F1 2011 Season Preview

26 Mar

The first race of the new Formula One season is just hours away. With impecipable timing, here is a look forward to this year’s season. This post is written by Thomas Brampton. You can read Thomas’ review of the 2010 season here.

Thomas’ F1 2011 Season Preview

Well, after a two week delay, we are finally ready to go for F1 2011. The season now starts in Australia and the big question is; can this season be as good as last? From an overall perspective the answer is surely no. 2010 was one of the best seasons of F1 racing ever, so it would be ridiculous to expect another season that good.  However, while the title race has a lot to live up to, the new elements in Formula one this year means that the individual races should match last season in terms of excitement. Or maybe they’ll just be more chaotic then last season.

Politics

Before we start the sporting stuff, it is worth once again checking where we stand on the off the track politics. One of the things that made last season so enjoyable was that even the paddock battles were about the racing (i.e. complaining that Red Bull were cheating) rather than money, and this season – for now – appears to be equally trouble free. It seems that Jean Todt’s less confrontational style as head of the FIA (and his policy of focusing on the World Rally Championship, which really needs the FIA’s attention) has helped smooth the waters. You could also argue that only having two manufactures involved (Ferrari and Mercedes, with Renault now pretty much joining Cosworth as only an engine suppler) has helped too. The only major argument on going right now is the Lotus case, which we will cover later.

However, while the start of the season will probably be quiet (as the teams focus on accusing those with “different interpretations of the rules” of cheating,) next year sees the negotiating of a new commercial agreement with Bernie Ecclestone, so expect some preliminary shots in that battle to be fired by the teams latter in the season.

Rule Changes

While not as dramatic as the rule changes in recent years, 2011 will see some of the most noticeable rule changes in F1, as several new elements are introduced to improve the spectacle. Actually, none of them are completely new, as all of them have appeared in F1 before.

First is the 107% rule, which was previously used between 1996 and 2002. Basically this means that if your qualifying time in Q1 is not within 107% of the fastest driver’s time, you won’t be allowed to start the race. So, for example, if Vettel was fastest in Q1 with a 1min 40sec lap, then Karthikeyan would have to lap faster than 1min 47secs or he wouldn’t be allowed to start.

In practise though it is one of those “because we say so” rules; in that the stewards reserve the right to ignore it if say, it is raining, or one of your practise times are good enough, or if you had a mechanical problem, or if all the other teams say, “Yeah, we don’t mind.” The Idea behind it is that dangerously slow drivers won’t be allowed to start, but since only Sakon Yamamoto would have lost out had this rule been in force last year (and only at Silverstone) and because the big teams will not want to push to the limit in Q1 because they can’t afford to damage the tyres, I can’t really see anyone missing out this year, except possibly Hispania in Australia.

Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (henceforth Kers) are back too after a year out. The systems were never technically banned, but the teams all decided together that they wouldn’t use them last year for reasons of cost and convenience. As such the rules around then remain pretty much unchanged, with a heavily limited amount of energy that is allowed to be stored from what is recovered from the brakes, which also limits the amount of time the drivers can use the system for. However, the technology has come on leaps and bounds from its stuttering appearance in 2009, and as such all the “old” teams will be using them.  (The newer teams have enough other problems to sort out.) As such, they should all be able to cancel each other out (with everyone using the system at the same point of the track no doubt), and in return the teams get extra expense, extra reliability problems, and a minor environmental tick, that isn’t actually very environmental.

The F-Duct has been banned, only to be replaced by another movable aerodynamic devise. The movable rear wing rule will allow the drivers to open a gap between the top and bottom element of the rear wing, massively reducing drag (and downforce) providing a straight line speed increase.

The idea is to increase overtaking, so in the race use will be restricted. Drivers will only be allowed to use the wing if:

1.     They have been within 1 second of the car in front at the previous two spilt sectors.

2.     They are within a set 600 meter zone (mostly likely at the end of the main straight.)

The idea is to give the car behind enough of a speed advantage to get into a position to try to overtake. It is not supposed to be a “push to pass button” or to turn F1 into a NASCAR race, when it is so easy to overtake that you want to be second on the last lap. As such, it will be subject to the FIA “because we say so” directive, and expect the rules to be defined over the year to try and achieve the stated goal.

This rule causes me concerns; ignoring the falsification of the racing aspect, and assuming the FIA stick to the stated goal of making overtaking possible, rather than easy, there is still the safe aspect. Closing speeds between cars are going to be increased, and high closing speeds of course caused the spectacular (and terrifying) accident between Webber and Kovalainen in Valencia last year. Add in the fact that use will be unrestricted in practise and qualifying, F1 may have managed to recreate some of the circumstances that caused Gilles Villeneuve fatal accident.

Add to this the possibility of a system failure – losing rear downforce is one of the worst things that can happen to a driver, mostly because you don’t notice until you brake for the next corner. I know technology has come on a long way since 1968, but there was a reason that these systems were banned in the first place, and it has not gone away.

The double diffusers have also been banned (by the FIA deciding that a “slot” is in fact a “hole” which had always been banned.) This has had two effects. Firstly the loss of rear downforce has increased the importance of “tidying up” the rear end, to make the rear wing as effective as possible. Secondly, it means that the method of blowing exhaust gases into the diffuser has had to be changed, as the smaller diffusers will be more sensitive to this.  The teams have a verity of solutions, which we will see latter.

