Reflecting back on the last 12 months in the world of Formula 1, two apparently contradictory aphorisms spring to mind. Firstly, that change is usually for the better, and secondly, that you can have too much of a good thing.
Change has certainly been the prevalent theme in F1 over the past year. On the plus side, we have had the Brawn team’s fairy-tale march to the constructors’ title in its maiden season, spearheaded by new world champion Jenson Button. The established order of McLaren/Ferrari domination with the rest scrabbling around for the minor placings was turned on its head, with Brawn and Red Bull largely bossing proceedings. The first ever day/night race at the new, no-expenses-spared track in
provided a memorable spectacle (even though the race itself was pretty dull). Jean Todt has succeeded the controversial Max Mosley as FIA president, promising a lower-profile and less confrontational style of leadership. And four new teams have been granted places on the grid for 2010. Abu Dhabi
All the above is good, but they are almost footnotes in what has been a tumultuous season in which the sport has repeatedly appeared on the verge of implosion.
Honda departed abruptly before the season had even begun, leaving Ross Brawn to rescue the double championship-winning team which now bears his name. BMW announced mid-season they would follow suit, followed by
yesterday with, potentially, Renault to follow. This is not good news for the stability of the sport and its teams, at least in the short to medium-term. Yes, it is counterbalanced by the arrival of four new teams, but it is by no means certain that all of those teams will actually be present in Toyota in mid-March, let alone survive beyond their debut seasons. Bahrain
While it was good to see the established order disrupted – Ferrari languished in midfield for the most part, while it took McLaren half the season to turn what had initially been a dog of a car into a front-runner – we are unlikely to see this repeated in 2010. In a season where the technical regulations were changed significantly, both Ferrari and McLaren compromised the development of their 2009 cars due to their need to squeeze every last improvement out of their 2008 designs in a title race which, literally, was not decided until the closing seconds. With in-season testing now banned between races, it meant that Brawn’s early season advantage could be sustained long enough to give Button what would prove to be an unassailable lead before the big boys could catch up. We will not see the same in 2010: with less dramatic rule changes for next season, McLaren now have a good working baseline, and Ferrari clearly abandoned development on this year’s car to concentrate on next year’s.
The one big rule change for 2010 is the end of refuelling, but it is impossible to tell right now whether or not this will improve the on-track racing. On the one hand, heavier cars will mean longer braking zones and potentially more driver errors, facilitating a shift from overtaking in the pits to on the track. But it may also lead to drivers taking a more conservative approach to racing in order to conserve their tyres which will be much more susceptible to wearing, which may reduce the scope for overtaking. We will have to see whether this turns out to be a good move.
What else has happened over the past year? We have had a hasty attempt to introduce a medal system where the driver with the most race victories (as opposed to the most points) wins the title. The outgoing Mosley tried to railroad the introduction of a £40m a year budget cap for all teams – unquestionably the right direction for F1 to ensure it survives the current economic climate, but handled in such a ham-fisted way that it brought the teams to the brink of a civil war in which they threatened to walk away and set up their own, non-FIA-sanctioned championship. Bernie Ecclestone remains at odds with Silverstone over the future of the British Grand Prix, even after the proposed permanent move to Donnington fell through recently. And his apparently sympathetic comments about Adolf Hitler in a July newspaper interview didn’t go down too well either.
We should also not forget how lucky Felipe Massa was to survive being struck in the head by a loose spring from compatriot Rubens Barrichello’s car in a freak accident which underlined how dangerous the sport remains, despite the massive advances in safety made in recent years.
was back on the Ferrari pitwall by season’s end; whether he will be up to the challenge of returning to F1 as a fully competitive racer in 2010 remains to be seen. Massa
Worst of all, though, the sport was engulfed in two major controversies surrounding the integrity of its participants. First we had the unedifying situation at the season-opening Australian GP where defending world champion Lewis Hamilton lied to the stewards about his involvement in a late-race incident, an affair which ultimately hastened the departure of McLaren team principal Ron Dennis. And then we had the furore over ’Crashgate’, as an inferno of indignation over Nelson Piquet Jr’s deliberate crash at the 2008 Singapore GP engulfed Renault and led to the dismissal of team boss Flavio Briatore and technical chief Pat Symonds.
All in all, it’s been quite a year even by the Machiavellian standards of F1, one in which the sport has been constantly in the headlines, often for all the wrong reasons.
But who will emerge as the front-runners for 2010?
Brawn faces a difficult winter. With Button yet to re-sign and with other teams having consistently overhauled them in the second half of the season, a repeat title win would be arguably more surprising than their initial one. Brawn have less in the way of development resources and budget than the bigger, more established teams, and must additionally have had to divert development focus away from their 2010 car to ensure the 2009 one remained fast enough to deliver Button to the title. Despite Ross Brawn’s technical and management genius, I would not be surprised to see them struggling in the midfield early on.
In Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, Red Bull have arguably the strongest driver pairing in F1, and an indisputably quick car to match. Like Brawn, their 2010 car may be a bit slow out of the blocks given their attempts to maintain a title challenge this year. I expect them to be faster than Brawn at the start of next year, but whether this will be enough to see them at the front of the grid remains to be seen.
McLaren cannot possibly start 2010 in as poor a shape as they did this year. By season’s end, they were the class of the field at most circuits, and in Lewis Hamilton they have an experienced driver who is capable of wringing every last ounce of performance from a car. I will be amazed if
is not a genuine contender next year. Hamilton
But my close-season tip for next year is Ferrari. They have all the money and experience a team could possibly ever want, and they will also have two-time world champion Fernando Alonso alongside a hopefully fully-recovered
. Don’t be deceived by the lumpen machine which was being tooled around by the unmotivated Kimi Raikkonen and the new boy Giancarlo Fisichella in the last few races – Ferrari have been fully focussed on their 2010 car for months now. I expect them to get off to a flying – potentially season-defining - start next year. Massa
So there you have it. Before a wheel has even been turned in winter testing, I predict that Fernando Alonso will dominate, Button-style, the early part of next season, with Lewis Hamilton hot on his heels and the Red Bull pair not far behind. As for Button, much depends on where he ends up. If he stays at Brawn, I think he will struggle to do more than contend for podiums; however, if he ends up at McLaren, he could do much better, although I do not expect him to win out over
in the long run. Hamilton
Whatever happens, I hope Formula 1 will be in the news next season more for the great drama on the track than for the theatrical melodrama off it. There has been more than enough change in 2009 already, thanks.