Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Class War

Cricket and sportscar racing are perhaps not two sports most people would immediately associate with each other. At a superficial glance, about the only thing they appear to have in common is a worrying degree of infiltration by organised crime elements. Having watched the coverage of the recent Sebring 12 hour race though, it strikes me that the other thing that they share is that they both work very well on the radio.

In the usual run of things, long distance sportscar races are not close fought affairs, with drivers fighting over tenths of a second. Like test cricket, the races tend to evolve slowly over time rather than being decided by a single bold passing manouevre or a brief flurry of fast laps. And rather than watching the on-screen action, I found myself working on other things and listening to the excellent commentary provided by Chris Parsons and John Hindhaugh. Much like listening to the cricket on Radio 4. As it turned out, the battle in the GT2 class really did end up going down to the wire, and after 12 hours ther was just 0.2s separating the Ferrari of Melo, Salo and Mowlem from the chasing Flying Lizard Porsche of Bergmeister, Lieb and Van Overbeek. In the other classes, though, the result was never in quite so much dispute. There was no doubting that, providing one of them finished, an Audi R10 would win in LMP1, and while the Acura team went into the event as underdogs in LMP2, by the half distance point, it was clear that the Porsche challenge had self-destructed and that the Andretti-Green car merely had to keep going in order to win its class. GT1 was a private battle between the 2 works Corvettes, as the only other car in the field, a private Aston Martin had neither the same level of preparation nor the same strength in depth in its driver line-up.

The main interest in the race, aside from the GT2 battle, lay in whether the Acura tortoise might beat the Audi hare in the battle for overall honours. Going into the final hour and a half, the Andretti-Green machine was still in with a shout of victory because, while it had never been on the pace of the Audi all day, it had run absolutely reliably. The Audi, on the other hand, had been beset by punctures and penalties, as well as simply ending up plain unlucky with the timing of caution periods from time to time. In the end, the battle's climax never quite came, 90 minutes from the end, the Acura developed various electrical maladies, and dropped six laps off the pace of the lead Audi.

What this battle highlighted, however, is the confusion over classes in top level sports car racing right now. In theory, the American ALMS and European LMES series each run with the same four classes, and the FIA GT series runs classes equivalent to their GT1 and GT2 classes. In practice, however, there are peculiar idiosyncracies which are stopping the sport from being as successful as it might be and preventing cars from being effectively developed to race on both sides of the Atlantic. To my mind, the most fundamental of these is that of having LMP1 and LMP2 categories in the first place. In theory, the LMP2 category is aimed at smaller, private teams, while the LMP1 category is for those gunning for outright victories. The problem is that, in practice, two big manufacturers, Porsche and Honda, have built serious LMP2 machines, while in America, only Audi are racing a serious LMP1 contender. As has been pointed out over at Fastest Lap, a situation has been allowed to develop where different motor manufacturers have decided to avoid facing each other directly, and compete to different rules.

However, with only Audi competing in the top category, now that Dyson have traded in their LMP1 Lolas (which started out life as LMP2 MGs) for LMP2 Porsches, the racing is liable to be even more predictable than in the days when Audi used to face off against those weird front engined Panoz prototypes. Perhaps as a direct result, the ALMS organisers have amended the rules to allow the LMP2 cars to run larger air restrictors - enough to bring the LMP2 cars within striking distance of the Audis, at least at circuits like St Petersburg, where the lighter weight of the LMP2 cars helps to offset their power disadvantage.

This has resulted in a distinct break with the LMES and Le Mans, which runs to the ACO's rulebook. With Audi, Peugeot, Pescarolo and Rollcentre all running good serious LMP1 efforts, the organisers have felt no need to tilt the rules in favour of the baby prototype class. The downside of this has been that the Porsche Spyder, surely the most well-made customer prototype since, oh, well, probably the Porsche 962 actually, is not a serious option for European-based sportscar teams.

In Europe, the greater controversy is over the rules setting out the equivalency between diesel and petrol engines. Pescarolo, especially, have been vocal in arguing that the top-line diesel engines aren't available to privateers, and that the equivalency formula does not create true equality between the two fuels at all. In other words, the deck has been deliberately stacked against the privateers, who are already at enough of a disadvantage in terms of budget and resources.

