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Three Team Struggle
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Although Ferrari may still be the team to beat there are two other teams that I believe could easily leapfrog into the lead, Williams and McLaren.
Last season we saw Williams improving dramatically over the year. It was rumoured that they had the most powerful engine but could not run it at full power at the beginning of the season. As reliability improved they realised the potential of the BMW engine towards the end of the season.
It is quite possible that Williams could maintain their power advantage in 2002, and if that is the case it is also quite probable that they would be more reliable, which could give them the ability to crowd the podium.
Both Williams drivers are capable of winning races. Ralf Schumacher may not quite be up to the standard of his older brother, Michael, but he is fast and consistent. He also has the advantage over his team-mate, Montoya, that he is far gentler on his car and more likely to finish races.
Last year Ralf seemed to be rattled by the rapid success and obvious speed of Montoya. Towards the end of the season his performance appeared to lack the drive and determination necessary to win races. Williams profess to not believe in team orders. There is no reason to play second fiddle – Ralf must learn to go for broke and not allow Montoya's performance to affect his.
Montoya is very fast. His driving skill is certainly in the same league as Michael Schumacher. With the right car he could easily compete for the championship. He does have a tendency to be hard on the car and unless he is given a strong and reliable car I am afraid he will retire often again this season.
McLaren was down on power for all of last season. Rumour has it that this was as a result of banning the use of Beryllium. Mercedes (Ilmore) had the most powerful engine the year before last and it is possible that they could do it again this year.
David Coulthard is used to McLaren and very familiar with the McLaren/Ferrari battle. He is very fast and easy on his car. Unlike some of the other drivers, Michael Schumacher does not intimidate him.
Kimi Raikkonen is fast and consistent. Although very young he seems to be able to think behind the wheel and displays the maturity that is needed to stay on the track. He may take some time to settle in at McLaren but I am sure that he will learn fast and be competitive soon.
Ferrari are the defending constructor's champions, Michael Schumacher is the defending driver's champion. They were very fast and extremely dominant last year and if it were not that they were struggling with tyres towards the end of the season they would have won with an even greater margin.
This year's car is a little controversial. Rumours, that appeared to have been started by Ferrari, vary from clutchless gearboxes to fully integrated engine and gearbox. The latest rumour is that they have combined engine block and transmission case in a single casting. Alleged benefits are rigidity, weight and size.
Combining the gearbox and engine was tried by Prost two seasons ago. Their performance was nothing short of pathetic, but as this was the case for virtually their entire time in formula one, I am not sure that their gearbox design contributed to their poor performance.
I am sure that Ferrari, with their experience, ability and budget, will not make this move if they are not confident that it will pay off but reliability could be an issue.
At this stage it is all a moot point, as they have decided to start the season with last year's car.
I do not believe that Ferrari intended to use their 2002 car in Melbourne. As soon as the first car was available Schumacher broke a lap record with it (twice), drove it for a while and then Ferrari seemed to lose interest in the car. Barrichello did not even do one lap in it. One would think that if they were planning to use it they would spend much more time testing it before falling back on the old car.
Using the 2001 car in Melbourne almost guarantees that both cars will finish unless they are involved in an accident. Having had a year's development they will be much faster than the last time we saw them in Melbourne, but will that be enough? Have they continued development during the off-season or did all their focus go on the 2002 car? We will have to wait and see.
Ferrari are also the only leading team on Bridgestone tyres. McLaren have changed from Bridgestone to Michelin for this season and Williams have elected to stay with Michelin.
It is very hard to make any predictions on tyres other than it is almost guaranteed that both tyre manufacturers would have improved their tyres and would have worked hard on compensating for their weaknesses of last season.
Last year Michelin produced tyres that seemed to get better with wear and lasted much better than Bridgestone's tyres but were at a definite disadvantage in the wet or on colder circuits. Bridgestone on the other hand did very well in the rain and on cold circuits. Bridgestone's dry tires seemed to start very well but lost grip very soon in hot and dry conditions.
It is possible that both tyre companies will still have these characteristics this year but if that is the case we must assume that the differences will not be as dramatic as they were last year.
McLaren may have some trouble adapting to Michelin but I do not believe it will be significant.
I cannot remember a season where tyres were evenly matched over all temperature and weather applications (excluding the years when there was a single tyre manufacturer producing tyres that were therefore almost controlled tyres). There is no doubt in my mind that every race will suit one of the two tyre manufacturers better. McLaren have changed from Bridgestone to Michelin and must be hoping that they made the right decision. Ferrari and Williams have stuck with the devil they know and must be hoping that they made the right decision.
I also suspect that if there is a big difference in performance between the two tyre manufacturers it will conclusively affect the outcome of the season. Chances are that Ferrari, McLaren and Williams will be close enough in performance that a significant difference in tyre performance could not be compensated for: if Michelin is significantly better the race will be between McLaren and Williams, if Bridgestone is better Ferrari will be unbeatable.
I have learnt to disregard relative performances in off-season testing. We just do not know what is being tested or why. I now start each season with the simple rule that most teams will be faster than they were in the previous season (unless rules have been changed to slow them down) but their performance relative to the other teams will not change by much.
I therefore predict that, at least in the early part of the season, Sauber will be the best of the rest. Coincidentally they have also not done too badly in the silly season testing.
Last year Sauber were consistently fast throughout the season. The power and reliability of the Ferrari motor (albeit a year out of date) and some very competitive chassis and aerodynamic design paid off.
This year they have arguably the best Ferrari motor ever built. If they are as good again at completing the rest of the package they could be sniping at the heels of the top three teams for most of the season. If it turns out that the Bridgestone tyres are superior then they will definitely be a threat to Williams or McLaren or even both.
