By: Max Davies, F1 Correspondent
Throughout Formula One’s history, there have been several seasons that will live long in the memory of those who witnessed them, and the 2010 year was no different. Six different winners over a nineteen-race calendar, we went into the season-ending finale at Abu Dhabi with 4 drivers battling for the championship.
It was, many anticipated, going to be the most exciting race of all time and yet when Sebastian Vettel took the chequered flag to become world champion, general consensus was that the race had flattered to deceive. Perhaps it was due to the level of pre-race hype, perhaps it was the nature of the Marina Bay circuit or even the day/night format of the race itself. Whatever, to the millions of fans watching the title decider play out before them, the event heralded a slightly disappointing end to an enthralling year of grand prix racing.
In the days after, many wondered if 2011 would be able to produce a season of similar entertainment. Well, here at motorsport.com, we firmly believe that all the ingredients are in place for a tumultuous year and one that will possibly exceed those that have gone before.
Following on from the cancellation of the Bahrain Grand Prix, the season will kick off in Melbourne two weeks later than originally planned. Fact is that while the facilities provided by the Arabian millions are second to none, watching the colours of a Formula One season explode within the confines of a barren, feature-less desert, is hardly the right venue for setting your ‘this-is-entertainment’ stall out.
Australia has always provided one of the best atmospheres throughout a grand prix weekend and it is no coincidence that the Albert Park circuit has been the preferred choice to welcome a new season for most of it’s history.
The years of ‘who cares about the fans’ attitude from the various team bosses and powers-that-be has been steadily replaced by one that seeks to market the sport to the masses as one of the world’s most exciting forms of motor racing once more.
The various new regulations installed for this season promise to help the sport in many ways. The rose-tinted glasses of the rule makers seem to be finally diminishing in shade as an understanding of the need to make the races more entertaining finally seems to have been made into a palatable necessity.
Improvements to assist drivers with overtaking are in abundance with moveable aerodynamic wings and the energy recovery system KERS all permitted for this season, although the latter is optional with some teams electing not to run it on the grounds of cost and the additional weight it brings.
Pirelli make a return to the sport after an absence of twenty years as official tyre supplier. Following the departure of Bridgestone last year, the Italian company have been unfortunately faced with the unenviable task of having to make their tyres look bad – all for the sake of entertainment.
When they were selected as the preferred tyre manufacturer, their brief was simply to ensure their product was far removed from the durable compounds on offer from their Japanese predecessors. As a result of that, winter testing has seen the teams and drivers battle with high levels of degradation and varying levels of consistency in long run pace, so that deciphering out the relative speed of all teams is very difficult.
The winter tests at Valencia, Jerez and the two sessions run in Barcelona - following the cancellation of the planned Bahrain test, have brought with them new car designs, innovation, new liveries and new drivers.
As ever, judging who is setting the pace during winter testing is a thankless task with all competitors running various fuel loads and set up evaluation runs throughout the entire winter. Of course, some sense of who has got their sums right and who has emphatically not, is possible, but the clearest indication will not be known until the morning of first practice in Australia.
So who are going to be the main protagonists this year?
Red Bull Racing
Fresh from their double championship-winning year in 2010, the team was quietly going about their business throughout the winter months, while awaiting delivery of the next Adrian Newey-designed masterpiece.
The RB7 hit the ground running on the first day of winter testing at Valencia and immediately looked to have all the boxes ticked. At all subsequent venues, the car has impressed and there is a mood of quiet confidence that the car will be fast. No such statements have been forthcoming and on the evidence seen so far, none are needed. The car is quick, period and perhaps more worryingly for it’s rivals, a probable championship-winning one too.
Predicted Constructors Championship finish: Champions
Vettel will no doubt be delighted that Red Bull seem to have given him another car worthy of his talent. The defending world champion made silly mistakes last year and barring those miscalculations and the mechanical failures which also robbed him of points, he should have sewn up the title long before the final race in Abu Dhabi.
The development of his relationship with Webber will be fascinating to watch as both have publicly stated they are not on the best of terms. A repeat of their collision last year in Turkey is even more of a possibility as both men will do whatever they can to get the upper hand within the team. Vettel has improved year on year and now with a world championship in his pocket and youth on his side, there is much to suggest the German starts the year as one of the favorites.
Predicted Championship finish: Champion
The 34-year old enjoyed a bitter-sweet 2010 season which saw a strong start to the year, including a memorable win at Monaco and further successes in Spain and Britain. “Not bad for a number two driver,” the Australian announced after his storming win at Silverstone and there was no doubt it was the best answer possible to the scandalous decision made by Red Bull to remove the sole remaining new front wing design from Webber’s car and fit it to Vettel’s after the German’s own wing had failed.
As the season wore on and the battle with his team mate intensified, the Australian still kept his cool for the most part but his unnecessary spin in the rains of Korea while looking set for a probable win cost him dear. He has moved on from the traumas of seeing his dreams of winning the title slip away at the last round and declared himself ready to take the fight to Vettel once more. Will he be able to beat the defending champion this time around? Probably not, but it won’t be for the want of trying.
Predicted Championship finish: 3rd
In the aftermath of the Abu Dhabi race last year, Formula One’s most iconic team were in a state of shock. Confidence had been high that Fernando Alonso would snatch the title away from the much-fancied Vettel but it was not to be. A tactical misjudgment cost the Spaniard the championship and the ensuing days and weeks saw many a reshuffle within Ferrari. Sure, there had been mistakes made but the team remained defiant that in 2011, they would be challenging from the first race.
