Malaysian preamble

March 31, 2009

More of the same is to be expected from this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang.  With only a week between the first and second races and the teams thousands of miles away from their European bases, it’s hard to see any of them making any fundamental progress up or down the grid.  Expect to see a strong performance from Brawn, then, but I have a feeling that it may prove to be Toyota, rather than Red Bull or BMW, who provide their sternest opposition for the laurels on race day.  Expect, too, to see a race which is at the very least as entertaining as last weekend’s, the Sepang track being custom-designed for modern F1 cars.  This could prove to be doubly so if the notoriously unpredictable and wild weather adds some rain into the mix.  Watch for Lewis Hamilton doing a rain dance in the pit lane.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the first Malaysian Grand Prix.  It increasingly looks like a marker post for the future of Formula 1, the first stage in the expansion of the sport into the East.  More importantly, though, it has usually provided some good, interesting racing, which is all that really matters.  As is my wont, I’ve decided to crunch some hard stats about the Malaysian Grand Prix.

1999

Date: 17.10.1999.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny.  Pole position: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 1m39.688.  Fastest race lap: Michael Schumacher 1m40.267.  Race winner: Eddie Irvine (Ferrari), from Michael Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen (McLaren Mercedes)

Notes: This was Michael Schumacher’s return from the broken leg which sidelined him for much of the second half of the 1999 season.  He dominated the race meeting – the penultimate event of that year’s World Championship – holding up Mika Häkkinen’s McLaren and then allowing his teammate through to win, putting him in the driving seat in the title standings.  Ferrari were disqualified after the race for a technical infringement on their barge boards, temporarily handing Häkkinen the world crown until the decision was reversed on appeal.

2000

Date: 22.10.2000.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny.  Pole position: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 1m37.397.  Fastest race lap: Mika Häkkinen (McLaren Mercedes) 1m38.542.  Race winner: Michael Schumacher, from David Coulthard (McLaren Mercedes) and Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari)

Notes: The final round of the 2000 World Championship, with the title decided already in Michael Schumacher’s favour.  A promising battle between him and Mika Häkkinen, his title rival, evapourated early after the Finn was penalised for jumping the start.  Schumacher cruised to victory at a track where he was always a class apart, although he was chased hard in the latter stages by David Coulthard.

2001

Date: 18.3.2001.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny, becoming very wet due to a rainstorm, then drying.  Pole position: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 1m35.220.  Fastest race lap: Mika Häkkinen (McLaren Mercedes) 1m40.962.  Race winner: Michael Schumacher, from Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari) and David Coulthard (McLaren Mercedes).

Notes: The first Malaysian Grand Prix in its traditional early-season date, this was the 2nd round of the 2001 championship.  The race was action packed.  An early race monsoon made conditions impossible, so impossible that 6 of the first 10 laps were behind the safety car and both Ferraris spun off the track.  The pace of the Ferrari F2001, though, was simply too much for the rest of the field to contain.

2002

Date: 17.3.2002.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny.  Pole position: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 1m35.266.  Fastest race lap: Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams BMW) 1m38.049  Race winner: Ralf Schumacher (Williams BMW), from Juan Pablo Montoya and Michael Schumacher.

Notes: An aberration in a season of crushing domination by Ferrari, the second round of the 2002 World Championship at the time gave us the ultimately false hope that Williams might be able to stop Schumacher from breezng to a 5th title.  As it was, Ferrari still dominated the early stages of the race, through Rubens Barrichello, until his car let him down mid-way.  Michael Schumacher, delayed by a penalty for colliding with Montoya turn 1 on the opening lap, could do no better than 3rd behind the Williams pair.  However, he went on to win the next four Grands Prix, and had the title wrapped up by July.

2003

Date: 23.3.2003.  Weather: Hot, dry and sunny.  Pole position: Fernando Alonso (Renault) 1m37.044.  Fastest race lap: Michael Schumacher 1m36.412.  Race winner: Kimi Räikkönen (McLaren Mercedes), from Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari) and Fernando Alonso.

Notes: After Schumacher, M.’s crushing domination of the 2002 season, a raft of measures were made to even the playing field.  And they worked, as you can see from this result.  Michael Schumacher, normally a class apart at Sepang, could do no better than 6th after another first corner tangle, this time with Renault’s Jarno Trulli.  Alonso – at the time the youngest ever F1 polesitter – became the youngest ever leader of a Grand Prix (both records since have been eclipsed by Sebastian Vettel) before Kimi Räikkönen assumed a comfortable lead.  A race of firsts, it was Fernando Alonso’s first ever pole position and first podium finish in a Grand Prix, whilst Kimi Räikkönen scored his first Grand Prix win.

Join us again later this week when I cover 2004-2008’s events, in florid prose.

An inspiring start to a new Grand Prix season, where first race intrigue revolved around on-track racing, tactical intrigue and unpredictability to the last rather than the usual Melbourne-brand bumper car excitement.  This, too, was thrown in for good measure, making for a memorable and hugely encouraging start to the new-look Formula 1.  The pity, perhaps, is that the last-minute cameo of Albert Park’s traditional accidents deprived us of what could have been a very intriguing battle for the victory in the final laps.

However, Kubica and Vettel’s coming together was simply a racing incident, which have happened and will happen so long as cars race one another.  The real pity in all of this is that after such a positive beginning to a season, there are still so many unknowns.  Uncertainty over the legality of the winning car’s diffuser.  Uncertainty, too, surrounding the rear ends of the Toyota and Williams cars who featured so prominently in the race weekend.  Finally, uncertainty over 3rd place, as Toyota look set to appeal against Jarno Trulli being given a 25-second penalty for passing Lewis Hamilton under yellow flags, dropping him from the podium to 12th place after a spirited drive.  For all the joy, colour and excitement we witnessed today, it’s difficult to ever remember the sport being so united and yet so fractious at the same time.  The FIA needs to quickly resolve all these appeals, counter-appeals and grey areas, because it looks like the action has returned to the track and people need to remember to keep it there.

The day belonged to the Buttons.  Jenson Button won the race in a car I fully expect to be cleared as legal to race in the week after the Malaysian GP next weekend.  It was a controlled and measured performance of the sort of authority we often all suspected Button was capable of producing, if only he could get his hands on a good enough car.  The diffuser issue, temporarily pushed to the back of people’s minds, is most likely not the panacea of performance of the remarkable Brawn GP001 car, but once it is resolved, a levelling of the playing field will probably see the team begin to show their ring-rustiness.  As such, a performance like this one may prove to be the very best example of making hay while the sun shines, or yet prove to be the curtain raiser to a remarkable season of achievement.  Either way, it will rejuvenate Button’s career and standing in the paddock, he finally having proved beyond doubt that he can get the job done.

