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Sat, 05 Mar 2005
This is my last chance to make predictions for the new F1 season, just in time to be proved wrong tomorrow. In some ways, it will be clearly less of a spectacle than last year—we have “long life” tyres that must last a full race; “long life” engines that must last two events for qualifying and races; further restrictions on aerodynamic performance; and a bunch of smaller changes. These factors will slow the cars in two ways: they will be capable of less than last year’s cars and it will be critical to manage wear on tyres and engines in order not to be penalised by the new rules. On top of all that, we have an extension of the idiotic qualifying rules from last year that will make qualifying mystifying and dull for the on-track spectators and a waste of time for the TV audience.
On the other hand, the new rules will reward drivers who have the supreme skills to get good performance out of their package while also treating their car and its tyres kindly. The drivers who can best adapt to those requirements will do better than the ones who like to wring the car’s neck and rely on the traction control to manage the rear end. That might lead to some interest in at least some of the races.
Although I see no reason to imagine that Michael Schumacher might struggle this year, given that he excels in the skills that will be most in demand and is on a roll with the best team in the business, I think we’ll see interesting races within some teams and between some teams, even if the battles are not always for the top spot on the podium. For instance, McLaren now have the strongest and most competitive driver pairing of any team since the days when they had Senna and Prost in their cars. Raikkonen will lift his game now that he has Montoya in his team; Montoya is clearly much better motivated than he was at Williams and has sublime skills. They should be great to watch and their car, although probably not the fastest, should perform well enough to be interesting.
BAR stupidly sacked team boss David Richards who single-handedly lifted them from joke to number two—so that Honda could own the team and have a puppet in charge. That will hurt them. But Button and Sato are both on top of their form and very fast and the car itself should be good again. They will be worth watching.
And it’s time for Williams to emerge from the shadows too. For them, this will be hard. They’ve had really silly upheavals among key team personnel and they have lost two highly-ranked drivers who have been replaced by people with no real credit. While most Australians are hoping that Mark Webber will show himself to be another Alan Jones now that he’s at Williams, it’s important to note that he has never driven a car that had a hope of winning and that he’s never had a team mate who deserved a ride. He has a huge weight on his shoulders, both in terms of expectations from the team who need a turnaround in their fortunes and need a driver who is also a leader, but also in the need to beat Heidfeld (who often bested Raikkonen when they were team mates). And, with the loss of design people, and several years of building bad cars, much depends on Team Willy’s ability to build a suitable weapon for the new season—and that’s still an unknown.
In some ways, I regret choosing to compete in the Grand Prix Rally last year because I think tomorrow’s race in Melbourne will be very interesting. In other ways, I’m pleased that I’ll be watching from the comfort of home this year, as it will be easier to follow the progress of the race and to keep an eye on the interesting developments through the whole field. And, now that I’ve done a few laps on the track, it’s much easier to understand the choices the drivers make on the various corners—none of which look anything like they do on TV when you’re at road level and approaching them at speed.