Tyres

The biggest change to formula one however is the change in tyre supplier. Bridgestone have left after fourteen years in the sport – the marketing returns no longer matching the expense, particularly with no other companies to beat. Pirelli have stepped in to fill the hole and they were set a clear mandate by the teams and the FIA: to make tyres that will recreate last year’s Canadian Grand Prix at every circuit.

The “problem” with the tyres last year was that they were too good. Unless you were Koybiashi, there was no variety in the strategy, because the strength of the tyres meant that there was always a predictable ideal strategy option available. The exception was Canada, when overnight rain and the unique track surface (required to protect the track from the winter weather in Canada) ripped the tyres to pieces, forcing the teams to improvise. This lead to an exciting race with multiple passes for the lead. Everyone immediately decided this is what the sport needed everywhere and Pirelli set to work.

This may be a case of “be careful what you wish for.” Pirelli have definitely succeeded. Maybe they have done too well. In race simulations in testing the teams have been forced to make up to four pit stops, and the drivers have found themselves having to crawl the first few laps to make the tyres last the whole stint without a massive drop off in performance. This drop off has been up to seven seconds a lap over a stint – an incredible amount. It is fair to say that the cold weather has exaggerated this effect (the Bridgestone’s last year had some wear problems in testing, as Mark Webber has pointed out,) but this difference should mean that a driver on fresh tyres will always be faster than a driver on worn tyres, regardless of car (Hispania excluded). If the teams at the front concentrate too hard on each other strategy wise, they may become vulnerable to lower teams on the ideal strategy.

For an example of this, think of the 2009 Australian Grand Prix. An early safety car period combined with soft tyres that were falling to pieces allowed Lewis Hamilton to climb from 18th on the grid to fourth and Kubica to challenge for victory in the last 10 laps, despite driving cars that at the time were terrible. Admittedly Kubica crashed into Vettel and Hamilton got himself disqualified by lying to the stewards in an effort to get Trulli excluded, but the point stands. On a race by race basis, anyone could win if they hit the strategy jackpot and everyone else misses. Over a championship season of course, the best cars will still win (by law of averages), but race by race it could be more open than ever. However, the races will also be far more confusing, and might possibly feel a bit false. We won’t know for sure until the season starts.

Team by Team

This time, ordering the teams seems harder than ever, with only four of the teams seeming in clear positions. The rest form a midfield gaggle for now but as the season goes on it should sort it’s self out. As a result, I am going to cheat and this year order the teams by where I think they will finish the season, rather than where they are now. This should make it slightly easier for me but as I hope to make clear, the order in Australia will probably be quite different.

So, starting with a predictable 12th:

12th. Hispania Racing F1 Team

Having survived their first season, Hispania must continue the difficult task of establishing themselves as Formula one’s new long term minnow. The fact is that there are no “bad” teams in F1 nowadays. HRT performed miracles last year just to complete the season, and they even managed to make a terrible car reliable at least. Chief designer Geoff Wills has worked for Williams and Red Bull before and was responsible for the 2004 BAR that came second in the championship, and the race winning 2005 car. The team has a talented and motivated work force; all it needs is some investment and they could go flying up the grid.

But the fact is it will never come. The problem is that there are eleven other teams with talented highly motivated workforces that also need that investment. Investors will choose Ferrari or Williams, or Sauber or even Virgin over HRT, so the team will remain in the back of the grid trap for as long as they can survive.

Still the team has been working hard, and they have turned out a competent car. It appears up-to date and will surely produce more downforce (and therefore performance) then last years. It’s also encouraging from a long term point of view that the team has managed to produce their own car – last year’s being made by Dallara. Additionally, Williams is selling them the gearbox and rear suspension, which given the Williams gearbox is possibly the best in F1 at the moment is a big boost and should help with reliability.

However they have had no testing at all, so the car is likely to be full of teething problems. It also means we can’t assess its potential performance yet, but a safe guess says they will start off in last. The question is can they go forward?

The lack of sponsors logos suggest no. Only Tata – an Indian Car manufacture who own Jaguar – are on the car for now, curtsey of Narian Karthikeyan. Narian is a competent driver who last raced in F1 in 2005, but has tested for Williams since then.  Running in NASCAR last year will have made him a little ring rusty, but I don’t expect him to make a fool of himself.

Tonio Luizz has taken the plunge to join him in the team. This may actually be a blessing in disguise. If Luizzi can achieve anything at all in HRT, it will massively improve his flagging reputation. If he achieves nothing, it is unlikely to damage it. No one expects anything from Hispania, so if Luizzi can lead them to anything other than last every race, it will show add something to his CV, something he badly needs. HRT in return get an experienced driver who can develop the car.

Will these drivers see out the season? Who knows? The key in the end for HRT is to survive, which means they need money, and they need to qualify for the races. The 107% rule could be a tall order in Australia, as the car is yet to run, but I expect them to make it there and everywhere else. However, finding the money to complete the season against a backdrop of the current global economic situation could be a challenge. We may not have seen the last of Sakon Yamamoto…

11th. Marussia Virgin Racing

Now with extra money from the Russian sports car manufacture no one has heard of, Manor/Simtek (sorry, Wirth Research)/Virgin enter their second season with renewed confidence, eager to put last season’s last place finish (and too small fuel tank) behind them. The team is a sensibly run operation, with viable targets and a solid business model based on slow growth and exclusively CFD design. Operating costs are certainly lower than for most teams, but at the same time they are still losing some of the aerodynamic detail that a wind tunnel can provide.

