Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Why I'm a motorsport fan - the first in an occasional series.....

A few years ago, I think in the Spring of 2003, I found myself at a premier league football match. Football's not really my cup of tea, and I was only really there because my brother fancied seeing a game. The teams were, if I recall correctly, Sunderland and Chelsea, although I wouldn't stake my life on that. It could just as easily have been Middlesbrough and Arsenal, though I was definitely staying in Northumberland at the time, and it wasn't at St James Park, which narrows it down to one of the two other north eastern clubs.

The match was distracting enough, if hardly inspiring. The home side were on the verge of relegation and put up a half decent fight but Graham LeSaux (he was with Chelsea wasn't he - guess it must have been Abramovich's lot then) soon equalised, and a while later, Chelsea scored again, pretty much ending Sunderland's hopes of remaining in the Premier league. What really caught my attention though, was the crowd. Being among the home supporters (the away fans' enclosure looked a pretty terrifying place to be, and for those who don't know, casual spectators going to football matches always get put in with the home fans) you'd hardly have guessed that they'd each handed over £25 or so for an afternoon's entertainment, rather they looked like they had all collectively been punched in the face. Most of them, I figure, took no pleasure in the football itself, the quality of the play, the way the goals were scored - the only thing that counted was the result. I remember asking my other brother, a Manchester United fan, a while ago, whether he could take any enjoyment from seeing the best team in the world (whomsoever that may be, and I offer no opinion here) playing the best football in the world, and beating his team 5-0. He muttered a reluctant "well, I suppose I might kind of appreciate it, but I wouldn't enjoy it". I suspect, as football fans go, he's probably something of a moderate too.

One of the aspects of motorsport I like the most is that, aside from the teenagers on the internet message boards, such attitudes are largely absent from F1, and all but unheard of among fans of other formulae. It helps that the drivers and, to a lesser extent, the teams change over time, making it harder to build up a life long, irrational loyalty to a particular team or driver (more or less a cornerstone of football fandom. Nick Hornby writes very well on how his lifelong obsession with Arsenal football club affected his life in the frequently funny Fever Pitch). It helps too that motor races are not competitions between two rival teams, but between a dozen or so teams and two dozen drivers.

Like all sports, Grand Prix racing in particular (and to a lesser extent, all major forms of motor racing) occasionally becomes subject to outbreaks of nationalist fervour. In the early 1990s it was the track invading hooligans of Mansell-mania and the death threat issuing thugs on the fringes of Schumi's army, but these people are not the real fans, and tend to disappear as quickly as they arrive, once the object of their jingoistic fervour has gone. And nothing in motorsport has ever been as vomit-inducing as the hordes of fairweather tennis fans (ok, to be fair, there's not much point in being an all-weather tennis fan) responsible for the largely media concocted phenomenon that was Henmania.

So am I a totally dispassionate, disinterested viewer, sat in front of the TV on a Sunday afternoon, stroking my chin and thinking "hmm, interesting race"? Not caring at all who wins?

Well no. We all have our prejudices and favourites, and I am no exception. Certain drivers I like to see do well, and certain teams I appreciate more than others. There are some common threads. I prefer drivers who are racers to those whose modus operandi is to cruise and collect points. I prefer those who keep a low media profile to prima donnas and drama queens. I prefer teams, such as Williams, who appear passionate about racing, rather than faceless corporate entities (see my last article....)

But I don't have to stay forever loyal to any particular team or driver unlike many football fans, who appear to feel obliged to stick forever with whatever team they were misfortunate enough to pledge playground allegiance to at the age of 8 (Macclesfield Town, in case you're wondering). When the passionate, chaotic, classically Italian Ferrari morphed into the dully efficient, bland winning machine of the early Noughties, I found myself willing on the old school racers at Williams. When Benetton slowly changed, under Pat Symonds, from a team seemingly operating on the borders of illegality with their constant troubles over fuel hoses, traction control systems and undertray planks in 1994, to one of the best run, leanest Grand Prix teams in the business over the last year or so, I couldn't help but admire them. When Jordan, who had once been the plucky underdogs achieving considerably success on a small budget, seemed to morph into a hideously tacky extension of Eddie Jordan's huge ego, I found myself hoping it would be the quiet cigar-chomping Swiss ex sportscar builder who would threaten the regular front runners instead.

