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year for the prancing horse?
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These days formula one drivers and team owners are like politicians. One cannot believe a word they release to the press and this period of pre-season wild statements and even wilder test times mean absolutely nothing. Year after year I followed pre-season testing with interest only to conclude that they are meaningless postures to impress sponsors and intimidate the other drivers and teams.
This year I am going to ignore all of the �information� available and base my preview on pure logic. My chances of getting it right may still be slim but hopefully it will not be based on the fiction the teams have been projecting in the last month or two.
Every once in a while a team gets everything right in the design stage and starts the year with a definite advantage over the rest. Williams, McLaren and Ferrari have all had a turn.
The question is: Will it happen this year? Ferrari, McLaren and Williams were very close in 2003 and if one of them comes up with significantly faster cars they will be hard to beat. It is also possible that two teams have leaped ahead, or maybe even all three. All three taking a giant leap forward is much less likely.
The new rules are unlikely to give any team an advantage. Race weekend schedules have been changed, qualifying has been rearranged, third cars and drivers are allowed in practice but only for the losing teams (What on earth will that do other than make the weekend more expensive for the teams less likely to be able to afford it?), tyres have to be chosen by Saturday morning for the next day�s race (Another stupid rule that has no purpose and can only serve the FIA�s desire to add random spice to the game.) and pit lane speed is increased to 100kmh. Apart from making it possibly more confusing I cannot see what this will change.
Of all of the above changes, increasing pit lane speed may have an impact. If it shaves only one second off pit stops it may make that one additional stop worth it.
The use of a single engine for the weekend is a big change and there will be many teams that will not make it through a race weekend until mid-season.
It is really difficult to guess how much these rule changes will affect race strategy. If it has any effect at all the first few races of the season will be somewhat confusing until all teams again settle down to more predictable patterns.
I am inclined to agree with The Quali-flyer that the one engine rule will not make the sport any cheaper. The teams who can afford it must have spent a fortune on the development of more reliable motors that will go the distance and they are unlikely to recover that spend from building less engines. The teams that cannot afford it will be forced to reduce power in an attempt to make the engines last and could easily be far less competitive. If this is the FIA�s concept of levelling the playing field they should invest in a new level.
The big money (Ferrari, McLaren, Williams and Renault) will have engines that may have some teething problems but will get there pretty fast. After all, they have the money to throw at these problems. The others who cannot afford the cost will just fall further behind.
So the rules are unlikely to affect the pecking order. It is still a game of money, Big Money, and the deepest pockets will probably win the season.
I am unlikely to change my mind before the first race in Melbourne, Australia. What follows is my preview of the season which should also be read as my guess at how the Australian Grand Prix will turn out. I am sure that we will see many teams improve or lose ground over the season but my feeling is that the field has stabilised into very predictable groups: three, possibly four teams in the leading group, three, possibly four in the middle group and three, possibly four in the trailing group. Apart from Renault and Toyota I cannot see substantial progress for any of the other teams, I suspect that they will just gradually be left behind.
As I mentioned before, it is quite possible that one or more of the leading teams will start the season with some advantage, but I again stress that we are unlikely to pick it from pre-season testing.
If only because they won both championships in 2003 they must still be the team to beat. Their car has not changed much in appearance from last year but it is unlikely that they are trying to save money by reusing old technology. I am sure that they honestly believe that it is a winning car and that is good enough for me.
Their Achilles heel could easily be Bridgestone. Apart from Ferrari, all of the leading teams are on Michelin tyres. If Bridgestone gets it right, Ferrari will have a lone advantage, get it wrong and Ferrari are up the creek.
Some think that the fact that Bridgestone will virtually work exclusively for Ferrari is good, but I do not think so. Michelin will be getting at least four times as much data, statistics and feedback from competitive teams. This alone must give them an advantage. Michelin�s development will romp ahead and Bridgestone will be lucky to not fall too far behind.
We have seen that Ferrari can build a competitive car, but we have also seen them almost lose in 2003 because their tyres were just not up to it. If that is repeated this year they are unlikely to be as lucky as they were last year.