While the new car is an improvement on last year – complete with a blown diffuser – and looks very tidy, you could pretty much copy-paste what I said about last year’s car in general. It is also interesting to note that the nose is lower than pretty much every other car this year – either they know something no one else does or it is a quirk of CFD. Unlike their fellow new teams they have also been force to stick with last year’s unreliable gearbox.

That said testing has gone a lot better this year, with the team enjoying the novelty value of the car completing laps! Initially they were quicker the Lotus too, but in the last test it has become apparent that they are still off the pace of the mid-field. With no upgrade package planned until Turkey, it looks like they will be stuck in Q1 for a while yet.

This will be frustrating no doubt for the highly talented Timo Glock, who deserves better. Last year though he did a great job of keeping his head up. Whenever he had a sniff of a battle (or a TV camera,) he really went for it, racing hard against much faster cars in Australia, Singapore and Korea. With this year’s tyres possibly able to mix things up, he might still get a sniff at points at some point in the season, and I wouldn’t want to be the guy trying to beat him in those circumstances.

Jerome D’Ambrosio is a driver we have been keeping an eye on for a while. He looked like the real deal in the highly competitive junior formulae, but never quite made it in GP2, despite flashes of brilliance (like his heart breaking engine failure while leading his home race in Belgium.) However he got the opportunity to run in some Friday practises for the team at the end of the year, and obviously did enough to impress them. An appendix operation for his teammate has also given him more mileage in testing then he’d otherwise have had. Jerome is certainly worth a shot, but his success all depends on which D’Ambrosio turns up: he has the Jarno Trulli habit of sometimes just not performing, and that does nothing for a young driver – just ask Luizzi. Still, I expect him to do better than Di Grassi last year.

10th. Team Lotus

Okay, we can delay it no longer. The mercurial genius Colin Chapman founded Team Lotus to build and run racing cars. To help fund it, he set up Lotus Cars, to make road vehicles. However unlike Enzo Ferrari, who had the same motivation, Team Lotus and Lotus Cars where always legally distinct companies, just with the same owner.

When Chapman died, Lotus Cars and Team Lotus where sold separately. Lotus Cars eventually ended up in the hands of the Malaysian Proton company, where as in 1995 the bankrupt Team Lotus landed with David Hunt (brother of James.) Unable to continue, he shut the team.

Proton argues that Team Lotus therefore stopped trading in 1995, so no longer exists and as such, they hold the only “Lotus” trademark (toilet seat manufacturing companies notwithstanding.) In fact they have been arguing this since 1995 and Hunt has been fighting them off since 1995.

Last year, when Malaysian Tony Fernandez entered his “Malaysia 1” team into F1, he decided he wanted to call it Lotus. Initially he thought it prudent to lease the name from Proton (hence last years “Lotus Racing”) but a board room shift in the company lead to them withdrawing the right for this year – Proton had suddenly decided they wanted to go racing their way. Unperturbed, Fernandez brought the Team Lotus name from David Hunt – a name Proton still claim no longer exists. So that is how we get two “Lotus” teams on the grid, and depending on a high court ruling, that is how it will stay.

So, on to the racing. Last year’s Lotus was an F1 hack; a quickly built basic car just designed to get the team on the grid in a very short space of time. Development was stopped pretty much as soon as the car worked (or Kovalainen’s worked anyhow) and they started on this:

The new car is much more like it. The aero has been improved massively, with proper undercut sidepods, a Red Bull rear end (literally brought from Red Bull) and a Renault engine. They have even managed to exploit a rules loop hole, with the blade roll over hoop supposedly banned… The rear suspension is an efficient pull rod set up, but the front suspension angle is extremely steep, which could cause understeer issues on bumpy tracks. It is more aerodynamically efficient though, and is probably a sign of where chief designer Mike Gascoigne’s priorities for this car lie.

What Lotus have here is the base of a competitive formula one car. It isn’t there yet, as testing has shown, but it is miles better than last year’s effort and has plenty of development potential. Testing pace hasn’t been terrible either, so I’m going to credit them as the start of the mid-field gaggle. Sure, they will mostly be going out in Q3, but I expect them to meet their goal of challenging for points on pace under certain conditions.

For Heikki Kovalainen, this means much more pressure. Last year nothing was expected, and he was brilliant. This year something is expected. Heikki has always been quick, but has he matured from the driver that got burnt by the pressure of first Renault and then McLaren? The driver who lost a large GP2 championship lead to Nico Rosberg? I’m going to guess yes. Heikki seems highly motivated for the fight and very happy in his skin at this team. I predict that will get the best from him.

Last year Trulli was poor. His good friendship with Mike Gascogine notwithstanding he needs to perform this year. His comments throughout testing have been inconsistent – flipping from praising the team for the improvements to moaning about the lack of reliability that is still plaguing him and the team. In an energised driver this looks like a desire to push the team to improve, but I get the sense from Trulli that he is tired. I think that he no longer has the motivation needed to compete in the sport at the top level, and that when he realises this he will decide to end his successful career at the end of the year. Hopefully though, we’ll see a few more special qualifying laps from him before then – Monaco anyone?