Similar problems pertain in the GT classes, particularly in GT1, as the superiority of the Porsches in GT2, and their ready availability to any private team with the money to buy one has meant there has been less scope for argument. The problem here is not in the restrictions placed on particular classes, or fuel types, or in turbo/normally aspirated engine equivalency rules, but rather in the restrictions placed on particular cars. In the FIA GT series, the Maserati MC12 has been the car to have for the past couple of seasons (despite the best efforts of Pedro Lamy in the Larbre Ferrari 550 back in 2005). At Le Mans, and in ALMS, on the other hand, different wing and restrictor rules have been applied to the Maserati, such that the works have concluded there's nothing to be gained from racing the cars there. Similar arguments have been had in the past about the Saleen S7R, and in the background, the suspicion is that the rules are being subtly tilted in favour of GM's Pratt & Miller Corvettes.

The long and short of it is that the rules in sportscar racing are an overcomplicated mess that are impeding any serious revival of what as recently as 20 years ago was the second most significant racing category in the world, certainly when seen from Europe. None of the major series are in as much of a mess as Champ Car at the moment, but its hard to ignore the fact that the most open sportscar series in the world right now is the one those stubby little Daytona Prototypes compete in. I enjoyed their recent race at Homestead, it was close fought and there were plenty of potential winners, but surely there's more to sportscar racing than thinly disguised spec-car racing round makeshift rovals?

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Mind Games

Mid race, the Australian Grand Prix. A yellow helmet in a Mclaren, visibly on the limit, using every inch of the road. Behind him, in the sister Mclaren, a double world champion, the most accomplished driver in the world today. He's less visible "on it" than his team mate, further from the walls and the kerbs, but the stopwatch shows that this is deceptive - he's going every bit as quickly. For Ron Dennis, and for those of us who have been following the sport for a long time, there is something eerily familiar about the current Mclaren line-up.

Their glory years with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost brought the team six driver's titles, but the two years in which Senna and Prost drove together for the team were fraught with tension. Ron Dennis' man management skills were tested up to, and ultimately beyond, breaking point. For all that there are similarities, though, the parallels with Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton are far from exact. Senna may have been the junior partner when he joined the team in 1988, but he was no beginner. He had made his debut four years earlier, and had racked up six wins and an awful lot of pole positions already. While Fernando Alonso may be a double world champion, just as Prost was as the 1988 season dawned, he is new to the Mclaren team, having won his two titles at Renault (by coincidence, the team for whom Prost drove in the early 80s, when he first emerged as a serious contender).

I can't help feeling though, that this is a potentially explosive driver pairing. When Alonso signed for Mclaren, there was every possibility that a safe number 2 such as Pedro De La Rosa would end up in the second car. Instead, they went with Hamilton. Even when that was announced, I doubt many thought he would be able to offer any serious opposition to Alonso in his first season. On the evidence of Melbourne, though, he's almost as quick as the Spaniard straight away. A glance at the race lap times suggests that Alonso still has the edge in terms of consistency (his times were up-and-down rather less than Hamilton's) but the gap between the two appears vanishingly small, less than that which separated Raikkonen and Montoya last year.

So how will the two drivers cope with it? Will Hamilton resent being made to play second fiddle to the more experienced Alonso if there is a tight battle for the driver's championship between Mclaren and Ferrari this year? Or will he find that, unable to fight his team mate, his motivation begins to fade?

Or will it be the other way around? In some senses, Alonso is a hired mercenary at Mclaren, new to the team. Lewis Hamilton, by contrast, is a Mclaren man through and through - the protege of Ron Dennis since he was barely into his teens. Will Alonso wonder whether the team is as truly committed to him as it is to a man whom they have trained for the job for over a decade? Or will he start to wonder where Mclaren's priorities really lie? It might not affect his driving, but one wonders how it will play with the team. After all, he has previous form in this regard, accusing some in his Renault team of attempting to sabotage his world title bid last year in the tense closing stages of a year long battle with Ferrari and Michael Schumacher.