I have difficulty in imagining what motivates Michael Schumacher. Last year was the first time that I have seen him drive a few mediocre races and I wondered if he is getting ready to retire. He really does not have anything left to prove and it would be very sad to see the worlds most accomplished driver leave after a lacklustre season. We have seen too many other drivers do it.
If Michael is still motivated he should still be fast. If he is motivated he will be very hard to beat. He knows how to pace himself and his car, he has the ability to work out in the first few laps what it will take to win the race and he has total support from Ferrari.
Barrichello, on the other hand has had as few good races as Michael has had bad ones. He may be a very supportive number two driver but he is certainly not going to put pressure on Michael. He will be fast, if the Ferrari is fast, but this is unlikely to be his season. I think he is too used to being number two.
Most likely to have the most powerful engine, Williams could start the season very strongly.
Last year they had huge problems with their chassis, to the point that it came close to causing a rift between them and BMW. As the season progressed their chassis improved dramatically and it started to look as if the problem was not in the design but in learning how to tune it for maximum performance.
Williams have always had great cars and it is unlikely that they will have the same problem again this year. They are likely to come up with a great chassis and the most powerful motor. A winning combination in anyone�s books.
But they may not have the drivers to win a season. Montoya is fast, very fast, but seems to be inconsistent. This inability to string a season of good drives together will continue to cost him the championship.
Ralf Schumacher is a driver that does not inspire me. He is very fast when everything goes well for him but seems to be unable to stay motivated when everything is not perfect or to his liking. I do not see him as a champion.
McLaren finished last year with a car that was pretty competitive taking into account that they never managed to race their 2003 car. They made it all the way through the season in their 2002 car.
Certainly for the last few seasons McLaren found it hard to be competitive from the first race. They were always in catch-up mode and seemed to have the best car just in time for the last race of the season.
This year they cannot afford to do that, as they are not competing against a single team. Williams, Ferrari or even Renault could get so far ahead by June that it will be impossible to reign them back in. On the other hand if they share the points equally and no dominant team emerges it will be relatively easy to haul them in, but that is unlikely to happen. When last have we seen all leading teams get it right in the first races of the season?
Kimi Raikkonen is in my opinion going to turn out to be the driver to beat in 2004. He is fast, consistent and always hungry to win or at least score the most points that he can. He was never particularly hot headed as a rookie and by 2003 was already driving with the maturity and control that is needed to win seasons not just individual races. I think his learning curve has flattened and he is ready to take the season on.
On the other hand, I do not understand why David Coulthard has not retired. He drives as if he has. I know he claims that this is going to be his season, but that is what they always say.
Renault had a great chassis last year but their very flat V formation engine never produced enough power to make it to the top. This year they will be using a more conventional engine which should produce the desired power.
It is unlikely that the new motor will be reliable in the early part of the season. It is already a challenge to bring a new engine up to scratch in one season but add to it the new rule that an engine should last all weekend and they are expecting a lot.
I suspect that, if they do get the power they need, that their chassis will be very different from last year. Last years car had huge mechanical grip in an attempt to compensate for the lack of power. The same chassis will not support the required aerodynamic grip of a powerful motor.
They have a few challenges but I feel that it is quite possible that they will become competitive. If not early in the season, certainly by the end of the year.
Jarno Trulli is another of those drivers that frequently shows promise but when it comes to it, can�t follow through with consistent performance. In his case it could have been the cars that he had to drive but I am not sure. Give him a competitive car and he may be very good but I will not be holding my breath.
Fernando Alonso is fast. I expect him to do well. He can win races and will if the Renault can.
Well, I guess they could not get any worse. If testing is anything to go by they have improved dramatically, but the jury is out.
So far BAR have not been impressive. The Honda motor was woeful and their chassis over the years were not that good either. It never came together.
They switched to Michelin tyres, which will at least give us the opportunity of matching them against the other teams. I am not sure how much of the poor performance in the past was due to their tyres but it would not have helped.
