The 2009 Season Preview: A Year for Dark Horses? - FORMULA 1


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The 2009 Season Preview: A Year for Dark Horses?

Toyota believe they are on the brink of achieving a maiden win; Toro Rosso have already done it; Red Bull’s is arguably the most radical car on the grid; Williams’ flywheel KERS could prove a secret weapon; a McLaren partnership should boost Force India; and Brawn GP’s pace has already got the likes of Ferrari worried. The dramatic rule changes for the 2009 season mean midfield teams really could upset the order at the head of the grid. We consider their chances…

9 Jarno Trulli (I)
10 Timo Glock (D)

Toyota, like BMW, go to Melbourne feeling quietly confident after an off-season of testing in which the TF109 has consistently showed pace and reliability. Part of the performance has been put down to the innovative design of its diffuser, which has upset some other teams. FIA President Max Mosley described the device as ‘clever’, though the governing body has made no official comment on its legality. Small wonder they covered it from prying eyes at every opportunity during testing. It remains to be seen, however, whether rivals protest it in Melbourne in order to get an official ruling from the race stewards.

This is a crucial year for Toyota, and team principal Tadashi ‘George’ Yamashina recently revealed that he had to fight to keep the team in F1 after Honda’s withdrawal. Panasonic’s continued sponsorship was a major factor in his successful battle. He expects a significant step forward in 2009, and at least one victory is deemed essential if they are to have a long-term future.

"We must win," he confirmed. "I'm sure of our team's potential to win a Grand Prix title after watching the final test. Our team is definitely better than that of last year."

Toyota have confirmed that they definitely won’t be running their KERS system in either of the two opening races.

Toro Rosso
11 Sebastien Bourdais (F)
12 Sebastien Buemi (CH)

Toro Rosso were one of the last teams to reveal their 2009 contender, which is of course very closely related to the Adrian Newey-penned Red Bull RB5. The crucial difference is their power units: the STR4 uses the Ferrari V8, the RB5 Renault’s.

There is no doubt that Newey has created a beautiful car, but Toro Rosso face many challenges in 2009. Not least is replacing Sebastian Vettel, and it remains to be seen whether two other Sebastiens, Bourdais who is onboard for a second season and Buemi, who faces his first, can tap into the rich vein the young German was so able to exploit last year. Then there is the need to organise things behind the scenes so that Toro Rosso can become a fully-fledged constructor in their own right, as required by the regulations, for 2010.

They won’t be using KERS in either of the first two races.

Red Bull Racing
14 Mark Webber (AUS)
15 Sebastian Vettel (D)

Dietrich Mateschitz doesn’t seem to mind which of his two teams wins. But you can bet the farm that the guys at Red Bull are still smarting from being upstaged so comprehensively by Toro Rosso last year, and are determined not to let that happen in 2009.

Adrian Newey has stretched the design envelope far more than anyone else with his RB5, and the result is a superb-looking car that has drawn praise from more conservative rivals. Thus far it has not sparkled too much in testing, and reliability problems reared their ugly head again after all of Geoff Willis’s solid work to improve things in 2008. But the team know they have a gem, and it will be fascinating to see how successful they are in their efforts to unlock its clear performance potential in a crucial year in which they must do an awful lot better than their seventh place in the 2008 constructors’ world championship.

16 Nico Rosberg (D)
17 Kazuki Nakajima (J)

Every year, of late, Williams have issued upbeat statements claiming that revised rules will aid their aspiration to rescale their once-great heights. But 2009 surely offers them their best hope yet, with the widespread changes. The FW31 has shown good potential at times in testing, and has a similar trick diffuser to the Toyota, with which it shares the same engine. While some question its legality, Williams technical director Sam Michael is adamant the diffuser complies with the rules. "To be honest we were surprised that it even turned into an issue,” he says, “because for us it was very clearly inside the regulations. It was something that in various forms teams have been doing for two years, so it wasn't really a big issue for us or the FIA. It was something that we clarified with the FIA well over a year ago."

Accidents hurt Williams last year, but Nico Rosberg’s greater experience should counter that this time, in a season in which solid results will be most welcome as the team look to attract a major sponsor in time for RBS’s departure at the end of 2010.

Despite being in the vanguard of KERS development, Williams won’t run their flywheel system in either of the two opening races.

Force India
18 Adrian Sutil (D)
19 Giancarlo Fisichella (I)

Like Brawn, Force India are hanging their hopes on Mercedes-Benz power, in a new VJM02 designed by Mark Smith and James Key. Wholesale changes to the team since 2008 have seen the departure of technical guru Mike Gascoyne and team principal Colin Kolles, as owner Vijay Mallya continues to put his own stamp on its development and direction. Drivers Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrian Sutil have thus far expressed themselves happy with the car’s performance, the Italian in particular showing good pace in testing to shadow more fancied runners. This is another team that won’t be bothering with KERS for at least the first four races, and will be putting their technical focus on improving their aerodynamic package, which they admit still lacks downforce.

Brawn GP
20 Jenson Button (GB)
21 Rubens Barrichello (BR)

A winter of deep discontent left Honda personnel on tenterhooks following the Japanese manufacturer’s withdrawal early in December, but much of that was forgotten when the Brawn BGP001 literally exploded on to the tracks with a slew of fastest lap times close to the end of the official tests.

Insiders had always insisted that the car, whose design may have started earlier than all others as Honda struggled through 2008, was a big step forward, and its performance thus far bears that out. The switch to Mercedes-Benz power has clearly been beneficial, and even allowing for the fact that the car might have run with a low fuel load in testing to attract potential sponsors, it is evident that it is very good. Just how good, we will find out in Melbourne and at Sepang, but there have been rumours of achieving 89 percent of Honda’s 2008 downforce levels, which would explain a great deal.

Like Toyota and Williams, Brawn have made a novel interpretation of the rear diffuser regulations and could well be another team subject to rivals’ protests in Melbourne. They won’t run KERS in Australia, or anywhere else, for that matter, unless they decide to revisit it much later in the season.

Watch out for this dark horse.