Of course, anyone reading this who has known me for long enough, might at this point be yelling "hypocrite" and pointing towards my fanatically partisan support of Senna against Prost and Mansell as a kid in the late 80s and early 90s. Well, sure, I was, but even as a kid, the end result never affected my enjoyment when I actually went to see the races. For one, just watching 26 Grand Prix cars on the track in person was a novelty and a spectacle in itself, and secondly, I always enjoyed a good race, regardless of who came out on top. Indeed, one of my favourite races was the 1987 British Grand Prix, watching Mansell's remorseless pursuit of Piquet and wondering whether he could really reel in a 30 second gap before the end - it probably helped that my father had bought us grandstand seats at Stowe that year. But in any case, I was a child, and such fanatical devotion to a team or player is, well, childish......

....And I don't care how many of you disagree with me, but an F1 car on the limit through the old Stowe, or Paddock Hill bend, Eau Rouge or the Craner curves is far more exciting, far more of a spectacle, than 22 men chasing after a pigs bladder can ever be.

Friday, March 17, 2006

No way to run a racing team

I don't know what the collective mood of the various teams was when they packed up and left Sakhir last week, but it seems from here that most of them had reasons to be cheerful. Renault, of course, won the race with Alonso, demonstrating that the team had not been unsettled by the persistent rumours that the corporate accountants are planning to pull the plug on the team, or by Alonso's announcement that he's off to McLaren at the end of the year. Ferrari showed they were back on the pace with a second place finish and an all-red front row. McLaren and Raikkonen did a good job of rescuing a potentially disastrous weekend to pick up a podium from the back row. Honda might feel a little disappointed, but appear to have a car that is, if not quite on the level of the big 3, then certainly not very far off. Williams would doubtless be disappointed that they got qualifying wrong, but knowing that for substantial periods of the race, they had the fastest car out there will give them hope for a better season than last year. Red Bull were undoubtedly pleased to get both cars over the finish line after a torrid time in winter testing and Super Aguri could take pride simply in getting both cars to the start line (that one of them also made it to the finishing line, after completing just 25kms of testing in definitive 2006-spec was most impressive).

One team, however, were definitely leaving for Malaysia on a low. There has been much talk of how, eventually, Toyota's sheer financial muscle will see them leave all and sundry behind in Formula One. People point to their success in rallying and say that it is only a matter of time before they dominate Grand Prix racing too. A few years back, at the height of Ferrari's dominance, Patrick Head said "down the road, its these guys that I'm really worried about", pointing at the Toyota team truck.

If recent figures in F1 Racing magazine are to be believed, Toyota spent more money last year than even Ferrari and McLaren (very much the established big spenders) and yet they were able to net only a handful of podiums and fourth place in the constructors championship. For a team that was established from scratch just five years ago, their performance was respectable enough (think where BAR were in 2002, by way of contrast) but the board over in Japan must have been expecting that this would be the year they would finally establish themselves among the frontrunners. Going into their second season with Mike Gascoygne leading the design team and two more than decently quick drivers, they got their car out ahead of everyone else, they looked primed to join Renault, Mclaren and Ferrari at the front. An additional advantage should have come from the switch from V10s to V8s. Major regulation changes always tilt the odds in favour of the teams with the research budgets required to find the optimal solution in the quickest possible time. Autosport magazine listed them as being, along with Ferrari and Honda, the team most likely to trouble last year's big hitters, and then they go to the desert for round 1......

....And they are absolutely nowhere. Ralf Schumacher, to his own horror, found himself missing the cut after the first fifteen minutes in qualifying, while Trulli scarcely did any better, qualifying only fourteenth. Come race day, they circulated reliably enough, but neither Schumacher Jr nor Trulli were able to finish on the lead lap, and much of the time, they were unable to lap any quicker than Tiago Monteiro was in his MF1-Toyota, which is all the more of an indictment when one considers the relative ability of Trulli and Monteiro as drivers. The problem, apparently, was that the cars were simply unable to get their tyres up to working temperature - at the end of the race, it was all but impossible to tell which sets of tyres had been used and which had been not.

