Tiers and tantrums

May 12, 2009

As I had hoped, the Spanish Grand Prix answered a lot of questions about the potential direction of the 2009 season.  It’s now clear that Brawn are set fair to be the team to beat this year and that when it comes undone, as it inevitably will, in terms of reliability, mistakes or other japery, that Red Bull are the team most likely to pick up the pieces.  Ferrari, too, are starting to show their teeth, and in a season where the field is covered, front-to-back, by 1.5 seconds, it can’t be too long before someone other than Jenson Button or Sebastian Vettel wins a race.

The quality of the racing was also notable for its improvements.  The cars are now certainly following one another closer than they have been able to for some time, and although overtaking is still incredibly difficult (which, I have always believed, it should be… this is Formula 1, after all), steps which have been taken to improving the closeness of the racing have been steps in the right direction.

Of course, F1 being the sport it is, it threw up just as many new posers in the process of answering these points of competition.  Firstly, the budget cap issue has the potential to be the post divisive and damaging since the FISA-FOCA wars of the early 1980s.  Ferrari’s board are today meeting to discuss whether or not they would still be willing to enter a two-tier version of the sport.  Whilst I firmly subscribe to Max Mosley’s view that the sport can survive without Ferrari – it did so for great swathes of the 1980s and 1990s, from a competition standpoint at least – more of a concern is that the Scuderia are merely at the vanguard of a larger exodus.  Dietrich Mateschitz, the owner of Red Bull, was in Barcelona to state categorically that his teams would similarly not enter next season’s championship in the current proposed form.  It also looks likely that Toyota will follow suit… even if it proves to be  a move of financial expendiency dressed up as a sporting objection.

Formula 1 would be hugely devalued by such a walk out.  Ferrari, the Red Bull quartet and Toyota are more than just eight cars, they are thousands of exceptionally talented and experienced people, many of whom count the business of Formula 1 racing as their whole life’s work.  A turnout of hastily cobbled-together teams with new names, mercenaries and refugees racing to an arbitrary financial constraint, probably all with a Cosworth engine… it would be the end of the sport in everything but the name.

It cannot be denied that, particularly now, the costs of Formula 1 racing are totally unsustainable.  To complain that new teams are being put off from entering, blanching at the level of fiscal commitment, however, is to ignore the fact that it was ever thus.  During the insane turbo era, Formula 1 saw more entrants than at any time in its history.  Very few remnants of those heady days still exist in their current form, but notable drivers and engineers have been cherry-picked from the projects and have gone on to enjoy famous careers.  Formula 1 is a meritocratic exercise.  The better you are, the more money you earn.  The more money you earn, the better you can invest in being better still.  However, you only need to point to this season as an example of the fact that it’s not simply a case of money talking.  The raft of measures the FIA has instituted in recent years have been with a view to helping the teams to help themselves, to help the sport.  I think that they have worked.  Before the budget cap row erupted, talk was of two new teams entering the sport for 2010.  Things looked healthier than they had in nearly 20 years.  Perhaps the best thing the FIA can do now is to take a step back and try and help the sport themselves.

Maybe a better solution would be to get each team to declare their outgoings for the previous season at the start of the new, and then apply a penalty in that season’s constructor’s championship – let’s say a point for every $1 million dollars, over a certain sum of money.  This would allow teams to set their own budgets, but also allow them the option of balancing this against a better position – and ultimately more prize money – in the following year’s Constructors’ Cup standings.  Either way, to penalise the teams for their decades of excess is one thing, but to end up penalising the fans can simply not stand.

It’s a scary future, so the best thing we fans can do is relish the present.  2009’s big sporting issue is currently Rubens Barrichello.  After years of toeing the Ferrari party line, Rubens’ throwaway comment that he’d not tolerate a similar situation at Brawn has been gleefully jumped on by the media, trumpeted as a QUIT THREAT or an ULTIMATUM.  Things are, in reality, likely to be far less fractious.  Barrichello knows why it was he lost the Spanish Grand Prix – his pace in the vital 2nd and 3rd stints was just not sufficient.  He and his team will, I’m sure, work to work out precisely why this was.  Because if Rubens starts to find himself in a position where he can’t trust the team or their strategic judgement, he knows better than anyone that his role will be completely untenable.