The second major button of the weekend was the KERS boost button.  Eddie Jordan was deeply sceptical about the introduction of the system in the BBC’s pre-race build up, and up to the moment the lights went out it was very much something which looked as though it could be taken or left.  Once the race was in swing though, it immediately proved its worth.  As well as providing an extra area of driving skill and tactical invention – watching the different drivers use their 6.7 seconds of boost per lap in different ways was, for me, a fascinating addition – it also spiced up the on-track action.  Being stuck behind a driver now no longer needs necessarily ruin your afternoon’s work.  Get on the push-to-pass button and get proactive… changing both the complexion of your own race and also the race as a spectacle seen from the outside.  There was certainly as much on-track excitement as I can ever remember there being at Albert Park, at least on a dry day. For all the changes the FIA have made in the 15 years I have been following the sport to “spice up the show”, these seem to be the first ones which have even vaguely looked like they might work.  Hats off.

Our third and final Button is Sebastien Buemi in the Toro Rosso.  Question marks hanging over his 20-year old head before the start, he delivered a fiesty yet mature drive which ultimately netted him 2 valuable points in a car which is probably not always going to be as lucky with other people’s mistakes as it was today.  He reminded me of Jenson Button’s first Grand Prix start, also at Melbourne, 9 years ago.  Whilst there have been more impressive debut in the meantime – Lewis Hamilton’s of course springs to mind – it’s undeniable that Buemi has put down a marker to suggest he may do more than just make up the round twenty.

Australia team-by-team

McLaren Mercedes

Pre-season testing, often so unreliable, proved crushingly accurate for McLaren.  The MP4/24 is as lacking in grip as it appeared and the team has a lot of work still to do… 2 seconds or more is a lot to find, even for a team of McLaren’s quality and experience.  Nevertheless, raceday was more encouraging and they will be delighted to have scored 6 points today.  Heikki Kovalainen’s struggle was ended in a mercy killing on lap one, as he got involved in the wake of Rubens Barrichello’s chaotic start.  Lewis Hamilton, however, demonstrated his true championship class.  His drive, both aggressive and measured, may well be his finest in Formula 1 yet.

Ferrari

A schizophrenic beginning for Maranello.  The cars were quixotically fast in practice and qualifying, and looked as though a combination of long-run pace and a tactical gamble could pay off in the race.  However, last season’s gremlins both returned to haunt the team, Massa’s car failing him and Räikkönen dropping the car off the road whilst in hot pursuit of the top three.

BMW Sauber

It’s difficult to know what to make of the BMW effort.  Kubica could well have won outright  had he not gotten involved with Vettel late in the race.  However, this raceday performance, coupled with a very decent qualifying, seemed at odds with a very average weekend up to that point.  Nick Heidfeld was very anonymous all weekend, leaving major questionmarks remaining about BMW’s real pace.

Renault

Renault arrived in Australia quietly confident and will most likely leave under a cloud.  The car, which looks like a sharpened hippo, is needlessly ugly it seems as it his simply not yet competitive enough.  Fernando Alonso did his best with a car undiscernably a step forward from last season’s R28 and finished a fairly anonymous fifth.  Nelson Piquet tapped into his mount’s sense of deja vu, meanwhile, and had a torrid time which eventually ended in the gravel after braking problems.

Toyota

Up against it the whole weekend, Toyota left everyone in no doubt that on the circuit at least, they are a force to be reckoned with this year.  Embroiled in the diffuser row upon their arrival, the team subsequently got demoted to the back of the grid after qualifying for an illegal level of flexion in its rear wing.  This amended, both drivers demonstrated the car’s strength throughout the meeting, Trulli winning a podium before being demoted for a yellow flag infringement.  Even so, Glock’s 4th place show that the team may finally have taken a step up in ultimate competitiveness.

Toro Rosso Ferrari

The Toro Rosso is not a car which seems able to match it’s 2008 form, which doesn’t represent much of a surprise.  Poor in qualifying, the team nevertheless leave Melbourne with a very respectable 3 points from a 7th and an 8th place finish, Sebastiens Buemi and Bourdais showing a keen understanding that getting the car to the finish of the first race will often pay dividends which seemed to escape some of their rivals.

Red Bull Renault

The fastest car of the weekend without a controversial double-decker diffuser, Red Bull have – if the estimates of a half-second performance advantage are correct – produced perhaps the fastest car of 2009 thus far.  Once the contentious issue is resolved, expect them to be challenging for wins.  Sebastian Vettel will be the most likely candidate for these, seemingly having both the measure of Mark Webber in terms of pace whilst more than outstripping him in terms of luck.  One day, something will fall right for Webber.  At which point everyone will most likely moan about how lucky he is.

Williams Toyota

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend, the Williams car dominated the first practice days but fell back slightly at the most crucial time.  Still, Nico Rosberg demonstrated good pace in the race, hamstrung by a start hampered by Barrichello’s adventures.  However, a late-race dip in speed on the soft tyres cost him dearly, 6th place was the best he could do.  Kazuki Nakajima, however, was less impressive, finally spinning the car into the turn 5 wall.

Force India Mercedes

It’s hard to look past the fact that, on raw pace, Force India seem to be bringing up the rear so far, although glimpses of much more reliable midfield pace presented themselves during practice.  In a season where the difference between a point and being the last of the runners may be a second or less, Force India look like a team who should trouble the scorers this year.  In Australia, though, they just lacked that extra bit of urge, Sutil finishing 9th and Fisichella 11th, both nevertheless on the leader’s lap.

Brawn GP Mercedes

A dream start by all accounts.  Diffuser controversy aside, Brawn were quick all weekend and proved able to make the step up in ultimate pace at the right time.  What will most please the team, surely, will be the reliability and strength demonstrated by their under-tested car.  Jenson Button scored a well-deserved second Grand Prix win, whilst after an eventful race, Rubens Barrichello made it a Disney time 1-2 finish on the team’s first outing.  He was, however, probably lucky to escape censure for his first corner rough housing, or damage from that contact and a later nudge with Räikkönen’s Ferrari.

In this final part of my preview of the 2009 season, I’ll be taking a look at the prospects of  McLaren Mercedes and  Ferrari. Then I’ll really put my foot in it and predict the way I think things will finish in this year’s standings.