There are perhaps a couple of factors which help to keep the team on an even keel though. Neither Alonso nor Hamilton come across as being quite such complex, intense characters as Senna and Prost were. And in the fullness of time, it may transpire that Hamilton's performance in Australia came about thanks to a hefty dose of beginner's luck, and he simply won't be able to perform to Alonso's level over a whole season. And if not, Dennis and Whitmarsh can always console themselves with the thought that its a nicer problem to have than that of getting Fisichella to get his finger out, or Kovalainen to keep his car on the island....

There were a couple of moments after the race on Sunday which gave an interesting insight into Kimi Raikkonen's character. First was a brief clip of Lewis Hamilton confidently going up to the race winner to shake his hand - whether to congratulate him, or to announce his arrival on the scene to the Finn. Raikkonen barely acknowledged his existence. In any other field, it would be simple rudeness, but in such a intensively competitive environment, it has its own logic. Refuse to even acknowledge the new kid... A few minutes later, Ron Dennis was being interviewed by ITV's pitlane reporter, Louise Goodman, on how he felt about the team's performance, and at the end he said of his drivers "...and the best thing is, they're two such nice chaps" - the implication being his previous star driver was not.

So how will his new team cope with their allegedly 'difficult' new charge. Certainly, Ferrari's driver management problems are likely to be rather different from those at Mclaren. It is hard to imagine Kimi Raikkonen being riled by anything his team mate does, and he comes across as the kind of person who can live without an especially close relationship with his own team. Or indeed with anyone.

In fact, It is hard to think of a driver in recent times who has come across as more independent, less concerned with what other people think, than the laconic Finn. When other drivers were getting used to the time difference and climate of Australia in the run-up to the opening Grand Prix, Kimi Raikkonen was competing (and winning) in a snowmobile event, the Kopparberg King, in his native Finland - under the pseudonym 'James Hunt' no less. Some say that it was a sign of his lack of commitment - that he was stupid to be taking such risks just days before the Grand Prix (certainly, one is more likely to be injured on a snowmobile than playing tennis), and that he compromised his preparation for the opening race. Kimi would probably simply retort that he won the race anyway.

While I had no idea that Kimi Raikkonen had any interest in motor racing's past, its easy to see why he identifies with the free-wheeling hard-living 1976 world champion. Hunt famously refused to bow to the demands of his sponsors to dress up for corporate events, and led a lifestyle far removed from his ascetic rival of the time, Niki Lauda. Raikkonen's fondness for a drink or two is well documented, and his behaviour in a London lap-dancing club (or rather the reaction of the Mclaren team to it) is widely thought to lie behind his decision to move to Ferrari. As one Mclaren insider put it "Kimi listens to no one. no one at all" and suggestions that the team had any right to control what he did on his own time were anathema to him.

What Ferrari, after ten years with Michael Schumacher, will have to learn to live with is a lead driver who may be every bit as fast as the German, but is not anything like the team player that Michael was. As Niki Lauda said "Kimi can drive a car very fast, but that's all he can do.". Jean Todt is left with a dilemma: Does he attempt to tame the worst excesses of his new charge, and risk ending up on the wrong side of him in the same way that Martin Whitmarsh and Ron Dennis did at Mclaren? Or does he accept that Kimi is exactly as he is, and concentrate on getting the Ferrari team to adapt to its new lead driver? To accept that the motivation, the team spirit, will have to come from the team alone, and that their driver's contribution will be solely to drive the wheels off the F2007. Which can be motivation enough...

Felipe Massa has his own concerns. With the Ferrari looking comfortably the quickest car on the grid at the moment, and with, in theory at least, equal number 1 status at Ferrari, he should be a potential title contender. Something about his body language after qualifying at Melbourne suggests he already knows otherwise. By sheer misfortune, he started the year on the back foot, and on the back of the grid, while Raikkonen became the first driver to win his first race for Ferrari since Nigel Mansell back in 1989. Something about his demeanour suggested there was more to it though - that Raikkonen had finally shown his hand, and that Massa had realised his apparent superiority in testing was a mirage. We'll have to wait until Sepang to find out, but I have a feeling the Brazilian already knows...