This is a situation I simply can’t see a man as intelligent as Ross Brawn allowing to happen.  Barrichello’s huge experience – Jenson Button is Formula 1’s 4th most-experienced current driver, yet Rubens has started nearly 120 Grands Prix more – was an important part in giving Jenson the car that allowed him to win pole position and the race.  It will continue to be priceless, more and more so as Button and Brawn edge closer and closer to a sensational championship tilt.  Rubens Barrichello’s day in the sun will come in time.  At the moment, he just has to accept that no-one is driving at Jenson Button’s level.  This is evidenced by the fact that he won on Sunday on a non-optimal two-stop strategy.  If Ross Brawn, the sport’s most celebrated tactical genius, wanted to deliberately scupper Rubens Barrichello’s race, I’m sure he could think of a better way than giving him the faster strategy and hope beyond hope that it would go wrong somehow.

For all the new and exciting in 2009-vintage Formula 1, it’s in a way comforting that hot air, rumour and hearsay still rule the roost.

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Date with destiny

April 29, 2009

This morning could have a significant effect on the destiny of the 2009 Formula 1 World Championship, as an increasingly competitive McLaren team face the World Motorsport Council on charges of  deliberately misleading the race stewards of the Australian Grand Prix.  Their guilt, of course, is already established.  The role of the WMC sitting today is to decide on what punishment, if any, this warrants.  McLaren International’s actions thus far – sacking team manager Dave Ryan, a series of public apologies including one from Lewis Hamilton plus a private letter sent to the FIA, chairman Ron Dennis standing down from his Formula 1 responsibilities and the team’s decision to stand silent at the hearing – all point, in my mind, to a team who has a nasty suspicion that it will not merely be a slap on the wrist.

The tendency of such hearings is for their outcomes to be representative of a team’s general conduct over a longer period than just for the incident alone.  With the cannily-named Spygate saga still fresh in people’s minds, this could have come at a better time for McLaren.  However, it must also be remembered that the team paid an astronomical fine for that transgression – $100 million – plus countless more millions in lost prize money for their disqualification from that year’s constructor’s championship.

Given all of this, plus the novel nature of the infringement, has left most commentators and experts very much in the dark as to what will happen this time.  The WMC has almost limitless powers for censure.  McLaren could escape with a warning, but just as easily could find themselves with a blanket ban from this year’s championship, or longer.

My own feeling has mellowed somewhat since my piece written on the 3rd of this month, with the subject still fresh in my mind.  I ended that article with the words: “The FIA say they reserve the right to punish the team further for this transgression.  I hope that they throw the bloody book at them.”  I maintain the view that the team deserved to be punished.  However, I now question the value of too swingeing a judgement.  McLaren’s actions were indefensible, but they have been caught and the wrong it caused – in terms of the results of the Australian race – has been righted.  They have also subsequently admitted their culpability and apologised – although I can’t help but feel that their scarcely-credible second denial of any wrongdoing to the Malaysian Grand Prix stewards a week later may well come back to haunt them.

Toto Roche’s Flag being a completely anal project, it would be remiss of me to not look back at previous similar incidences and their outcomes, before speculating on what McLaren’s fate might be and what I think it should be.

1984: Tyrrell

The accusation: Tyrrell Grand Prix were caught with traces of lead in their water tank after Martin Brundle’s car finished second in the Detroit Grand Prix.  It transpired that the team – hampered by the weight limit of the time, being the sole non-turbo engined car in the field – had been topping up their water tank late on in races with water filled with lead pellets to bring the car up to weight, having run the majority of the way under the limit.  The FIA charged the team with virtually everything it could throw at it.  The hydrocarbon traces in the water tank could be interpreted as the illegal use of an additional fuel cell, we were told.  No matter that the team – who as the sole remaining Cosworth outfit were a perpetual thorn in the side of the turbocharged remainder, in terms of Ken Tyrrell’s veto in Formula One Constructors’ Association meetings – scarcely needed their full fuel quota to finish the races with their frugal normally-aspirated engines.  Particularly as the team could also be charged with illegally running underweight, or using unsecured ballast.

The outcome: It was very much considered a fait accompli by many, an act of vengeance following pressure by the FOCA hoardes against a plucky outsider.  Nevertheless, the fact remained that Tyrrell had broken the rules.  Whether or not the punishment fitted the crime, however, is another matter.  Tyrrell, found guilty, were banned from competing in the balance of that season’s World Championship – three races – plus had all of the results they had gained up to that point in 1984 rescinded.

1994: Benetton and McLaren

The accusation: Benetton Ford and McLaren Peugeot were both accused of using banned electronic aids at that year’s  ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix.  Such gadgets, which had been banned at the end of 1993 with a promise of “mindblowing” sanctions for those caught using them in 1994, would have given any team a significant advantage as the rest of the teams got back to grips with passive suspension and no traction control.  Benetton and McLaren were specifically accused of using fully automated launch control devices at the start, but rumours darkly circulated about automatic gearboxes and traction control as well, particularly in light of Benetton’s stellar start to the 1994 season.