So why have Toyota got it so wrong? I'm not a team manager, an aerodynamicist, an engine builder or a tyre technician, so any answer I come up with is no more than educated guesswork, but for what its worth, here's my theory: Toyota are in Formula 1 for the wrong reasons, and they don't really understand it, so they will never succeed.

Their participation is partly a marketing exercise, and partly in the Japanese tradition of the high-prestige flagship corporate project. This makes little sense for Toyota. The Japanese firm sells more cars than almost any other manufacturer on earth, not because they are reputed to be sporty, exciting or fashionable, but because they are very well put together and go on and on forever. People aren't going to go out and buy a Yaris or a Corolla because Trulli or Schumacher won a Grand Prix in a Toyota. Ferrari? Certainly their racing heritage helps them sell cars. BMW? Any company wanting to make out that their product is the ultimate driving machine is going to do well out of F1. Honda? The car of choice for the discerning reader of Fast and Modified and very much trading on a reputation for high tech (and does anyone else make such high revving road engines?). But Toyota? The idea of their going into F1 for marketing reasons just doesn't make sense to me.

Which leaves the flagship corporate project theory. A friend of mine who used to work for the UK wing of a Japanese software company told me that these are very much a Japanese tradition, but to my mind, an F1 team really isn't a good idea for a company looking for something interesting for its engineers to do. The trouble with corporate projects is that they tend to be run along corporate lines - which in the case of a major motor manufacturer, means running an F1 team as if it is in the business of being a volume car manufacturer. Corporations tend to like rules, agreed processes and uniformity, which is all very well in as far as it goes, but the trouble is that geniuses don't tend to work like that. And motivated, single minded geniuses are what you need to succeed at the highest level, not large numbers of competent by-the-book men. One recalls the way Ford bought Stewart, and proceeded to wreck a perfectly decent, tight knit little race team (I remember hearing that one of the first things that Ford insisted upon was replacing all the teams computers, which were from one supplier, which kit from another supplier, on the grounds that Ford had signed an exclusive contract with the other supplier. This apparently caused no end of disruption, cost an absolute fortune, and made the cars not one hundredth of a second faster than they would otherwise have been).

Prestige projects cost money: In the case of Toyota's F1 project, around £300m a year. Toyota are pouring in this kind of money because they believe that through sheer financial muscle, they can short-cut their way to the top. This plainly isn't working. It may be that having so much money encourages wastefulness: No other team would have spent the best part of £20million to hire Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli. A Schumacher, an Alonso or a Raikkonen might be worth that kind of money, but then they would want to drive for a team that might enable them to win races.....

There's an old saying that the quickest way to make a late project run even later is to hire extra staff, and one wonders if a version of this might explain Toyota's problems. Perhaps there's too many people scrabbling around trying to solve some perceived problem or another and not enough strategic direction keeping them in check (intriguingly, reading between the lines, that appeared to be what Mike Gascoygne said of development work at the team before he joined - but perhaps he hasn't succeeded in turning things around as he would like). An excess of money can encourage inefficiency too: If your resources are limited, you focus on what you think is most likely to bring the largest gains - but if they are verging on limitless then there is inevitably a temptation to just try everything and anything to throw everything at every perceived problem.

In the end it all comes back to one thing. The Toyota F1 team has no soul. One has no sense that this is a team that really has racing in its blood. And that must have a knock-on effect inside the team itself. Can you really believe that they burn the midnight oil back at the factory in quite the way that one suspects that they do at Williams or even Red Bull? All the money in the world can't buy team spirit. Except, of course, it can, and it has. Ask Renault what they paid for the old Benetton team......

Friday, March 10, 2006

Family affairs

On the grid this weekend will be two sons of famous fathers, at the opposite ends of their careers. Nico Rosberg will be making his debut for the Williams team with whom his father won the world championship some twenty four years previously. Driving for what could still loosely be considered a front running team, and partnering Mark Webber, who has shown himself to lack little in terms of pace, Rosberg has a lot to prove in very little time if he wants to demonstrate he is in F1 for the long haul.

Jacques Villeneuve, too, has a lot to prove, though the circumstances could hardly be more different. The former champion has not won a race in 9 years, and it is no secret that the BMW team he will be driving for made exstensive efforts to get rid of him over the winter and if he wants to remain in the sport beyond the end of the season, he's going to have to demonstrate that he is worthy of the world title he won all those years ago.