9th. Force India F1 Team

This is one of the reasons I have used the mid-field gaggle qualifier/ get out clause. Force India is not the 9th best team in Formula one, and there car is going to be more then capable of scoring points. However, someone had to be ninth, and after a late launch, Force India have looked fairly invisible in testing.

The truth is that Force India are still struggling with the loss of key technical staff, most of whom were pinched by Sauber. Looking at the car, if you exclude the blade rollover hoop and airbox, the 2011 car looks very similar to the 2010 car. Particularly the front nose and rear look rather unambitious at the moment. The team’s failure to get to grips with the F-duct concept last year is not a promising sign for their hopes of developing the car either.

For the record, since Lotus and Force India are the only teams using them, the blade roll bars and set back air intakes are designed to clean up airflow to the rear wing. It was thought that the wider cross section of the blade, mandated to try and prevent the blades cutting into the ground if the car rolled, would make the design unworkable. Obviously these two teams have found a way around it.

Normally a conservative car would at least mean reliability but Force India has been plagued by technical problems, particularly with Kers. The lost track time has hampered the team a lot, as they ran the old car at the first test, so were pushed for time anyway.

Over an entire season it is hard to rule Force India out. But those lost tech staff in my mind will lead to a difficult year, in which their main focus may well be holding off Lotus and Virgin.

This will not please Sutil, who wanted to leave anyway, and nearly lost his drive as a result. This season will probably be a real test of his mental strength, as the stereotype Force India driver tries to motivate himself for what will could be a long, hard and (due to his perceived betrayal) lonely season – at least from the top level management.

Paul di Resta is the new man of the moment in the team. The Scots man comes with an impressive CV. He beat Vettel in F3, won the highly competitive German Touring Car championship last year, and has the full throated support of Mercedes – who supply the team’s engines. Having done a year’s, err… “work experience” at the team, he has had plenty of F1 mileage compared to the average modern F1 rookie, so should be well prepared. It is unfair to say that he will beat Sutil straight out of the box, but he certainly could. Maybe that will motivate Adrian though.

If that wasn’t enough danger for Sutil, Force India have stuck with their habit of hiring fast drivers for the test role by scooping up Nico Hulkenberg. The Brazilian Grand Prix pole sitter will not want to be out of racing for long, so both Sutil and di Resta will have to perform. One feels however that unless he makes a good start, the pressure will mostly be on Sutil…

8th Sauber F1 Team

This was another very hard team to place. Sauber (now just Sauber, the embarrassing “BMW Sauber Ferrari” name is gone) have looked very quick at times, but so have a lot of teams. I expect them to challenge for points in Australia, but hopefully my placing of them will become clear.

So now fully backing control, Peter Sauber (the man who is supposed to have retired) has pretty much recreated his team. He has found sponsors from an unconventional market (Mexico), stolen those talented technical staff from Force India and renewed the successful technical tie in with Ferrari, who supply the engine, gearbox and kers.

As a result, Sauber have stuck with the push rod rear suspension (see Ferrari) whereas pretty much everyone else has changed to the Red Bull’s style push rod. This has advantages and disadvantages: aerodynamically push rod is worse as it takes up more space, but the suspension is more exposed so the mechanics can adjust it more easily. The rest of the car looks sound: the front suspension is pretty much the perfect compromise between aero and mechanical grip, and the airbox undercut shows a level of thought and detail that is encouraging. The side pod looks a little fat, with the undercut not consistent enough, but otherwise it seems like a solid neat little car. Like a stereotypical Sauber in fact.

Testing has been promising with the car very quick over one lap, and looking solid if not spectacular over a race distance. This has been the case with both drivers too. Rookie Sergio Perez is responsible for much of the Mexican money backing the team, but the former British F3 champion is not solely there for the money. He showed good pace in GP2 last year on his way to second in the championship, even if most of his wins were in the Sunday reverse grid races. Most steady then spectacular, but never slow, I expect him to be challenging Maldonado again for (the unofficial) “Rookie of the Year.”

We now know all about Kobayashi after last year heroics, but the responsibility of being the undisputed number one driver will be something new to him. The key is to give the correct information to the engineers so as to drive the development of the car in the correct direction. That way he can use his brilliant talent to drag a 5th placed car to the podium, rather than a 15th placed car to the points. The question is how well has he learnt at from Nick Heidfeld and Pedro de la Rosa last year?

This gets to why Sauber is 8th in my book. They have a good car, good staff and good drivers, just like the Sauber of old. The Sauber that used to make spectacular starts to a season and then go backwards as they dropped back in the development race. Peter Sauber has successfully rebuilt his team, that is for sure. It is almost as if the BMW years never happened. Without an experienced driver (for what I feel are perfectly valid reasons by the way) I expect them to have a typical Sauber season.

7th Scuderia Toro Rosso

Before testing started, I had serious worries for Red Bull’s other team. This year will be the first year since 2005, that the tiny Italian outfit has designed its own car (last year’s car was just a stretched 09 Red Bull.) The team boss Franz Tost had claimed throughout last year that the team was ramping up their design office and all was well, but with the team lacking investment and still up for sale it was hard to see the team holding off Lotus and co, particularly as they went backwards last year.

