2004 Ė Itís going to be crowded at the top!
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And so another season is set to start. We have a whole new (?) practice/qualifying arrangement and a whole new set of daft (with a couple of exceptions) rules to make things more interesting. The new-and-improved Qualifying arrangements are really no different to last year. The timing is different Ė first and second sessions back to back on Saturday Ė but the real racing is still gone. Qualifying on race fuel loads makes it a strategic extension of the race, as it was in 2003, and one lap that counts qualifying will still enhance the spectacle while detracting from the sport.
One race engines are a precursor to 100,000 kilometre warranties and will be of little value in reducing costs, with more than the amount saved on construction of engines having been diverted to R&D to make the engines lighter and more powerful while still lasting the whole weekend. I wonder whether Paul Stoddard has recognised the opportunities here Ė He can plan on running multiple engines every round without fear of being compromised. Revised requirements for rear aerofoils seems a real winner, except that the Renault at least is already more aerodynamically efficient (generating more downforce) than last years car.
At least the changes will slow the cars down over last yearís speeds. Errr Ö given the way track records are falling like autumn leaves in pre-season testing maybe thatís not working either.
One thing is very obvious from pre-season testing; this yearís cars will be fast, very, very fast. Looking at the top of the ladder, the Michelin carís (Williams, McLaren and Renault) all seem to be significant steps forward on last year. The Ferrari too should be quicker. You cannot read too much into pre-season testing times, they are testing various elements and a car that blitzes the field on a particular day may well be running an overstressed engine trying to find limits that they wouldnít approach on race weekends, while the others are doing comparative component tests. We shall have to wait for Melbourne to see who has made the biggest advances and who (apart from Jaguar) is in trouble.
Ferrari have stayed with Bridgestone for 2004 and only time will tell if that was a good move. We saw last year that the red cars can still win races and championships with clearly inferior rubber; I am not ready to discount a repeat performance this year.
One very worrying element of the tyre war though is that Bridgestone now have only one manufacturer-backed team to draw data from. Michelin will have trouble keeping up with their data streams from every other cashed up team. This has to favour the pneumatic Frenchman.
The only high points in an otherwise dumb set of rule changes are the removal of Launch Control and driver controlled gear changes. Now, if only they could get rid of TC and bring back slicks we could see some racing, dare I suggest that we might even have occasional overtaking back as a feature of the sport. Nah, wonít happen.
Even the normally modest DC seems to think this will be his year. That surprises me, He has always been so willing to acknowledge that he is the number 2 driver and that he wonít get the number of points that his Finnish partner will. But this year will finally be his crack at the Championship! He said so. This year will also be Ralfís and Rubinoís! They said so too.
Throw in their various team-mates who could get lucky and take a point or two off these illustrious heroís and the top step will get pretty crowded. It will be an interesting year if these 3 can be believed, suddenly you will have Schumacher (the elder), Montoya, Raikkonen and Alonso squabbling over the minor points while the new Big Three split up the podiumís between them. I believe them; after all they said it at press conferences so it must be true. I suppose it was time for a change anyway.
One interesting aside. Lets assume one or all of these legends-in-their-own-minds do perform, why shouldnít the appropriate team owner get very upset at their failures over the last years? After all, none of them are even close to being rookies. Barrichello at least has the excuse that he is contractually number 2 Ė the others have just relied on having less talent.
Itís way too early to call this season because we havenít seen the cars running head to head in race configuration but Iíll stick my neck out anyway.
Renault will seriously challenge the pecking order this year and mix it up with two of the big three. One of those three will get their act together better than the others and take an early lead in the championship that will get pared back by mid-season. My heart says it will be Kimi (oopís, sorry, itís Davidís year isnít it) in the McLaren but Iím not writing off JPM just yet.
Eddie Jordan will find some drivers but might as well not bother, they will be a long way from the second tier runners, Sauber will disappoint again and Jaguar will look back on 2003 as a high point (until at least mid-season). Toyota and BAR will get the lions share of what crumbs the top teams leave and Minardi will have 2 cars going round the tracks again.
Weber will neither harm his reputation nor improve on last yearís performance. De Matta will have a good year, as will Button. Sato and Massa will prove the wisdom of them not getting seats in 2003. Hopefully we will see another bright light appearing from the rookie brigade, 2003 was a tad dim.
And, despite Davidís et al claims I see another tight championship with the usual suspects from 2003 vying for the gong.
Sir Frank will be more interested in points than denying JPM access to information or car improvements so he should have a reasonably even playing field with Schumacher junior. He will however have to maintain his enthusiasm in an environment that will become increasingly strained. Kimi will perform well if the car is up to it and Michael will do better than 2003, hopefully getting back to the machine that didnít have the ordinary performances he gave us on occasions in 2003. Heíll need to if he is to overcome the shortcoming of Japanese rubber. And the world champion for 2004? I donít know, but Iím not writing off a repeat of last year, just yet.
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