The outcome: Both Benetton and McLaren were acquitted due to insufficient evidence.  Both teams later received stern penalties for their drivers after trangressions in the races.  Both Michael Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen served race suspensions, with Schumacher sitting out both the Italian and Portuguese races for ignoring a black flag at the British Grand Prix.  This was interpreted by some as a disproportionate response, a way to punish them for both offences via the back door.

2005: BAR

The accusation: BAR Honda were caught using a supplementary fuel tank at the San Marino Grand Prix.  Once this tank was drained by scrutineers after the race, the car was found to be underweight.  The team were accused of illegally using fuel as ballast.

The outcome: BAR were found guilty of the charge.  Jenson Button was disqualified from his 3rd place at Imola, plus the team were suspended from the subsequent Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix.

Where, then, does this leave McLaren?  The BAR verdict in 2005 shows that the powers that be have no compunction in depleting a 20-car field to just 18 runners, if they think the crime warrants it.  Such sporting concerns as ‘the show’ are secondary, in other words, to sporting concerns such as probity of conduct.  Like Tyrrell in 1984, there is also no technological argument to be made, no potential loopholes to be explored, no questions of guilt or innocence.

In such circumstances, it’s hard to not see some sort of stiff penalty being handed down.  However, with the $100 million fine probably still not yet even entirely spent, McLaren’s conduct since should – and probably will – be some mitigation.  If it were my decision, I would ban the team for the next race, plus make them run for the next 2 years with a further suspended ban which made it clear that any further similar infraction would result in a total disqualification from that year’s World Championship.  What I suspect will happen is a two race ban and another substantial fine.  Let’s see.

Slow starters

April 22, 2009

There has been much discussion in the press, on the broadcast media and online about the dismal start to the Grand Prix season being endured by Ferrari.  This reaction is understandable given their almost monotonous level of success over the past decade, where they have won all but two Constructors’ Championship titles.  However, Ferrari are no real strangers to adversity, as you might expect from any team of a 59-year pedigree.  Previous fallow periods include the early 1990s – when the team went for nearly 4 full seasons without a race win – the early 1980s and the early 1970s, which culminated in a season of such lacklustreness in 1973 that the team often ran just one car for Jacky Ickx and didn’t even bother entering four of the the last six events.

The common uniting thread in all this, however, is that competitiveness has always returned.  In 1974, under new management with a new car and new drivers, Ferrari began a 6-year spell which yielded 3 drivers’ and 4 constructors’ championship titles.  The early 1980s saw a pair of dismal years immediately followed by two title-winning efforts for the team.  And the 1990s slump led to the construction of the Todt-Brawn-Byrne-Martinelli-Schumacher superteam who swept all before it in unprecedented style.

Ferrari’s problems this year seem to be related to grip, which a new aerodynamic package will be looking to address.  More of a concern must be their lack of reliability.  Previously bulletproof, Ferrari will be mindful of the old motor racing truism that it is easier to make a reliable car fast than it is to make a fast car reliable.  I think it’s fair inconceivable that the team will be in the doldrums for the whole of the 2009 season.  Felipe Massa particularly has demonstrated good speed in the races, only to be let down by his machinery, and their technical team is second to none.  The fact, however, remains that the team go into this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix knowing that a failure to score any points for the fourth successive race at the start of a season will be a new low tidemark.

In the spirit of Toto Roche’s Flag, I have decided to take a look through the history books (literally, in this case), to look at Ferrari’s other bad starts to a Grand Prix season.

1993 After 3 events: 1 point (@ 0.167 points-per-start)

Ferrari were really in a hole in the early 1990s.  Their drivers – Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger – managed just a finish apiece in the first 3 races of 1993, with Berger taking the only point at the season opener at Kyalami.  In the July of this year, Jean Todt was brought in as team manager after a success in a similar role at Peugeot motorsport. 

What happened next: Fortunes picked up slightly as the season wore on, but the team only managed a final total of 28 points, good enough for 4th place.  The high point were three podium finishes – two for Alesi and one for Berger – with a best of 2nd in Italy.

1992 After 3 events: 5 points (0.833)

At the end of a disappointing 1991 season, where the team failed to win a race a season after fighting for the drivers’ championship, lead driver Alain Prost was made the scapegoat and sacked for unflattering comments about his car’s handling in the press.  Lacking any real experience or direction, Jean Alesi and Ivan Capelli struggled on as best they could with an unreliable and slow car.  Their haul of points all came at the third round in Brazil as the cars finished 4th and 5th, after retirements for both drivers in the first two races. 