When the car was launched however, things quickly changed. Firstly it just looks right, in that really difficult to define way. It is well finished, all the surfaces looked neat, and the airbox area (for example) looked to have successfully taken clues from top teams other than Red Bull. Although the car appeared to lack the detailed refinement and little tweaks and flicks that mark a top team’s machine, it looked like the new design team had done a surprisingly solid job.

However, we still weren’t giving then enough credit. For underneath the highly swept side pod, the “twin floor” concept has returned to Formula One. Last used (terribly) by Ferrari in 1992, the idea is to channel the air smoothly to the rear of the car, creating downforce on the way. Unlike Ferrari’s effort though the Toro Rosso version works.

In testing this quickly became apparent, with the cars regularly in the top five or even three in testing. Even Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso have been impressed by the pace on both short and long runs. Turning back the clock to 2007, with the power Ferrari engine and Kers system, Toro Rosso should be able to challenge for good points (and maybe even podiums) at the start of the year.

I wanted to put them far higher – in one plan for this preview I had them in third. So why not? Well firstly, there is still the money and experience issue. Just because they had successfully made a good car doesn’t mean they can develop it. Most of the top teams will have a new aero kit in Melbourne, but I can’t see Toro Rosso even having enough money for that. The team badly needs independent sponsors and a few more years of experience, but one will only come with time and the other seems impossible at the moment.

Then there is the other weak link: the drivers. Alguersuari and Buemi have both show moments of skill in their F1 careers thus far, but only moments. I am still reserving judgment of Jamie, but Sebastian Buemi failed to build on a good debut season last year. Neither of them look like future world champions yet though, and that has never been good enough for Red Bull’s paymasters. British F3 champion Daniel Riccardo will be driving in Friday Practises, and on the evidence on winter testing he does look like a future champion. Unless both race drivers can produce some impressive performances quickly, I anticipate that that there will be another mid-season coup in the drivers’ camp at Toro Rosso.

There we go: a preview of Toro Rosso without mentioning Minardi.

6th AT&T Williams

Okay, so don’t mention Tyrell, right? No, seriously, this time, this year we can’t mention Tyrell. You see Ken’s team fell from grace not because they fell behind in design quality or effort but because they never adapted to the commercial changes in Formula one. They still came up with great design ideas and built good cars (1983, 1990, 1994, 1996 etc) but could never turn it into money and sponsors. Williams however have adapted. They have swallowed their pride and taken a pay driver, and the stock market floatation show that Sir Frank and Patrick Head are defiantly not “stuck in their ways.” Will it work? I don’t know, although I have concerns as to why any rational investor would buy shares in a company that will never pay a dividend. Plenty of people invest in football clubs though, so there is a market for irrational investments out there. Either way, if Williams does crumble into oblivion, it won’t be for the same reason as Tyrell.

That said, Williams have come up with a Tyrell-esc good idea this year. One that like the 1990 flying nose will take the rest of the teams some time to copy:

Ignore the rest of the car – it’s solid but nothing special. The key is the gearbox: it is tiny – the smallest ever in F1. This has left a huge space at the rear of the car, a space in which aero dynamic magic (that I won’t even pretend to understand) can happen. Given how the banning of the double diffuser has made this area of the car even more important, this is a big step for Williams.

No one has succeeded with a ‘box like this before because the driveshaft angle has been too step to avoid a loss in power. Williams appear to have got around this though, and with Cosworth having improved their engine further, the team appears stronger than we have seen recently.

Barrichello has set some fast laps testing and done some impressive long runs too. However they have suffered some serious reliability problems with the Kers system that has cost they lots of track time. Michael Schumacher has also reported that the new clever rear of the car flexes a lot, which could cause a variety of aero and reliability problems.

Driver wise, there is not much more that can be said about Rubens Barrichello. Over three hundred Grand Prix and still going strong, he is very fast and good at development work. Despite lacking the consistent world beating pace needed to become a world champion, he is still exactly what Williams need now.

Pastor Maldonado seems like a dirty word at the moment. The “pay driver” who ousted Nico Hulkenberg deserves more respect than that though. Pastor dominated GP2 last year, taking most of his record number of wins in the “proper” race on Saturdays. He is also very quick around Monaco and that is not something talentless drivers do. However there is no denying that he has been in GP2 for a long time, and if it wasn’t for his large financial backing that he wouldn’t be in F1. That however is true of Perez and Petrov too, so Maldonado should be given a chance. It’s up to him to make use of it.

In conclusion Williams are on the up. But up is a hard direction. The teams above them are very good and well-funded. On a race by race basis Rubens will be able to get some good results, and they could (perhaps should) pick up a few podiums. Over a season however, I still think they will be stuck in the mid field.

5. Vodafone McLaren Mercedes

How does this keep happening? Mark Webber possibly put it best when he said that some years McLaren produce a great car and some years they produce a shitbox. 2011 appears to be a shitbox year – although not to the extent of 2009.

It all looks so promising too. The L-shaped side pods are the most distinctive feature, supposed to channel air to the rear of the car more clearly. However, there air they will be channelling is the disturbed air off the front wheel – so maybe this is mission impossible. Those L-shapes also raise the centre of gravity, which is always a bad thing.