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Tales of the unexpected

The new formula 1 season is almost upon us, and after nearly 25 years of following the sport, I still find I'm as intrigued as ever as to what is going to happen in Melbourne. Are Ferrari really as far ahead as winter testing seems to suggest? What of BMW's surprising pace - a sign that the former Sauber team have really benefited from German investment or the product of an awful lot of low-fuel runs? Can Felipe Massa really outpace Kimi Raikkonen? Who will prove the best of the new boys - Hamilton or Kovalainen? Have the two Japanese teams with their immense resources and strength in depth really got it as horribly wrong as the winter timesheets suggest?

While these questions, and more, remain unanswered there can be little doubt that there are really only two, perhaps three serious contenders for victory in Australia - Ferrari, Mclaren, and, perhaps, Renault. Anything else would represent a serious upsetting of the form book, and the form book tends to be very reliable in Formula 1. While teams might like to talk up their chances of taking a great leap forward each winter, it is incredibly rare that this actually happens. Rare, but not entirely unknown.

I remember being at an F3 race at Brands Hatch in the mid eighties and hearing that the Ligiers of Rene Arnoux and Jacques Laffite were running one-two in the Detroit Grand Prix. Although Ayrton Senna was my childhood hero, I still remember being a little disappointed to get home and find that he had reeled in the two Ligiers to restore some semblance of order to proceedings. The French team would have to wait ten years before winning the Monaco Grand Prix in 1996, though that was largely because all the fancied runners self destructed that day.

Three years later, I was flicking through the paper, looking at the qualifying times for the Monaco Grand Prix. Senna on pole - no surprise there. Prost second - again pretty much with the run of play. But what was Martin Brundle doing on the second row in a Brabham Judd? Hadn't he barely scraped through pre-qualifying just two days earlier? And when had Joachim Luhti's reanimated Brabham team been anything more than makeweights? It lasted into the race too. Brundle ran third, behind the McLarens until his battery failed, necessitating a three minute pit stop. This elevated his wild haired team mate Stefano Modena into a podium position which he would keep until the end. Brundle fought back magnificently to finish sixth. Then of course, in Canada, they went back to not prequalifying. Strange world.

It was a pretty odd year though. Stefan Johannson rarely made in through qualifying in the lurid pink and sky blue Onyx (emblazoned with the legend 'Moneytron' as if making a particularly spirited attempt to win some kind of kind of bad taste award). Then suddenly, in Portugal, he was on the podium. Truth be told, the team were inexperienced and suffered at the whims of their eccentric backer Jean Pierre Van Rossem, but the Alan Jenkins' designed ORE-1 was a pretty tidy car. Their Portuguese sucess led the team briefly to talk of challenging Williams and McLaren, before being declared bankrupt less than a year later - though not before it had passed through the hands of the downright weird Swiss motor collector and former F1 backmarker, Peter Monteverdi.That same race was briefly led by Pierluigi Martini, in a Minardi, no less.

If all that was unexpected then dawn on race day at the first Grand Prix of the following season was downright surreal. Throughout the winter, attention had been focussed on whether McLaren (Senna) would be able to retain their dominance over Ferrari (Prost and Mansell). Some wondered whether Williams (Patrese and Boutsen) or Benetton (Piquet) might throw the cat among the pigeons, but the rest, it could safely be said, would be bit-part players.

The grid at Phoenix appeared to tell a very different story. There was Berger's McLaren on pole, and maybe you would have got long odds against him outqualifying Senna in his first race at Mclaren, but it was not so far out of the ordinary. But what was the yellow and white car alongside him ? Boutsen's Williams perhaps? Why no, it was Pierluigi Martini in his Cosworth powered Minardi. And the Italian red car in third ? Prost's Ferrari ? Andrea De Cesaris' Dallara actually. Next up was Jean Alesi, in a year old Tyrrell - one spot ahead of Senna's Mclaren. The grid was odd all the way down too. How about Olivier Grouillard in an Osella in eighth? Just one spot behind Prost's Ferrari. And what on earth was Roberto Moreno doing, one spot ahead of Mansell's Ferrari in a Eurobrun? If you've not heard of Eurobrun, there's a reason. They only qualified once more all season. The race was a return to normal, of sorts. Senna ran out the winner, although he was run unexpectedly close by Alesi's Tyrrell.

