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2002 Season Preview
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2002 is already looking as if it could be one of the most interesting, if not exciting, seasons in Formula One.
There have been no significant changes to the formula for 2002 so it is possible that many teams will start the season with their 2001 cars with very minor modifications. Even those that will start with their newly launched cars will have the option to fall back on their 2001 cars if they are experiencing too many teething problems.
Most of the changes are to improve car safety by strengthening the cockpit and yet again trying to stop wheels from bouncing all over the track after collisions by strengthening the retaining cables by 20%.
The most significant change to the regulations is to allow unlimited testing, which will be desperately needed as no testing was allowed before the start of the year. Many teams have more than one test driver and as soon as the new cars are built we can expect to see all of them out being tested full time.
They have banned any start signal detection devices. From this one must read between the lines that some of the teams had (or could develop) the ability to detect the start signal and possibly automatically launch their cars. This may explain why some teams seemed to get off the mark so much better than others.
Electronically controlled power steering has been outlawed too.
Several changes were made to the regulations to make the sport safer. Larger rear light and rear view mirrors (which will only work if used - some of the back markers seem to be unable to see a blue flag which is far larger than a rear view mirror) and a driver start abort system, which will hopefully put an end to the potential for extreme carnage at the start of races.
Speed limits on the track will now also be enforced. Although speed limits have been used in past seasons in an attempt to reduce dangerous situations (like the removal of rubble, cars and drivers after an accident), it was not enforced.
As no changes in the regulations were introduced to curb speed we can expect to see much faster cars this season. Top speeds will go up, lap times will come down and, I suspect, accidents will be more extreme.
This year tyres will also be faster. Bridgestone will have worked furiously over the off season to improve their tyres on hot, fast circuits and Michelin will have paid attention to their wet and intermediate tyres.
The season is pretty full on once it starts. The only three-week gap is in July/August between the German and Hungarian GPs but that is after a single week gap between the French GP and German GP. Testing may be unlimited but there will be precious little time to do it. No wonder most teams have employed extra test drivers.
There are no driver changes at Ferrari. They have also elected to stay with Bridgestone. Their cars will still be red. But that is where the similarity ends.
The Italian press reported that Ferrari will be using titanium in a revolutionary redesign of their transmission train. Although the information that we have been able to glean is very skimpy it appears ("based on rumour" is probably a more apt description) that they are planning to use a clutch that did not need a flywheel as well as integrating engine and gearbox.
With so little information it is hard to guess where they expect to benefit. It is possible that they will be doing it to save weight and/or improve clutch performance and strength. A bad start can "cook" a conventional clutch, which could result in a degradation of performance during the race, or even retirement if it fails completely.
I am more inclined to guess that their aim is to reduce the size and weight of the flywheel (possibly eliminating it altogether) to improve engine acceleration. The downside of this is that it would be a lot easier to stall a car but that can be compensated for in the engine management systems.
Combining engine and gearbox may have the same effect and has the added benefit of potentially reducing the volume of oil needed to lubricate both.
This sounds very similar to the integration that was tried in the past by Prost with disastrous results. I am sure that Ferrari are far more likely to succeed but it may mean that their cars will not be as reliable as they have been for the last few seasons.
It could take a while before the Ferrari is bullet proof again.
Ferrari have appointed Luciano Burti as a test driver. I would expect to see Burti and Badoer testing almost full time between now and the Australian Grand Prix.
Ferrari is still the team to beat. Michael Schumacher is the most successful driver on the circuit today and there is no indication that his dedication is faltering. Barrichello is no slouch either, but in the Ferrari he will always play second fiddle to Michael.
Michael Schumacher is not only fast but also has the ability to think and plan while driving at a pace that few others can equal. He is an active member of the team when he is not in the car and certainly knows how to make the best of circumstances as they develop during the race.
This is a team that will have to pull all the stops out if they want to get back into the lead. They have changed from Bridgestone to Michelin and have replaced Mika Hakkinen with Kimi Raikkonen.
Mercedes (the old Ilmore team) will have to do a lot better this year. It will be hard to make up the ground that they have lost last season - to do it without at least as much power as Ferrari and Williams will be almost impossible.
One of the reasons mooted for their sudden demise is that they had used beryllium in their engines of 2000 and had to go back to the drawing board after it was outlawed at the start of last season. If this was indeed the reason why they fared so poorly in 2001, they may surprise us all by being competitive again in 2002.
David Coulthard (one of the most competent drivers in Formula One today) has the speed and ability to race against the Schumacher/Ferrari combination. He is easy on cars and tyres and very consistent.
