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2006 World Cup

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Five races down and Ferrari are not there at the pointy end. Gee, the rule changes worked and F1 is exciting again. Max and Bernie were right after all, the new exciting 2 stage qualifying and one tyre and � an engine engine rules have breathed life back into the corpse! I don�t think so.

What�s changed? Close your eyes and picture a younger, Spanish Michael driving a blue car and you see one team dominating the points as effectively as last year. Sure the teams have moved around in the pecking order, but didn�t BAR and Renault do that last year? How about Williams and McLaren, weren�t they big movers over the last couple of years? OK, so they moved backwards but my point is that if you jumble up the names then nothing really has changed for decades, you get stratification by teams that have only been interrupted by a few extraordinary stints at the top by one player. Combine all the elements of Ferrari�s success and you see why they have dominated recently.

The biggest single factor in the shake-up this year has been tyres. Michelin got them right � Bridgestone didn�t. Given the face issues involved I guess it will be some time before they can train up their new engineers and wash the blood off the boardroom floor after the mass hara-kiri party in Tokyo.

So, bottom line � the rules still suck, Max and Bernie still have it wrong and qualifying is attracting TV audiences that rival the 4 hour opening remarks of the International Convention of Non-Entities.

Having got all that off my chest, this year has been good, as far as variation to the 2000-2004 model is concerned. Renault got the new rules right better than anyone else and with 2 competent steerers they are reaping the benefit. McLaren finally gave Kimi a car that would make it through a whole race in one piece and he performed the way we (me anyway) expected him to. Toyota are finally reaping the benefit of spending squillions of dollars and Williams are still trying to get back the glory of yesteryear.

There have been a few drivers who have performed outside my expectations. Trulli was a driver that I supported through his troubles at Renault and is revelling in the new environment at Toyota. He is still one of the best wet weather pilots on the grid and is going to make a significant impact on the championship this year. He won�t win, but he�s already shown that Toyota are on track at last. Even Ralf has performed better this year than at any time in his career. Is he worth the salary he�s getting? No, but at least he is delivering some points. Ralf really needs to get a partner like the great Alex Yoong to show his ability as a lead driver.

Kimi is delivering real value and is, in my opinion (and that�s the only one that counts in this forum), the fastest driver in F1 today. Is he the best? Probably not. That honour still rests with Ralf�s Big Brother in the red car. OK, he hasn�t delivered for a long time now but as a package he is still the best value in the pack. I hear about Michael not being able to handle racing anywhere but up the front but I don�t see any diminution of the professionalism. Sure, he would probably like to visit the Bridgestone factory with an axe but he�s doing the best he can with the resources he�s got and maintaining focus on the objective. While it is still statistically possible for Michael to take the championship again that is not going to happen. He (and Kimi) needs others to fail to achieve that � not just for him to succeed. The rewriting of the points system a few years back to reward mediocrity will ensure that Alonso will hold the box seat for this season, barring some extraordinary circumstances.

He, FA, only needs to finish consistently in the points and gain a few podiums along the way to win. With the season not yet 1/3 completed it�s his to lose. A few DNF�s will of course totally change that equation but as long as he can keep podium�s coming he can afford one or two. Trulli�s position on the leader board is an excellent example of consistency rather than wins being rewarded. He may get a win this season, and I hope he does, but while ever Kimi, Fernando and Michael (yes, I still believe they will come back at some stage) are swapping wins then he will stay right up there on the points table.

Williams are an interesting case. Mark has proven that he is one of the best hot lap drivers on the track and while he has always consistently gone backwards on the day I�m not sure how much of that has been him and how much is the car. He has made some mistakes, more than I expected, but overall he has outperformed Heidfeld and I see him pretty comfortably holding his seat next year when Button makes his belated return. Heidfeld hasn�t disgraced himself, he�s just been matched with a slightly better driver. Villeneuve has disgraced himself. Sure, he�s got more points than Massa but look at the details � He�s been out-qualified 3-2, fastest laps are 0-5 and he�s finished in front in only one race. Is that the performance of a champion? Not in my book. Jacques, it�s time to go on gardening leave again, you are not going to get back to the former glory days.

Button and Sato have both performed acceptably in a car that has gone backwards in its development and that reversal of fortunes added to the �unusual ballast� design of the fuel tank issue have pretty much guaranteed Button his Get Out of Honda Free Card for 2006. On the issue of �that fuel cell� I believe that if it walks like a duck and looks like a duck then it probably is a duck. BAR can show that they didn�t actually use the fuel that sat in the extra tank but it was there to use, otherwise they would have put the weight down low where it needs to be and reduced the fuel tank size to compensate. No, they built it with intent, got caught and paid for it. Whether the punishment fit the crime or not is not the issue. My personal belief is that they were unreasonably treated but if they had not broken the rules they would still be racing now and picking up some minor placings. Button did have a period of brain fade in suggesting that he would have won the last round. Nobody was going to beat Kimi in that car, on that track on that day.

Coulthard has performed like the journeyman he is. Very good in Melbourne and acceptable everywhere. His experience shows and Red Bull needed him this year, and he has delivered. Klien and Liuzzi are not yet able to deliver at a level that can match David but by the end of the year I expect them to be there.

Of the other drivers, they are there to make up the numbers. Rubens made his usual claim of this being �his� year and while his performance relative to Michael has gone forward this year, not backward (3:2 in qualifying, 2:3 in fastest laps and 3:2 in race places is not bad) he hasn�t really set himself there as a serious player and luck played a big part in those numbers. Karthikeyan seems as though he will make it but I am concerned that the Jordan isn�t further away from the Minardi�s given Toyota�s powerplant.

Monaco is next and it will be a big step backward for Ferrari. Michael�s talent and the car�s pace will not overcome Bridgestone�s qualifying handicap. Unless they come up with a solution from left field the red cars will start and stay back in the pack. Nobody gets overtaken at Monaco so attrition, starting position and possibly a couple of pitstop driven changes will determine the finish order. I don�t know who will win this round but, barring intervention from God, it will be a Michelin front row and a Michelin podium. I would not be surprised if the usual prospects are sitting in the post race interview with questions being cycled between Fernando, Jarno and Kimi.

As a final word, I�d like to give thanks to FOM for their Speed Channel efforts. I�ve spent all this season in the USA and went for the basic plus cable just to make sure I could watch the races. Of course I always intended to turn off the sound so I didn�t have to listen to �expert� commentary by hacks that haven�t got a clue. Turns out I didn�t have to. We get live qualifying (really exciting) but the race has to wait till next day when it screens on a commercial network because Speed is forced to show reruns of the pre-qualifying rounds of the 1962 Going Round In Circles World and Universe and all the other places that count Championships, hoping that would attract more audiences than the race on CBS. I guess they were right..

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