McLAREN MERCEDES

Team principal Martin Whitmarsh Technical Directors Paddy Lowe and Neil Oatley Base Woking, UK Car McLaren MP4/24 Engine Mercedes-Benz FO 108W Designers Neil Oatley and Pat Fry 2008 2nd place, 151 points

All change at the top of one of F1’s most enduring teams, as Ron Dennis steps down after nearly 30 years as team principal.  Whilst this will present no difficulties to an organisation such as McLaren, a more vexing issue is likely to be the pace of the MP4/24 car.  Despite its good looks, it has been resolutely stuck on the bottom of the timesheets at most of the tests so far, the rumour being that there are serious issues with its rear wing and diffuser not creating enough downforce.  With testing completely banned within the season, McLaren will have to draw on all their experience and technical know-how to get back to fighting at the front.  I don’t doubt they’ll do it, but I’d not be surprised if it proves too late to win any more championships in 2009.

Of course, if the car does prove competitive enough, reigning Formula  world champion Lewis Hamilton (car number 1) will be amongst the favourites to retain his title.  The first two seasons of Hamilton’s career are now the stuff of legend, and whilst mistakes have started to creep in under pressure, there are now few people who seriously doubt his ability.  Brilliant in the wet and flamboyantly aggressive (sometimes too much so) when given a sniff of victory, Hamilton will be a major player in F1 for the next decade and beyond.

His teammate will again be the Finn Heikki Kovalainen in car 2.  Kovalainen’s 2008 was ultimately disappointing, his results not matching the pace which he often had, due to inconsistency, bad tactics or bad luck.  He was also soundly beaten by his teammate, so the objective for this season must surely be to get closer to him.  Still, he broke his duck for race wins in Hungary, so he can at least enter this season with that monkey off his back.

Perhaps one of the biggest problems McLaren will face will be that Hamilton and Kovalainen are so inexperienced.  Between the two there are only 70 Grand Prix starts.  Whilst it’s undeniable that they have won 10 of these and that Hamilton is now a world champion, will they really have the experience to assist the team in developing its seemingly recalcitrant car?  Even their test driver – 38-year old Pedro de la Rosa, a good, solid racing driver of some standing – has little in the way of Grand Prix experience, with only 71 starts to his name, and only a handful of those in genuinely competitive machinery.  Should 2009 prove a disaster, don’t be surprised to see a driver of real front end experience lured to Woking for 2010.

Hamilton at a glance: Born Stevenage, UK  Age 24.   2005 European Formula 3 Champion, 2006 GP2 Champion, 2008 Formula 1 World Champion First GP Australia 2007  GP starts 35  (9 wins, 13 pole positions, 3 fastest laps)  Points 207

Kovalainen at a glance: Born Suomussalmi, Finland  Age 27.  2004 World Series by Nissan Champion  First GP Australia 2007  GP starts 35  (1 win, 1 pole position, 2 fastest laps)  Points 83

FERRARI

Team principal Stefano Domenicali Technical Director Aldo Costa Base Maranello, Italy Car Ferrari F60 Engine Ferrari 056 Designer Aldo Costa 2008 Champions, 172 points

Constructors’ Champions again for the 8th time in the last 10 years in 2008, Ferrari also won more races, podiums and fastest laps than any of their rivals last year.  Now completely out of their era of utter dominance in terms of personnel, Ferrari have proved that Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and Michael Schumacher’s greatest legacy to the Scuderia was to leave a solid backbone capable of continuing their work without them.  It is this solid foundation which makes them the favourites going in to the 2009 season, in spite of their F60 car being so far slightly pipped for pace by the Brawn Mercedes.  The only potential lurking problem is reliability.  Bulletproof for much of the decade, last season saw Ferrari starting to look a little more vulnerable, particularly to engine failures.  This may prove a concern as more and more components of the car are required to last multiple races.

There are few problems, though, with their unchanged driver line-up.  In car 3 is title favourite Felipe Massa.  Massa had a watershed year in 2008, starting it off looking characteristically woolly and unpredictible but finishing it with a speed, consistency and polish which looked every inch the world champion that he became, albeit for 30 seconds.  He seems to be slightly weaker than some of his main rivals in wheel-to-wheel combat, but when he is capable of drives of the crushing dominance he displayed in Bahrain, Turkey or Valencia, this ceases to be such a concern.  His drive in the pressure cooker of a title-deciding, wet-dry-wet again, Brazilian Grand Prix was as good as any you will ever see and a clear sign that Massa has now matured into a very complete racing driver.   Deserves to be World Champion this year.

Kimi Räikkönen will be in car 4, and has an awful lot to prove, especially with Fernando Alonso and Robert Kubica after his seat as soon as they can get it.  Over one lap, Räikkönen is faster than any of his rivals.  The problem is, you never quite know when that single lap will be.  Too often in 2008 it was in the middle of a race which saw him tooling around in the bottom end of the top 6.  To get a record-equalling 10 fastest laps in a season whilst simultaneously being so inconsistent must have driven his team to the edge of their sanity.  Despite all his problems, he still managed 2 wins and podiums in half of the races last year, so only a fool would underestimate him.  I think he will be improved in 2009, simply because if he isn’t, he’ll most likely be out on his ear come November.

Massa at a glance: Born São Paulo, Brazil  Age 25.  2000 Italian Formula Renault Champion; 2000 European Formula Renault Champion; 2001 European Formula 3000 Champion  First GP Australia 2002  GP starts 106  (11 wins, 15 pole positions, 11 fastest laps)  Points 298

Räikkönen at a glance: Born Espoo, Finland  Age 29.  2000 British Formula Renault Champion, 2007 Formula 1 World Champion First GP Australia 2001  GP starts 139  (17 wins, 16 pole positions, 35 fastest laps)  Points 525

MY PREDICTION FOR 2009

Right, all the blather out of the way, who do I think will do what in 2009?  I think the world champion will be Felipe Massa and the constructors’ champion will be Ferrari.  I see better years in prospect for Brawn, Red Bull and Toyota; worse from McLaren and Toro Rosso, with the rest of the teams more or less where they were in 2008.

In terms of race wins, I think 2009 may prove a vintage year, with perhaps 8 different winning drivers and 5 different winning teams.  If I had to pick out one candidate for a maiden victory, I’d go for Nick Heidfeld.

