The teams have now sent off their freight for the long journey from Spain to Australia, where the opening race will take place in Melbourne. After much speculation and debate, it was decided that the scheduled opening race of Bahrain would have to be put on hold due to the political unrest in the country. Only time will tell whether we will see Bahrain on the F1 calendar this year, but don’t expect to.
Meanwhile, the teams have undertaken an extra testing session, which have provided the clearest indications of what this season will bring. Once again all eyes are on Red Bull, and like last year they seem to be the team to beat. The circuit de Catalunya, known as a demanding circuit, has made clear who will be competitive for the opening races.
Rule changes have also meant that the cars are very much different this year. We see the return of KERS, adjustable rear wings and gone are F-ducts and double diffusers. F1 has also decided to use a new tyre supplier, and with more emphasis being placed on saving costs, there are more components which now have to last more races. In theory, these implementations should keep the speeds of the cars similar to last year, but at the same time allowing easier overtaking and hopefully a better spectator sport.
The key for any team this year will be reliability along with which team can conserve their tyres for a race duration. Whilst in optimum trim, the cars can similarly match their predecessors; it is over long race periods where the significant change occurs. The new Pirelli tyres are not as durable as that of the Bridgestone’s we had previously, since the FIA deliberately asked for weaker compounds to provide a more eventful race where more than the minimum number of pit stops would be made.
Testing has shown that some drivers have struggled more than others with these new compounds with many saying that the rear tyres degrade exceptionally quickly. Hopefully this will be more suitable to drivers with a less aggressive driving style like Jenson Button, and the more experienced such as Schumacher and Barrichello.
There is no doubt however that this years Red Bull RB7 car is shaping up to be the strongest opening contender, which is basically an evolution of last years car. Ferrari are not far behind, but they do seem to have some niggling troubles, along with the sometimes erratic driving of Felipe Massa. Not to mention, the Ferrari has shown to wear away the tires quicker than its competitors.
The engines this year have remained untouched due to the development ban, however the Infiniti/Renault engine partnership in the Red Bull is looking as strong as ever even with the lack of power compared to that of Ferrari or Mercedes.
McLaren are probably scratching their heads and wondering what went wrong. Many eager fans tuned in to watch their extravagant car launch in Berlin, witnessing the radical design that they have implemented. However, it seems to have all gone wrong since then. They had to sacrifice testing time for extra development on their car, which was an absolute dog in the first testing session. Even then, they were hit by reliability problems which is not something that McLaren are used to.
There is genuine concern that McLaren are going to start the season well of the pace, even though they will likely to be more competitive in the later parts of the season. However, McLaren can take comfort from the fact that they still have a strong engine supplier, and the KERS system in their car is one which has been tried and tested with consistent results.
Mercedes are in a significantly improved position from the beginning of testing, with a raft of new upgrades which seems to have paid huge dividends. It seems that they will also be in a position to battle for podium finishes along with the Renault team who have a striking new livery and some interesting innovations.
Sauber are looking much improved, especially with serious investor backing, and are a team to watch, especially with the flamboyant driving of Kamui Kobayashi. Toro Rosso also seems to have made many improvements, along with Williams. Hispania look like they will be bringing the rear of the pack with Virgin once again. Lotus seems to have made good progress this summer and have caught up to Force India, who like McLaren, seem to have taken a step backwards.
The drivers line up has been changed, but with all the changes coming from the middle and rear end of the pack. Nick Heidfeld steps in for Robert Kubica who suffered a horrendous rally crash, which almost certainly puts him out for this season, and who knows if he will ever be back to full form. We also see the introduction of another British driver, Paul Di Resta, racing for Force India. All the teams now clearly have at least one experienced driver and it will be interesting to see if their experience will give them an advantage in a year where tyre management and strategy are crucial.
Pastor Maldonado joins Williams alongside F1 veteran Rubens Barichello. The impressive GP2 Driver, Sergio Perez has teamed up with Kamui Kobayashi at Sauber. Jerome D’Ambrosio and Narain Karthikeyan have joined the bottom end of the field for Virgin and Hispania respectively, in moves which are probably more concerned about bringing in sponsorship rather than pure driving talent.
Sebastian Vettel has recently pledged his immediate future to Red Bull by signing a contract extension, which sees him getting paid around twice as that of his team-mate Mark Webber. Lewis Hamilton looks like he will strive to make sure McLaren view him as their number one driver, like he did last year by consistently outperforming Jenson Button. Ferrari have pledged their number one spot to Fernando Alonso, and with continuous inconsistent driving from Felipe Massa, this could be the season that decides whether he stays at Ferrari.
The rule governing team orders have been removed, and it will be interesting to see how the team strategists put this to best use. It is clear that this season; the racing will be more intense than ever. Red Bull clearly has the advantage once again, but with the introduction of KERS and adjustable rear wings, look forward to seeing a lot of overtaking and more pit stops.