What happened next: The team again finished 4th, with just 21 points to their name.  Alesi managed two podium finishes again – including one in the fourth race.  Capelli, however, struggled badly and was dropped for the last two races, replaced by the none-more-successful Nicola Larini.

1986 After 3 rounds: 3 points (0.500)

Again, Ferrari made a meal of things a year after a season where their lead driver challenged for the world crown.  In this instance, their points came from Stefan Johansson’s 4th place at the season’s 3rd round in Imola.  The problems were again twofold, with a slow and unreliable car. 

What happened next: Ferrari finished 4th with 33 points, Stefan Johansson’s four 3rd places and Michele Alboreto’s second in Austria the highlights.  Behind the scenes, major changes were afoot.  For 1987, Ferrari signed McLaren designer John Barnard, whose Guildford Technical Office built a car which won the final two races of the 1987 season in the hands of Gerhard Berger.

1981 After 3 rounds: 0 points

1980 After 3 rounds: 0 points

Ferrari began the 1980s in a terrible state.  Their 1980 season was a disaster, with defending World Champion Jody Scheckter scoring only 2 points all year and failing to qualify for the Canadian Grand Prix.  In his teammate Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari had the generation’s outstanding driver, but even he was unable to wring anything out of the dire 312T5, a best of two fifths and two sixths.  He faired a little better in 1981, now alongside Didier Pironi in place of the retired Scheckter.  The season started even more woefully, though.  In 1980, the team at least managed a 16th place finish in the first 3 rounds.  In 1981 the first 6 starts yielded not a single finish. 

What happened next: Thanks in the most part to the brilliance of Villeneuve, Ferrari won two races in 1981, both of them masterpieces of the art.  Villeneuve won the Monaco Grand Prix in the worst handling car in the field when his exceptional teammate Pironi struggled to even qualify the car.  He followed this up with his famous Spanish Grand Prix win at Jarama, where he successfully used his car’s one major façet – it’s straighline speed – to defend against attack from a queue of four faster cars.  Ferrari went on to win the Constructors’ Cup in 1982 and 1983, but it was not without a cost.  Villeneuve died in a qualifying crash early in the 1982 season, whilst Pironi’s season was ended prematurely – with the Frenchman leading the championship – after a terrifying leg-breaking shunt in practice for the German Grand Prix.  1980’s tally was 8 points and 10th place, with an improvement to 34 and 5th in 1981.

1970 After 3 rounds: 0 points

Ferrari were all out of sorts at the beginning of the 1970s, as the new Cosworth DFV engine was adopted by the majority of their rivals, leaving Ferrari’s V12 hopelessly heavy and antiquated.  Behind also in chassis development, the team cut their losses and only entered a single car for Jacky Ickx in the early rounds, but it failed to finish a single one. 

What happened next: Ferrari’s fortunes picked up hugely from mid-season, the team eventually finishing second with 52 points.  Drivers Jacky Ickx and Clay Regazzoni racked up 4 wins, 5 pole positions and 8 fastest laps.  Their form was not sustained, however, as the introduction of Tyrrell’s first self-made car took all the honours for 1971.  By 1973 the team were in turmoil, leading to wholesale management changes and the appointment of Niki Lauda as lead driver.

1969 After 3 rounds: 0 points

Similarly to their 1970 season, Ferrari’s main problem in 1969 was the new DFV engine.  Their sole entrant, Chris Amon, failed to finish in any of the first 3 races.  What happened next: Ferrari scored just 7 points in1969, finishing equal bottom of the standings.  The highlight of their year was Amon’s 3rd place in the Dutch Grand Prix.

1964 After 3 rounds: 6 points

A slow start to the season, their sole points score coming from John Surtees’ 2nd place in round two. 

What happened next: After a slow first 4 rounds, Ferrari burst into life in the final 6 races of the season.  Finishing with at least one car on the podium of each of them, John Surtees 5 such finishes were enough to give him the drivers’ crown after the final race decider in Mexico.  Teammate Lorenzo Bandini also won a Grand Prix, at Austria, to go alongside Surtees’ two victories.  With a further 3 third places from Bandini, Ferrari also won their first Constructors’ Cup since 1961.

Since Red Bull Racing’s bold strut into the winners’ circle last Sunday morning, I have seen literally nobody ask the question: how many teams have now won a World Championship Grand Prix race?  Luckily, I’m always on hand to answer any such non-questions.  The answer is 30.