Finally, here’s my guess at how the final standings will look:

Drivers:

1. Felipe Massa; 2. Kimi Raikkonen; 3. Jenson Button; 4. Robert Kubica; 5. Fernando Alonso; 6. Lewis Hamilton; 7. Sebastian Vettel; 8. Rubens Barrichello; 9. Nick Heidfeld; 10. Timo Glock; 11. Heikki Kovalainen; 12. Mark Webber; 13. Jarno Trulli; 14. Nico Rosberg; 15. Nelson Piquet; 16. Sebastien Bourdais; 17. Kazuki Nakajima; 18. Sebastien Buemi; 19. Adrian Sutil; 20. Giancarlo Fisichella.

Constructors:

1. Ferrari; 2. BMW; 3. Brawn; 4. Renault; 5. McLaren; 6. Toyota; 7. Red Bull; 8. Williams; 9. Toro Rosso; 10. Force India

The real delight, however, is that I genuinely have no idea if any of this will be right.  The most refreshingly open Formula 1 season in my lifetime, then, starts at 7 a.m. BST this Sunday.  Watch it, or else.

I’ll be taking a look at the prospects of the teams and drivers for the year ahead every day this week.  Today, we’ll look at the the chances of BMW Sauber and  Renault.

BMW SAUBER

Team principal Mario Theissen Technical Director Willy Rampf Base Hinwil, Switzerland and Munich, Germany Car BMW F1.09 Engine BMW P86/9 Designers Willy Rampf and Walter Riedl 2008 3rd place, 135 points

Last season saw further positive developments from the team most likely to break the Ferrari and McLaren duopoly at the head of the Formula 1 pack.  Thir maiden win came ahead of their meticulously prepared schedule, sending the engineers scurrying back to their Hinwil windtunnel to begin work on the 2009 car early.  Whether or not this will be a good strategy, time alone will tell.  However, BMW have a hugely rich and distinguished history throughout motor sport, so it’s difficult to see them eventually turning things into success.  Expect more wins and a title push come 2010.

The drivers are unchanged.  Robert Kubica drives car 5, after a brilliant 2008 which proved any doubters left over from a patchy 2007 wrong.  His win in Canada, coupled with superb consistency, saw him challenging for the world crown up until the penultimate race.  The one black cloud on his horizon is perhaps his size… as one of the tallest and therefore heaviest drivers in the field, Kubica may find that the weighty KERS system proves a hindrance as much as a help.  Nevertheless, I expect to see Kubica win again in 2009.

Winning will be something very much on the mind of Nick Heidfeld in car 6.  This will be the German’s 10th season, and he’s yet to make the top step of the podium.  Last year was hugely disappointing, as he was simply not able to get enough heat into his tyres over a single lap to qualify well.  His skill as a racing driver helped redress this as often as not on Sundays, but coming from further back meant he was mainly left with the title duel’s scraps.  Being humbled by Kubica will not be something he’s keen to repeat.  If BMW provide a car good enough for Kubica to win in 2009, there’s no reason why Heidfeld shouldn’t break his duck at last.  He would deserve it.

Kubica at a glance: Born Krakow, Poland  Age 24.  2005 World Series by Renault Champion   First GP Hungary 2006  GP starts 40  (1 win, 1 pole position)  Points 120

Heidfeld at a glance: Born Moenchengladbach, Germany  Age 31.  1997 German Formula 3 Champion, 1999 International Formula 3000 Champion.  First GP Australia 2000  GP starts 151  (best result: seven 2nd places, 1 pole position, 2 fastest laps)  Points 200

RENAULT

Team principal Flavio Briatore Technical Director Bob Bell Base Enstone, Oxfordshire, UK Car Renault R29 Engine Renault RS27 Designer Tim Densham 2008 4th place, 80 points

Renault had a season of two halves in 2008.  Until the FIA allowed the team to address the large performance shortfall of their RS27 engine, they were floundering in the midfield.  With this addressed, we saw glimpses of the form which gave them two world titles in the middle of this decade.  Their technical team is solid and full of experience, particularly Pat Symonds, the man who oversees all engineering and former race engineer for Michael Schumacher in his Benetton days.  The car is perhaps the most ungainly looking of the 2009 crop, but no-one at the team will mind if it continues their upward growth.  Testing has been largely inconclusive, but opportunities for wins may well present themselves as the season develops.  A return to championship winning form, however, seems unlikely.

If the car is anywhere near decent, Fernando Alonso (car number 7) will take it all the way.  Alonso is, in my opinion, still the sport’s outstanding driver, the man who – all things being equal – all his rivals would want to beat.  Currently the most successful driver in the field, he’ll extract every single ounce of performance from the car every single time, the only variable being how well the team can prepare his vehicle.  Unless he wins the title this year, I expect him to end up at Ferrari in 2010, which would really strike fear into the hearts of his rivals.

His teammate will again be the Brazilian Nelson Piquet Jr in 8.  Piquet did not have a particularly auspicious start to his Grand Prix career, qualifying poorly and racing badly.  Only until after the team started to get some performance back into the car was it clear how much of this may have been down to Alonso making the R28 look much better than it was.  From mid-season, his performances improved and Piquet began to look like the racing driver who cut a large wake through the junior formulae.  This improvement must continue in 2009, because Flavio Briatore’s is an itchy trigger finger.

Alonso at a glance: Born Oviedo, Spain  Age 27.  1999 Spanish Open Fortuna by Nissan Champion, 2005 and 2006 Formula 1 World Champion First GP Australia 2001  GP starts 122  (21 wins, 17 pole positions, 10 fastest laps)  Points 551

Piquet at a glance: Born Heidelberg, Germany  Age 23.  2002 SudAm Formula 3 Champion, 2004 British Formula 3 Champion  First GP Australia 2008  GP starts 18  (best result: 2nd)  Points 19

I’ll be taking a look at the prospects of the teams and drivers for the year ahead every day this week.  Today, we’ll look at the the chances of Toyota and  Toro Rosso Ferrari.

TOYOTA

Team principal Tadayashi Yamashina Technical Director Pascal Vasselon Base Cologne, Germany Car Toyota TF109 Engine Toyota RVX-09 Designer Pascal Vasselon 2008 5th place, 56 points

2008 was perhaps Toyota’s most consistent season to date, although they never quite matched the heady heights of their 2005-vintage competitiveness.  However, with their major rival Honda now gone to the wall and still no wins to show for seven seasons of astronomical budgets, 2009 could well be a win or bust year.  Put simply, unless the team start winning some races sooner rather than later, it would be foolhardy to think the team’s future participation at the sport’s summit is anything like guaranteed.  The new car seems to be reasonable and the drivers think it’s a step forward.  What they really need, however, is a leap.