The real revolutionary concept for this McLaren is a part we can’t see – the exhaust pipes. It is believed that they feed directly into the front and centre of the diffuser, thus maximising the downforce from the hot gas. This is a repeat of the maximising the diffuser concept from last year’s car, which wasn’t a magic bullet then. The bigger problem is the cooling. The result of the design is that the very hot exhaust pipes are now situated under the Gearbox. As a result they are almost impossible to cool properly –which may explain the second air intake in the engine cover (which will produce massive amounts of drag.)

Testing has been a disaster. The cars have really struggled for grip, destroyed the Pirelli tyres and broken down repeatedly. The lack of mileage may be the real killer; with the team not having has enough time to do as much set up work as is really needed for such a new concept.

There is light at the end of the tunnel though and it’s not a train. The concept is revolutionary, which means that if the team can make it work it should produce dividends. McLaren are one of the best development teams in the pit lane while we should expect a slow start, it would be wrong to rule out wins before the end of the year. The championship though looks like a very hard task.

This will not improve the mood of Lewis Hamilton. Now seemingly back on track off track (so to speak) Lewis is getting increasingly frustrated by the team’s inability to constantly produce good cars. There does seem to be something fundamentally wrong in the McLaren design office – probably the lack of a strong continuous chief designer. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that McLaren are going to fix this problem any time soon, as they seem stuck to their inflexible structure and practises (as seen with their hopeless race strategy calls). Hamilton – who is one of the best drivers in Formula one, if not the best – has recently signed up with the major sports management company “XIX” who handle David Beckham among others. With their desire for cash and Lewis’ for success, expect a big money move to another team soon, but I still expect there to be a few more moments of genius to say goodbye on.

Jenson Button – who must surly still expect to wake up in January 2009 every morning – may be more willing to stick it out. He has matured into a great racing driver despite lacking the tiniest bit of outright speed and his good strategic instinct might help him out with the new tyres particularly if he  is brave enough to overrule the team. Button is closer to the end of his career then the start though so would also prefer to avoid more “Honda” years if possible. I would expect at least one opportunistic win from him though.

4th Mercedes GP Petronas F1 team

So that plan I mentioned earlier – the one Toro Rosso were third on. On that plan Mercedes were 9th.

I had planned perfectly what I was going to say – the new car (that looks a bit like the 1995 Benetton to me, just a thought) had been disastrous from the start.

The aero dynamic design was at best naive, with the front wing being particularly lambasted in the press for its’ two element configuration, which produces more unpredictable downforce. The team even resorted to cutting slots in it in the second test to try and sort the issue. The exhausts were remarkably conventional, and the more complex design failed its’ first crash test. It performed the magic trick of both oversteering and understeering and destroyed tyres for fun making it hopeless on long runs.

Ross Brawn claimed that this was okay: this was just a first step. An interim car, which would allow Mercedes to work on reliability before the full update package arrived. But with the cars breaking down regularly and the much vaunted upgrade package due to arrive only after the date originally set for the Bahrain Grand Prix, this explanation was hard to swallow. It looked like Mercedes would struggle to make it out of Q1.

However, the upgrade package did arrive, and it appears to have done the trick. From what I can tell the long run pace has improved a lot and on a qualifying set up the car is strong too. This may be the team I get spectacularly wrong, but it is possible that Mercedes have fixed the car already. If the aero and suspension now works, then that adds to the best engine (and on 2009 evidence Kers system) in the sport to make this a package capable of fighting at the front of our huge midfield.

The Ace up their sleeves is the drivers and the strategy. If anyone can read the races under the new confusing Pirelli tyre situation, then it is Ross Brawn and if three or four pits stops are to become de jour then it should be noted that Mercedes were the fastest guns in the pit lane last year. Nico Rosberg is getting tired of people (like me I’m ashamed to say) not taking him seriously because he hasn’t won a race yet. The experts in the Paddock have a high opinion of him, so I shall listen to them for once. Rosberg now has got used to the team and if the car is up to it he proved last year that he could get podiums. If he gets the chance, I’ll back him to grab a win.

Then there is Michael Schumacher. There is a reason he is a seven times world champion. If he has any of that motivation and talent lingering around, he should be able to use this car and the new tyres to supply his F1 comeback with a win. Otherwise we will be reminded that there was a reason he retired too.

3rd Lotus Renault GP

At the other Lotus team, things started very well. Last year was brilliant season in which they re-established the team in the sport after the Singapore 2008 scandal, and nearly chased down “Petronas” for fourth in the championship. For this year, were aiming want to push on after “Vodafone”, “Marlboro” and maybe even “Red Bull” in a challenge for the championship.

To this end “Lotus” built an aggressive car. The new pull rod suspension has an even more extreme layout then Red Bull (going right under the gear box) and some very clever forward exhausts, that should allow them to “blow” the entire floor, rather than just the diffuser as everyone else does. There were a few initial reliability issues as you would expect from an aggressive car, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed. Additionally armed with better aerodynamics, a team that are brilliant at wining the season long development race and the best driver in Formula one, I was confidently tipping them as championship contenders. Then, on a damp corner of an Italian road, it all went horribly wrong.

I am not just an F1 fan, I love all motor sport. Rallying in particular is one of my favourites (I took three days off work to watch the Monte Carlo on Eurosport as I am now paying £12 an event to watch the world championship on ESPN). But rallying is not safe, that is part of what makes it so special I suppose. So should Robert Kubica – the best driver in F1 – have been competing in it? For fun? When his team pay him millions of pounds to produce the best for them?