In being the sons of racing fathers, though, they are hardly unique. In the 1950s, Alberto Ascari took two titles for Ferrari and won nine consecutive races (a record which, amazingly, has survived the Schumacher era and stands to this day) before meeting the same fate as his father. Antonio Ascari, who had been an equally successful driver in the 1920s, died in an accident during the French Grand Prix in 1925. Less well known is the fact that amongst the entries for the 1924 Indy 500 was one Alfred Moss, father of the great Stirling Moss. Stirling's sister, Pat Moss, was no slouch behind the wheel either, and enjoyed a successful rallying career, scoring a podium finish in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1965 and winning the European Rally Championship five times in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In Formula One, there have been a number of father and son pairs over the years. Mario Andretti's son, Michael did a year with McLaren in the early 1990s but made little impression alongside Ayrton Senna. Wilson Fittipaldi's son (Emerson's nephew) Christian raced for Minardi at much the same time while not just one but two of triple World Champion Jack Brabham's sons attempted to qualify for Grands Prix (although only David, who began his career with the team his father had established, ever started a race.

Statistically speaking, the most successful father/son combination of all time were the Hills. Both Graham and Damon won the world championship and between them, they won nearly 40 Grands Prix. As people they could scarcely have been more different. Graham Hill was outgoing, carismatic, clubbable and a man who did much to bring Grand Prix racing to wider public notice, even though he was never really on the same level as compatriot, Jim Clark. Damon, by contrast seemed uncomfortable in the spotlight, apparently shy and diffident, and unsure how to handle being the centre of attention. Yet, as drivers, the similarities were striking. Both came to car racing relatively late - Graham Hill didn't even pass his driving test until he was 24 (the same age Fernando Alonso was when he won the world championship last year) while Damon, unusually in an age where all the top drivers have extensive karting experience, didn't take up car racing until well into his twenties. Neither were 'naturals' behind the wheel, and both had to work hard in order to be fast. Both spent their early career up against more gifted team mates, and for both, success, when it came, appeared to be a triumph of application over aptitude.

So why are these racing dynasties so common? Families occasionally get a grip on other sports - Johann and Jordi Cruyff, for example, or, if siblings count, the the tennis playing Williams sisters and the footballing Neville brothers, but it does not seem to happen nearly as often as it does in motorsport.

Beverley Turner, in her generally ill-informed and bitter broadside against F1, 'The Pits', suggests that it is illustrative of a generally low standard of ability in the sport - that by comparison with other sports, the ability of the world's best is not that different from the norm. If you want to believe that any old kid can turn himself into a Grand Prix driver with a bit of family cash, then so be it, but the list of famous sons who have tried and failed is enough to demonstrate that a marketable surname and a father who knows a few of the team bosses from his own racing days is not, in itself, enough.

It does help though, especially in the junior formulae. For a start, youngsters like, for example, the Mansell brothers, have a name which provides the media with a hook for stories -which means sponsors get interested. There might be family connections with team bosses (though in the particular example of the Mansells, daddy might have as many enemies as friends in the motorsport world), certainly there will be someone to turn to for advice on set up, driving technique and which team to sign with. Motorsport can be a quite byzantinely complex world, especially for someone still in their teens, and having a father who knows the ins and outs can do no harm.

So what is the downside? For a driver starting out, there probably isn't one really, but those who establish themselves at the highest level often find it difficult to escape from the shadow of their fathers. Damon Hill was the first famous son to prove really competitive in the modern F1 era and one senses that, despite winning more Grands Prix than all but nine other drivers in the history of the sport, he was constantly battling the perception that he only got where he was because of his name.

In truth, there was more than a little luck in Hill's ascent to the top of the sport, but it is far from clear that his name had anything to do with it. He was a test driver for Williams in 1992 while racing the desperately uncompetitive Brabham at the same time, but when Mansell and Patrese both left the team late on in the year, he found himself drafted in to play the dutiful number 2 role to Alain Prost. He acquitted himself well, without ever really threatening the Frenchman and found himself brought back to do the same job for Ayrton Senna the following year. When Senna died, he found himself suddenly the number one driver for arguably the best team on the grid at the time, and three years later, he became the first and, up to now, only son of a world champion to become win the title himself. Hill though, never really seemed to be in love with the sport for its own sake, and after winning that title, seemed to lose interest altogether, waking up only briefly to not-quite win a race for Arrows on a day when Bridgestone got the tyres right and nobody else who was anyone was using them.