Veteran peddler Jarno Trulli drives the number 9 car in Toyota’s unchanged driver line-up for 2009.  Trulli reaches the 200-race milestone come the start of the Australian Grand Prix, with just one win to show for it and little evidence to suggest he would have deserved any more.  Trulli is one of the sport’s very fastest men over one lap, but the same skill, consistency and commitment still seems lacking on Sunday afternoons.  If the cars do prove to be easier to overtake in this year, Trulli’s general raceday strategy of tooling around with a huge crocodile of frustrated pursuers may well be found out.

His teammate Timo Glock will drive number 10.  Glock hit the headlines in a big way in the final race of last year, as it was his car – struggling desperately for grip on the wrong tyres in the late race downpour – that Lewis Hamilton passed in the final corner of the final lap to win the title.  The important fact here, though, is that he was ahead of Trulli.  Indeed, Glock had the measure of his team leader throughout the second half of 2008, scoring the team’s best result of 2nd at the Hungarian Grand Prix.  Glock looks to be a very solid addition to the field, and I’d be unsurprised to see him have a lengthy F1 career.  If Toyota manage to find race-winning pace in 2009, I’d expect Glock to be the beneficiary.

Trulli at a glance: Born Pescara, Italy  Age 34.   1996 German Formula 3 Champion First GP Australia 1997  GP starts 199  (1 win, 3 pole positions)  Points 214

Glock at a glance: Born Lindenfels, Germany  Age 27.  2001 Formula BMW ADAC Champion, 2007 GP2 Champion  First GP Canada 2004  GP starts 22  (best result: 2nd)  Points 27

TORO ROSSO FERRARI

Team principal Franz Tost Technical Director Giorgio Ascanelli Base Faenza, Italy Car Toro Rosso STR4 (rebadged Red Bull RB5) Engine Ferrari 056 Designer Adrian Newey 2008 6th place, 39 points

Toro Rosso cannot reasonably expect to match their dream season in 2008.  In an identical chassis, they beat their senior Red Bull team in the championship standings and, more importantly, in race-by-race competitiveness.  Their lives became a dream at Monza, where the team who used to be Minardi took pole position and the race win on a damp weekend.  This year, expect them to be beaten by Red Bull, who have an improved Renault engine and Toro Rosso’s knight in shining armour Sebastian Vettel in the driving seat.  However, the team will surely be looking to consolodate their newfound position towards the front of the midfield rather than at the back.  The combination of Adrian Newey’s elegant chassis and the Ferrari engine should help them in this quest, but I think they’ve used up their miracles.

For the second year running, the Toro Rosso drivers are a tale of two Sebastiens, with Swiss newcomer Sebastien Buemi replacing Sebastian Vettel in the team’s number 12 car.  Buemi is the sport’s only rookie driver at the start of the 2009 season, and the first Swiss since his hapless countryman Jean-Denis Deletraz rewrote the book of Hopelessly Outclassed Pay Drivers in 1995.  Buemi competed with some distinction in GP2 last year, and arrives in Formula 1 on the back of some impressive early testing form.  To expect more than a point or three would, however, probably be unreasonable.

For a long while it looked like Toro Rosso would dispense of the services of Sebastien Bourdais, who pilots car 11, in favour of the well-backed Japanese Takuma Sato.  Common sense, often at a premium in the paddock, this time prevailed.  Although Bourdais contributed a scant 4 points of the team’s 2008 total, he also had the lion’s share of its bad luck.  History may well also prove that being beaten by Sebastian Vettel is nothing to be ashamed of.  Bourdais, one of the most successful ever single seater racers in the American Champ Car series, is very deserving of a second chance in F1.  Expect him to have the measure of the other Seb this time.

Bourdais at a glance: Born Le Mans, France  Age 30.   1999 French Formula 3 Champion, 2002 International Formula 3000 Champion, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 CART Champ Car World Series Champion First GP Australia 2008  GP starts 18 (best result: 7th)  Points 4

Buemi at a glance: Born Aigle, Switzerland  Age 20.  Rookie.

The wonders of technology will never cease.  Away for the weekend, I scheduled the first two parts of this preview to be published in my absence.  During which time, of course, the FIA backed down over it’s winner-takes-all scoring system under pressure from FOTA.  Thanks, FIA.  Anyway, onwards!

I’ll be taking a look at the prospects of the teams and drivers for the year ahead every day this week.  Today, we’ll look at the the chances of Red Bull Renault and  Williams Toyota.

RED BULL RACING RENAULT

Team principal Christian Horner Technical Director Geoff Willis Base Milton Keynes, UK Car Red Bull RB5 Engine Renault RS27 Designer Adrian Newey 2008 7th place, 29 points

Let’s face it, last year did not go the way Red Bull had planned in perhaps the most emphatic way possible.  The only outfit in the pitlane with a dedicated ‘junior’ team saw their baby brother win the Italian GP, finish ahead of them in the World Championship and outpace them race after race.  This year should be better.  The elegant RB5 is designed by Adrian Newey, a legend in his own lifetime and exactly the sort of man who you want on your side when there’s such a fundamental shift in technical regulations.  Furthermore, the Renault engine, desperately down on power in 2008, has had an FIA-sanctioned unfreezing of its design so that it’s huge horsepower defecit could be addressed.  The unit won last year’s Singapore and Japanese Grands Prix.

Also on Red Bull’s side is their signing of the man so responsible for their humiliating defeat by Toro Rosso in 2008, Sebastian Vettel in car number 15.  The youngest man ever to win a Grand Prix had a brilliant first full season in Grand Prix racing, including that day at Monza.  He now needs to prove that he can take the step up and be a consistent threat from season to season, not just from race to race.  Personally, I have little doubt he can achieve this and then some.  The sky seems to be the limit for Vettel.

His teammate this year is Mark Webber in 14.  Now approaching veteran status, Webber is one of the small band of drivers in this year’s championship yet to win a race at the top level.  There’s no doubting his speed, particularly in qualifying.  Nor can it be said that he’s not a tenacious race driver.  I get the feeling, though, that if a big step up were to have happened for him, it already would have.  That said, he’s easily got the talent to win a race or two if the car is good enough.  However, first of all he’s going to have his hands very full keeping up with Vettel.

