Continuing my look at how I think the teams line up going into the new season.
There has been lots of speculation over McLaren’s position throughout the winter. In the past month or so it has emerged that McLaren appear to have major problems finding grip at the rear. The McLaren has scarcely been able to set a semi-respectable time all winter, and ended up doing loads of straight line testing with yellow paint smeared all over the car in an attempt to understand the airflow.
In the cynical world of F1, many observers pointed out that this could just be the ultimate form of sandbagging. James Allen alerted us to the theory that McLaren are simply approaching testing in a different way as a result of the new testing restrictions. Yet more (such as Mr C on Sidepodcast) suggest that it may be a publicity start.
I don’t buy any of it. Sandbagging is all very well, but they have to turn up the wick at some point to make sure that everything behaves as expected at full speed. And I doubt it’s a publicity stunt, because I can’t imagine that Vodafone are too pleased about having their logo smeared with yellow day-glo goo in quite a high-profile way.
It’s worth remembering that McLaren have produced a dud of a car before in recent years — the MP4-18, which was so bad it never raced, and its offspring the MP4-19. Mind you, these problems were largely down to reliability rather than aerodynamic issues. That year, McLaren still managed to win a race.
My guess is that if McLaren manage to find a fix for their aerodynamic problems, they will turn out to have a decent season. But it will have proved a distraction, having used up resources and time which could have been spent on improving the car rather than fixing it.
Brawn have been the surprise of the off-season. After a troubled winter which saw the team put up for sale without warning, and a protracted rescue, the team looked set to have a poor season. Yet the Brawn has easily been the most impressive of the cars, setting blistering times during practice.
It could all be an attempt to attract attention and gain sponsors. But the team is still getting a nice amount of funding from Honda. Also, Mercedes said they wouldn’t supply an engine until funding was fully in place, so presumably it is in place. I’m sure Brawn wouldn’t say no to a bit of extra funding though.
In a way, it makes sense that the Brawn is a fast car. Let’s not forget that Honda basically gave up on 2008 in order to focus on 2009. Before the team was put up for sale, I thought Honda were going to be the team to watch in 2009. Expectations only dropped after the tumultuous events of the winter.
Of course, this is irrational because it is still the same car. Only the engine is different. While this would normally lead to reliability problems, the Brawn car has been surprisingly reliable during testing. Whether or not you think Brawn were running light during the test sessions, the reliability of the car cannot be denied. Indeed, it may be the fact that Brawn are actually in a better position. Judging by Jenson Button’s comments, the Mercedes engine has more grunt that Honda’s.
My gut feeling is that Brawn will be in contention to win a few races, particularly at the start of the season. They may not have the resources to develop the car as intensively as other teams throughout the season, so their performance may drop off later on in the season.
Immediately after Toyota’s launch, I pooh-poohed their chances. But their testing form seems remarkably solid. The TF109 has been among the fastest cars, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Toyota win a race or two. But there is still something inside me that refuses to see them as genuine championship contenders.
This is an important year for BMW. For many, they unforgivably gave up on the championship battle last season. A certain Polish driver was particularly peeved. If BMW don’t perform really well this season, history will view their 2008 strategy as a mistake.
Fortunately for BMW, their pre-season form seems pretty solid. They have done nothing spectacular, but this is part of the BMW way. Last year they seemed in the doldrums going by their testing form, but they had no problems at all once the actual racing was under way. BMW are not a showy team, and it is their methodical and sober approach that makes them winners.
BMW seem poised to take advantage of the ability to use kers. The team has always seemed the most confident of everyone over their kers system. But could it be a disadvantage to their star driver Robert Kubica? The Pole is tall (and therefore heavy) for an F1 driver, and the added weight of kers is one particular area where BMW appear to have a weakness.
Ferrari were the first to launch their car, and at first I felt like Ferrari were going to have a moderate season. For some reason, the early testing form suggested that to me. Of course, the idea behind the early launch was to enable Ferrari to debug and perfect the car. So the car’s more recent performances has been pretty tasty.
If there is one thing that will be a cause for concern to the Scuderia it will be reliability. They seem to have been suffering from a few gremlins over the winter. This will be especially worrying since Ferrari’s reliability left a lot to be desired last year as well.
All-in-all, though, I can’t help feeling that Ferrari are going to be leading the way this season.