There was a time when this blog featured quite regular posts on F1, but I’m down to about one per year now. This is partly because Twitter lets me scratch the itch to spew nonsense about F1 onto the internet, and partly because the world of F1 has itself become so good at using new media that an armchair blog simply cannot add any value at all any more, even for the sake of providing a bit of colour or opinion. Joe Saward’s blog remains the gold standard for F1 – for any major new development, I tend neither to believe it nor to understand it properly until I’ve read Joe’s post on it, which is pretty much guaranteed to do a better job of putting the story into a strategic context than any other outlet.
Still, ill-informed speculation on pre-season form remains one of the great joys of being an F1 fan, and it’s for this that I reserve my annual post. Indications so far are that Red Bull look quickest with Ferrari a near challenger: if it is indeed a two-team title race it’s likely to be exiting towards the end, but as we slog from grand prix to grand prix the limited range of front-runners risks making it a bit dull.
Can the chasing pack haul themselves into contention for race wins and avert the monotony? Indications so far are that McLaren are in the pack, having yet to complete a race distance with only two days of testing remaining, and flo-vis paint still on the cars every time they leave the pits. Their radical car appears to be neither as fast nor as reliable as they had hoped at its launch: they may be able to bash it into race-winning form for later in the year as they did in 2009, but by then the titles will be gone. Again. As I’ve said before, for a consistent front-running or near-front-running team since the late-90s, it’s amazing how few titles McLaren have won – one in the last decade, in fact. They have a much stronger track record of blowing it than Ferrari, Renault or Red Bull.
And what of Renault? The car has shown some respectable pace, and is probably expected to be in the not-quite-front-running pack. Will the absence of Robert Kubica after his horrendous accident undermine their campaign, or can Heidfeld deliver the goods? The last thing they want is to get sufficiently close to a race win that they’re still asking themselves this question at the end of the season. As for Petrov, presumably the sponsorship he brings more than outweighs the loss of prize money entailed by having a driver whose speed and consistency lead him to under-perform the car and collect fewer points than even a clear number 2 should. But maybe with a year’s experience under his belt he’ll come good (but the same calculation applied for Nelson Piquet and Kazuki Nakajima among others, and it didn’t work out then…).
The final team in the chasing trio seem to be Mercedes, who have consistently said throughout testing that they didn’t expect to show the car’s potential until a big upgrade at the final test, and that all the testing before that was about reliability and understanding the basics of the car. Surely other teams would be bringing upgrades to the final test that will nullify any leap forward by Mercedes, mused the doubters… Well, the upgraded car does seem to have gone noticeably quicker so far – perhaps Mercedes have managed what BMW did in 2008, and taken a disappointing-looking effort out of the box to near the front of the grid by the final test?
The next group of teams also look to be in a tight battle (when did we ever start an F1 season not predicting a “tight battle in the midfield”?). Sauber, Williams, Toro Rosso and Force India all appear to have produced very decent cars – this is perhaps disappointing for Williams, and maybe a bit of a step forward relative to the competition for Toro Rosso, whose innovative design and decent pace have attracted some admiring attention. In this context, while it looks like Lotus have left Virgin behind it’s not clear whether they’ve done enough to break fully into the established midfield – they may be a bit on their own in the pecking order this year.
Virgin meanwhile remain something of an enigma: the car looks better than last year’s but still a tail-ender, while HRT have yet to turn a wheel in anger. HRT essentially seem to be the new Minardi: perennially underfunded and essentially there just to make a noise. For all the fall-out of the manufacturer exodus in 2008-9, and the vindication of the critics who predicted it in the early 2000s, it’s worth remembering that in 2008 and 2009 the entire grid was covered by not much more than a second and every single team was in with a credible shout of winning at least one race in that period. It led to an unpredictability and variety that we seem unlikely to be a feature of F1 again for some time, as the midfield now seems further off the front-running pace.
Two final things to mention, the first of which will make a massive difference to the races this year: tyres. James Allen presented a very interesting graph showing that the Pirellis’ degradation is so serious that it offsets the effects of burning off fuel: ie whereas last year the cars got quicker over a stint because they burnt off fuel, despite the tyres slowly going off, this year they will get slower over a stint as the tyres go off, despite the fuel dropping away. Pirelli have suggested this effect won’t be so pronounced, as the lower temperatures in testing exacerbate the effect. We’ll see. But this effect,and the necessity for two, three or four stops per race, should give the racing a different feel compared to last year. KERS and the moveable rear wing are likely to be far less significant, one suspects – gimmicks don’t have a great history of improving the spectacle in F1.
Secondly – HD TV coverage! Should be excellent.