Webber at a glance: Born Queanbeyan, Australia  Age 32.   First GP Australia 2002  GP starts 121  (Best result: two 3rd places)  Points 100

Vettel at a glance: Born Heppenheim, Germany  Age 21   First GP USA 2007  GP starts 26  (1 win, 1 pole position)  Points 41

WILLIAMS TOYOTA

Team principals Sir Frank Williams and Patrick Head Technical Director Sam Michael Base Grove, Oxfordshire, UK Car Williams FW31 Engine Toyota RVX-09 Designers Sam Michael, Ed Wood and Jon Tomlinson 2008 8th place, 26 points

Williams endured a trying 2008, the majority of their points coming from Nico Rosberg’s two podium finishes which practically bookended the season.  Otherwise they generally struggled for any kind of consistent pace.  This year they are another team hoping that a fundamental change in technical regs can mix things up.  To that end, the team have been characteristically innovative, introducing a flywheel-based KERS system rather than the battery type favoured by the rest of their rivals.   The car has, on occasion, been very quick in testing but any step up in performance seems more likely to see them consistently challenging for points rather than podiums.

Now in his 4th season with the team, the highly-rated Nico Rosberg drives car 16.  Still only 23 years old, Rosberg has nevertheless seen some of his coming-man sheen burnished by a couple of seasons of struggle.  A more competitive car will, however, reawaken his finest racing instincts and remind everyone of why he was so hotly rumoured to be Fernando Alonso’s McLaren replacement last year.  A dark horse.

For the second season he is joined by Kazuki Nakajima in car 17.  Like Rosberg the son of a former Grand Prix driver, Nakajima comes as part of the Toyota engine package.  This said, he did not disgrace himself in his first full season of F1.  Nor, however, did he distinguish himself particularly.  Nakajima really needs to take a step in both consistency and scoring in 2009 – basically, to be a regular challenge to Rosberg in the sister car – before Sir Frank and Patrick lose their patience.  Especially with the rapid Nico Hulkenberg still waiting in the wings.

Rosberg at a glance: Born Weisbaden, Germany Age 23.  2005 GP2 Champion   First GP Bahrain 2006 GP starts 53  (1 Fastest Lap, Best result: 2nd)  Points 41

Nakajima at a glance: Born Aichi, Japan  Age 24.  2003 Japanese Formula Toyota Champion   First GP Brazil 2007  GP starts 19  Points 9

This year’s Formula 1 World Championship is potentially the most open in decades, with a raft of new technical regulations and a last-minute change to the scoring system thrown into the mix.  I’ll be taking a look at the prospects of the teams and drivers for the year ahead every day this week.  Today, we’ll look at the the chances of Force India Mercedes and “newcomers” Brawn GP Mercedes.

FORCE INDIA MERCEDES

Team principal Vijay Mallya Technical Director James Key Base Silverstone, Northants, UK Car Force India VJM02 Engine Mercedes Benz FO 108W Designers Mark Smith, James Key 2008 10th place, no points

Force India’s second season of Grand Prix racing sees the team trying to break its duck.  Last year they began, as expected, bringing up the rear.  However, the team grew in competitiveness from mid-season onwards, especially after they introduced their seamless-shift gearbox, the last team in the field to do so.  They were desperately unlucky in Monaco last year, where Adrian Sutil was running a competitive fourth late in the race before an over-optimistic lunge by Kimi Raikkonen at the harbour front chicane mortally wounded his car.  The car looks neat and tidy, and has switched from Ferrari power in 2008 to last year’s driver’s championship-winning Mercedes unit in 2009.  However, it remains to be seen whether or not sacking the experienced and canny Mike Gascoyne as technical director last autumn will hamper the team’s development and progress if the car doesn’t hit the ground running.

In the 20 car will again be Adrian Sutil.  Sutil arrived in F1 in 2007 with a reputation as a coming man, but now in his third year in the sport he is going to have to start making strides.  He is undeniably quick in the wet and at Monaco, two traditional indicies of a talented driver.  However, he is yet to really take the step up in performance compared to a teammate which might earmark him as a long-term star of the sport.

One such driver with longevity is his teammate for a second year, Giancarlo Fisichella in car 21.  This site’s enthusiasm for Fisichella has and will always be lukewarm at best, but nevertheless the Italian enters his 13th full season of Grand Prix racing.  A solid and reliable driver of some elegance, the questionmark over Fisichella will always be about his ability to compete at the very cutting edge, which is unlikely to hinder him in the Force India this year.  If the car is good enough, he’ll score points with it.  Just don’t expect anything above or beyond its capabilities.

Sutil at a glance: Born Starnberg, Germany  Age 26.   2006 Japanese Formula 3 Champion.  First GP Australia 2007  GP starts 35  (Best result: 8th)  Points 1

Fisichella at a glance: Born Rome, Italy  Age 36   1994 Italian Formula 3 Champion  First GP Australia 1996  GP starts 212  (3 wins, 2 pole positions, 2 fastest laps)  Points 267

BRAWN GP MERCEDES

Team principals Ross Brawn, Nick Fry, Caroline McGrory Technical Director Jörg Zander Base Silverstone, Northants, UK Car Brawn GP BGP001 Engine Mercedes Benz FO 108W Designer Jörg Zander 2008 (as Honda F1) 9th place, 14 points.

Following Honda’s financial woe-related pull-out of Formula 1, the search for a buyer for its old team was the big story of the close season.  Ultimately, its old technical director Ross Brawn stepped up to the plate.  Early testing of the BGP001 car has showed why he felt he had to do this.  After disastrous seasons in 2007 and 2008, Honda started work on what would have been its RA109 challenger for 2009 in the winter of 2007.  The resulting car has been sensational so far, albeit in the notoriously fickle and unreliable world of winter testing.  Even so, Brawn GP will go to Australia amongst the favourites to be frontrunners.

Driving car 22 will be Jenson Button.  It’s increasingly hard to know what to make of Jenson.  His position as the Great British Hope now comprehensively blown out of the water by Lewis Hamilton, he was also largely shaded by his teammate last season, for the first time since his difficult second year in the sport at Benetton in 2001.  There’s little doubt he’s one of the smoothest drivers out there, nor can it be denied that he is also very quick.  The question mark hanging over him is perhaps his level of motivation when things are not going well.  Having stared the possibility of his GP career being over squarely in the face as late as February this year, 2009 now looks to be Button’s first chance since 2006 to run with a properly competitive car.  He’ll probably be looking for another race win to more firmly cement his place in people’s thinking in case the same thing happens again.