Jenson Button is a good driver and can win races. He just needs the break. A reasonable car will already be a step in the right direction.
Takuma Sato does not inspire me but he is a lot better that some of the other Japanese drivers that I can remember. Isn�t it interesting that Japan has produced several excellent motorbike riders but not a single F1 driver?
Because of the longevity required from the engine Sauber will for the first time ever start the season with exactly the same motor as Ferrari. I am sure that Sauber will find that they may not share equally in the development over the year but they should start the season with the same power.
However, Ferrari are not sharing this year�s gearbox. Sauber are using last season�s Ferrari gearbox, which may mean that they could have difficulty in marrying the two together. We could even find that this may affect the balance of the car.
But just the fact that they will start the season with the same power as the leading teams must mean that they have their best chance yet to earn substantial points. Who knows, they may even harass Renault.
The sky is the limit but I suspect that their target for this year is to fifth in the constructors� championship. To do that they have to beat BAR who will be using Michelins. If Bridgestone drops the ball for Ferrari it is guaranteed that they will lose Sauber�s ball. Sauber could easily have a faster car on slow tyres. That would be ironic.
Fisichella is one of those great drivers that has never been in the right place at the right time. He seemed to always get to drive for a team when they do not have the cars to be competitive.
Give him a good car and he could do very well.
Felipe Massa is another of those young, fast and highly skilled drivers. If Sauber comes up with the chassis to support the Ferrari power plant he could be spectacular, but don�t forget that Bridgestone also has to come to the party.
Ford are just not taking formula one seriously. Their efforts over the past years have been amateurish at best, pathetic was more the norm.
Who knows what they will do this year? And who cares? They do not seem to care, so why should we?
Mark Webber is a good driver that knows how to look after his car and still drive to the best of his ability. He deserves a better team.
We will have to see what Christian Klien can do, not that he has a lot of scope in a Jaguar.
Having made the decision that they will build the entire car themselves, Toyota embarked on a long hard road on which they are not much further than halfway.
They will improve again this year but I do not expect them to do much better than fighting it out with Sauber and BAR.
In 2003 they often clocked the fastest speeds, which makes one wonder how powerful their engines are.
Unfortunately pure engine power and straight-line speed does not win races, but it is a start.
Da Matta is good and if the car is better we can expect him to aggressively chase his share of the points.
Panis is Panis. He does not embarrass himself but seems to be unable to get up that last rung of the ladder.
It was not that long ago when this team was competing for podium positions. Now they are falling back into the grasp of Minardi.
Heidfeld has never impressed me and neither will whichever 'rent a drive' driver they chose to partner him so I am expecting pretty close to nothing from this team even if it does find the money to continue.
At the time of writing I am not sure if Minardi have got engines for this season. If they stay with Cosworth which is more than likely they'll get third hand engines. Who knows, they may not even start but if they did, they are likely to play the role of mobile chicanes again.
Although we have four constructors that could be fighting it out for podium positions from the first race (I am not so sure of Renault but the others are up there) it is interesting that of the drivers I believe have what it takes to win championships there are really only three in the four top teams, Michael Schumacher, Raikkonen and Alonso. There may be, and are, other great drivers but they are not in cars that will have a chance unless something dramatic happens to the leading cars.
Three, possibly four, fast teams. Engines that have to last and will probably not always make it. Tyres chosen on weather predictions (How likely is that going to be accurate?). Two teams that could run out of money before the season is over. Bridgestone/Ferrari (count Sauber too if you must) going it alone against the rest of the field on Michelin.
Overtaking is still an issue and none of the changes in the rules will change this. The cars will be faster, they always are, driving will become more of a precision thing where flair is likely to have negative results. The clean line will become even more of a groove and races will be even more processional. Pit stops, qualifying and strategy is the name of the game and us spectators will often not know who is winning until the last stages of the race.
For the purist in me that does not fill me with glee but I have to admit that it certainly does not look as if it will be boring.
Agree or disagree ?