and 2006 when, together with Fernando Alonso, they took two World Titles. The team have been 75% sold to a Luxembourg venture capital outfit, have had their former chief designer and team principal barred from Formula 1 for their part in the Singapore crash scandal, have lost most of their sponsors, and are reduced to hiring an unproven Russian with bags of money to fill the second seat. Like Williams, though, they have shown in the past that they are capable of winning races, given the funding and a fair wind. If they don't get their act together, though, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw Kubica in a Red Bull, a Ferrari or a Mercedes in the year ahead.

If Williams and Renault's strengths lie with their drivers but there are doubts about their cars, the reverse may be true of Sauber. The team formerly known as BMW Sauber (and for the minute, now called, somewhat paradoxically, BMW Sauber Ferrari) will have been able to call on the full resources of the BMW car company in designing this year's car, just as Brawn were able to make full use of Honda's largesse to build the car that enabled Ross Brawn's eponymous team to win the title at its only attempt. As a result, it's possible the new Sauber might be very quick indeed, though it's sponsor-less state means it's hard to know quite how much stock to put by its impressive testing times. The trouble is, I'm just not convinced by the driver line-up of newcomer Kamui Kobayashi and 38-year old former Mclaren test driver Pedro De La Rosa. I'm glad Kobayashi has got a slot on the grid. He may not have done much in GP2 (though he was GP2 Asia champion last year) but he showed an impressive combativeness when he was given his late-season cameo at Toyota at the end of last year, in notable contrast with others plunged into the field mid-season. De La Rosa's signing, by contrast, I find harder to understand, unless he's either paying for the ride himself or bringing sponsors with him. During his time at Arrows, and latterly with his occasional appearances for Mclaren, he appeared a competent journeyman, but it would surely have made more sense to keep hold of Nick Heidfeld. A repeat of Brawn's achievements is unlikely, but providing the money doesn't dry up entirely and the drivers are quick enough, they could be regular point-scorers.

Snapping at the heels of the midfield

It's perhaps a little unfair of me not to include Force India in the group above. After all, they very nearly won the Belgian Grand Prix fair and square last year, and both Sutil and last-minute stand-in Vitantonio Liuzzi were right on the pace at Monza too. I can't see them repeating that kind of performance this year, but on the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if, while they don't trouble Ferrari, Mercedes, Mclaren or Red Bull, they do cause headaches for Sauber, Renault and Williams from time to time. Last year, I think they capitalised on the failure of some of the bigger teams to get fully to grips with the new regulations and that advantage will probably be gone in 2010. On the other hand, they have had plenty time to fully adapt the car to the Mercedes engine, after having to hurriedly hack away at a car originally designed around the Ferrari V8 last year, so who knows, more points, at least, should be on the cards, and Liuzzi and Sutil looks a pretty solid line-up for a team which is at best a midfield runner.

The same, I'm afraid, cannot be said of Toro Rosso. With a car based on a development of last year's Red Bull, they should be in a position to make a nuisance of themselves from time to time, but I just can't wo0rk up much enthusiasm for the driver pairing of Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari. It's not that they're particularly bad drivers, but equally I see no sign that either is particularly special although Buemi, at least, had his moments last year. In the long run, provided Red Bull remain involved, I would expect to see one or the other of them given the boot to make way for British F3 champion Daniel Ricciardo, who was rather quick .

And Finally...

The Horse Whisperer might have been going a little far, but I'd be surprised if any of the new teams do more than fight amongst themselves this year. Of the two teams which got a car to the pre-season tests, the revivified Lotus team looks to have a much more reliable, and perhaps slightly quicker car than Virgin Racing. But both look to be the best part of five seconds a lap off the pace of the front-runners at the moment, and no team, even one with the biggest development budget in the world, has ever found five seconds over a single season. In the long term, to judge at least by their choice of drivers and the hiring of Mike Gascoygne, Lotus, despite its origins in the no-mark F3 squad Litespeed, looks like it is the more serious prospect, but I suspect that 2010 could be a trying year for all concerned.

It's harder to know what to make of the team formerly known as Campos (and now going by the rather unfortunate moniker of HRT). It's rather ominous that they were unable to make any of the pre-season tests and their decision as a brand new team to run two newcomers, Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok , is, as Sir Humphrey might have said to Jim Hacker, 'brave'. On the other hand, the car is designed and built by Dallara, who know a thing or two about making racing cars and might be better placed to build an F1 car from scratch than either Virgin or Lotus. If the money's there to do the whole season, they just might surprise us all.

All will become clear next weekend, and, for all that I care little for the tedious, soulless Bahrain Autodrome, one plus side of starting the season in the Middle East is that, in contrast with the more usual Melbourne opener, my sleep patterns won't be disturbed for a second week running after staying up to watch the Oscars last Sunday...

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