In less than a week the annual circus known as Formula One begins in Bahrain, as the 2006 season commences. The usual new rules will kick off the weekend, as another new qualifying system will be in place, joined by the new sound of 2.4-liter V8...
In less than a week the annual circus known as Formula One begins in Bahrain, as the 2006 season commences. The usual new rules will kick off the weekend, as another new qualifying system will be in place, joined by the new sound of 2.4-liter V8 engines and the return of tyre changes during pit stops. It should once again make for an exciting season where the only certain thing is that everything will be unpredictable.
A look at the 11 teams that will participate in the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix and the entire duration of the 18-race campaign should help to see who should come out on top.
Renault: The key for Renault to repeat both their championships is to once again get out of the gate strong. The R26 has proven quick in off-season testing and will need to maintain that pace for a full race distance to fend off McLaren's MP4-21 and others who have made improvements. Defending World Champion Fernando Alonso has already signed to McLaren for 2007, and one would hope this doesn't leave him as a sitting duck this year (i.e. Juan Pablo Montoya in 2004) since he already knows his future. He has spent five years with the team and hopes to leave with a bang. For Giancarlo Fisichella, it is very much a last chance as the 33-year-old enters his 11th season. The eternally underachieving Fisi failed to live up to the illustrious standards set by his teammate a year ago, and basically knows that test driver Heikki Kovalainen will be somewhere in the team in 2007.
McLaren-Mercedes: Like Renault, McLaren must start quickly if they are to topple the champs, especially without Adrian Newey. Newey's last creation, the MP4-21, hopes to balance speed with reliability to return them to their championship ways of the late '90s. The fast but fragile MP4-20 often let down Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya a year ago, in part what contributed to the driver's and team's respective defeats. The Finn is a wanted man for 2007, and should be considered a favorite for this year's World Championship. He can't always be snake bit, as he has been for a majority of his career. The fiery Colombian, Montoya, is now 30 that are AARP standards for F1 drivers. He had a great second half last season with three somewhat overshadowed victories. A Prost-Senna rivalry of sorts could brew for the title if he can eliminate his propensity for streakiness.
Ferrari: Ah, the Scuderia. Was 2005 just a preparation for '06? Will Michael Schumacher return to his winning ways? Will Felipe Massa assert himself as something more than just a midfield driver? Questions abound as Ferrari heads into 2006, not the least of which was why they dubbed their challenger the 248 after the F2005, '04, and so forth. They set such lofty standards during their championship years that the catastrophic meltdown last season raised doubts about whether they could regain the momentum. But Jean Todt and Ross Brawn can't be kept down for long, and neither can Rory Byrne, the architect of the 248. Time will tell for the scarlet red cars.
Toyota: They finally had their breakout campaign last season and continue to search for their first victory. The problem is their two drivers, Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher, haven't had a knack for finding the top step of the podium throughout their careers. They are both into their 30s and don't immediately register at the top of the list among the best in the field. Still, they are heady, smart and have matured since each of their rookie seasons in 1997. The keys are how the cars will run on Bridgestones, and how technical director Mike Gascoyne can prove the revisions on the TF106b will be different from the car they launched, the TF106.
Williams-Cosworth: The combination of Williams, Cosworth, and Rosberg produced a World Championship in 1982. Twenty-four years later and the three have been reunited; Cosworths following a tenuous six-year relationship between Williams and BMW, and Nico Rosberg making his debut at the tender age of 20. He is wiser beyond his years having won last year's GP2 Series, and hopes to make a solid impression on the paddock. Mark Webber was usually outperformed by his underrated teammate Nick Heidfeld a year ago, prior to the German's injury after the Turkish Grand Prix. He has always shown flashes of brilliance, especially during single-lap qualifying, but is maddeningly inconsistent and needs to beat Rosberg, and often.
Honda: The team everyone expects to finally win their first race. Honda bought out the remaining 55% of BAR leaving that name officially out of F1 and has produced a car that could be good enough to win. The car has been one of the quickest in pre-season testing. Both drivers have something to prove. Jenson Button has #1 talent but #2 statistics, with over 100 starts and still no victories, while Rubens Barrichello got all his #1 stats during his six-year stint at Ferrari. It's not that he doesn't have #1 talent, but he is the third-oldest member of the F1 fraternity and he has a lot to prove vs. Button this season.
Red Bull-Ferrari: Customer Ferrari engines replace the faithful but under-powered Cosworths in the team that did everything differently last year. The problem is, in nine years with Sauber the customer Ferraris rarely lifted them above midfield. But Red Bull has one thing that Sauber didn't, and that is technical genius Adrian Newey, who joined the team in late 2005. Newey had no say on this year's RB2 but will have control over everything in the future. The relationship between Newey and David Coulthard produced great things at McLaren in the late '90s, and now the two are re-united. Coulthard proved the doubters wrong last year by scoring as many points as he did his final season with McLaren (24). Youngster Christian Klien showed he could be dependable and earned the second seat on merit, but now must keep it.
BMW Sauber: The combo of amiable Swiss Peter Sauber and the BMW engines sound good on paper, and there is reason to think this team could do well this season. There is a rather blasé environment in the team, with plain white cars and dark blue side pods (nearly the exact opposite of Williams' scheme). Nick Heidfeld is now team #1 over former World Champion Jacques Villeneuve. Test driver Robert Kubica may be used in a wider capacity if Villeneuve fails to light up the scoreboard.
MF1-Toyota (Midland): The team was Midland last year with the Jordan name still on the cars, and this year completes the transformation. Tiago Monteiro was best of a small rookie class a year ago, enjoying his moment in the sun at Indianapolis and proving dependable beyond belief, scoring 16 straight finishes to open his career. Christijan Albers had his moments at Minardi, as seemingly everyone does, but was sometimes outperformed by his lesser-rated teammates. The team will employ four separate test drivers as they hope to leap from the back of the grid.
Toro Rosso-Cosworth: Basically Minardi with a new paint job. The Red Bull junior team, as it will unofficially be known, will be scrutinized closely with their rev-limited V10 engines and one of F1's biggest stories heading into the season, American Scott Speed. The 2002 Red Bull Driver Search recipient proved the program's worth after three years in Europe and makes his debut alongside Italian Vitantonio Liuzzi. Speed has the pressure of being the first American in F1 in over a dozen years, but does it in the quieter surroundings of this team.
Super Aguri-Honda: It's always great to welcome a new team to the F1 paddock. Aguri Suzuki deserves much credit for assembling this dream and paying the $48 million entry fee. The car used for the first four races is an updated 2002 Arrows chassis that has been consistently off pace when on track. Takuma Sato and Yuji Ide will unfortunately be mired at the back of the grid until the team will debut its new car for the European rounds.