A new Formula One season is upon us once again and with new drivers joining an expanded grid featuring new teams, this year’s world championship is likely to be the most unpredictable and exciting in the past six decades of the sport.
Entertaining the fans has become the number one priority as outlined by the sport’s governing body (the FIA) and the teams (FOTA) for 2010. With the KERS system dropped due to poor uptake (not to mention added weight), a new approach to racing has been introduced with significant changes to the Formula One rulebook.
Refuelling is now banned for the first time since 1993. This radical move to abolish fuel stops should improve on-track action, encouraging the drivers to overtake one other instead of relying on pit-stop strategies to gain track position. It will be intriguing to see the differences in performance due to the fuel levels. The cars will start off heavy (around 160kg of fuel) but as the race progress, the cars will go faster and faster as the fuel levels goes down. As for pit-stops, expect to see lighting-fast tye changing. The Williams team in particular have been practising and can change all four sets of tyres in three seconds!
A new points system has also been ratified for this season, in response to the increased grid and encouraging the drivers to overtake. Since 2003, points had been awarded to the top eight finishers with ten points for the winner, eight for second, six for third and all the way down to one for eighth place. For 2010 the winner will be awarded 25 points, 18 for second, with third receiving 15, 12 for fourth and then ten, eight, six, four, two, and one for tenth place.
As for qualifying, yet another change has been added to the three-part session due to more cars taking part. Qualifying one and two will see eight drivers eliminated in each with the remaining ten going for pole position in session three. However in qualifying three, the cars will run in low-fuel configuration but the drivers must use the same tyres into the race. This particular rule change will play a significant part in race strategies. Will the drivers conserve their tyres in the top-ten shootout by pacing themselves in order to have better grip at the start of the race but risking the penalty of a low grid position? Or should they just go for glory by claiming the best spots but be handicap at the beginning of the Grand Prix without any decent tyre performance?
Slick tyres supplied by Bridgestone remain but the drivers will now have just eleven sets of tyres over the Grand Prix weekend, down from fourteen in 2009. One set is to be returned before second practice and two before third practice. The top ten qualifiers must start the race on the partially used set with which they set their best lap time in Q3.
Time penalties added to a driver’s elapsed race time have been modified. A drive-through imposed in the last five laps will now incur a penalty of 20 seconds, while ten-second penalty will see 30 seconds added. Previously, both were penalised by an additional 25 seconds. As for serving these penalties during the race, previously the drivers could complete up to three laps before serving a drive-through or ten-second penalty. The rules have now changed to reduce this to just two laps, which minimises any advantage a driver can obtain before taking his punishment.
As for the aesthetics, the larger fuel tank has made the 2010-spec Formula One racing cars into limousines! With the weight of the car increased from 605kg to 620kg. Not to mention a narrower front tyre (from 270mm to 245mm in width – shifting the ideal weight distribution rearwards relative to 2009) has given the overall appearance of these cars a unique look when compared to last season, but at least those ugly wheel-rim covers have been banned! As for the controversial double diffuser, these sophisticated aero devices remain but it might harm the close racing aspect due to the ‘dirty air’ turbulence…
In terms of the drivers and teams taking part this season, it’s great to see the most successful driver of the modern generation – Michael Schumacher – back in Formula One. His neck injury that prevented him in taking part mid-season in 2009 is now gone and despite being the oldest driver on the grid (Schumacher turned 41 last January), his level of fitness and desire is as strong as ever. It will be fascinating to see the seven-time world champion racing against young pretenders with the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel. In fact, it’s fantastic to see four world champions (Schumacher, Alonso, Hamilton and Button) racing on the same piece of race track. As for the teams, four new outfits have join the establishment with the famous Lotus name making a re-appearance alongside Virgin Racing, Campos Meta 1 and USF1 although the latter is facing an uphill struggle in taking part in the very first race due to financial difficulties. Stefan GP could step-in if the American-based squad drops out.
After winning the championship in dramatic fashion in 2009 with Brawn GP, world champion Jenson Button will have the unique opportunity to defend his drivers’ title with the McLaren-Mercedes team. Lewis Hamilton will be his new team-mate and it will be fascinating who will have the upper hand, as both are highly competitive. Not to mention both are British and world champions! One interesting point – how will the team handle these two young charges? McLaren will want to avoid that awkward situation with Hamilton and Fernando Alonso back in 2007… As for the car, the new MP4-25 is definitely an improvement over last year’s troublesome MP4-24 with better handling and stability. Looking at the lap times set in testing at the three Spanish tracks – Valencia, Jerez and Barcelona – the MP4-25 is very consistent. But it is unclear what fuel levels the car was carrying compared to its rivals.
Speaking of rivals, the new Mercedes GP team is aiming to achieve more title success following the takeover of Brawn GP. It has been 55 years since the German car manufacturer last competed in Formula One and it will be fascinating to see how the all-German team will fare against the all-British team that is McLaren. Both outfits will be using the same Mercedes FO 108X engine. On paper, the partnership of Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher looks very strong thanks to their winning experience over the past few years, but it is down to the performance of the W01 or ‘Silver Arrows’ that will determine the fate of the team this season. Glancing at the lap times set in testing, Mercedes GP is setting quite reasonable times compared to the McLarens and Ferraris. Hopefully that will translate to wins and will give the chance for Nico Rosberg to step out of team-mate’s shadow and score his maiden victory. Solid race results for Nico will justify his status at Mercedes GP.