This is not completely straightforward, however.  The thirty ‘teams’ in question are in fact manufacturers or constructors.  It must be remembered of course that numbers 6 and 8 in the list – Cooper and Lotus – had their first Grand Prix successes courtesy of Rob Walker Racing’s privateer team, whilst 14 (Matra) scored all of their success thanks to Ken Tyrrell’s team’s stewardship at the track.  Tyrrell also won the first victory for March (number 15) in the year before he went solo and became number 16.  More recently, of course, it’s arguable that Toro Rosso’s maiden victory in Italy last autumn was in fact a success for Red Bull Racing, whose chassis the Italian team use.

Also complicating matters are issues such as family trees – the Red Bull Team bought the assets of Jaguar, who did the same to Stewart Grand Prix, race winners in their own right.  Brawn GP, too, have a complex past, with former race winning efforts from Honda and Tyrrell in their direct lineage.  Meanwhile, Lancia do not make the list, although their superb D50 car won several races after the outfit was forced to sell their stock to Ferrari, Juan Manuel Fangio winning the 1956 championship in a car badged as a Lancia-Ferrari.

With all this in mind, though, I have tried to present a balanced and considered list of the squads and cars that have won a Grand Prix in their own right.  Here it is, along with the race in which they first took the flag and the driver at the wheel.

1. Alfa Romeo (1950 British Grand Prix, Guiseppe Farina)
2. Ferrari (1951 British Grand Prix, José Frolian Gonzalez)
3. Maserati (1953 Italian Grand Prix, Juan Manuel Fangio)
4. Mercedes-Benz (1954 French Grand Prix, Juan Manuel Fangio)
5. Vanwall (1957 British Grand Prix, Tony Brooks/Stirling Moss)
6. Cooper (1958 Argentinian Grand Prix, Stirling Moss)
7. BRM (1959 Dutch Grand Prix, Jo Bonnier)
8. Lotus (1960 Monaco Grand Prix, Stirling Moss)
9. Porsche (1962 French Grand Prix, Dan Gurney)
10. Brabham (1964 French Grand Prix, Dan Gurney)
11. Honda (1965 Mexican Grand Prix, Richie Ginther)
12. Eagle (1967 Belgian Grand Prix, Dan Gurney)
13. McLaren (1968 Belgian Grand Prix, Bruce McLaren)
14. Matra (1968 Dutch Grand Prix, Jackie Stewart)
15. March (1970 Spanish Grand Prix, Jackie Stewart)
16. Tyrrell (1971 Spanish Grand Prix, Jackie Stewart)
17. Hesketh (1975 Dutch Grand Prix, James Hunt)
18. Penske (1976 Austrian Grand Prix, John Watson)
19. Wolf (1977 Argentinian Grand Prix, Jody Scheckter)
20. Ligier (1977 Swedish Grand Prix, Jacques Laffite)
21. Shadow (1977 Austrian Grand Prix, Alan Jones)
22. Renault (1979 French Grand Prix, Jean-Pierre Jabouille)
23. Williams (1979 British Grand Prix, Clay Regazzoni)
24. Benetton (1986 Mexican Grand Prix, Gerhard Berger)
25. Jordan (1998 Belgian Grand Prix, Damon Hill)
26. Stewart (1999 European Grand Prix, Johnny Herbert)
27. BMW Sauber (2008 Canadian Grand Prix, Robert Kubica)
28. Scuderia Toro Rosso (2008 Italian Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel)
29. Brawn (2009 Australian Grand Prix, Jenson Button)
30. Red Bull Racing (2009 Chinese Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel)

China 2009

April 20, 2009

I can’t remember the last time I saw less of a Formula 1 Grand Prix whilst my eyes were trained on it.  It’s reasonably rare to get a race like the one yesterday, where the rain is unrelenting and unchanging throughout, and the spray and lack of visibility was remarkable.  What it must have been like in the cars probably doesn’t bare thinking about, so it is testimony to the skills of the world’s twenty best racing drivers that there were so few accidents – especially considering that the race was the first wet running any of them had done in the entire weekend.  Particularly impressive, of course, was Sebastian Vettel.  Still not yet 22 years of age and twice a Grand Prix winner, we are surely watching the first steps of what will be a monumental career.

Red Bull had a dream weekend, all told.  Their car, so impressive in the wet all season, also excelled in the dry – although with fuel adjustment is still a little behind the Brawn on overall pace.  Significantly, of course, the team are yet to try a double-decker diffuser which, considering the man designing it will be Adrian Newey, is likely to make the car more competitive still.  I expect at least one Red Bull driver to be in championship contention right up until the end of the season.  As I have already mentioned, Vettel was brilliant in Shanghai, easily having the measure of all of his rivals and not making a mistake worth the name in impossible conditions.  Mark Webber always looked a step behind his teammate, but thoroughly deserved second place, his best result thus far in a Grand Prix.  With Red Bull’s car so fast and the diffuser still to come, it’s not hard to imagine that Webber may manage to break his Grand Prix duck some time this year.