Of course he should. Formula one drivers are now kept so far away from the fans its despicable. Wouldn’t you love to see Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button competing in the BTCC on their weekends off? Kubica argued before the accident that with the testing restrictions as they are nowadays, he needed rallying to keep him sharp. Eric Bouler – team manager – explained that for Renault, sorry Lotus, too they needed to give Kubica a way to have fun – have a life – between a race. Banning Kubica from rallying because he might injure himself would be no different from your boss banning you from, say drinking in case you fell down the stairs and were unable to go to work, or playing football on the weekends in case you got concussion. If your boss stops you from doing what you want in your free time, you will want to work somewhere else (see Kimi Raikkonen and McLaren). Kubica is a proper petrol head, all he wants to do is race cars, or work on cars, or talk about cars (or play poker with the other drivers).

Besides, the accident was a freak, which could have quite easily happened in a road car. Kubica knows this having had the same arm completely destroy in a road accident as a passenger in 2003 (he was hit by a car jumping a red light). I did (by chance) catch his comeback race on Sky sports, when he charged to victory at the Norisring in the F3 Euroseries. Kubica is an exciting and brilliant driver, a true motorsport fan, and a special person. (Fernando Alonso does not charge two hundred miles up the autosrada to a try and visit just anyone in hospital). He will be dearly missed this year particularly by his team. I desperately hope this injury doesn’t end his F1 career. If it does though, may I suggest the less physically challenging world of the British Touring Car Championship? (For more information of F1 drivers with serious arm injuries, please see Alessandro Nannini).

So with their potential World Champion on the side lines, Renault looked around for the next best thing. Their big problem was they had a unique car to develop, Kers and other new systems to get used to and – without being too harsh – Vitally Petrov driving the second car. It didn’t take them long to make the correct choice. In some minds Nick Heidfeld is the luckiest guy in F1, but it really was a no brainer. The experience and reliable German had a disappointing half year for Sauber but is Formula 1’s ultimate yardstick, has worked with Kers before and can always be relied on to give his all both on and off the track. Other then Kobayashi, Heidfeld has beaten every teammate on points that he has ever had (ignoring Frentzen’s lucky third place in USA 2003 for the picky) and although he has never won a race, he has only once been in a car that has. That day it was Kubica who won and it appears that the injured Pole approves of the choice of stand in too. Nick soon proved the team wise, improving the car dramatically in one day of testing, as admitted by the over looked test driver Bruno Senna. Heidfeld is not as quick or brilliant as Kubica, but he will help the engineers get the most out of the car. I expect plenty of podiums from him and maybe (just maybe) that first win…

For Petrov, there is an opportunity here too. Kept on for a few flashes of brilliance (and him large amount of Russian sponsorship money) he is now up against the traditional F1 yardstick. Comparing him to Kubica wasn’t really fair last year but the afore mentioned Raikkonen and Felipe Massa both went on to high things after being beaten firmly by Nick Heidfeld. Being his teammate and not getting destroyed seems to be the best thing that can happen to young driver. Testing has not been impressive, with Vitaly dropping the car off the road a number of times – more than both Perez and Maldonado. But if he can show the speed he show occasionally last year more regularly, he should be able to repay “Lotus” in results, rather than just cash.

On that subject (and being serious about the name thing for a moment) Renault no longer owns any of the team that everyone seems to have agreed to continue calling Renault. It is owned as we mentioned earlier by Group Lotus, who also have GT and Indycar efforts on the go, as well as a massive expansion of their road car range. This is all well and good, but Group Lotus has repeatedly posted losses year after year. Now I know that it is quite possible for loss making companies to operate successfully and to grow, but to fund an F1 team? I hope I’m wrong, but…

2nd Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro

Ferrari are under massive pressure. The massive (but understandable) tactical error that cost them the World Title last year did not go down well in Italy. The press and the senior Fiat management ripped into the team. They were publicly shamed and told they must win this year – at pain of their jobs.

This is all very worrying for the team. It sounds like something from the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, when the management at the team changed faster than the Italian Government. But surely this isn’t that Ferrari anymore; this is a Ferrari that only 11 years ago went on a six year constructor’s title winning streak after all. So let’s see what they have produced in this climate of fear to regain the title.

Oh dear. It’s a terribly boxy design and even I can see that it is aero dynamically a disaster zone. Far too bulky. The suspension – particularly at the rear – is far behind the current F1 thought process and… hang on a moment. Sorry wrong photo, that F150 name Ferrari gave the car is really confusing. Thank goodness Ford insisted on it being changed, however would we have told the difference? Anyway, here is the new Ferrari 150˚ Italia (much clearer).

Actually, maybe Ford had a point. For a start, look at the side pod undercuts. Compared to many of the other teams the car is extremely bulky their – it seems Ferrari haven’t learnt from their previous experience with packaging Kers from 2009. They also still use the push rod layout for the rear suspension when everyone else (bar Sauber and HRT I believe) has switched to the aerodynamically more efficient pull rod. Push Rod of course give the mechanics better access to work; believe it or not Red Bull had to pick rear suspension settings at the factory last year as it was extremely difficult to change at the track. However when you see the lengths the other teams have gone to to improve the aero dynamics in this area (e.g. Williams) Ferrari seem to have been awfully conservative. That seems to be true across the whole car. Here in lies a problem.

