This might be a banal post really, because anybody who is interested in this post will have been keeping an eye on the pre-season testing anyway, and will already have their own ideas of how things might pan out. But this is my blog, and I am stamping my feet as I type this!
Last year people were saying that Fernando Alonso had made a big mistake by signing for McLaren while Renault were undoubtedly the strongest team. It’s amazing how a few winter tests can change the world topsy-turvy.
The McLaren is said to be right up there at the top. What a turn-around after 2006 being McLaren’s least successful Formula 1 season for at least a decade. Alonso at least looks almost certain to win races this year. Relief for all at Woking after a victory drought last year.
Barring any serious mishaps, I would guess that Alonso is once again in the running for the Championship this year. Even if the McLaren turns out to be a bit of a turkey, if anybody on the grid can win with a mediocre car it is Alonso.
I am more worried about Lewis Hamilton. The poor guy has never even entered a Formula 1 race, and already the British media is shining a powerful spotlight on him, hyping up his chances. We are already sick of the tedious, clichéd references to “the Tiger Woods of F1” and the fact that he is Formula 1’s first ever black driver when he isn’t.
It is surely a bit much for a young débutante to take. Remember what happened with Button. He had so much hype that his entire career ended up being an albatross around his neck. Let’s hope the same thing doesn’t happen with Hamilton. Some people are saying he can win a race this year. Maybe he can. But I hope he doesn’t get criticised too much if he fails to do so in what is, after all, his first ever season in an F1 car.
Renault F1 Team
This is probably the year where is all starts to go wrong for Renault. Winter testing hasn’t looked too hot. Renault boss Carlos Ghosn’s is lukewarm towards Formula 1. Despite the belated announcement of future commitment to the sport, it wouldn’t surprise me if things start winding down for Renault if results are average this year.
It was the uncertainty over Renault’s future in Formula 1 that has left them with a hugely unimpressive driver line-up this year. A team that has won back-to-back world championships shouldn’t struggle to get the best drivers, but it managed to lose Fernando Alonso (whose own manager is Renault’s director!) and failed to lure Kimi Räikkönen.
As such, Renault are left with the increasingly unimpressive Giancarlo Fisichella as its lead driver and the untested Heikki Kovalainen as his team mate. Rookie Kovalainen might turn out to be really good, but as things stand the driver line-up definitely lacks the superstar status.
Remember just how badly Fisichella did compared with Alonso in the past two years. Fisichella struggled to win more than one race per season. If they were to rely on him, Renault would have been screwed. Now they are relying on him, and it seems as though the car isn’t up to scratch compared with its rivals.
This will probably be a disappointing season for Renault. We’ve seen it happen before to the same team — two back-to-back championships were scored by what was Benetton, thanks to a certain Michael Schumacher who promptly went off to a mid-field team in desperate need of a resurgence. The parallels with Alonso’s move to McLaren are almost uncanny.
If you were to ask me four months ago, I would have said that Ferrari — and specifically Kimi Räikkönen — would have run away with this year’s title. Now I am not so sure. Ferrari still look like the strongest team, but McLaren will probably give them a run for their money.
And the usual questions about Räikkönen have to be asked. Every so often somebody comes along and claims that he is not interested or determined enough, that he doesn’t communicate well with his engineers and that he drinks too much.
As such, this is probably a make or break year for Räikkönen’s career. If he fails to impress this year, in a Ferrari, then he probably never will. As things stand, it is uncertain whether Räikkönen is really to blame for his poor record as of yet, or if it was his slow and unreliable McLaren.
But Räikkönen’s début was in 2001, and within a year he was being touted as a future World Champion — before Alonso started truly turning heads. Since then Alonso has won two titles, and Räikkönen has won barely a handful of races.
Räikkönen is indeed impressive, most often when the odds are stacked against him and he has had to start from the back of the grid (Spa 2005) or the time when he had to go out first in qualifying for the 2005 Hungarian Grand Prix. But we have yet to see if he can be a world champion. He has never had a better chance than the one he will have this year, so he had better make the most of it.
It is almost the reverse case for Felipe Massa. A year ago he was seen as an unsafe pair of hands, and his signing to Ferrari stank of nepotism more than anything else. He also made some clumsy errors at the start of the season.
That all changed by the end of the season. He matured immensely to the stage where he could win grands prix in his own right. His performance at Turkey was very impressive. He will win races this year, and Kimi Räikkönen will be an interesting barometer for his talent.
But while it is fathomable to imagine Massa beating Räikkönen, and Räikkönen has a good chance of winning the championship, it still feels a little bit wrong to talk about Massa as a potential world champion. I could be proved wrong though!