Jacques Villeneuve makes another interesting case study. His father, Gilles, is remembered by many old enough to have seen him in action as one of the sport's all time greats. He never won that many races, at least in part because he was so rarely in a truly competitive car. When his son first appeared on the Grand Prix grid, fresh from winning the Indycar world title in 1995, many older fans were hoping that the son would prove a chip off the old block. Instead he proved a much more cautious, calculating, measured driver, a little in the vein of Alain Prost (his own uncle, also called Jacques and an occasional F1 entrant in the early eighties, said scathingly "sure he's as good as Alain Prost, but I never saw what was so special about Prost"). Worse still, he committed the cardinal sin of winning the world championship something his father never lived long enough to achieve. Like Hill, whom he partnered in 1996 at Williams, there was little doubt that he had the best car in the field in the year he took the title, but his margin of dominance over team mate Frentzen, himself no slouch, suggests that Villeneuve, while not really belonging in a list of the great champions, was no mean driver on his day. He is not, in racing terms, his father's son though, and one wonders how much that might have to do with why he is still racing. With BMW, he is unlikely to win races ever again, let alone the title, and he is reputed to have been offered more money not to drive the BMW than he is being paid to drive it. One can't help but think he is driven by a need, more than anything else, to wipe out memories of the BAR years, and to prove that he really is the real deal - a worthy successor to Gilles. Certainly it seems hard to believe that the man has remained entirely unaffected by the comparisons with his dead father. It will be interesting to see how Rosberg Jr copes with the pressure to live up to the reputation of his devil-may-care father in an age far less tolerant of such excesses.

Looking down the junior ranks though, it is hard to avoid the feeling that the novelty of drivers with famous surnames could soon fast wear off: the trickle is in danger of turning into a flood. Nicolas Prost, Matthias Lauda, Greg and Leo Mansell, Christian Jones, Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal and, in a novel twist on a familiar theme, Vanina Ickx, daughter of 7-times Le Mans winner Jackie are all competing at various levels this year. Most of these young hopefuls though, will not make it all the way to F1. Lauda and Jones clearly don't have what it takes, while Ickx, to be fair, has never made any pretence of being a top-level single seater driver, though judging by her early testing peformances, she is unlikely to emulate the underrated Ellen Lohr and become the second woman to win a DTM race. For Rahal, Andretti, and the Mansell brothers, it is too early to tell. Ironically, of the current crop, the one who currently appears to have the best chance of breaking into F1 is Nelson Angelo Piquet, who was a frequent front-runner in GP2 last year and has to be amongst the favourites to win that title this year. At the first Grand Prix I ever attended, over twenty years ago, who should have made up the front row but Piquet and Rosberg. Plus ca change, eh?

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Here we go again..... F1 2006

It's that time of year again. Evenings are getting lighter, its meant to be getting warmer (though here in the UK, the weather really hasn't been playing ball these last few days). Spring is approaching, and a new F1 season is almost upon us.

I'm not going to write a comprehensive team-by-team guide to the year ahead - there's plenty other places that you can go to get that (for what its worth, I find that the Guardian have done an excellent casual viewer's guide for the last few years, and Autosport usually produce a pretty good in-depth preview. If you want a blog-preview, take a look at Linksheaven). Instead, I'm going to pick out a few of the most intriguing questions hanging over the new season, and tentatively attempt to answer them.

First off, the new rules. It seems that these days, we can't go a whole season without a major rule change of some kind. This year there have been three. First off, there's qualifying, which will now be run as a knock-out and run-off system. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, and a version of it has been used in Moto GP for some time, but the version that the FIA have implemented is arbitrarily overcomplicated, and is going to make little sense to the casual fan. I'm not going to explain it - Geoff Collins did an excellent job of doing that over at Pitpass. Without going into details, to my mind, the fundamental flaw with it is that it is probably better to qualify 11th than it is to qualify 10th, thanks to the overcomplicated rules regarding fuel loads.

