Friday, 12 March 2010

Formula One Season Preview – will Michael Schumacher’s return be a glorious comeback or a simply a money-spinning swansong?

With the inaugural race of the 2010 Formula One World Championship just two days away, instead of the usual focus on altered driver line-ups, new teams and often controversial regulation changes, much of the anticipation surrounds the return of the most successful driver in the history of the sport. Michael Schumacher, winner of seven World Championship titles, having won over 90 races and accrued more than 1,300 points throughout his career, after threatening to make a dramatic comeback for Ferrari last season, has joined the newly-established Mercedes F1 team on a three-year contract, from which he is reportedly set to earn £20 million. However leaving money matters aside, Schumacher’s return has been likened to that of Nigel Mansell in 1994 at 41, Schumacher’s current age, and Niki Lauda’s comeback in 1982 at the age of 33. It will certainly be fascinating to provide an F1-orientated answer to the perennial sporting conundrum of experience versus youth. Particularly intriguing will be the battle between the all-German, at least in driver line-up, Mercedes GP, and the British McLaren ‘dream team’ comprised of the two previous winners of the World Championship title, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. For anyone in doubt of the significance of the Mercedes/McLaren fight in terms of the fight for both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships, the results of Friday practice were particularly telling, with the top four positions occupied by Jenson Button, Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton, and the man who may well overshadow his illustrious German counterpart, Nico Rosberg. Unsurprisingly Rosberg’s name has been relatively ignored by the world’s motoring press, and given his previous results to suggest him as a genuine title contender would be rather premature, but if he can maintain the pace illustrated during practice at Bahrain throughout the entire weekend, the 24-year-old’s first win in Formula One may be closer than many would imagine. As for the rest of the early frontrunners, Lewis Hamilton is once again a man predicted to excite, panic, frustrate and surprise fans and opponents alike, in equal measure. Hamilton’s assertion in February, upon testing the new McLaren in Valencia, that “the problems I had [last year] I don't have in this car” will not only be deeply encouraging for the team following the extremely difficult 2009 season, but suggests a new mood of optimism and bodes well for the success of the burgeoning all-British combination. Button meanwhile, having finally realised his undoubted potential with Brawn GP last year, will be looking to further establish himself as one of the foremost drivers of his generation, and prove that his undoubted success wasn’t merely a flash in the pan. Worries remain over the possibility of friction between the two drivers, especially given the animosity that rapidly emerged between Hamilton and his former team-mate Fernando Alonso, who demanded as Button almost certainly will, parity of treatment with Hamilton, whom the McLaren team has essentially been tailored around since his emergence in 2007.

Ferrari will be expected to make a big impression in this 2010, with the new F10 said to be a dramatic improvement over the sluggish and unreliable F60 which saw the Italian manufacturer to just one solitary race victory and fourth in the Constructors’ table with a return of just 70 points. Felipe Massa, who suffered a series head injury at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, which put him out of action for almost half the season, has called the F10 “very competitive”, and stated “it looks like we are in good condition to start the championship”. Following the Luca Badoer/Giancarlo Fisichella interregnum, it will be important for Ferrari to begin the season strongly, given that it wasn’t until Monaco, the sixth race of the Championship season, that either driver managed to score a podium finish. Meanwhile the arrival of Fernando Alonso, twice a Championship Winner and unquestionably one of the foremost drivers of the decade, should aid Ferrari in its attempts to establish itself once again at the top of the grid. With Alonso claiming the F10 to be the “best car that I’ve ever driven”, the strong ‘title favourite’ tag that has been foisted upon the Spaniard may not be premature after all. Furthermore having been in the relative F1 wilderness for the past two years, due to Renault’s inability to reproduce the type of car that propelled him to two World Championships, the prospect of an Alonso/Hamilton clash will be tremendously exciting to those who remember the deeply acrimonious relationship the pair had at McLaren back in 2007. Having achieved his dream move to Ferrari, otherwise referred to as “the worst kept secret in Formula One”, Alonso says his experience at McLaren has helped him to “grow up”, but even if any bitter feelings towards Hamilton have been long cast aside, those expecting fireworks on the track between the two, arguably the strongest drivers currently on the grid, shouldn’t be disappointed.