Why did it happen? Well, it wasn't a wet session that did it. Certainly it helped that all the times were set on Friday, and most of the main players were convinced that they would improve on Saturday, only to find that the skies opened. The nature of the circuit helped too. A street track full of slow 90 degree turns, it bore little resemblance to anywhere else on the calendar - that is to say, it was not really what the cars were actually designed for. Tyres were probably the main factor though. Most of the unexpectedly quick guys were on Pirellis, and at that point in the game, the Italian firm's qualifiers were streets ahead of anything that Goodyear had to offer.

Tyres were a major part of another surprise performance, seven years later. Damon Hill's year at Arrows had largely been a wasted experience, but one Sunday in Eastern Europe, it was all very different. In 1997, all the top teams ran Goodyears, but at Hungary, Bridgestones were clearly the tyres to have. Hill's Arrows wasn't the only car on Bridgestone, but it is perhaps telling that it was the reigning world champion, and not any of the other Bridgestone runners, who was the man to take advantage, dominating the race until his gearbox failed shortly before the end of the race. Even so, he finished second, and came as close as ever anyone did to winning a race for the ill-fated Arrows team.

In 1999, I found myself stuck in a railway station in Eastern Europe for some thirteen hours. Lacking money, or anything much to do, I sat and watched the big screen television by the platform. And suddenly, up on the screen flashed a picture of Heinz Harald Frentzen, celebrating victory in the Italian Grand Prix. And as the results scrolled down, it became clear that he had beaten the Ferraris and Coulthard's McLaren in a straight fight. This, to my mind even more of an upset than Johnny Herbert's freak win for Stewart later in the year, or Giancarlo Fisichella's final win for Jordan in the soaking Brazilian Grand Prix in 2003, both of which owed much more to luck and attrition.

Will anything so strange happen at Melbourne this weekend? I doubt it, but then the thought occurs that those BMWs have been very quick in testing on occasion.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

F1 2007: Ferrari vs Mclaren; Alonso vs Raikkonen?

The interminable winter wait is almost over. In just over a week's time, the F1 teams will be down in Melbourne, Australia and more likely than not, I'll be crawling out of bed in the middle of the night to get a fix of Grand Prix racing after the best part of six months off.

Clash of the titans

2005 was all about Alonso vs Raikkonen and Renault against Mclaren. In 2006, the Mclaren never really seemed at home on its tyres and the interest was in the battle between Alonso and Schumacher, Renault and Ferrari. If I've read the winter testing runes right, and this is not always an easy thing to do, then it looks as though 2007 is going to be about Alonso and Raikkonen once again, and the battle between Maranello and Woking. With Michael Schumacher having departed the scene after what feels like half a life time, it appears that the heirs apparent to his crown have landed up in the best two cars as the 2007 season begins. At first, Alonso seemed a little upset, somewhat unnerved, about the 2007 Mclaren, convinced that it wasn't quite quick enough to take on Ferrari. Of late, though, the noises coming out of Mclaren have been sounding a good deal more positive, and it seems that Ron's boys think they have what it takes to take the fight to Ferrari. Ferrari have never lacked for confidence through the winter, and have topped the timesheets more often than not from the moment their 2007 car first turned a wheel. Everything suggests that they are just a little way ahead of Mclaren, but the gap is too small and winter testing too unreliable a barometer of form to be certain.

A role for the understudies?

If, on the face of it, this year's title battle looks as if it will be between Alonso and Raikkonen, it is worth remembering that some people who ought to know are suggesting both may face an unexpectedly strong challenge from their respective team mates. I wouldn't have fingered Felipe Massa as a serious rival to Raikkonen, but an awful lot of people, including former Mclaren man Jo Ramirez and F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone expect the Brazilian to keep the Finn honest. He does after all have the advantages of incumbency, of a learning year alongside Michael Schumacher, of much greater experience with Bridgestone's tyres and of being managed by Jean Todt's son. All the same, I'd be surprised if his seemingly superior testing form translates into a season-long challenge to Raikkonen. On his day, though, Massa undoubtedly can be very quick, and he makes many fewer mistakes than he once did.