Kimi Raikkonen is one of the most promising young drivers we have seen for a long time. His maturity and ability is amazing in someone so young. Coulthard will have to be very good to stay in front of him. Do not be surprised if he qualifies better than Coulthard from the start of the season.
It is hard to guess which Tyre Company have made the most progress since the end of last season but if Michelin can maintain the advantage that they had in durability and grip on hot, fast tracks, McLaren will have a tyre advantage over Ferrari on most of the season's circuits unless it rains.
Although McLaren have a long history in Formula One and the Mercedes engine comes from an organisation that have been building Formula One engines for a long time, I do not think that McLaren will recover the ground that they have lost much before the second half of the season, if they manage to do it at all.
They could be very fast this season if they manage to maintain the power advantage that they had last year. The engine should now be as reliable as any of the other teams and Williams have always built a very fast chassis.
Ralf Schumacher must lift his game if he wants to stay ahead of his team-mate. Towards the end of last season he seemed to be rattled by the success of Montoya, losing motivation and focus. He is planning to drive with glasses this season. I hope they also help him to improve his mental focus and determination.
Juan Pablo Montoya bears watching this season. He is a little hard on cars (something that he has in common with Villeneuve); if it can be broken he'll break it. (Must have something to do with their past in CART). But he is FAST.
With the right car he could easily win the championship this year and if Williams improve as radically as they did last year, he will.
They did exceptionally well to finish fourth in the constructor's championship last year. This year I am not convinced that they will be able to do as well.
The competition will be much tougher this year; they have lost Raikkonen to McLaren and Sergio Rinland who had a big hand in the design of last year's car has gone to Arrows.
Nick Heidfeld is a competent driver but I do not know if I would rate him in the same class as Raikkonen and Felipe Massa is unlikely to do too well in his first year.
They were definitely better than BAR last year and will probably build the better car again this year but the major issue for Jordan will be the performance of the engine they get from Honda.
They have a deal with Honda for a further two years. BAR have just signed up for a further three years and the inference that I gathered from the little that leaked to the press is that Jordan will be getting "works" engines. I just hope that this will be at the same level of development as the engines BAR will be getting.
Fisichella is an excellent driver that has had little opportunity to show off his ability for a while now.
Takuma Sato comes with a big reputation gained in formula 3 - now it is a matter of seeing if he can adjust to Formula One.
This is a very unsettled team. Pollock is rumoured to have been fired and Villeneuve is obviously unhappy. Geoff Willis is appointed as Technical Director and Pollock was replaced by David Richards who used to be with Benetton (during a time that they did not do very well either).
With that much turmoil one must wonder when the politics will end and work will start. Last year's car was virtually undriveable (or certainly appeared to be) so I would imagine that very little of it will end up in this year's car. When there is a lot of work to do, with little time to do it in, is not when I would be planning to change the team around.
Jacques Villeneuve is very obviously extremely unhappy with the departure of Pollock and would really like to go to another team, any other team. We have seen in the past how badly things can go wrong if emotional issues get to Villeneuve, and this time he is seriously emotional!
There are rumours that Villeneuve may change places with Button (who does not appear to be flavour of the month with Flavio Briatore). I think it is a great idea. Button can be fast in the right car and with the right team (although not even the great Fangio could have been fast in last year's BAR) and Villeneuve is very good in the right place. It may turn out that either or both do not fare better if they swap but in their current circumstances the cards are really stacked against them.
Olivier Panis is another driver that could do well in a good car. Who knows maybe BAR will provide it this year.
I do not rate their chances very high for this season. They have too many new people and a poorly motivated driver. In Formula One it is hard to do well if everything is perfect and at BAR things are far from perfect.
This year may be a bit soon but I expect great things from this team. Renault has been one of the most successful builders of engines in Formula One and they can do it again. Flavio Briatore was with Benetton when Michael Schumacher won a championship for them and he can do it again (Briatore, not Schumacher, although the comment applies to both of them).
Trulli is one of Formula One's unsung heroes. This may be the season that he gets an opportunity to show off his skill.
Button is also very fast but, being young, he may not have the maturity to cope with a team that has lost confidence in him.
Last year I wrote that I believed that this team would do exceptionally well and they did not. All of my reasons for believing that they can succeed are still there. They have a big budget, they have the most experienced and most successful engine builder in Cosworth and they have the backing of Ford. They have now even sold off their F3 team so that they can totally focus on Formula One.
Maybe this year Niki Lauda can stop the politics and get them to work like a team.
Niki is planning to do several laps in the new Jaguar. Some may say that he is getting too old and too out of touch with the driving style needed to drive today's Formula One car and that this is only a publicity stunt. Don't forget that in his time he was not only a very fast driver but also an excellent test driver that had the ability to work with his pit crew to optimise the car for race day. Not only is this ability rare amongst Formula One drivers but I suspect that it also does not diminish with age.