Button’s teammate for the third consecutive season will be Rubens Barrichello in car 23.  Now the most experienced driver in the history of the sport, Barrichello fought off Bruno Senna for the drive thanks to a brilliantly spirited 2008.  Despite his Honda’s endless shortcomings, Rubens never gave up and dragged the car around kicking and screaming with a desire which you’d not expect from someone now entering his 17th season of GP racing.  Barrichello remains, perhaps, the sport’s single most outstanding wet weather driver and his podium finish at a sub-aquatic British GP contributed the lion’s share of the teams 2008 points total.   His popularity in the paddock and elsewhere also remains unparalleled, so no-one – not even Bruno Senna – could begrudge him another shot at F1 with a competitive team.

Button at a glance: Born Frome, England  Age 29   1998 British Formula Ford Champion.  First GP Australia 2000  GP starts 153  (1 win, 3 pole positions)  Points 232.

Barrichello at a glance: Born São Paulo, Brazil  Age 36.   1990 British Formula Opel Lotus Champion, 1991 British Formula 3 Champion.  First GP South Africa 1993  GP starts 268  (9 wins, 13 pole positions, 15 fastest laps)  Points 530.

This year’s Formula 1 World Championship is potentially the most open in decades, with a raft of new technical regulations and a last-minute change to the scoring system thrown into the mix.  I’ll be taking a look at the prospects of the teams and drivers for the year ahead every day this week.  Today, we’ll look at the changes to the rules and regulations and how they may stir things up in 2009.

The big news going into the final week of the pre-season is the change to the scoring system.  Gone (but not entirely forgotten) is the flawed 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 framework, with number of wins now being the first deciding factor in determining this year’s World Champion.  Points will still be awarded, and decide the championship standings from 2nd downwards, and, in the event of a tie in number of wins, the championship itself.  The reaction to this, a rather half-hearted application of Bernie Ecclestone’s Olympic-style medal system proposed last autumn, has been decidedly mixed.  Thirteen times in the 59-history of the championship the new regulations would have seen a different (although, to be fair, no less deserving) title winner.   Two of those – 1981 and 1983 – would have deprived Nelson Piquet of the crown when he was driving for the Brabham team owned by… Bernie Ecclestone.  My personal feeling is that it will most likely make scant difference to the championship as a spectacle or as a contest.  However, should one driver win the first 9 races and have the thing wrapped up by mid-summer – or one driver win 6 races and crash out of all the others, yet still beating a rival who won five times and finished 2nd the other 12 – expect to see hurried and rather bashful changes to the rules next year.

On the technical side, cars have been tweaked with a view to cost-cutting and improving the quality of the on-track action.  Each driver is now limited to just 12 engines – now detuned from 19,000 rpm to 18,000 – all year, eight for all practice, qualifying and racing and four additional units for testing.  However, how they use their ration is up to them, adding an extra tactical spice.  Continuing in the recent trend of long-life components, several bits of the drivetrain of the car will now be expected to last up to six events.  Finally, the daft-looking grooved slick tyre era of 1998-2008 is now at an end, with full-slick tyres making a welcome return to the sport.

On track, the cars have been radically simplified, with nearly all aerodynamic tweaks and fiddly bits outlawed with a view to reducing the negative impact of following another car closely on handling.  To this end, the dimensions of the front wing have also been significantly increased, whilst rear downforce is reduced by smaller, higher rear wings and simplified and raised underbody diffusers.  The initial aesthetic effect of all of these alterations is undeniably strange, although like always, one soon becomes accustomed to it.  Perhaps the most pleasing aspect is that, due to the biggest raft of changes since ground effect was banned for the 1983 season, each team’s car actually looks fairly distinctive from its rivals, as the designers all try to get to grips with their new parameters.

Finally, there are two important changes to assist the drivers to race their rivals.  Front wings will now be driver-adjustable from the cockpit – up to 6 degrees twice per lap – which should counteract the understeer caused by following a rival’s car too closely.  Also, Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) are now permitted.  These store up energy created by braking in a battery.  This energy can then be used to boost a car’s power by up to 80 bhp for 6.7 seconds per lap.  These 6.7 need not be consecutive, and the clever drivers will time their use of the boost button to extract maximum performance from their engine and top speed.

Altogether, these technical changes are the most fundamental seen in a quarter of a century.  They should, at the very least, add an extra dimension to the skill of driving the cars, which is always a positive thing.  However, early indications seem to also suggest that, for the first time in the 15 years I have been following the sport, changes put in place to improve the chances of cars being able to race one another on track may actually have worked, Nick Heidfeld reporting that he has found it easier to follow other cars closely without as much detrimental effect on his own handling as the previous generation of cars would have produced.    Fingers, and toes, are therefore crossed for the new-look cars to produce some new-look racing.

Tomorrow, we start our team and driver guide to the new season with a look at Force India Mercedes and Brawn GP Mercedes.

Terrible defending

March 11, 2009

As I have no doubt mentioned here before, British Formula 1 World Champions are the most numerous in the 59-year history of the competition.  Nine English or Scottish drivers have taken the biggest prize in motor racing home with them in a little bindle slung over their shoulders, miles ahead of competitors from anywhere else (Brazil and Finland are the closest rival, with three drivers apiece).  However, despite this, not one of them has ever successfully managed to defend their crown.  Trying to break this hoodoo is Lewis Hamilton’s Mission For The Year Ahead.

Whilst it would be patently false to say that anyone can win ONE championship, scoring back-to-back world crowns is as sure a method as any to guarantee legendary status in any sport.  Alberto Ascari (1952-53, Juan Manuel Fangio (1954-57), Sir Jack Brabham (1959-60), Alain Prost (1985-86), Ayrton Senna (1990-91), Michael Schumacher (1994-95 and 2000-04), Mika Häkkinen (1998-99) and Fernando Alonso (2005-06) are the only eight men to have achieved the feat.  In the good old British spirit of wallowing in fatalistic inevitibility, then, I thought I’d recap the catalogue of near-misses, catastrophies and downright failures which have prevented any of the British world title holders from joining their ranks.

1959 – Mike Hawthorn (did not defend)

Hawthorn’s 1958 championship came at a huge personal cost following the loss of his close friend and Ferrari teammate Peter Collins at the 1958 German Grand Prix.  Immediately after the season-ending Moroccan Grand Prix, in which a second place finish guaranteed him the crown by 1 point over Vanwall’s Stirling Moss, Hawthorn announced his retirement from Grand Prix motor racing.  He was killed just 3 months later after crashing his Jaguar on the A3 Guildford bypass.