Brawn looked a little out of sorts in China, but will be happy with third and fourth place in a difficult race.  Rubens Barrichello was impressive in qualifying but again lost out to Jenson Button on race day, Button’s smoothness really coming into its element.  Expect the white cars to go into Bahrain – where rain is very unlikely to trip them up – as favourites for the win again.

Third up were McLaren Mercedes, showing steady improvement all the time.  With new aerodynamic pieces, Lewis Hamilton got the car into the top 10 in qualifying, whilst the team’s KERS system has always made them a more competitive proposition on Sunday afternoons.  Hamilton was very racy indeed and provided a great deal of entertainment, but he overstepped the line too often, losing handfuls of time to spins and other excursions.  This allowed Heikki Kovalainen, who drove a rock steady race, to score his first points of the year.  As well as completing his first full racing laps.

Toyota were the first of the teams who had a really disappointing time.  Timo Glock drove a fine race in the circumstances, a poor qualifying plus a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change leaving him to come from 19th to finish 7th.  Jarno Trulli was the race’s first retirement after being hit from behind by Robert Kubica’s BMW.  It wasn’t much of a surprise, as Trulli seemed completely bereft of any confidence or speed on race day, which has been the story of his entire F1 career.  A big step forward will be required in Bahrain, as the team – under pressure from the boardroom to win some races – look to get the full advantage of their diffuser before the rest catch up.

Toro Rosso‘s weekend was largely helped by the fact they have the same car as Red Bull Racing.  However, their real ace was Sebastien Buemi, increasingly impressive in his debut season.  He already seems to have the measure of his namesake teammate Bourdais, whose resigned radio calls back to his pit after failing to get into Q2 are already becoming a highlight of my Saturdays in 2009.  This weekend, though, Buemi qualified the car 10th and raced strongly throughout – although he was lucky not to have had more damage when he ran into Sebastian Vettel’s rear wheel during the second safety car period.  His 8th place means he has scored points in 2 of his first three Grands Prix, and increasingly looks like he has the potential to be a coming man.

Renault had a strange weekend.  Using their new diffuser, Fernando Alonso put the car on the front row of the grid by running with a thimble’s worth of petrol.  A victory for the PR war, it nevertheless completely shagged his race in tactical terms, especially when the heavens opened.  His first pit stop taking place even before the safety car had pulled in at the start of the race and from then on it was damage limitation, so 9th place was fairly respectable, the best the car could do on the day.  The same cannot be said for Nelson Piquet’s weekend.  Although he had the mitigating circumstance of Alonso having all the latest updated parts on his car, Piquet qualified at the back again and did little to improve on this in the race.  He’s under serious pressure now.

Ferrari can sympathise with this, as an entire country is now demanding answers.  However, despite not having any aero updates and running without KERS, Massa undid a poor qualifying with a strong race.  It was another fine performance from a driver whose attitude is just as impressive as his skill at the wheel, and another demonstration of how far along he has come.  Massa was lying in a competitive and well-fueled 3rd place when his car succumbed to drowned electrics, and would have more than probably scored a podium finish.  With the car as troublesome as it is, it will be nice for the team to know that at least in Massa they have a part they can absolutely rely on.  Whether or not they feel the same about Kimi Räikkönen I do not know.  The 2007 champion started the weekend in resigned mood, more or less admitting that the 2009 title race’s goose was already cooked.  This is not the sort of thing Michael Schumacher would ever have said publically, and not the sort of thing the people working in the factory need to hear.  His performances on the track this weekend will have done little to dispel any of this gloom, either.  Three races in, no points scored.  Unless you count the ones scored by the Ferrari engine in the Toro Rosso.

BMW also have it all to do.  A miserable qualifying left the drivers in a vulnerable position, and duly both Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica spent the race being nerfed, nudged and punted from pillar to post, Kubica particularly spending a good half of a minute in the pits longer than he had intended.  The team’s work on the 2009 car does not, as it stands, seem to have paid off.  However, few would bet against such an organisation not being able to make positive steps forward, particularly as the car seems to have the potential to be competitive on the longer runs.

