The New Year is upon us and it won't be too long before engines are revving up on the Melbourne grid for the first race of 2007. Anticipation is high for next season: there will be no Michael Schumacher and no tyre war but there are drivers...
The New Year is upon us and it won't be too long before engines are revving up on the Melbourne grid for the first race of 2007. Anticipation is high for next season: there will be no Michael Schumacher and no tyre war but there are drivers changing teams and new faces, as well as the inevitable new regulations. Out with the old and in with the new -- is this the start of an F1 revolution?
Schumacher's absence, obviously, will be felt but there are plenty of other things to catch the attention. Most focus seems to be on Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen and their moves to McLaren and Ferrari respectively. Ron Dennis is hardly an impulsive type so McLaren's signing of Lewis Hamilton to partner Alonso surprised some folks.
David Coulthard thinks McLaren has made a mistake by putting rookie Hamilton alongside double world champion Alonso. The Scot believes if Hamilton struggles against Alonso it could destroy the youngster's confidence. Certainly a driver is measured against his teammate and Alonso is a hard man to measure up to, but I don't think Hamilton will wilt very easily.
McLaren perhaps had a little revolution of its own -- 2007 will be the first time since Bruce McLaren founded the team that it enters a new season with an all new race driver line up. Many doubt that Alonso can claim a third successive title with a new team but others think the Spaniard has the presence to give McLaren a fresh impetus and cohesion. Time will tell but Alonso has to be considered a championship contender.
For some, Raikkonen has already got his hands on the 2007 title but I'm not convinced the Finn is that much of a dead cert. There's no doubting Raikkonen's ability but how will he settle into Ferrari? Inevitably, and irritatingly, he's being compared to Schumacher and generally Raikkonen seems to come out in a less favourable light as far as his work ethic is concerned.
That aside, let's not forget Felipe Massa in the Ferrari equation. Massa was impressive in his first season of competition with the Scuderia and if not for Schumacher's title aspirations he surely would have won another race or two. Some folks may see it as a given that Raikkonen is Ferrari's title hope but Massa can't be counted out. Sure, he can be a bit rash sometimes but Raikkonen ain't Mr. Perfect either.
Renault staged its own revolution in 2005 when it trounced Ferrari for the titles but 2006 was more significant. Ferrari was about as competitive as a wheelbarrow in 2005 but this season the Maranello squad was back on form. Renault and Alonso came through to triumph again, proving themselves in champion style. Once again the detractors claimed it was luck but quite frankly that's a load of old cobblers.
Renault faces 2007 minus its world champion driver but plus talented Finn Heikki Kovalainen. Back in 2003 I interviewed Kovalainen when he was competing in the Telefonica World Series and I said at the time it would be no surprise to me to see him in a Renault F1 some day. After a year of testing the car he's ready for competition and his race debut is awaited with anticipation.
Honda had a mini-uprising in Hungary this year when the team and Jenson Button finally scored their maiden victory but I'm not sure if Honda has the balls to mount a full scale revolution. Since the squad's stellar 2004 season, when Honda was runner up to Ferrari in the constructors' standings, it's all gone a bit pear-shaped.
However, the latter half of 2006 saw Honda on an upward trend so maybe they can get it back on track, as it were, in 2007. Button is no slouch behind the wheel and his 70 rain-soaked laps of the Hungaroring back in August were quite impressive. He and Honda could be, and should be, contenders next season. I'm dubious about Rubens Barrichello, though.
BMW Sauber exceeded its expectations in 2006 with two podium finishes (a third each for Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica) and one would hope the rate of progress will continue. Kubica's performances spurred Heidfeld to up his own game and the German needs to keep it going otherwise Sebastian Vettel could prove to be rather revolutionary. The 19 year-old tester is highly regarded by BMW and the team wasted no time in ousting Jacques Villeneuve in favour of Kubica this year…
I apologise in advance but there's no way Toyota could organise a revolution with Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli. I may be proved wrong -- and will be suitably chastened if I am -- but I just can't see it. The team hardly made any noticeable progress this year and I'm mystified as to why it signed Trulli through 2008. In fact, Toyota is a mystery all together. Do something!
Red Bull might like to think it's revolutionary but it's mostly vaguely annoying. What is the point of the Red Bull driver programme? Neither Coulthard nor Mark Webber are Red Bull prot?g?s and if, as the rumour mill suggests, Toro Rosso is considering either Robert Doornbos or Tiago Monteiro -- also not Red Bull men -- it doesn't send out encouraging signals to the programme youngsters hoping to rise through the ranks.
Leaving that aside, before I go off on a rant, it will be interesting to see how Red Bull performs now it has Adrian Newey on board, as well as a few other interesting additions to the technical ranks. Coulthard is solid, if uninspiring, while Webber has a reputation that he has yet to live up to, so they're going to need a good car in 2007 to make an impression.
Williams -- oh dear. Where did it all go wrong? 2006 can't really be described as anything other than a disaster for the Grove outfit and it was painful to watch. But Frank Williams is a born fighter and you can bet the team is working hard, while the Toyota engine partnership should help. Nico Rosberg shouldn't be quite so flighty in 2007, although after his years in test driver purgatory Alex Wurz is a bit of a question mark.
Is Toro Rosso ever going to sort its drivers out? Hopefully Scott Speed and Tonio Liuzzi will remain -- I have developed a strange attachment to Speed and Liuzzi is entertaining, although he might consider dressing a little less like a gay window cleaner. Does he actually look in the wardrobe or just fall into clothes at random? The revolution I would like to see is that of Toro Rosso outdoing Red Bull.
Midland departed as quickly as it arrived and now we have Spyker instead. The addition of Mike Gascoyne is interesting but I wouldn't expect any huge improvement initially. Christijan Albers was a whiz in the DTM but he's struggled with uncompetitive machinery in F1 so far. Adrian Sutil is a mostly unknown quantity but he didn't do too bad a job in his stints in the third car on Fridays this year.
Super Aguri isn't likely to be anywhere but near the back but it's still only a year old. I have my reservations about Takuma Sato's on-track activities but it's about time Anthony Davidson was in a race seat. It depends on the car, of course, but despite its tender age Super Aguri should be toddling in 2007 rather than crawling.
Happy New Year -- let's hope it's a good one.