Nick Heidfeld is a competent driver. I do not put him in the same class as Michael Schumacher, Montoya or Hakkinen but given a fast car he could do well. I think that he also feels a little slighted because he was not chosen to replace Hakkinen, so he may be out to make a reputation this season.
Massa is unknown in formula one and although he may have a lot of ability it will take time to adapt, if he ever does.
Raikkonen will prove to be a loss for Sauber.
My money is still on Jordan being the faster of the two Honda powered teams, although this was not reflected in their off season testing. They seem to have their act together and Giancarlo Fisichella is a very talented driver that has had little chance to show off his skills in recent seasons. Takuma Sato sounds fast but he has to prove himself.
BAR have performed better in the off season testing but with all their management changes I am expecting them to struggle as much as always with internal problems and politics which will undoubtedly impact their performance during the season.
Villeneuve is fast, very fast. He is hard on cars but gets a lot out of them. It would be nice to see him in a competitive car again. Unfortunately he may be too old to drive by the time BAR builds a competitive car.
Panis is fast too. BAR certainly have the drivers. I have doubts about the car or the rest of the team.
Renault may turn the corner this year. With any other team I would predict that it would take them at least another year before they have a chance of being competitive but in this case Briatore has walked back into the management of the team that he had when it was Benetton. Renault was very successful as an engine builder not that long ago and could get up to speed very fast.
They are making a lot of noise about the new engine. At 111 degrees it is by far the widest engine and if they manage to fit it into the chassis without having to sacrifice balance or aerodynamics it should allow them to build a car with a lower centre of gravity, which is always a good thing.
Even with the radical engine and the backing of Renault I do not see them being fast enough to challenge for the lead. They may be able to challenge Sauber for the “best of the rest” title and that would be a great performance after where they finished last year.
Jarno Trulli is another driver that I suspect has more talent than track record. He has just not had the opportunity to show off his talent. This could be his chance.
As a rookie Button did very well in his first year with Williams. Last year at Benetton his performance bordered on awful. Maybe the new car will give him the opportunity to claim back lost ground.
Jaguar. The management changes and internal politics in this team are so bad that I am amazed that they managed to launch their new car early. If off-season testing is anything to go by (and I am the first to admit that it is not) they may be better off with last year's car and that was awful.
Neither Irvine nor de la Rosa inspires me. It is going to be another bad year for The Cat.
Prost is now in liquidation and Frentzen has jumped to Arrows and seems to be doing well replacing Verstappen. I think he is much better off.
It is sad that one of the world's best drivers, Alain Prost, has to exit formula one in this manner. Now he will be remembered as the team owner and/or boss that could not make it work instead of being remembered as “The Professor” an accurate and consistently fast champion renowned for his ability to think in the cockpit.
Arrows may not have the budget that Jaguar has but they are focused and they are using the same Cosworth motor. It is likely that they will fare far better than Jaguar, on a fraction of the budget.
Frentzen is fast. He is certainly the fastest Cosworth driver this season.
Bernoldi is another driver that does not inspire although I am the first to admit that he has never had an inspirational car.
Minardi have always struggled to get the sponsorship funds together for long enough to make a difference. On the other hand they are real survivors and do exceptionally well under the circumstances.
This year Minardi again provides the training ground for new drivers Yoong and Webber. So far Webber seems to be considerably faster but we'll have to see what happens in qualifying. As always adapting to formula one is the challenge.
Toyota are making their debut to formula one this year and in style! Unlike other manufacturers like Honda, Mercedes or BMW that enter by supplying motors only, they are in with the full hog. Engine, chassis, the works is all Toyota designed and built from the drawing board up!
For Toyota this will be a year of learning, if they finish in the points occasionally it will be a great achievement.
They are rumoured to have a very powerful engine but at this stage there is little evidence to support these rumours. In off-season testing they were pedestrian at best – but again I must stress that we have no idea of their testing configuration.
Mika Salo has been around for a while. The little I have seen gave me the impression that he was good on fast circuits but not so good on slower winding circuits but this may have been because he was having difficulties with the way the car was set up.
Alan McNish is new to F1. He may have a good track record but, as we have seen in the past, it all depends on how he adapts to the style of driving and competing in this very different category. He is 32 years old and the older you get the harder it is to change.
Melbourne is the third fastest circuit of the season. Average speed will be well over 220km/H (136mph). There are two slow corners, one very slow, just before the pit straight at 80-85km/H (50-55mph), and turn seven which will be negotiated at below 110km/H (68mph).
The rest are moderately fast to very fast. After the short pit straight there are three slower corners before the pace picks up through what can only be described as long sweeps rather than corners. Here speeds will climb to 300km/H (186mph) and although aerodynamic grip will be essential at that speed it will be achieved with modest wings. Those wings will be inadequate on the very slow corners but, as very little time is spent below 100km/H (62mph), all teams will accept the compromise.
Albert Park was originally designed to facilitate overtaking but it has failed to achieve that. The pit straight is too short for easy overtaking and the long, high speed sweeps have a very definite optimum line where the overtaking car will need considerably more power and speed to run around the outside.
To overtake on the pit straight, the exit out of turn 15 (negotiated at 83km/H or 52mph) must be fast, which implies good mechanical grip. As most of the circuit demands aerodynamic grip at high speed, very few cars (if any) will be set up with any mechanical grip bias.
Albert Park is hard on brakes and engines. Reliability is always an issue in the first race of the season – at Melbourne it will be a major issue.
I am surprised that Ferrari is the only team to use last year's car (although at the time of writing this there may be still some time for other teams to change their minds).
Agree or disagree ?