Sadly, in my opinion, Niki is the best driver in the team. Eddie Irvine has never impressed me (and I am not expecting to change my mind) and Pedro de la Rosa is competent enough but I do not rate him as one of the top drivers.
Jaguar have a lot of ground to make up and this has to be done while they are trying to build a team. They will be sharing the same Cosworth engine with Arrows, who seem to have their act together, and on top of that they do not have a single top ranking driver. I do not like their chances in 2002.
They don't have money. They can't build a driveable car. They have never appeared to be organised. Their best driver is managing them . . . . . poorly. They have no signed drivers. They have little or no sponsorship. They may not even be able to get to Melbourne.
Apart from that they are in great shape!
Now here is a team that may not have done too well last year but are poised to improve dramatically this season.
Switching engine suppliers to Cosworth was a great move. I believe that Cosworth are more likely to provide the power that they need than the Asiatech engine they used last year.
Appointing Sergio Rinland (the designer that provided Sauber with their car last year) was another great move.
Arrows had a fantastic launch control last year that almost always guaranteed an improvement of at least one position before the first corner. If they can maintain that advantage this year and add to it the benefits of more power and a better chassis design they could do very well. On the other hand they may have been one of the teams that were detecting the start signal electronically, which is banned now.
Arrows are still to announce their driver line-up so I will comment on the drivers that I believe are more likely to end up in this team.
Jos Verstappen is fast but has a tendency to barge, which often ends in retirement. A little more maturity and a lot more looking before leaping could turn him into a very credible driver. He certainly is fast enough.
Heinz Harald Frentzen on the other hand could benefit from barging a little more. There is no doubt that he is fast (Michael Schumacher rated him as a formidable competitor in his early years in F1) but he seems to be far too tentative when it comes to overtaking.
Bernoldi (who came with the Red Bull sponsorship money) is another driver that has had little opportunity to show his ability. If the Arrows is everything I hope for in 2002 he may show us what he is capable of.
The only team to be using the Asiatech motor with by far the smallest budget, Minardi is destined to always be closest to last.
This year they may be introducing Alex Yoong and Mark Webber to Formula One (it is surprising how many of the best drivers today started with Minardi). On the other hand this is probably where Verstappen or Frentzen could end up if not at Arrows.
This is Toyota's rookie year in Formula one.
They, like Ferrari, are building the entire car at their facilities in Germany. Like Ferrari we must assume that they will need several years before they will be contenders for a championship.
They are rumoured to have an unlimited budget and have been testing since the beginning of last year.
I do not expect to see them dicing with Ferrari for the lead at any time through the season but I also do not expect to see them mixing it with Minardi to avoid the embarrassment of coming last. It is likely that they will be fast enough to finish in the middle of the field from the start and finish in the points occasionally towards the end of the season.
Mika Salo is the driver that took Michael Schumacher's place when he was recovering from his accident in 2000. Although it was not enough races to form a conclusive opinion of Mika I got the impression that he was not that good on slower twisty circuits but very fast on fast, high speed circuits.
Alan McNish is another unknown driver that still has to prove that he can adapt to Formula One.
This year we could see as many as four teams fighting for the championship, but it is just as likely that one team could be dominant. If this is the case my money is on Williams.
Why not Ferrari or McLaren? I am sure that I am going to get a lot of mail from Ferrari and McLaren fans, and I would welcome that but before you write read on:
Team experience, recent track record and driver ability points very strongly towards another victorious year for the Schumacher/Ferrari combination. My doubts are because of the rumours of a radical departure from proven and accepted engine/gearbox design. By the end of the season this may prove to have been the way to build a faster car and even better car but I can't believe that they will be reliable from the first race.
My guess is that Ferrari will be unreliable for the first half of the season and even if they did fall back on last year's car the points lost in the early part of the season will be very hard to make up.
McLaren may recover the ground that they have lost in 2001 but experience shows that it takes more than one season to get back on top. I do not think that they will be in a position to take advantage of any problems in the Ferrari camp before later in the season and it is likely that Ferrari would have sorted their problems out by then.
I suspect that Williams will start the year with the most powerful engine that should be reliable by now. The loss of Geoff Willis (to BAR) should also not be underestimated. He will be sadly missed at Williams and chassis development over the season may suffer, but early in the season they should be fast, strong and in a position to take advantage of an unreliable Ferrari.
Sure, it is a gamble, but in my mind the probabilities are in favour of Williams. But then, I am hardly ever right.
Agree or disagree ?