The 2009 Season Preview: A New World Order? - FORMULA 1


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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The 2009 Season Preview: A New World Order?

McLaren, Ferrari, BMW Sauber and Renault all won races in 2008 and at least three of them are confident of winning more in 2009. But they are also aware that this season has all the ingredients for serious surprises - major rule changes, no in-season testing, and some worryingly different interpretations of the technical regs by supposedly ‘junior’ rivals. So do the big guns head to Melbourne with the firepower to stay ahead of the chasing pack? We consider their chances…

1 Lewis Hamilton (GB)
2 Heikki Kovalainen (FIN)

It’s official: The new McLaren MP4-24 is not fast enough.

That was the verdict after all the testing, especially the latest runs in Barcelona and Jerez, revealed the car to have a rear-end aerodynamic problem that left both Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen disappointingly far down the timesheets.

According to one insider, it is a problem that can be fixed in time for Melbourne. “The key is that we know what the problem is,” they said. It remains to be seen, however, what the true scale of the problem is.

New team principal Martin Whitmarsh has taken it on the chin and admitted that the MP4-24’s performance has been disappointing, and McLaren are working flat-out to rectify that. Whitmarsh will be feeling the pressure after saying recently: “I am a competitive person and being team principal adds a little zing this year. I have two overriding concerns in the forefront of my thinking: To win the first race, in Melbourne at the end of the month, and to see Lewis Hamilton retain his world championship title. I don’t want to be the team principal in 12 months’ time who didn’t help him to win the world championship again, so that does add pressure.”

Subsequently, he said: "Initial testing of MP4-24, which first ran with an interim aero package, went in accordance with our early developmental expectations. Then the car ran in Barcelona with an updated aero package, as we had always planned it would, and a performance shortfall has been identified that we are now working hard to resolve."

Clearly the car is not quick enough yet, though there were signs of progress in Jerez, and few doubt that McLaren will get it right and will do so quickly. But whether they can solve the problem quickly enough to stop Ferrari - and other rivals - gaining points advantages in Melbourne and Sepang, is going to be a key factor in the early stages of the 2009 championship battle.

3 Kimi Raikkonen (FIN)
4 Felipe Massa (BR)

Ferrari’s testing has almost been low-key in comparison with McLaren’s obvious problem and the upstart speed of the Mercedes-engined Brawn GP car. In the early stages the weather in Spain and Bahrain did its best to stymie the team, but in Jerez and Barcelona there were plenty of signs that the elegant F60 is nicely positioned to do the business. Both Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen have expressed themselves happy with the car’s speed and overall performance, and that is particularly important for the team after the Finn’s sometimes lacklustre showings last year.

Were it not for the Brawn’s pace, one suspects that Ferrari would be very happy right now, but the Anglo-German car’s speed has certainly raised many eyebrows in the paddock. Without it, Ferrari would be right where they want to be, with a car that handles well, is quick, and is competitive over long and short runs. Now, having seen the Brawn in action, Ferrari have conceded mentally that they are not the fastest.

“We were able to improve our car a lot in every respect,” Massa reported after testing. “We're where we thought we would be before the start at Melbourne. I'm really satisfied with our competitiveness compared to all the others, except obviously the Brawn. They were unreachable for all of us.”

Reliability has been an issue for Ferrari, however, and after Barcelona team principal Stefano Domenicali admitted: "We're satisfied with the level of our car as far as the performance is concerned. It's obvious that we still have some work to do and that we have to concentrate on its reliability. Last year we've seen how important reliability and the smallest details are. We have to work much harder in this direction."

BMW Sauber
5 Robert Kubica (PL)
6 Nick Heidfeld (D)

Like Ferrari, BMW Sauber have had a relatively low-key time during testing, but there is every indication that both speed and reliability are there in the F1.09 and everyone is quietly confident of being able to launch a major challenge for the world championship.

Also in common with Ferrari, both drivers like the car, and Nick Heidfeld has expressed his confidence that he won’t be troubled by the tyre-heating issues that compromised his performance in qualifying at times in 2008.

Reliability has generally been good for the Swiss-German team, and they have an advantage with their KERS system having tested it a great deal last year. Team principal Dr Mario Theissen recently confirmed that they are in a position to race with it from the start of the season, as planned.

"We've got our KERS to the stage where it is race-ready, which means we can use it in Melbourne,” he said. “Now it's just a matter of weighing up the pros and cons. On the positive side, the drivers would have an extra 82 bhp at their disposal for 6.6 seconds per lap. However, the system adds weight to the car and this has an impact on the car's weight distribution and tyre wear. We will make a decision on a driver-by-driver, circuit-by-circuit basis."

Of all the teams, this one may be the darkest horse, and you get the distinct impression that they are playing down their likely performance. This is a key season in their long-term timetable. “In our first year we set out to finish regularly in the points,” Theissen explained. “In year two we wanted to record podium finishes and in our third year we were aiming to notch up our first victory. We achieved all of these ambitious aims. In 2009 we are looking to take the next and most difficult step yet: we want to be fighting for the world championship title.”

7 Fernando Alonso (E)
8 Nelson Piquet (BR)

If you believe some of the rumours doing the rounds in testing Renault have been in trouble with their R29. The doomsayers suggest that the only time it goes quickly is when Fernando Alonso’s brilliance is brought to bear, and that Nelson Piquet’s lap times are a better indication of where Flavio Briatore’s team sits in the overall scheme of things.

In Jerez, however, the Spaniard was able to better the Brawn’s lap times, and it is clear that progress is being made. And like BMW, Renault say they are ready to go with KERS, which could bring a critical advantage in the opening rounds as other teams play catch-up.

Also on the positive side, the FIA allowed Renault to modify their engine over the winter and to catch up in the horsepower race with other manufacturers who better exploited the various loopholes in the engine freeze regulations. That will give them another 50 bhp. But Briatore remains very unhappy about the ‘grey’ areas regarding the design of diffusers, particularly those on the Toyota and Williams cars. "I wouldn't like it to end up like the frozen engine, which we respected and ended up with less power than the others," he said. "This is the same story."