How exciting! In just seven days’ time the F1 season will be under way. It is high time, therefore, that I cast my eye towards it.
Of course, to assess where the teams stand we must look back over winter testing. This year’s winter testing action has been fascinating and deserving of a post in its own right. I can’t remember winter testing being so closely followed by so many people on the internet.
Of course, part of that is just with the nature of internet coverage which is expanding, with more contributors getting involved all of the time. But even taking that into account, there has been a lot to chew over.
For one thing, there are the new regulations. This year sees what is by all accounts the biggest change to the rules in at least 25 years. It has been fascinating to see not just the general shape of the new cars, but the different approaches of the teams.
Almost inevitably, this means that there is a new hierarchy, and it is fascinating to watch it emerge. The Honda saga provided a gripping side-story to the on-track action, and the apparent supremacy of the fledgling Brawn team seems too good to be true. At the same time, one of F1’s biggest teams seems to be in big trouble.
This post will outline how I think the teams will measure up throughout the season. Suffice it to say, though, that it is proving very difficult to truly tell which teams have the advantage. It is worth reading Autosport’s analysis of the winter testing times. With kers in the mix, this year we could see cars suiting certain circuits more than others.
But here is my attempt to work out how each team’s overall performance throughout the season will measure up.
10. Force India-Mercedes
Despite Force India’s new partnership with McLaren and Mercedes, I fear that they do not yet have the resources to make much headway up the grid. Matters cannot have been helped by the late change of engine supplier, and the need to integrate various McLaren parts into the car. The car launched late and has had comparatively little testing.
But on paper Force India should have a handy package. As long as the aerodynamic package isn’t a complete dud, the Mercedes lump should give the car plenty of grunt. Vijay Mallya himself says that the team, which seemed slightly ramshackle last year amid reports of infighting, has been improved by the presence of the man from McLaren, Simon Roberts.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Force India challenging for points from time to time. But I don’t see them establishing themselves even as regular midfield runners. The driver line-up is easily the least exciting on the grid. Meanwhile, the car has not set the world alight during testing. No doubt Force India will spend another year constantly targeting Q2 and never reaching it.
9. Toro Rosso-Ferrari
Toro Rosso amazed the world last year by winning a race and showing its bigger sibling team how it’s done. Sadly, even the most optimistic observer does not expect Toro Rosso to come close to matching its 2008 form. Toro Rosso’s best asset, its star driver Sebastian Vettel, has now graduated to the main Red Bull team.
Sébastien Bourdais is a competent driver, but this year is make or break for his F1 career. One positive is that he will probably prefer the slick tyres. His team-mate Sébastien Buemi is the season’s only rookie, so will be allowed a bit of breathing space by observers. Buemi seems handy, and showed flashes of talent in GP2 this year. He also seems to have impressed the Red Bull guys as a test driver. How he will measure up as an F1 race driver is obviously yet to be seen.
Toro Rosso may be in a position to challenge for a few points here and there. But with the Renault having been the only one to have been improved over winter, it is unlikely that Toro Rosso will so easily make the Red Bull team look silly. All the while, the team will have to ready itself for the probably outlawing of customer cars which may be a distraction.
The Williams has looked quite handy in pre-season testing. Autosport’s analysis shows that it has set the second-fastest time at Barcelona this winter, although its long run pace doesn’t seem quite so hot.
I would also doubt whether Williams will be in a position to develop the car as well as other teams will be able to. Let’s not forget that in 2008 Williams looked like they were going to be the third-best car, and it didn’t turn out that way.
The ace up Williams’s sleeve will be its flywheel kers system, which sounds like quite an impressive system. But with a fair degree of paddock scepticism over the benefits of kers, this could turn out to be a case of something that works better in a brochure than on the racetrack.
7. Red Bull-Renault
I would like to think that Red Bull are in a position to become a front-running team. I do have a soft spot for them, and the car is probably the most beautiful on the grid. Adrian Newey is also usually pretty handy at adapting to new technical regulations.
But their testing form, while not being particularly poor, has not exactly suggested that this is a team on the verge of regularly challenging at the front. The odd win is probably not out of the question though, and in Sebastian Vettel they have one of F1’s hottest properties.
After a troubled start to the testing season, when the car appeared to be beset by aerodynamic problems, Renault appear to have put aside their woes. It seems similar to last year, when Renault started the season with a poor car, but managed to turn it into a double race winner by the end of the season. Except this time Renault have improved the car before the season has begun.
Renault will also have been advantaged by the fact that they have been allowed to improve their engine over winter — the only power-plant to be granted such an upgrade. And you can never underestimate their lead driver Fernando Alonso, whom I consider to be the best driver on the grid.
Part 2 will be published tomorrow