Honda Racing F1 Team
Apparently Honda’s testing has been going pretty badly. Even the Honda team themselves — known for unrealistically hyping themselves up right back from the days of BAR — seem pretty subdued about their chances.
Moreover, Button’s belated début win doesn’t seem to have lifted the pressure off him. In fact, people are now asking him to win regularly, as his Hungarian win was a little bit of a fluke.
It’s difficult to know what to really expect of Honda this year. By the looks of things, they won’t be visiting the podium as regularly as they might hope, and that second race win will be as distant as their first always seemed to be (remember, their first win was a fluke).
BMW Sauber F1 Team
BMW Sauber is a team to be really excited about. Mario Theissen is clearly determined to make the team a success, and they look to be on their way to becoming a regular front-running team.
Even last year, BMW were seriously impressive, to the extent that they were possibly the second-fastest car at Monza, a true speed circuit. This year BMW have been turning heads during winter testing.
BMW is also associated with some very strong up and coming drivers. Robert Kubica is clearly an exciting talent, and people will be expecting a lot from him this year. Kubica was brought into the team mid-season last year after impressing as a third driver. He replaced world champion Jacques Villeneuve.
Now a BMW’s new test driver, Sebastian Vettel, is also putting in impressive performances. Nick Heidfeld had better watch his back!
The most unromantic team. A corporate juggernaut, nobody seems to like Toyota. They just throw money at F1 and are never able to achieve results, and their aloof image makes them highly unpopular with fans.
Their driver line-up is also less than inspiring. Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher may be established names and proven race winners. But they are also a pair of over-rated and overpaid dinosaurs. Ralf Schumacher’s recent claim that he is the third best driver in F1 was notably laughable.
Moreover, bar a brief successful period at the start of the 2005 season, Toyota have constantly unveiled mediocre car after mediocre car. It just isn’t good enough for a team with a budget that dwarves all the others. If it really is the case that Toyota are only in F1 to sell cars (and it certainly looks that way), then it is highly embarrassing that “the car in front” is actually the car behind.
The smart money appears to be on Toyota pulling out of Formula 1 before too long. They have already made a step in that direction by deciding to supply engines to Williams. Williams may have had a bad spell recently, but it is a name that you don’t mess with, and they are on the resurgence.
Many are tipping that Williams-Toyota will beat the actual Toyota team. That could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and leads to the end of the Toyota F1 team as we know it. They wouldn’t be missed.
Red Bull Racing
It’s not looking good for Red Bull. They brought superstar designer Adrian Newey on board, and Newey has produced a car that bears his distinctive hallmark as seen at McLaren over the past few years.
Unfortunately, he has also brought with him the unreliability issues that have dogged McLaren over those same years. It begs the question — are Newey’s designs the cause of the failures? His tight chassis is said to be causing cooling problems in the Red Bull.
Moreover, the drivers are complaining that they cannot squeeze into his tightly-sculpted car. This is a theme we are familiar with from McLaren — particularly when Alex Wurz couldn’t race because the car did not have the capacity for his tall frame. An F1 car is no good if you can’t fit a driver into it.
Even worse, the uncompromising chassis design doesn’t even seem to be particularly fast. It can’t be the engine’s fault — they have the world champion’s Renault powerplant in the back. Maybe Newey should be designing yachts after all.
There is also the question of where Red Bull’s driver programme has gone. David Coulthard has been there for the past two seasons, but now he is joined by Mark Webber. For a team with such a youthful image, Red Bull has the oldest driver pairing on the grid this year (an amazing feat when you consider Toyota’s drivers).
Webber knows the team well from back in his Jaguar days, so this is something of a homecoming for him after a period of false hope at Williams. But Williams are turning the corner, and this year’s Red Bull car is disappointing — he’s jumped ship and chosen the dinghy with a puncture in it (albeit a very nice looking dinghy).
The team itself is actually ten years old this year, having begun life back in 1997 as Stewart Grand Prix. Over the years, the team has occasionally shown great promise, particularly in its amazing 1999 season, complete with race win and 4th in the constructors’ championship.
But otherwise — whether it felt strong or not — the team has resolutely refused to finish higher than 7th in the championship. By the looks of things, unless their fortunes drastically improve, they look set to retain their mid-field reputation.
The dark horse this year? Williams have had a shockingly bad few seasons. This once great name of Formula 1 has been languishing ever further towards the back of the grid. The much-trumpeted partnership with Cosworth was doomed as the car proved to be both unreliable and slow.
You would assume that there are some serious long-term problems somewhere in Williams. I get the impression that during the BMW years they were too busy pointing the finger at anyone but themselves instead of actually getting round to fixing the problem. Perhaps the team was too arrogant to believe that it could be their fault?