The idea that Lewis Hamilton will be keeping Alonso awake at night is probably still more far-fetched. F1 Racing magazine may recently have insisted Alonso and Hamilton: It will be closer than you think... but they are a British magazine, and this is almost certainly a case of drumming up enthusiasm for the home hero. Hamilton may be very good indeed, but even a Schumacher or a Prost might have baulked at the thought of spending their first year in a front-running team alongside quite possibly the best driver in the field. Even if he has the same raw kind of ability as Alonso, he'll be giving away six years in experience. If he can get anywhere close to the reigning champion, he'll have done a very good job. That said, if he really is as good as he looked in GP2 last year, there will be days when he'll be one to watch.

Renault on the downward spiral?

The chances are, this year will not see Renault bring home the constructors or drivers championship for a third year in succession. Thus far, the R27 has been more noticeable for its truly horrid paint-scheme (Motorsports Ramblings' peripatetic fashion correspondent described it as "looking like someone threw up over the Swedish flag") than for its outright pace. Truth be told, as in 1994-95 the team's success has perhaps owed much more to team work and the sheer genius of its lead driver, than to the outright pace of the team's cars. With the inexperienced Heikki Kovalainen paired with Fisichella - a man we already know is not Alonso's equal - that is one ace card Renault will not have this year. The team have done an awful lot with much more limited resources than their main rivals over the last few years, but I suspect that 2007 may be the year their luck finally runs out. Nonetheless, in Kovalainen, they have a young driver who just might have a very promising career in front of him, and there will be plenty reason to keep ones' eyes on the vile orange devices this season.

The Ultimate Driving Machine?

If Renault have been disappointing in the run up to the 2007 season, BMW look like they might be the team to spring a major surprise. As Sauber, they were kn own for being a solid, competently run operation, but never more than midfielders. A strong injection of German cash, however, appears to have worked wonders at Hinwil, and Autosport, at least, seem to think the car is right there with the Mclarens and Ferraris in terms of pace, even if, for now, they don't appear to be on top of their reliability problems. I would be surprised if they were able to challenge Ferrari or Mclaren consistently, but its certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility that they could leapfrog Renault to be 'best of the rest', or that they could win a race this year.

Their driver line up is probably as good as any outside of the top 2 teams, too. In Heidfeld, they have a man with a strong work ethic who will be exactly as quick as the car. He may not be in the class of Alonso or Raikkonen, but he's probably as good as any of the other established drivers. His team mate, Robert Kubica, is one of a quartet of new drivers who may yet prove to be from the very top drawer. He'll be in his first full season, and I don't doubt there will be mistakes and there will be off-days, but I hope and expect that there are also going to be days when the young Pole is truly sublime.

Troubles in the Orient

Four experienced drivers. Proper funding in place, and Japanese technical know-how on hand. Nonetheless, it just does not appear to be working out for either of the two big Japanese car manufacturers in Formula 1. Toyota look poised to overtake General Motors as the largest car manufacturer in the world this year. Given the resources available to them, one might expect that this year could be the year that they finally start to make a real impact in Grand Prix racing. Unfortunately, all the signs are that this is no more likely to be their breakthrough year than last year. In the hands of Ralf Schumacher, the new car has been steady and unexceptional - rather like its driver. Jarno Trulli, whom it was widely rumoured last year would walk away into retirement, seems even more underwhelmed by the new TF107. Doubtless, they will continue to pick up plenty points finishes in the lower reaches of the top 8, and doubtless too, there will be occasions on which they appear inexplicably far up the grid only to sink back on race day, but I would be surprised if they do any better than they did last year.

Doing as well as last year would appear to be a tough target for Honda. Their new RA107 is far and away the most striking new car on the grid, elegantly waisted at the rear, with a very small frontal area in comparison to just about every other car on the grid. There is no getting away from the fact that car just has just not been quick though. Jenson Button, going into his 8th season of Formula 1, is likely to find this immensely frustrating. Rubens Barrichello, who is going into his 14th season, is perhaps more likely to simply go to sleep this year. Already there is talk of a major update to the car at the third race in Sepang but given the extremely limited time in which to sort out the RA107's flaws, this talk is likely more PR fluff than reality. Don't expect the sponsor-less 'earth car' to repeat Honda's Hungary 2006 feat and actually win any races.