Winter testing has seen Alonso and team mate Felipe Massa complete more laps than any other and the reliability of the Ferrari 150° Italia, has been the envy of many throughout the paddock. While some of their rivals have struggled with reliability, namely McLaren, Mercedes and on occasion, Renault, Ferrari have been able to gather much in the way of data and tyre evaluation. The sign’s are that the team is around 0.2s per lap slower than Red Bull over a single lap, stronger over longer runs and but with the genius of Alonso behind the wheel, there is every chance they will take the battle to Red Bull from the start.
Predicted Constructors Championship finish: 2nd
Loosing the title to Vettel by a mere four points last year was a bitter pill to swallow for the double world champion and he, more than ever, will be determined to reverse the outcome in 2011. The Spaniard is widely regarded as the most complete driver in the field and in being the first constructor to launch their 2011 challenger, Ferrari have been able to get down to an intense development programme during winter testing. All the signs indicate that in the Ferrari 150° Italia, Alonso has a car capable of winning an historic third world title. He is also the unofficially recognized number one driver within the team and this will only aid his championship bid as he begins the task of beating his nearest rivals.
Predicted championship finish: 2nd
The 2010 season was a hugely frustrating one for Massa. He visited the podium on but four occasions and failed to win a race for the first time since joining Ferrari. His team mate won four times, finished second in the championship and became the recognized number one driver courtesy of the ‘swap’ of places during the German Grand Prix last year. Entering his sixth season with Ferrari, the 29 year-old Brazilian is confident of a more competitive campaign but in truth, he has much to do if he is to keep his drive alongside Alonso beyond 2011.
Predicted championship finish: 8th
The decision to launch their car later than their nearest rivals doesn’t seem to have produced the benefits McLaren were hoping for. So far, winter testing has been a frustrating exercise and seen the Woking-based constructor struggle with reliability and stability. Both Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton have publicly declared their frustration with the lack of speed apparent in the MP4-26 yet as ever, they are confident the team can turn the situation around quickly. Arguably, if any outfit is capable of producing such a turn around, it is McLaren but the fact that they are starting yet another season without a race-winning car will be a massive disappointment.
Predicted Constructors Championship finish: 3rd
The 2008 world champion would never publicly admit it, but there can be little doubt he will be very aggrieved at that the latest offering from McLaren this year. With the new Pirelli tyres specifically designed with high degradation in mind, the aggressive style of the popular Brit could be a possible problem if the car doesn’t improve quickly and he needs to muscle it around the track. Still a certain contender for the title, but he will need to look after his tyres and focus more on omitting the personal problems that have plagued his psyche these past twelve months. With a new management company now in tow, Hamilton will be watching how quickly his team can turn the situation around. If he looses confidence in their ability to do so, he may knock on the door of the defending champions.
Predicted championship finish: 5th
All the pointers indicate that providing the team can solve the countless issues with the MP4-26 quickly, Button could be in for a strong second year at McLaren. The 2009 champion is widely recognized as being in possession of the smoothest driving style in the field and with the Pirelli tyres specifically designed without longevity in mind, this will play to Button’s strength. Largely outpaced by Hamilton last year, Button has an extra 12 months experience with the team to draw upon, is well versed in the nuances within and if the car is sorted early enough, he should be able to nurse his tyres better than anyone else and could possibly challenge for wins and the title.
Predicted championship finish: 4th
Now fully owned by Daimler Benz - following their purchase of the remaining shares in February alongside their financial partner Aabar Investments, the team is ready to start challenging for regular podiums in 2011. Initial reactions to the performance of the MGP-02 were mixed when it first ran in Valencia and despite concerns by the team that unexpected problems had arisen with their unfinished challenger, they remained quietly confident that the final winter test, would mark a turning point.
For the board of directors back in Munich, Germany, there will have been relief that the recent fourth test session at Barcelona seemed to indicate that target had been met. In terms of results, 2010 couldn’t have been much worse for all connected with the team and it would appear that choosing to abandon development of that year’s car in favour of their new challenger, was a gamble that may pay off.
Predicted Constructors Championship finish: 4th
The seven-time world champion endured a disappointing return to the sport following a 3-year absence though frankly, many felt he should have been banned following his disgraceful attempt to shove Rubens Barrichello into the pit wall at 190mph at the Hungarian Grand Prix last year. The German was frequently outperformed by team mate Nico Rosberg but as 2010 came to a close, the 42 year-old began to show signs of his former self. Now armed with a car which has seen constant evolution during the winter tests, Schumacher is ready for the challenge of trying to add to his already staggering collections of race victories and championship.
Predicted championship finish: 7th
Since his debut in 2006, Rosberg has steadily improved as a driver and after roundly trounced his illustrious teammate last year. Schumacher’s return sparked fears of a return to the days of Ferrari and that the team would be neglecting the talent of Rosberg and instead, focusing it’s attention on the seven-time world champion. Instead, amid all the hype, Rosberg kept his head down and let his lap times do the talking. There were inherent problems with the MGP-01 last year and there is much to suggest the team have brought a potential race winning car to the table in 2011. Rosberg will be hoping that is the case but what will be upper most in his mind is of the need to establish himself over Schumacher as early as possible.
Predicted championship finish: 6th