After challenging Brawn GP for the championship double last season, Red Bull Racing looks set for their strongest campaign yet with the beautifully-looking RB6. The Adrian Newey-designed car has set the benchmark for all designers to match in terms of aerodynamics. It’s not surprising to see nearly all of the 2010 cars have been influenced by Red Bull’s radical aero treatment with the high nose and engine cover. Can Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber deliver the results with this aero sophisticated car? Both have won races and in the case of Vettel, he looks the ideal candidate to go for the drivers’ title following his impressive results in the second half of the 2009 season. The driver line-up at Red Bull Racing is immensely strong and it will be interesting who will have the advantage come qualifying and the race as Vettel and Webber are extremely competitive.
Meanwhile at Ferrari, an exciting new driver line-up in the shape of double world champion Fernando Alonso and the super-fast Felipe Massa represents the Scuderia’s best chance in winning this year’s world championship. After taking a sole victory in the Belgian Grand Prix in the hands of Kimi Raikkonen in a somewhat lacklustre 2009 season (no thanks to the tricky-to-drive F60), the Italian team have focused all resources in making the F10 the best car on the grid. And judging by the lap times set by the two Latin drivers in Valencia, the new Ferrari certainly has the speed. In fact, Alonso and Ferrari are the early season favourites and the Spaniard has even commented that this car is the best he has ever driven. As for Massa, the Brazilian has fully recovered from his horrific Hungarian Grand Prix qualifying injuries and is determined to challenge his new team-mate for race wins. The partnership between Alonso and Massa will be intriguing especially when you consider their past clashes as rivals at Renault and Ferrari respectively. The latter still believes he lost the 2008 drivers’ title due to ‘crashgate’ in that controversial Singapore Grand Prix… Despite this, I believe the pair will put their differences behind and go for the team’s number one goal, winning the world title.
That elusive 114th race victory still remains out of reach for Williams. The line-up of Nico Hülkenberg and Rubens Barrichello mixes youth and experience but will the driving talent reward that much needed success for the British-based team? Race veteran Rubens Barrichello will have the unusual opportunity in taking the lead role at Williams following several years playing the number two (at Ferrari especially). His technical knowledge will be a major asset to the team and in the case of his young team-mate Nico Hülkenberg – the former GP2 champion – valuable information in setting up the FW32. I have high hopes that Williams will return back to the glory days of the 80s and 90s, but that 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix victory seems so long ago especially when you look back at the rich history of Frank Williams and Patrick Head’s team. But will the Cosworth engine be strong enough to lead them back to the winners’ circle? Only time will tell.
With a striking retro livery, the Renault F1 team is hoping to cast aside the ‘crashgate’ controversy and move on. Under new leadership from Eric Boullier (former DAMS GP2 team boss) and the backing of investment firm Genii Capital, the outfit hopes to turn around that difficult 2009 season with more positive results. Even though bosses Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds have left due to that incident at Singapore, by signing the solid Robert Kubica as the lead driver, Renault is heading back to restoring its reputation. Kubica is a good choice and the Polish driver is full of enthusiasm following his four frustrating years at BMW Sauber. As for the R30, it might have a great paint job but so far in testing the car has lacked speed compared to the others. More development is needed to regain lost ground and hopefully Kubica’s motivation won’t disappear like he did in the later stages at BMW Sauber… Joining him is Formula One newcomer Vitaly Petrov. Come the Bahrain Grand Prix, Petrov will be the first ever Russian to compete in the history of Formula One motor racing. What’s ever more remarkable is his racing career. Eight years ago, he was the double Lada cup champion! Driving a Renault Formula One car will certainly be a different experience compared to his Lada. But I have high hopes Petrov will do a good job.
After taking an amazing maiden pole position and podium result at Spa-Francorchamps thanks to Giancarlo Fisichella, Force India is aiming to continue for more with the new VJM03. The driver line-up remains the same as last season with Adrian Sutil and Vitantonio Liuzzi but the pair must focus on finishing races rather than crashing out… Hopefully their desire to push the team forward will mean better results but additional speed is required from the VJM03 if team boss Vijay Mallya wants that dream result in winning its first race. Realistically, Force India’s chances are competing against the likes of Scuderia Toro Rosso and perhaps the new teams on a regular basis.
With no help from Red Bull Technologies in 2010 (due to the customer chassis ban), the team formerly known as Minardi must push ahead with its own development to achieve results. In the case of Scuderia Toro Rosso, the Red Bull junior team has become an independent constructor for the very first time this season. Even without the technical guidance from Red Bull Technologies, the new STR5 looks remarkably similar to Red Bull Racing’s RB6. The line-up of Sébastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari is the same as last season but with now a year’s experience underneath their belts, Buemi and Alguersuari’s targets will be scoring points. But if the team cannot match this objective then serious pressure will be placed on Toro Rosso.