Dietrich's Flying Circus

Nick Fry's men can at least console themselves with the thought that at least they are not in Red Bull's shoes. With a Renault engine, Mark Webber on board and an Adrian Newey-penned chassis, 2007 should be the year when Red Bull really start to deliver. Unfortunately, it looks as though this time, the Newey magic has simply not come off. Thus far, the car has been slow, unreliable and can't even comfortably accommodate their lanky lead driver (an echo of Newey's earliest F1 cars, the Leyton Marches of the late 1980s). In theory, Red Bull have the kind of technical strength in depth that should allow them to recover from this rather unpromising position, but in reality, rumours of team instability and discontent suggest it may be difficult to get everyone pulling in the same direction.

Mark Webber must be wondering what he has to do to get into the right car at the right time. Turning down a Renault drive to go to Williams might only look foolish in retrospect, but walking out on Williams to go to Red Bull at least arguably looked like a silly move, even at the time. He might have to content himself with finishing off veteran Coulthard's career. If the Scot can hold his own against Webber, he just might hang on in the sport for another year or two, but it does rather look like this could be his final season of F1.

Looking up down Grove way?

Frank Williams' team had a frankly atrocious 2006. It would be easy to blame the fact that they had customer engines, but all told, the Cosworth V8s were probably the strongest part of the package last year. And if they had a reputation for blowing up, that appeared to have more to do with their installation in the car than anything that was fundamentally wrong on Cosworth's side.

There have been dark murmurings that the team faces a cash crisis, and that it is little more than a Toyota B-Team these days, but in the face of all this, they have actually looked pretty quick in pre-season testing. And they no longer have to pay the engine bills. Nico Rosberg flattered to deceive a little last year, but with a year's experience under his belt, he might finally start to live up to the promise he showed in GP2, and in his first couple of F1 races. Alex Wurz's re-entry into Formula 1 perhaps says more about the decline of Williams and their inability to attract any more promising drivers, but the Austrian test-veteran is competent, hard working and ticks all the boxes apart from the one marked 'inspirationally fast'. Given their recent troubles, he might be just what Williams need right now. If pre-season testing is anything to go by, they could end up embarrassing their vastly richer engine suppliers.

Also Appearing...

With the FIA retaining the 'eliminate 6' qualifying session, we will once again probably see slightly less of Super Aguri, Squadro Toro Rosso and Spyker than we did last year. I'd like to see Spyker win this little battle, firstly because they have developed their own car, and secondly because I happen to think that Adrian Sutil might be someone very special indeed. Unfortunately, this is rather unlikely. The new car is really just an updated Midland M16, and one rather suspects that even with Mike Gascoygne's input, that will struggle against a 2007 Red Bull and a 2006 Honda.

I'd expect Super Aguri, with a mildly updated version of last year's Honda and two experienced drivers in Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson, to emerge the best of this bunch. Sato has vastly more experience than any of the other tail-end drivers, while Davidson spent much of last year testing the car that he will now be racing. Super Aguri are a surprisingly well-drilled team, who were able to achieve a lot more with a five year old Arrows chassis than really ought to have been possible. Inevitably, this battle is likely to be marred by arguments over whether Toro Rosso and Super Aguri should really be on the grid at all, given that they are running a repainted Red Bull RB3 and a lightly reworked Honda RA106 respectively. To my mind, the sensible solution would be not to allow either team to score constructors championship points, but a strict reading of the rules arguably makes this difficult.

As it happens, I suspect that this year Toro Rosso may end up at the very back. Adrian Newey's RB3 is a complex car, much more so than the Toro Rosso/Minardi mechanics are really used to working with. Worse than that, its a rather troublesome car, and while the works team might have the resources to sort it out, the Toro Rosso boys are liable to find life rather harder.

To me, the most interesting thing about this tail-end squabble is that it is being fought out between proper racing drivers. No rich chancers bringing pots of cash to the table - Liuzzi, Speed, Albers, Sutil, Sato and Davidson are all proper racing drivers and if nothing else, like everyone on the grid, they will all be out to beat their team mates.

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