Ferrari are clearly second at the moment – there testing pace on short and long runs is undeniable. But with a car that is so timid in its design is that a surprise? They have a great handle on how to make it perform already because it is so similar to last year’s car.

Last year’s trick of leading the championship into the final race was not only about Ferrari performing well – which they did. It was also about Red Bull screwing things up. Red Bull had the best car by a long way at most tracks, but nearly threw the title away. Ferrari, like it or not, are playing catch up and they need to be bold.

But what happened to the guys who made the mistake in Abu Dhabi? To use a parliamentary term, they got “kicked upstairs;” promoted out of harm’s way. When you work in an environment where failure is met with the sack, who is going to stick their head above the parapet? Who will risk their job to suggest something radical? Could you see the F-duct for example being invented at this Ferrari? This conservative car is the produce of fear – of an Italian Ferrari team.

And just to top it all off, whom do they bring in to replace the “promoted” strategy team. Why, they poached the man in charge of strategy at McLaren. Yes McLaren. Does anyone even watch these races?

It is not like Ferrari is going to go backwards. They have enough resources to micro develop performance from a car, by systematically perfecting every little detail. But tiny improvements will not catch Red Bull. Second they will remain.

Unless Fernando Alonso can pull something out of the bag. Another brilliant racer, Alonso is also Machiavellian enough to pounce on any chance his is given. That killer instinct could be enough to make up the difference. Alonso’s weakness is still his temperament and his liability to lose his cool when luck turns against him. Unlike Hamilton, this anger usual doesn’t manifest its self constructively but Ferrari did a good job of managing it last year. We will see if they can extract the maximum from him again and dial out those uncharacteristic mistakes that occurred last season.

For poor Felipe Massa, it is put up or shut up time. Personally I don’t think he has, or ever will, recover properly from the accident that nearly killed him in 2009 and destroying his morale in Germany last year didn’t help. Still, he has been quick in testing, so maybe there is hope yet for one F1’s most likeable drivers. Rob Smedley will have to keep a tight rein on him though, lest Massa’s often ragged style destroys the vulnerable Pirelli tyres.

1st Red Bull Racing

I think that everyone accepts that Red Bull are the clear favourites for this year. It was the case even before the cars were unveiled. Last year the team had such an advantage car wise that they were able to win both titles despite a chaotic campaign. The team made things very hard from themselves last year, possibly because they weren’t used to being the team everyone was focusing on. Expect them to have learnt from their mistakes.

So what about that the “new” car? Well a quick glance at the picture above would leave you thinking, “That’s last year’s car.” Effectively you are right, and would have been last year too. Sure, there have been many aero dynamic refinements and tweaks  and they have squeezed a full race fuel tank and a Kers system (very neatly) in to the frame, but concept wise the RBR7 is the same car as the RBR5 from 2009.  This has two major effects on this season, one positive for the team and one negative.

To start with the hope for the other teams, even Adrian Newey has admitted that this car is reaching the end of its development cycle. When the team claim they are “small” they are right, compared to Ferrari and McLaren. They can’t just throw money and resources at every millimetre of the car to perfect it. By necessity Red Bull have to work in terms of large aggressive concepts first, and then refine the car slowly over time. This process for the “RBR5” is nearly complete with this year’s car, and as such they will probably slip back towards the other teams as the year goes on.

The bad news for the other teams is the banning of the double diffuser. The 2009 Red Bull and thus the whole concept was designed with a single diffuser, like everyone will have to use this year. The team never fitted as large a double diffuser as the other teams because the pull rod suspension didn’t give them enough space. So in effect, the double diffuser loop hole gave the other teams a false edge, that made the Red Bulls slower in comparison then they should have been. That is scary.

The team also have another trick: the “bending” front nose. Rumour has it that Red Bull have found a way of constructing carbon fibre so that it flexes disproportionately at certain loads. This is how they can run the front wing so close to the ground without failing any FIA load tests. Some would (and have) call it cheating, but it is such a clever idea that for me it is the sort of creativity we want in F1. Besides, rules can only be defined by tests: if it passes the tests then its legal.

Testing times on short and long runs indicate that Red Bull is ready to continue where they left off – winning everything in sight. So what can stop them? Well other than the already discussed Pirelli tyre element, there is always the chance that they haven’t learnt from last year. Certainly unless Webber has lost a lot of speed I expect the driver rivalry to continue at full throttle. Webber is still hungry for success, so if he can get even a sniff at the World Title, expect him to once again use every weapon in his arsenal to fight for it; even if it means destabilising the team.

Vettel doesn’t need to destabilise the team to beat Webber – Helmut Marko will do that for him if necessary. Sebastian is very quick and almost unbeatable if you give him a lead. He also showed some ability to fight last year – something that had been missing from his CV. However there are questions over new World Champions. Often achieving the goal can damage a driver’s motivation for the following season, whether or not they even realise it at the time. However in most of the examples of this, the new World Champion is driving an inferior car in the following season. This is surely not the case for Vettel and maybe the threat of Webber will help keep him focused.

Boring as it seems, Sebastian Vettel must start the season as favourite to retain his crown. But there are 19 potentially chaotic races between him and his goal, and should he slip up Webber will be waiting to pounce. Even if Red Bull are totally dominant this season, don’t expect it to be dull.

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