For the first time since 1995, there's been a fundamental change to the engine rules. With power outputs pushing 1000BHP, there was perhaps a case for reining in engine power, and if that is the sole objective, then a switch to 2.4l V8s should do the job. It does rather jar with Max Mosley's stated objective of reducing costs (is there really any more expensive way of cutting engine power than forcing all the teams to develop completely new engines?) but then I can't be the only person who wonders from time to time whether Mosley's stated objectives and his actual intentions might be somewhat, uhm, divergent. If anything, the engine rules change has only demonstrated how small a part of the equation engines really are in modern F1. The cars are not much more than a second a lap slower, despite a cut in horsepower of around 20%, which does rather leave one wondering whether all the effort spent by the manufacturers extracting a few extra horsepower out of their engines was really worthwhile.

Part of the reason that the cars have been slowed only very marginally is the change in the tyre rules. Michelin irritated the powers that be almightily over the Indianapolis debacle and their punishment, it would appear, is an end to the "one set of tyres per race" which so benefitted them last year. The idea behind this is surely to let Bridgestone, the favoured (and from next year the only) tyre supplier, back into the game, but so far in testing, it doesn't appear to have worked out quite that way, and Michelin still appear to have the edge.

Talking of tyres, one of the positive developments for this season is that both tyre suppliers now have a decent spread of top teams signed up. Williams and Toyota join Ferrari on Bridgestones, while McLaren, Honda and Renault remain loyal to Michelin. Apart from anything else, it will be good to have a more accurate gauge of Ferrari's performance. Was the F2005 a case of the team shooting themselves in the foot almightily or was it all Bridgestone's fault? We shall never know for sure. And if Michelin's wet tyres are as hopeless as ever, at least Schumacher will have some competition when it rains.

So who's going to win the title? I'm with the majority who thinks its likely to be one of the following: Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya. I suppose one can't discount the Hondas, but neither Button nor Barrichello strike me as natural world champions. If any of Renault, Ferrari and McLaren are near, never mind on Honda's pace, I can't see either of Honda's drivers winning the title.

Raikkonen is generally reckoned to have the edge over Montoya, but I think once one discounts the Colombian's decidedly shaky start to his McLaren career, there appears to be little between the two on pace - indeed on several occasions he appeared the quicker of the two. If I was forced to choose between the two, I would go for Raikkonen but I don't think Montoya can be discounted. Ine senses that if Montoya can get his head together and eliminate his occasional lapses of concentration, he could be world champion - he came closer than most in 2003 after all.

To my mind, neither McLaren driver is quite on the same level as Michael Schumacher or Fernando Alonso. If either of those two has a clear car advantage, then nobody is going to seriously challenge them for the title - and if the Ferrari and the Renault prove evenly matched (the relative performances of Fisichella and Massa should give us an indication of this) then I think we could be in for a really fantastic title battle between the old king and the heir apparent - something we see all to rarely in F1. We never really saw Moss vs Clark, or Clark vs Stewart and while we saw Prost vs Senna (and what a fascinating duel that was), we never really saw Senna vs Schumacher. Of course, to buy into this, you have to believe that Alonso will ultimately prove himself worthy of inclusion in this list. That remains to be seen but, call it a hunch...

What else is there to hold one's interest this year? There's some fascinating intra-team battles for start. Raikkonen and Montoya I have covered already, but they're not the only ones. Both Honda drivers really have to beat each other. If Barrichello wants to prove now, in the twilight of his career, that he really was more than a good number 2, he has to beat Button. And if Button is to demonstrate that he is worthy of the hype, and indeed the money, which has been showered on him over the past couple of years, he really has to beat Barrichello. Though if the pair of them can win a bundle of races between them, the pressure might ease on each of them a little.

The first bout between Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli went inconclusively to Trulli. Schumacher seemed to be fairly comprehensively outpaced, but actually scored more points. I can't help feeling that Trulli is the one with the ultimate pace, but after ten years in F1, if he hasn't found some consistency by now, he probably never will. Ralf's abilities in the car, which while not on the level of Schumacher Sr, are pretty considerable, are often overlooked because he so often behaved like a spoiled brat outside of it. From a distance, Toyota appears to have mellowed him a little but the general feeling that, as Ralf put is, "one Schumacher is enough" persists. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this battle went the same way again in 06 - Trulli making all the headlines, but Schumacher coming home ahead on points by the end.