Now on to the new Formula One teams. I am delighted to see the famous Lotus name back this season. Okay, it may not have the same motorsport legacy as the ‘real’ Team Lotus (as run by the late Colin Chapman), but this new Malaysian-backed squad has potential. The Mike Gascoyne-designed T127 looks great in the 1960s-based livery and it certainly runs reliable during testing when compared to Virgin Racing. Hopefully the pairing of Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen will help speed up development but it’s going to be a steep learning curve for everyone involved. For Trulli, this is his last opportunity to stay in Formula One after 13 years in the sport. That sole victory in the 2004 Monaco Grand Prix driving for Renault is a distant memory and he needs to justify his position with strong results at Lotus. As for Kovalainen, the Finn needs to restore his confidence and reputation after two painful seasons at McLaren alongside Lewis Hamilton. Hopefully Heikki can do this and lead the team back to glory. I wish everyone at Lotus F1 Racing the best of luck.
Luck is definitely needed for Campos Meta 1 with that all familiar lack of money hampering the team’s efforts to make it on to the Formula One grid. At the time of writing this post, a change in management has taken place with majority shareholder José Ramón Carabante taking full control of the outfit from original founder Adrián Campos. Ex-Spyker team boss Colin Kolles is now in charge of Campos Meta 1. What about the drivers? Well, only Bruno Senna, the nephew of the great Aryton Senna, has been confirmed. Indian racing driver Karun Chandhok is a possible number two. Still no news on what the car will look like but one thing is certain, it will be powered by Cosworth. Time is running out for the Spanish-based outfit.
Time is undoubtedly out at USF1. The ambitious American-based team set-up by technical director Ken Anderson and journalist Peter Windsor has failed to materialise despite YouTube founder Chad Hurley’s interest in sponsoring the team. At the time of writing, USF1 have yet to launch the car or sign a second driver. Only José María López has been confirmed but I really doubt López will be driving in the opening races of the new season. A major lack of funds is the main issue and the team has even asked the sport’s governing body if they can skip the opening four races to get everything ready. If USF1 does indeed drop out due to financial problems then Stefan GP, a team backed by Serbian engineering company AMCO, could step in to fill the void. Unfortunately a lack of preparation could hinder Stefan GP despite acquiring ex-Toyota race cars. As for the drivers, team boss Zoran Stefanovic has announced Japanese racer Kazuki Nakajima will form the line-up with the possibility of former champion Jacques Villeneuve making a surprise return.
At least Virgin Racing will be on the grid. The VR-01 is the first Formula One racing car to be designed entirely using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulation technology, as opposed to the traditional method of using a windtunnel. High expectations have been pinned to the new VR-01 as pioneered by the ambitions Nick Wirth. And with the driving talent of Timo Glock and newcomer Lucas de Grassi, Virgin Racing hopes it can get good results in its debut season. Whether the advantages in CFD design will play a significant part in achieving results remains to be seen, but the most important factor is how well the car will go against the stopwatch.
And rounding up the expanded grid this season, it’s BMW Sauber. Even though the German car manufacturer pulled out of Formula One racing last season due to a lack of success, the name still remains with Peter Sauber’s outfit. Experienced Formula One test driver Pedro de la Rosa will lead the BMW Sauber outfit in 2010 with the promising Kamui Kobayashi as his new team-mate. Even without a major sponsor on the car, the C29 has the speed potential to upset the establishment. But we shouldn’t read into the testing times too much as various fuel levels and tyre wear can give a different picture to where all the teams are in terms of performance. But if the pace of the BMW Sauber is genuine, it might spring a surprise this season.
So that’s the grid. In terms of the circuits, for the next nine months the Formula One circus will be travelling around the world with the opening round of the championship taking place in Bahrain on March 14. Canada makes a welcome return but still no sign to a return in North America. But at least the future of the British Grand Prix has been finally safeguarded after the flawed and ambitious plan to modernised Donington Park to Formula One-spec failed due to money issues. Silverstone will play host to the British Grand Prix for the next 17 years, which is great news for the fans, drivers and teams. New for this year is the ‘Arena’ section which will increase the track’s length by 760 metres. The Korean Grand Prix is a new addition to the calendar. The 3.493-mile Korea International Circuit is located in Yeongam County (around 400 kilometres south of Seoul). And just like last season the Yas Marina circuit will host the final round of the world championship.
The excellent BBC coverage will continue with even more access to the drivers and team personnel during a Grand Prix weekend. All the sessions will be broadcast live via the Internet, on interactive television through the ‘red button’ and radio. The familiar faces and voices of Jake Humphrey and co will be trackside to bring you the best comprehensive coverage of Formula One to the British audience.
So there you have it. Not long to go before the first race in Bahrain on March 14. It’s going to be one hell of a battle: all-British McLaren versus all-German Mercedes, plus a dash of Latin flair from the legendary Scuderia Ferrari. Then there’s Alonso, Hamilton and Button, three world champions doing battle amidst the comeback of Schumacher, the greatest of them all. The sport’s most epic year is nearly upon us. Bring it on!