Force India would clamber over their own mothers for BMW’s problems, of course.  Their car looks down on grip compared to all of their rivals and the drivers spun more in dry practice than in the wet race.  Adrian Sutil again demonstrated a fine grasp on wet weather driving, as well as a fine line in bad luck, aquaplaning off with five laps to run when he looked to have 6th place – and Force India’s first ever points – in the bag.  This must be particularly agonising for the team, as they know such conditions are not particularly easy to rely on.  Fisichella continued to plug away in the second car, gaining his third successive finish.  If they could graft his reliability to Sutil’s speed, they could well have a recipe for some points at last this year.

Finally, a weekend to forget for Williams.  Like their engine supplier Toyota, Williams face a race against time to fully exploit their aerodynamic cleverness before everyone else catches up.  However, this weekend seemed to be a step back in all directions – although Nico Rosberg again topped the timesheets in a free practice session, this time on Saturday morning.  Kazuki Nakajima, however, spent much of the race facing the oncoming traffic, whilst Rosberg – uncompetitive and gambling late on with intermediate tyres – saw any chance of a point evapourate as the rains returned in earnest.

There was a certain inevitibility to it, in the end.  Starting a race at 5 p.m. in a country with tropical weather systems was always going to end with everybody in the dark, metaphorically and otherwise.  Nevertheless, Formula 1’s first half points race since Ayrton Senna won a 14-lap Australian Grand Prix at Adelaide nearly 18 years ago, did not skimp on entertainment or interest.  It’s becoming clear that KERS is very much worth the weight penalty of running it on race day, whilst the ten teams and their drivers teased us yet further by still not revealing the true pecking order.

Well, nine of them did, as it is now pretty much confirmed that Brawn do indeed have the car to beat.  Jenson Button put in his very best Grand Prix drive yet – in a car which he had never driven before in wet conditions, a tribute both to him and the engineers – and duly scored his first F1 hattrick of win, pole and fastest lap.  What is less clear is who their closest rivals are.  BMW have looked to be nowhere two race weekends in a row, only to suddenly appear challenging for top honours towards the end.  Williams are very quick indeed but don’t seem to be able to keep it up consistently for a full race distance.  Ferrari, too, are showing signs of pace amidst the panicking.

As I thought would be the case in the build-up to Sepang, though, the current pick must surely be Toyota, who had another very strong race capped with a third and fourth-place finish.  The TF109 car is now apparently equipped with a triple-decker diffuser which obviously worked wonders for grip and stability in the changing conditions.  The FIA appeal hearing about the diffuser issue is on Tuesday week.  If, as I expect, the gadget is passed legal to race, every team will arrive in China with one the following Friday.  In fact, it could end up like a battle between razor manufacturers, with each successive team fitting more and more levels to their diffuser.  Six-storeys, for less irritation.

Toyota’s drivers, too, are clearly relishing their new car.  Timo Glock is coming on rapidly as a Grand Prix driver, showing a knack for making canny tactical calls and having the talent to translate them into results which is often the mark of the true top-line driver.  Jarno Trulli remains something of an enigma on race day, but there’s little doubting his speed in qualifying.  Something has got to give under this sort of pressure, and I don’t expect it will be too long before Toyota finally win a Formula 1 Grand Prix.

Who else will win one is a big question.  McLaren and Ferrari surely won’t remain in quite this much disarray all year, so they cannot be discounted.  At the moment, though, Brawn and Toyota’s big rivals are perhaps Red Bull.  Adrian Newey’s car is pretty well bolted to the floor – witness it’s grip in damp conditions yesterday – and in Sebastian Vettel has one of the quickest drivers around.  Their bad luck on Sundays can’t continue indefinitely.  Williams, too, are showing promise.  I believe their problem is related to tyre graining, which makes it hard for Rosberg to keep up the same pace throughout.  However, two races down and Williams have set one fastest lap and led one race until the first pit stops.  It’s a sure sign of a team moving in the right direction.

Ferrari’s direction is, from a historical viewpoint, reassuringly scattered.  After a boob in qualifying with Felipe Massa’s car, Räikkönen fitting rain tyres a full six minutes before any precipitation was eccentric to say the least.  Desperate, would be another way to describe it.  When you consider that Force India, now looking like they are firmly embroiled in the battle to avoid the wooden spoon again this year, were the only other team to replicate the gamble, it speaks volumes for Ferrari’s questionable competitiveness.

Ironically, given their relative one-lap pace, it is their great rivals McLaren who seem to have the edge on race day.  Their KERS system is clearly super-efficient and helping the drivers redress some of the grip-related problems they are suffering.  Or rather, he is suffering, as again in 2009 Lewis Hamilton finished lap 1 as Woking’s sole representative in the race.  Heikki Kovalainen needs to get some serious lappage under his belt quickly.