As for the remainder of the teams, with both BMW and Toyota having announced their withdrawal from the sport, the entire grid will be powered by just four engine manufacturers, the lowest number since 1980. The replacement for the German manufacturer will be Lotus Racing, a Malaysian-backed outfit, which marks the return of the Lotus brand to Formula One after a sixteen year absence. Although not strictly the same as the former Team Lotus, whose last race was the Australian Grand Prix in 1994, a sense of continuity is provided by the fact that Proton Cars, who are backing the venture known amongst the Malaysian media as 1Malaysia F1, are the current owner of Lotus Cars. Furthermore the fact that the team will be based in Norfolk, in many ways the spiritual home of the Lotus brand, gives the team a distinctly British and traditional flavour, despite its Malaysian ownership, and harks back to the glory days of Colin Chapman and the exquisite Lotus 79 that propelled Mario Andretti and Team Lotus to Drivers’ and Constructors’ glory in 1978. Although there were worries about whether or not the team would manage to have the car ready for the weekend’s race in Dubai, Lotus Racing’s driver line-up looks set to be far more reliable. With Jarno Trulli, generally recognised to be a qualifying expert and one of the most experienced drivers in Formula One currently, and Heikki Kovalainen, the former McLaren number two yet to demonstrate any outstanding potential but nonetheless a driver with significant experience towards the top end of the grid, Lotus Racing can be optimistic of a solid, if not hugely impressive, first season. Hispania Racing Team is the second new-entry for the 2010 Championship, and will be only the second Spanish Formula One team after the failed Bravo F1 enterprise in 1993. Likely to occupy the back row of the grid for a significant proportion of the season, Hispania’s driver line-up is perhaps the most intriguing of all, with the second Indian driver ever to compete in F1, Karun Chandhok, with only a moderate GP2 career behind him set to race alongside a driver with an altogether impossible pedigree to live up to, the nephew of the three-time champion, Bruno Senna. Virgin Racing is the final debutant amongst the teams, having been entered into the provisional team list under the name of Manor GP, and have signed former Toyota driver Timo Glock, a man with the potential to be erratic, unpredictable and brilliant all at once, and Brazilian youngster Lucas di Grassi, a graduate of the GP2 School, and Glock’s principal adversary in the 2007 season in said competition. Much like Hispania and Lotus, Virgin Racing will be expecting little more than a consolidatory first season, in which the priority will be focused towards car improvements rather than points scoring, and attempting to establish the Virgin brand as a significant player in Formula One.

With the top and bottom of the grid a largely predictable affair, it will be teams such as Sauber, Force India, Williams, Renault and Toro Rosso expected to occupy the middle positions on the grid, hoping to take points from the front-runners wherever possible. In terms of pre-season testing which was largely interrupted by inclement weather and therefore perhaps not a reliable indicator of future performances or results, it was the performances of the Sauber, who experienced remarkably quick times, although were rumoured to be running a slightly lighter fuel load, and Williams who were able to demonstrate a similar pace thanks to three years worth of alterations and development. However as for individual drivers, it is certainly worth keeping an eye on Robert Kubica at Renault, whose career has been slightly stop-start of late, with the progress made during impressive seasons in 2007 and 2008 brought to an abrupt halt last year thanks to the poor reliability and mediocre pace of BMW’s F1.09 car. Furthermore last years runner-up Rubens Barrichello, the most experienced driver in Formula One history, looks set to be a persistent threat to the top ten and a potential thorn in the side of Mercedes and McLaren, along with Kubica. Meanwhile the Force India line-up of Adrian Sutil and Vitantonio Liuzzi looks set to ruffle a few feathers amongst the F1 hierarchy, with the former setting the pace by topping the leader board during Friday practice, edging out title contenders such as Alonso, Kubica, Hamilton, Massa and Button. Indeed Hamilton has been quick to identify Force India and Sauber amongst the fore-runners on the grid, whilst Button stated his belief that both teams are amongst the most competitive and could threaten the dominance of McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull. Unsurprisingly I have chosen to leave Red Bull Racing until last, not for any concerns about their potential to succeed, moreover because they are vey much the dark-horses of this year’s Championship. Having finished second in last season’s Constructors’ standings, with a hugely impressive total of 133.5 points, the at times mercurial partnership of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel looks set once more to dominate the upper echelons of the grid. Whilst the majority of the pre-season attention was focused on the return of Michael Schumacher and the undoubted potential at Ferrari, Red Bull Racing have made significant strides since their inception in 2005, and a strong chance of winning both the Drivers’ and Constructors’’ Championships in 2010. Few would deny that Sebastian Vettel, the youngest race winner in F1 history at 21 years and 73 days, has the potential to be a champion. Indeed former driver Stirling Moss, described by many as “the greatest driver never to win the World Championship”, has revealed not only his confidence in Vettel to lift the trophy, but backed the young German financially to do so. As with any sport, it is futile attempting to analyse pre-season data and past performances in order to determine the identity of any future winners, and tomorrow’s qualifying session will be the strongest indicator yet. However with the return of Michael Schumacher, two-time winner Fernando Alonso achieving his long-awaited move to Ferrari, the formation of the British ‘dream team’ of Hamilton and Alonso, and drivers such as Vettel, Webber and Massa keen to live up to their potential, the 2010 Formula One season has the potential to be one of the most exciting, unpredictable and competitive in the history of the sport.

1 comment:

  1. Just noticed this as I sorted out my RSS feeds and my blogger account... nice season preview.

    What are your thoughts after a few rounds? I was tempted to put some monies on Vet, but his odds are so short that it hardly seems worth it! And there always the danger factor of Newey's cars.

    Also, Bravo F1 - I'd never heard of that team! And I thought myself a vet of F1 Rejects too, I believe some more background research of 85-95 may be required on my part.