The winter has once again come and gone and the sounds of V8s in the morning are once again emerging. It's that time again, for another Formula One season to kick off. Whereas last year the rules and regulations changes dominated pre-season ...
The winter has once again come and gone and the sounds of V8s in the morning are once again emerging. It's that time again, for another Formula One season to kick off. Whereas last year the rules and regulations changes dominated pre-season headlines, the driver swapping and new team identities are up for discussion now. Time to look ahead and examine the 11 teams racing for glory in 2007.
McLaren-Mercedes: It's almost all change at Ron Dennis' operation. New for '07: both drivers, title sponsor Vodafone and a Bahrain holding company investing 30% ownership in the team. They signed two-time defending champion Fernando Alonso to lead the team following Kimi Raikkonen's departure. Alonso has gotten out to great starts in both of his title campaigns and needs to do the same if he wants to make it a three-peat. In the other car is Lewis Hamilton, who faces a steep test. He is undeniably talented, having won championships at every level he has competed. But with little F1 experience, his teammate's presence, and his ethnicity, it may be an uphill struggle. McLaren must focus first on returning to winning, and then the championship, following a winless 2006.
Renault: If nothing else, Renault will be noted for its audacious livery and conglomeration of white, orange, yellow and blue to coincide with ING backing. It's hard to miss for all the wrong reasons. Giancarlo Fisichella will be team leader and has rather large shoes to fill - Alonso only won the last two World Championships. Fisi's 2006 yielded a win and 16 points finishes, only five on the podium, finishing 4th in points. Yet again, he gets one more shot to prove himself with Heikki Kovalainen as his teammate and Nelson Piquet Jr. as race driver-in-waiting. How Kovalainen, after a full year testing, compares with the aging Fisichella and fellow rookie Hamilton will determine how successful his first year in F1 is. Much is expected from the abnormal Finn, who is easily understandable and at least has something of a personality.
Ferrari: The departing trio of Michael Schumacher, Ross Brawn and Paolo Martinelli left the Scuderia with a bang, winning nine races and coming 2nd in the standings. New boy Kimi Raikkonen enters the team as F1's fastest but not yet its finest. He seems to fare better in odd seasons, coming 2nd in points in '03 and '05, and this is an odd year. Mainly he hopes for better reliability, which was the impetus for his move to Ferrari. He has to be thoroughly dedicated to the team in his quest to win his first title. Teammate Felipe Massa was easily the most improved driver of 2006, and a breakout star in the making. He won twice last year on counter-clockwise circuits, including his home track in Brazil. Massa has the confidence and ability to contend for the title this season, provided Ferrari doesn't play favorites.
Honda: One wonders if their lackluster testing times are indicative of their ultimate pace this year. But Honda leads F1 in one thing - innovation. The team launched a sponsor-free earth livery to promote environmental causes. It's a unique but risky proposition for the team to undertake. With his elusive maiden win taken care of, Jenson Button's next goal is to challenge for the title provided the car is up to it. At the moment that seems an unlikely proposition. Rubens Barrichello's first season at Honda was average at best as he failed to finish on the podium for the first time since 1998. In a down year, he only scored half as many points as his teammate. The Brazilian is in the twilight of his career but probably not in danger of losing his ride before the season ends.
BMW Sauber: BMW surprised some in the F1 paddock and probably themselves with a solid first season in their new guise. But there will be more expected this year. The F1.07 chassis has been quick in pre-season testing and appears a threat to the establishment at the top of the grid. Quiet but productive lead driver Nick Heidfeld will be asked to bring BMW to another level in 2007, and if not, face the chopping block for teenage tester Sebastien Vettel. Nick took the lead in the most starts with no wins category last year and now has a tougher teammate to contend with in Robert Kubica. The Pole enjoyed a meteoric rise from obscurity to superstar overnight, culminating with 3rd at Monza in his third start. He has a lot of potential at 22, but he can't just be a flash in the pan either, as he needs to sustain his pace throughout his first full season.