Anyway, there are signs that Williams have finally taken action to stop them from falling even further back. And a Toyota engine should propel them further than the Cosworth was able to.
The Toyota deal is interesting. As many people have noted, it is entirely possible that the Williams-Toyota could beat the actual Toyota team. In that case, it could be curtains for Toyota’s team. That could open the door for Toyota to develop a long-term relationship with Williams as an engine partner. Both Williams and Toyota would probably be able to achieve more this way.
As for the drivers, Nico Rosberg showed great promise at the start of last season but started to make himself look a bit silly for the rest of the season. It was almost the reverse of what happened to Massa.
This year will be vital for Rosberg. If he doesn’t impress this year, that could be that for his career. Personally, I think he has the potential of someone along the lines of a Heidfeld. But not an Alonso. Probably not even a Coulthard. But we’ll see.
The choice of second driver, Alex Wurz, is very interesting. I always felt that Wurz never got the chance he deserved in F1. His height (and therefore weight) didn’t help matters, and he was notoriously unable to fit into his McLaren when required to stand in for injured Montoya a couple of years ago.
Wurz exploded onto the F1 scene ten years ago now, but most of his experience since then has been as a test driver. He might be a bit rusty at racing. Then again, when he (eventually) stood in for Montoya, he was no slouch. But Wurz is undoubtedly in the twilight years of his career.
Scuderia Toro Rosso
Okay, there is no avoiding the issue now. Customer cars. Essentially, the Toro Rosso is alleged to be the main Red Bull car with a different paint job. Cue hysteria from other teams — most notably Williams and Spyker, who risk being the worst team of the year (and would thereby receive no prize money whatsoever).
I’m not sure what to make of it yet. At the moment, I am prepared to tentatively support the Toro Rosso design. After all, Sauber’s (alleged) copycat Ferrari was never properly investigated, and Ligier’s copycat Benetton got away fairly lightly. So there is a precedent here.
It also provides a juicy chance to directly compare the Renault and Ferrari engines. The Red Bulls will run with Renaults, and Toro Rosso (being Italian) will race with Ferraris. These are probably the two best engines in Formula 1, and it will be fascinating to compare them in two near enough identical cars.
The problem with Toro Rosso’s approach is that the Red Bull could well prove to be a turkey for all the reasons discussed above. In that case, they might have been better off just quietly designing a cheap and cheerful car, rather than risking the controversy and ultimate failure of the Newey design.
Toro Rosso keep the same drivers as last year. It’s difficult to know what to make of Liuzzi and Speed. Liuzzi shows occasional glimpses of promise, but not often enough. Speed is mostly good for the comedy value. He did provide the funniest moments of last year including:
- Sweary-poos incident at Australia with kind-of team mate David Coulthard in the steward’s office
- “…last night, I had a boner — this big!“
- “Someone’s head is gonna roll!”
- “I definitely think we should go onto dry tyres very soon.”
Spyker F1 Team
There doesn’t seem to be much to say about Spyker. They are pretty much destined to be at the back of the grid. Mike Gascoyne is a big name designer there, but nobody seems to think he’ll be able to pull them around.
To think that not so long ago this was the Jordan team. In 1999 they were just spectacular. For a brief period it looked as though they were capable of winning a championship. Ever since then, it has been a depressing, terminal decline to the point where they are the worst team in the field.
At least Spyker has a little bit of a better image than Midland did!
Super Aguri F1 Team
Hats off to Super Aguri! They did ever so well last year having only been invented mere months before the beginning of the championship, and with a four-year-old Arrows car that wasn’t even that good four years ago.
Then they built their own car and it got to the stage where Sato drove a convincing race to finish in tenth place in Brazil, ahead of all the Red Bulls and Midland / Spykers. Now they have what is supposedly a Honda car, they ought to be punching at that sort of level on a regular basis from now on.
The driver line up is not to be sniffed at either. They have ditched their pretensions of being an all-Japanese team after finally realising that Japan has no good drivers. Takuma Sato remains, but his team mate is now Anthony Davidson. Just a few years ago, it was conceivable that this could have been the actual Honda line up. So it’s not bad at all.
Davidson will also be relishing the chance to finally get a full-time F1 drive. Sato has his moments. He appeared to calm down a lot last year after an unforgivably erratic time at Honda. If they can pull their act together, Super Aguri might well end up scoring the odd point this year.
So, here are my final predictions:
World Champion: Kimi Räikkönen. But if the McLaren is half good (which it seems to be), then Alonso could give him a run for his money. What a mouth-watering prospect!
- Red Bull
- Super Aguri
- Toro Rosso