With a banshee wail of V8 engines, the new Formula 1 season – the first without Michael Schumacher since 1990 – got off to a flying start in Melbourne in the early hours of yesterday morning.
In modern F1, with its cutting edge technology and comprehensive pre-season testing, there are rarely many surprises even at the opening race of the year. And so it proved to be. Ferrari underlined their winter testing times by delivering a consummate lights-to-flag romp for new lead driver Kimi Raikkonen. McLaren confirmed their credentials as the nearest challengers. And Honda showed that, while their cars might win the award for the most striking livery, you need more than just go-faster stripes to be competitive in F1.
On paper, there is cause for concern about the competitiveness (or lack thereof) which we may see in this F1 season. Raikkonen was able to control the entire weekend pretty much as he pleased with an imperiousness more than slightly reminiscent of his predecessor, Schumacher. Only five other cars finished on the same lap as Raikkonen; of those, only three were within a minute of him. Although world champion Fernando Alonso ultimately crossed the line only seven seconds adrift, a more telling statistic about his car’s relative speed was that his fastest race lap was a full second slower than Raikkonen’s – this in a sport where teams pour millions of development dollars in pursuit of a couple of tenths.
And yet, despite the predictability of the result, there is real hope for an exciting season ahead, much of it thanks to a 22-year old Brit competing in his first F1 race. Lewis Hamilton finished in a deserved third place, having taken the fight to his team-mate Alonso throughout the weekend. He looks like he belongs – no mean feat for a rookie – and then some. With McLaren still to work out how to get the best out of their Bridgestone tyres (having raced on Michelins for several seasons), there is clear scope for improvement. If the team can deliver the car, Hamilton has the race-craft and speed to register a win.
If nothing else, Hamilton will probably push Alonso consistently. The Spaniard is a scrapper who consistently extracts the maximum from his car, and will not relinquish his title easily. Give him a sniff of Raikkonen’s exhaust and he will pounce.
Beyond the top two teams, there also has to be hope that both Honda and Toyota, with their massive budgets and engineering expertise, will improve on cars which are some way short of maximum potential. Renault, the defending constructors’ champions, still have plenty of pedigree. And BMW Sauber are already there or thereabouts (although, as Jenson Button will readily testify, there is a huge difference between being there or thereabouts and actually getting there).
At this stage, it’s very much a case of its, buts and maybes, but I’m optimistic that we’ll see a good, closely-fought title race this year - although that may be the petrol fumes talking!
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