The Scuderia Toro Rosso drivers are effectively running to a different formula to everyone else (I'll save you my views on that for another day: suffice to say, I'm not impressed). Beating Midland and Super Aguri, therefore, doesn't necessarily mean very much and if they end up ahead of Red Bull, Williams or BMW, it will be all too easy to put this down to poorly implemented engine equivalency rules. Thus, Scott Speed (surely a name straight out of a film!) and Vitantonio Liuzzi really need to beat each other, if either wants to prove anything. Liuzzi has considerably more F1 experience, having raced on occasion for Red Bull last year, and really has to show he is quicker than Speed. Speed, on the other hand, might just get away with merely matching Liuzzi. Either way, there's a lot of talented single seater drivers floating around just on the fringes of F1, and if either of these two fail to impress in their opening year, they're unlikely to get another chance.

The progress of those drivers fighting to save their career will also be well worth watching. Jacques Villeneuve must know that, sooner or later, BMW will be on the pace, but equally, its clear that he's not the flavour of the month there, and after an indifferent, and occasionally embarrassing showing from the 1997 World Champion last year, he's going to have to outpace Nick Heidfeld (whom I reckon is quicker than he is usually given credit for) to remain in the game. My hunch: He'll be out on his ear by the end of the year - he's never really looked quick since he left Williams and I can't help feeling he's doing it for the money now.

Giancarlo Fisichella went in to 2005 being talked of as an outside bet for the world championship (OK, well perhaps not, but I put a fiver on him at 50/1, which might have been foolish but I also had a tenner on him to win the Australian Grand Prix at 10/1, so it all worked out) . In the event, he was utterly crushed by Alonso, and threw away what should have been a redeeming win at Suzuka by practically inviting Raikkonen past on the last lap of the race. This year, he's got to re-establish himself if he wants to stay at Renault (or whoever takes over the team) in 2007. That doesn't necessarily mean beating Alonso - that is probably beyond all but one or two drivers on the grid - but it does mean being a lot closer to the Spaniard's pace than he was in 2005. At the risk of looking foolish yet again - I think he'll do enough to turn it around. Perhaps in spite of the evidence, I still believe he's fundamentally very quick, though probably not mentally tough enough to hack it at the very top level.

Mark Webber was a hotly tipped star of tomorrow when he went to Williams last year, but now he looks in danger of going straight on to being yesterday's man without the intervening period of stardom. On his day he can be blindingly quick, and there were occasions where he got the Williams much further up the grid than it deserved to be, but there were too many mistakes, and in race conditions he wasn't really any quicker than Nick Heidfeld. He did hammer the final nail into Antonio Pizzonia's career on the other hand, which given the enmity between the two from their Jaguar days, he could be forgiven for taking some satisfaction from. Much depends on something entirely out of his control - How good Nico Rosberg is.... One to watch.

Finally, there's what's going on at the back end of the grid.

Firstly, there's the last minute, thrown together Super-Aguri effort. On the plus side, we're back up to 11 teams for the first time since Arrows pulled out half way through 2002. On the minus side, the new team is using Arrows' old tubs. The big question here is - respectable tail end effort or disaster waiting to happen? I suppose we should reserve judgement until the new car comes out some time later in the Spring, but right now it looks like a terrible waste of a great engine. Think what Williams could have done with a supply of V8 Hondas. Hell, they might even have taken Sato to get their hands on them......

Then there's the peculiar Midland team - owned by a Russian steel magnate who appears to have bought an F1 team on a whim and now can't work out to do with it. On a day-to-day basis he leaves it to eccentric Romanian ex-Dentist Colin Kolles to run. This year they seem to have produced a reasonable, modern-ish looking, but hardly startlingly fast F1 car and hired two competent journeymen to drive it. Unlikely to generate any great excitement, but Albers is enough of a livewire (to put it kindly) that there could be turmoil aplenty before the season's out.

So there's a few thoughts on what lies ahead. Give it a week and all will be much clearer.....