1963 – Graham Hill (2 wins, 29 points, 2nd place in the championship)

There was an element of good fortune to Graham Hill’s 1962 title, as the crown looked set for Jim Clark and Lotus midway through the title-deciding South African Grand Prix.  However, as was so often the way, Clark’s Lotus car let him down.  In 1963, however, things went much more Clark’s way.  Out of 10 races, he won 7, finishing on the podium in two others.  Until the Schumacher-Ferrari era, it was perhaps the most comprehensive rout in a single season the sport had ever seen.

1964 – Jim Clark (3 wins, 32 points, 3rd place)

Clark’s Lotus trouble was again in evidence for his first attempt at a title defence.  He won more races than any of his rivals, but John Surtees in his Ferrari and, to a slightly lesser extent, Graham Hill’s BRM achieved far greater consistency.  Surtees two wins were backed up by four other podium finishes, in an era where only the best 6 results from the ten races counted towards the championship.  Even so, Clark again saw his title go up in smoke at the last race, when his engine blew on the last lap.  In the lead – as he so often was – he was on course to be World Champion.

1965 – John Surtees (3 podium finishes, 17 points, 5th place)

As it had been for Graham Hill in 1963, so it was for John Surtees in 1965.  The Lotus team put all the nuts on the right bolts and Jim Clark did the rest.   He won six of the first seven races, putting the championship to bed early.  Surtees, beset by Ferrari’s occasional wobbles, struggled to match his form of the previous year.  His second place in the season-opening South African race was his best finish of the season, and political pressures saw him and his team not even enter the final two American rounds of the championship at all.

1966 – Jim Clark (1 win, 16 points, 6th place)

1966 saw the reintroduction of 3 litre engines into F1, as opposed to 1.5 litre units.  Jack Brabham’s eponymous team pulled a fast one, securing rock solid reliability from Australian-made Repco units.  Brabham won four on the spin in mid-season, rendering the rest of the championship year a tussle for second place.  Clark’s Lotus – fitted with a Climax H16 unit which may possibly have been last used to power the Ark Royal – was hopelessly heavy and unreliable all year.  Typically his one win – at Watkins Glen for the US Grand Prix – was crushingly dominant.  However, in his other eight races, he retired 5 times, four of them car or engine related.

1970 – Jackie Stewart (1 win, 25 points, 5th place)

The field for Jackie Stewart’s first title in 1969 was very small – with only 13 cars regularly competing.  For a driver of Stewart’s skill, such a field plus a good car and a well-run team was always going to end well.  In 1970, his Matra chassis was replaced by a March which was starting to look hopelessly out of date, especially after Lotus introduced the revolutionary 72.  With it, Stewart’s great friend and rival Jochen Rindt racked up four consecutive wins in mid-season, doing enough to secure the title in spite of being killed in practice for the Italian Grand Prix and missing the final four events.  Stewart’s sole consolation in a sparse, retirement-filled and ultimately tragic year was a win at the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama.

1972 – Jackie Stewart (4 wins, 45 points, 2nd place)

Stewart’s fortunes changed in 1971 with his Tyrrell team’s move into building their own car and the brilliant 001 and 003 cars which resulted.  In 1972, he faced a fierce duel with Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus 72.   Despite winning the first race, though, Stewart’s early season was patchy and this was followed up by the Scot being sidelined with a stomach ulcer.  Missing the Belgian race, won by Fittipaldi, left Stewart playing catch-up.  A subsequent run of bad races and retirements in Germany – where he was eliminated by Clay Regazzoni on the final lap – Austria and Italy – where his car never even got off the grid – put paid to his chances.

1974 – Jackie Stewart (did not defend)

Stewart became Britain’s most successful ever World Champion in 1973 with his third triumph.  It was a case of enough is enough, in a sport where – despite Stewart’s tireless safety campaigning – friends were lost on a yearly basis.  Stewart stood down at the end of the 1973 season, finishing a race early due to the death of his teammate François Cevert in practice for the final Grand Prix of the year.

1977 – James Hunt (3 wins, 40 points, 5th place)

Hunt’s 1976 triumph at the final race made him an unlikely, swashbuckling, national hero.  In 1977, however, his McLaren M23 car started to show its age badly.  Not until the introduction of the M26 mid-season did he manage to win a race, but even then he either won or retired, as the car succumbed to teething troubles.  Meanwhile, the man he beat to the 76 crown, Niki Lauda, completed his remarkable recovery from his accident at the Nürburgring by consistently picking up results – six second places as well as three wins – allowing him to walk out of Ferrari politics two races early as a two-time world champion.

1993 – Nigel Mansell (did not defend)

Mansell found himself in an enviable position in 1991, as undisputed number 1 driver at a Williams team who were on the cusp of producing the most sophisticated car ever seen in Formula 1.  The first season was beset with problems, but in 1992 he was untouchable, winning the first 5 races on the trot and then 4 more before the championship was three-quarters done.  However, Williams baulked at his salary demands for a third season, especially since they had Alain Prost under contract for 1993.  Mansell instead cut a deal with Paul Newman and Carl Haas, taking his frustrations out in America and becoming the first ever driver to win the IndyCar championship at his first attempt.

1997 – Damon Hill (1 podium finish, 7 points, 12th place)

Hill – whose inconsistent 1995 performance saw Williams see fit to not renew his contract for 1997, even in spite his 1996 heroics – shocked F1 by turning up at the unfashionable Arrows team, recently bought by Tom Walkinshaw Racing.  It did not start well, Hill only just scraping his car through qualifying into the race in Australia and then it failing him before the green light.  Of the other 16 rounds, Hill retired in 6 and in the majority of the others simply did not have a competitive enough car to make a mark.  He did not trouble the scorers at all until the British Grand Prix that summer, whilst his legendary, inspired, drive in Hungary – where he came within half a lap of the biggest shock victory Formula 1 would have ever seen before a hydraulic problem dropped him to second – was the only other points-scoring contribution of a miserable season.  In the meantime, his 1996 Williams teammate Jacques Villeneuve took the laurels, as well as Hill’s  mantle as Michael Schumacher’s great rival.

2009 – Lewis Hamilton (?)

Hamilton’s defence begins on March 29th in Melbourne.  A season preview should appear here between now and then.