This is one of the best times of year to be interested in F1. OK, sometimes the racing can be good, but as I often say on here, the main appeal is the long-game aspect of it all – the long-runnoing storylines that play out over months and years, that give added significance to the on-track events. Which is just as well, as the on-track action can be very dull – so many pundits seem to be saying the racing last year was exciting to an unprecedented extent, but to me it didn’t come close to topping 2008, and was often quite pedestrian.
Still, the pundits’ conventional wisdom that 2010 looks ‘mouth-watering’ is hard to argue with. Next week the teams start unveiling their cars, and the following week testing starts – testing times always allow us, at best, to see through a glass darkly, but it’s always exciting to try and figure out who’s quick and who’s not.
On paper, there are four teams who should be mounting title challenges this year, which makes it an unusually open season. But let’s sound a note of caution here: designing F1 cars is a tricky business, and even top teams are prone to slipping up between seasons. McLaren and Ferrari both did it last year, although they had a change of technical regulations to contend with; but look at Honda’s regression between 2006 and 2007 despite stable regs, or Renault’s at the same time – just because Mercedes, McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull should in theory be title challengers doesn’t mean they will. Chances are at least one will produce a car that falls short; it could even be that one produces a car significantly faster than the rest and dominate sthe championship as Brawn did last year. Although this might take the edge off the contest, the exciting thing at the moment is that we don’t know whether one or more teams will slip up, or which ones they might be.
But apart from these four teams, the grid is likely to be more strung-out than last year, and I’m not convinced this is a good thing. Partly this is because of the introduction of four new teams (assuming they all make the grid – rumours persist about most of them, but particularly American outfit USF1) – inevitably they will be at the back of the grid. Toro Rosso are also likely to be some way back, as they are returning to full manufacturer status, having previously got designs off Red Bull – though presumably they will have the IP of last year’s Red Bull car at their disposal, so they shouldn’t be straight back to Minardi-style slowness. But last year’s situation, in which every team could mount credible challenges for top ten grid slots and podium finishes (only Toro Rosso didn’t feature on the podium, in fact) will not be repeated.
A more clearly-identifiable mid-grid pack is likely to form, partly as a result of the exodus of manufacturers from F1. Toyota are gone entirely, but BMW Sauber remain, back in Peter Sauber’s ownership. Renault too have been sold (75% of them, anyway). Both have been strong in recent years, so you never know – they could spring a surprise and be front-runners. But more likely the various upheavals that afflicted them last year will have limited them to credible mid-paced cars. Likewise Williams have seemed to be on the verge of a return to the front for many years – but one can’t help but think that if it was going to happen, it would have happened by now. Perhaps their traditional leanness as an outfit will allow them to function better than other teams that have had to shed staff in order to cut costs… but another upper-midfield season surely looks more likely. And having put in a very creditable development performance last year, Force India could end up anywhere on the grid this year.
There are also many interesting stories among the drivers. Michael Schumacher is risking his health and reputation to return to F1… but assuming Mercedes deliver a decent car, would you seriously bet against him for a title challenge? And while it might look like bad news for team-mate Nico Rosberg, ultimately he has nothing to lose – there will be no disgrace in coming a close second to Schumacher, surely? At Ferrari, will Massa and Alonso be able to compete together constructively, or will Alonso’s ferocious competitive instincts destroy the team from within as they did at McLaren? Will Button really get wiped out by Hamilton at McLaren as everyone expects? Will Mark Webber, free of injury unlike in 2009, be able to overcome Sebastian Vettel at Red Bull – surely his last best chance for a title tilt before Vettel becomes unstoppable? Will veterans Trulli and Kovaleinen drive new team Lotus up the grid, or have a torrid time of it? Can Barrichello prolong the Indian summer of his career at Williams? Will Kubica’s move to Renault pay off for him? Will Heidfeld will get a seat at all this year?
As ever in F1, the answers to some of these questions will be fascinating… the others less so. Some of the answers will start to emerge, tentatively, with pre-season testing:
February 1st – 3rd – Valencia, Spain
February 10th – 13th – Jerez, Spain
February 17th – 20th – Jerez, Spain
February 25th – 28th – Circuit de Catalunya, Spain.