Toyota: There isn't much to be excited about at this team's base in Cologne. For all the money they dump into F1 there has been a noticeably absent lack of results. The team's lone podium in 2006 was at Australia, and shortly thereafter they dumped technical director Mike Gascoyne. This year's car was the first to be launched but has been bog slow in testing. Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli don't strike fear into any of their opposition and are average at best as each enters their 11th season in F1. Both are signed to long-term contracts, while it's possible test driver Franck Montagny could see some action during the year. The team is completely inconsistent, and there isn't likely to be much change.
Red Bull-Renault: In a year where youngsters are prevalent, Red Bull continue to be the abnormality in F1 as they have two 30+ drivers. An Adrian Newey-designed car always has the potential to do well, especially one with customer Renault engines. But Red Bull has to avoid reliability downfalls, something that plagued the team both last year and in pre-season testing. Gray-bearded David Coulthard scored Red Bull's first podium at Monaco, but was at the mercy of a genuinely uncompetitive car for most of the season. Mark Webber leaves Williams after two disastrous seasons to return to the team he drove for when it was Jaguar. Underrated back then, Webber is now in need of revitalizing at 31, and what better team to do so than at the one that "gives you wings".
Williams-Toyota: It's a hope that Williams doesn't descend into privateer hell, as former good teams Tyrrell, Arrows, Ligier (Prost), Brabham and Lotus did. After the team's worst season in years, Cosworth engines were dumped for customer Toyotas. AT&T was added as a title sponsor, though Lenovo features more prominently on the beautifully designed FW29. Nico Rosberg, at the behest of an unreliable car and a lack of experience, struggled to achieve any result his rookie season except Bahrain. Second driver Alex Wurz just needs to shake the rust off after six years of testing. With little expected, Williams can take their first step towards a return to respectability. Podiums are probably out of the question but solid placings should be the goal.
Toro Rosso-Ferrari: The team directly at the center of the customer car controversy has had a whirlwind and tumultuous off-season. The STR02 chassis is nearly identical to Red Bull's RB3 but the team claims it's legal as it was designed by a third party in Red Bull Technologies. Gone are rev-limited V10 Cosworths and their replacement are customer Ferraris, which have rarely been great to the beneficiaries in years past. Team principal Gerhard Berger was the last to name his drivers. Vitantonio Liuzzi hopes to reduce his spin total while Scott Speed looks for more of his surname after being trounced in qualifying last season.
Spyker-Ferrari: The team formerly known as Jordan and Midland (MF1) is preparing for another year towards the back of the grid. The addition of Mike Gascoyne helps but it won't bring the team forward until midseason at least. Career midfielder Christijan Albers partners Japan F3 champ Adrian Sutil in the Dutch effort, whose F8-VII chassis is a striking orange. Once again the team employs four test drivers, more so for money than developing the car. Spyker didn't score a point in 2006 and that should be their intention for 2007.
Super Aguri-Honda: Everyone's second-favorite team ran to respectability during their debut season, capped with a legitimate 10th place at Brazil last October. They have used last year's Honda in testing but will be the last to launch their new car later this month, which should be differentiable from the current Honda. Anthony Davidson's first full year should see him getting the better of Takuma Sato, who salvaged some of his reputation in '06, as the team looks to further improve up the grid, perhaps into the points.
With all this examined, I feel this is the year Raikkonen takes his first World Championship. It's a critical year for the Finn as he has massive expectations heaped upon him, but his improved work ethic in the off-season leads me to believe he is up to the challenge. Massa and Alonso should be in lockstep for 2nd, with the three of them the main title protagonists. BMW should have a good year, as I see one of their drivers scoring their first victory, most likely Kubica. Of the rookies, I think Kovalainen will win before Hamilton, should either one reach the top step of the podium. Japanese marques Honda and Toyota are unlikely to run above the midfield. Red Bull and Williams are sleepers and the bottom feeders are likely to remain there. That said, 2007 is shaping up as the most competitive season in years.