As for the remainder, Toro Rosso had another solid if unspectacular race, flirting on the fringes of the points when the race was stopped.  Lastly, Renault‘s plug-ugly car remains relentlessly off the pace, with Nelson Piquet still stubbornly off the pace of his teammate, even in spite of Fernando Alonso being laid low this weekend with an ear infection.  It’s hard to see Piquet lasting a full season at the team at his current level of competitiveness and it just may be the case that this knowledge itself is not helping his driving.

All this said, the difference between success and failure is still incredibly slim, with the field often separated by a couple of seconds only over a single lap.  It’s still all to play for, but it’ll be Brawn to beat in Shanghai.

McLaren’s disqualification from the Australian Grand Prix for deliberately misleading the event’s stewards has left a sour taste in the mouth.  In a season where already – and very unusually – all the positives seem to be coming from the on track action as a spectacle as petty politicking rages all around it, it is still clearly an early nadir point which will hopefully not be challenged in the remaining 16 races.

For the driver, it’s another blow.  Lewis Hamilton is already as popular as a dose amongst his rivals.  Like Michael Schumacher, they complain about some his on-track exploits only for him to get away with his worst excesses.  And, like Schumacher, he compounds this frustration with also being a quite brilliant racing driver, a man of sufficient gifts that he need not ever attempt anything even approaching a bending of the rules or their spirit.  It is going to be hard work to regain his credibility with his fellows now.  As a sportsman, what he did is pretty much as low as it gets.

Hamilton claims he is not a liar.  On the whole, I believe him.  I’ve followed his career for 14 years and he has always exhibited a sportsmanlike integrity and a personal honesty.  However, I cannot believe that a man of his, very obvious, moral values was not at least partially complicit in his and his team’s baffling decision to mislead the stewards last Sunday.  The official line which is being taken here is that Hamilton was told to withhold certain pertinent details by Dave Ryan, McLaren’s (now at the very least suspended) sporting director.  The fact is, though, that Hamilton isn’t a rookie with it all to prove, he’s not clinging onto his drive, nor is he a stranger to the team.  His lengthy association with McLaren is now a thing of legend and its contribution his world championship triumph last year cannot be underestimated.  At the very least, Hamilton should have stood up to the team, refused their unreasonable, dastardly and unsporting request.  We will probably never know why he did not do this.  We will probably never fully rid ourselves of this little cloud hanging over the head of Lewis Hamilton the sportsman as a result.  A real shame.

Where Hamilton’s disgrace is all the more hurtful on account of its uncharacteristicness, the same cannot necessarily be said of his team.  In the past years, especially in the wake of the draconian penalties in the Ferrari espionage case, there has been a softening towards McLaren.  The great irony of this now is that this mainly has a sporting basis – they were the team most likely to be able to stop the domination of the Ferrari juggernaut set in motion by messrs. Brawn, Todt and Schumacher.  The decision this weekend has brought a lot of the old festering resentments back to the surface.  McLaren’s reputation, outwardly at least, has always been of a rather cold, mechanical outfit.  Since Ron Dennis’ Project 4 team took over at Woking in the early 1980s, the name McLaren has been a byword for ruthless efficiency and an endless, grinding pursuit of perfection.  When the victories dried up in the mid-1990s, people felt sorry for them.  A return to top line competition in 1997 and 1998, however, quickly reminded us of a rather uncomfortable truth: when wins are on the table, McLaren are the very sorest of losers, often lashing out like a bear with a sore head when things do not go their way.  Their punishment in 2007 was most probably reaping a decade of sown discontent – a muttered allegation here, an insinuation of unfair play there – which rubbed a lot of very powerful people, particularly Max Mosley, up the wrong way.  This was an unattractive streak, but it was also demonstrably a result of the outfit’s competitive urge.  Simply, it was being such bad losers which drove McLaren to be totally insuperable winners.

What is new here is the underhandedness,  something which has never been an issue with McLaren before now.  But it’s not just the duplicity which is so uncharacteristic, it’s also the stupidity.  Whoever is responsible for this piece of ugliness – be it a team decision, a group folly or a single rogue element – must have known that in the modern Formula 1, where everything from radio transmissions to the drivers toilet visits are scrupulously disclosed, they’d never possibly get away with it.  After 100 minutes of a race for which they’d qualified 18th in an uncompetitive car.  All this for just one extra point, when 4th place alone was practically a deliverance from the heavens.  The FIA say they reserve the right to punish the team further for this transgression.  I hope that they throw the bloody book at them.

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