Launch season is here and Ferrari and McLaren, last year's front runners for the titles -- at least until McLaren got thrown out of one -- were the first to unveil their shiny new challengers. But will 2008 be another two-team battle between the...
Launch season is here and Ferrari and McLaren, last year's front runners for the titles -- at least until McLaren got thrown out of one -- were the first to unveil their shiny new challengers. But will 2008 be another two-team battle between the old rivals or can anyone else get in on the act? Given Ferrari and McLaren's dominance in 2007 it's hard to imagine anything but a repeat scenario, but you never know.
Take the phrases "the new car is a step forward" and "it's faster than last year's" and "I'm confident we're making progress" and repeat ad nauseum through January and that's launches in a nutshell. There are a few new twiddly aero appendages and the odd bit of surgery to the shape of the chassis but at the end of the day the Ferrari is still red and the McLaren is still silver, although someone else is bound to come out with a livery that's totally vile.
Ferrari has altered the wheelbase on the F2008, while McLaren's MP4-23 has some weird vents that could possibly double as cheese graters, but to the casual observer the cars aren't startlingly changed. We'll only know how competitive they are once they get on track but, if for argument's sake we presume these two teams will be the front runners, there are one or two other things that could make a difference between Ferrari and McLaren this year.
In 2007 the Scuderia proved it didn't need Michael Schumacher or Ross Brawn to win titles, although McLaren getting thrown out of the constructors' championship certainly made one title a lot easier. Jean Todt may no longer be at the helm but he'll still be around and Stefan Domenicali, who now heads the team, is well regarded. And, of course, world champion Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa will again be behind the wheel of the scarlet cars.
Raikkonen and Massa work well together; the team appeared to give them equal chances last year until Massa dropped out of the title fight and, aside from the as-yet unknown quantity of the new car's performance, Ferrari is approaching the season with a certain amount of continuity and the confidence of a double-title achievement. Not so for McLaren, which still has the sting of the spy scandal, the fall out with Fernando Alonso and the loss of the title to digest.
Naturally the talk at the McLaren launch was in an optimistic vein of putting last year behind it and a fresh start in 2008. What else could they possibly say? No doubt the team will be doing its utmost to do just that but it surely can't be that easy to simply sweep last year's problems under the carpet and forget about them. McLaren will want to swiftly move on, that's understandable, but let's hope it's not in so much of a hurry that lessons haven't been learned.
While Ferrari has two drivers who, if not exactly old hands, certainly know their way around an F1 car and have plenty of experience between them, McLaren, for the first time in a quite a few years, enters 2008 without a well-seasoned pilot in competition. That's not to denigrate Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen, but it's simply a fact that they each have only one season under their belts.
Nobody can honestly doubt Hamilton's talent but despite the British media's determination to make him into a colossus that strides head and shoulders over the puny mortals that make up the rest of the grid, smiting them with his dazzling brilliance, not everyone is convinced by Lewis' amazing rookie year. The MP4-22 was an extremely competitive car and one would expect any driver with his wits about him to have performed well in it, albeit perhaps not quite as well as Hamilton.
If the MP4-23 isn't so good, will Hamilton still shine? That appears to be the question. Before things went quite so sour in 2007, Hamilton had Alonso's set up experience to help him out but now he's going to have to start from scratch. Has one year in F1 competition taught him and Kovalainen enough to stay in the fight in 2008? Many will point out that Hamilton was a title contender as a rookie without any F1 experience but, as always, so much hinges on the car.
If Hamilton was in a great car in 2007, Kovalainen reminded us just how hard it is to be in a poor car. Last year's Renault was dismal and Heikki's debut season was fraught with problems, although he recovered to score his first podium finish with a confident second at rain-soaked Fuji. Swap them over, put Kovalainen in the McLaren and Hamilton in the Renault, who would have been the better rookie? It's not hard to imagine that Kovalainen would have had the better results.
Hamilton and Kovalainen should be a strong pairing but perhaps not as strong as Raikkonen and Massa -- although the latter two are not without their faults. Out front, leading a race, Massa comes into his own and sails serenely along but if stuck in traffic his frustration can often be his downfall. Raikkonen is prone to boredom if not given a challenge and still makes inexplicable mistakes.
However, you'd have to think that Ferrari and Raikkonen enter 2008 as the favourites to defend their titles and, based on the competitiveness of 2007, that McLaren will be the ones they have to beat. Massa can't be counted out, while Kovalainen is arguably the outside chance of the four. He has talent but he has a new team to adjust to, not to mention McLaren's devotion to Hamilton. But is there anyone who might upset the status quo at the top?
BMW Sauber is the team that springs to mind. While the Swiss-German squad didn't really gain ground on Ferrari and McLaren last year, its rate of development was consistent enough to make sure it didn't fall any further behind. BMW has so far proven consistent and one would expect another improvement in 2008. But will it be enough, given a comparative improvement from the top two? Maybe not enough for a title challenge, but it wouldn't be a great surprise to see BMW claim its first victory.
Alonso's return to Renault isn't suddenly going to catapult the French outfit back to its title-winning ways but it's an intriguing prospect all the same. The combination of the Spaniard and Renault was unbeatable in 2005 and 2006 and the two being re-united promises an upturn in the team's fortunes. It's not going to produce miracles but Renault was climbing out of the doldrums towards the end of last season so hopefully there will be better results this time around.
As always, nobody really knows what's going to happen because any team can lose the plot -- Ferrari in 2005 and Renault last year for example -- but currently it's not unreasonable to think that the Scuderia and the Silver Arrows will battle it out again in 2008. That will be interesting but I'd have no complaints if the colour schemes at the front of the field featured something other than red and silver. Just not too vile, please.