Woohoo, the new Formula 1 season starts this weekend. Already! Yet again the winter has gone by quickly, and it only seems like yesterday when a drain cover became the most important player in the race. And so once again it is time for me to write some totally un-expert non-analysis in preparation for the first race.
Despite the short period of time, the Formula 1 that will start tomorrow is going to be very different to the one that we saw in China in October. Engines are wee, tyre-changing is back, and everybody will get in each other’s way in qualifying once again, just like in the good old days.
I know I am in a minority of one here, but I was a fan of the one-lap qualifying system that F1 (just about) settled on in the second half of 2005. I think on Saturday everybody will remember all of a sudden that the free-for-all wasn’t always a barrel of laughs. Great laps would be ruined by slow cars or yellow flags. We would miss the pole-setting lap because the director was too busy looking at Michael Schumacher scratching his arse. And, most annoyingly of all, Giancarlo Fisichella would benefit from dodgy weather conditions to get a freak and completely unwarranted pole position.
The new qualifying format is just like that old system that everybody now apparently loves, except with some added complicated bits that will force teams to actually, like, go out on the track within the first fifteen minutes (the worst aspect of the old 12-lap qualifying system). It could turn out to be okay, but we’ll just have to wait an see. Fisi will probably have a few more pole positions than he ought to though.
I’ve not been following the winter testing so well, so I can only go on the little bits that I’ve read here and there and pure guesswork. I think this year is going to be quite unpredictable. Maybe half a dozen teams have the potential to win a race. Renault and Honda are both said to be very strong this year — aparently they are both reliable and quick. I wouldn’t expect Renault to find 2006 as easy as 2005 turned out to be, although they ought still to be at the very top.
As for Honda, they have had the potential to be winning races for a while now, but it’s never quite worked out for them. They came back down to earth with a bump last year, but surely they will be in shape to win races this year. But will they lose out with Honda supplying resources to the hastily-assembled Super Aguri team as well? It will be very interesting to compare Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello. I think it is a well-matched pairing, and neither of the drivers will like to see themselves getting beaten by the other. We all have quite a good idea of what Rubens is capable of, so this year we will find out if Button is really worth all the hype.
McLaren are apparently having more reliability problems. It has to be sorted out. McLaren have had major reliability problems since at least 2003, and most of them seem to be Mercedes’ fault. Kimi apparently reckons McLaren aren’t yet where they should be, so it sounds as though McLaren aren’t convinced they’ll finish many races at the start of the season though. By mid-season though, with reliability problems ironed out, they ought to be consistently challenging at the top. If Renault end up having a good year though, Alonso will kick himself for switching to McLaren for 2007.
I think I read that Ferrari had some reliability issues, although nothing as serious as McLaren. Ferrari may not be as fast as Renault or Honda or even McLaren. But the new tyre rules will surely work to their advantage. Ferrari should get at least a few wins — surely they aren’t prepared to settle into a mid-grid position.
Toyota and Williams will also benefit from the new tyre rules. I think Toyota are serious about winning now, and they could do it this year. They showed real promise at the start of last year, but worryingly tailed off towards the end of the season. I am not a great fan of either Jarno Trulli or Ralf Schumacher either. Trulli seems overrated in my view.
As for Williams, I really think they’re turning a corner now. They’ve had a torrid few years. But with the BMW and Buttongate sagas behind them now, Williams will be able to concentrate on getting back to the top. Are wins on the cards? Possibly for the first time in decades, people are not talking about Williams as potential race-winners. While they’ve had a success drought since 1998, they’ve still always been seen as potential front-runners.
Yet 2005 was so bad for Williams that the question this year is whether or not they can pull themselves back towards the front, rather than challenging for wins. But I think Williams could catch a few people off guard. Cosworth are meant to be V8 specialists, and there is a lot of hype about their engine. Add to this the Bridgestone tyres and I think you’re looking at a seriously strong team. In fact, the only thing that I think Williams are lacking this year is a Grade-A driver — and who knows, Nico Rosberg could be one.
Red Bull are another team who have been having reliability problems, but apparently they’re being ironed out more quickly than McLaren’s. Red Bull is starting to look very serious as an F1 team. Employing Adrian Newey sends out a serious signal, as does securing a Ferrari engine deal. But does all this really mean that Red Bull is a future race winner? If Ferrari start getting beaten by Red Bull too much then Ferrari will simply pull the plug on the deal. Besides, Ferrari engines never seemed to do Sauber all that much good.
Which brings us neatly on to BMW-Sauber. Mario Theissen is clearly very ambitious, and I think that he and BMW have taken a big risk. Being outside of the UK is always a disadvantage and there is no guarantee that the BMW–Sauber relationship won’t have the same troubles as the BMW–Williams relationship. Wins will be a long way off. The odd podium is a possibility, and I’m a real big fan of Nick Heidfeld. Villeneuve can sometimes be a liability though.
Red Bull and other mid-grid teams will be looking over their shoulder finding Toro Rosso (that’s Italian for Red Bull, see?!) snapping at their heels. For the first time, like, ever, Minardi won’t be at the back of the grid, even if it’s due to lots of Red Bull money. They will be the only team using an under-powered V10 which, if you believe the doom mongers, will actually be faster than the V8s — and because they’re under-powered they’ll be more reliable to boot.
Toro Rosso had better make sure they aren’t too successful, or the equivalency formula will be changed. It’s not a very pleasent situation — if Toro Rosso end up being 7th or 8th out of the teams, people will just be suspicious, even though they might have the genuine ability to be the 7th best team on the grid this year, V10 or no V10. Unfortunately, Toro Rosso won’t get the opportunity to prove it.
Midland — nothing much to say. They’ll probably be at the back of the grid alongside Super Aguri. Midland isn’t the sort of team you can get excited about. They’ll be lucky to score points.
And last and very definitely least, Super Aguri. It sounds like a cheesy 1980s video game, but it’s actually the new state-of-the-art Formula 1 team direct from Japan. Er, except they’re using four-year-old Arrows chassis which didn’t even do Arrows much good four years ago, never mind anybody this year with the car altered out of recognition to meet today’s regulations. The Honda backing is tasty though. The whole thing stinks of a badly thought out PR exercise so save Honda from a Japanese backlash for sacking Takuma Sato from BAR. Sato will be available for all your crashing needs in Super Aguri this year, and his team mate is Yuji Ide, direct from Formula Nippon. All I can say is, for Super Aguri’s sake, thank goodness the 107% rule doesn’t exist any more.
So there you have it — my personal poorly-informed preview of the F1 season. Can’t wait for the first Grand Prix in Bahrain — I’ll be up bright and early.