Saturday, March 26, 2011

#F1 2011 season preview: Part 2: Teams and Drivers

Here's the second part of my 2011 season preview concentrating on teams and drivers. The others are:

Rules and Tools

Gadgets and Gizmos

I want to take a look at the teams' and drivers' challenges and opportunities for the season ahead, starting with the current champions.

Red Bull Racing

The current champions should have had the Constructors' Championship last year sown up a lot sooner than they did. Their season was punctuated with lost opportunities, fuelled at least in part by a failure to properly manage the tensions between their two drivers.

Sebastian Vettel seemed stuck to pole position for most of the season, but he often couldn't convert that into a race win, either because of reliability issues or by his own impetuousness, bashing into people, including his own team-mate, on occasion. He won the championship because of mistakes by others rather than outstanding talent on his part. That's not to denigrate him, because he is an extremely talented driver, but he needs to show that he can be consistent across a whole weekend, or a whole season.

On the other hand, Mark Webber is a courageous, consistent performer who, I think, outclassed Vettel many times last season. I think he did suffer because the team so obviously favoured Vettel and were quick to blame Mark for incidents between them, notably in Istanbul, which were clearly not his fault.

I don't rate Christian Horner's people management skills, certainly compared to Ross Brawn and Martin Whitmarsh. A lot of the bad feeling during last season could have been avoided. There are a number of ways that he could have dealt with the issue with the fact that there was only one front wing upgrade at Silverstone rather than just nicking it off Mark 5 minutes before qualifying. He could have sat Mark down and asked nicely if Sebastian could have it given that it didn't make any difference to Mark's performance, but it did to Sebastian. Or, as Neal suggested in the Pitstraight season preview, Christian could have told Sebastian that he wasn't taking a front wing off a careful driver who'd looked after it.

Again this season, Red Bull seem to have the best car. They have dominated testing. They need to do better at the whole team spirit and getting the best out of everybody. As things look right now, the title is theirs to lose. They don't want to throw it away through carelessness.

Mark Webber, is, by the way, one of the most balanced human beings on the grid. He showed over the cancellation of Bahrain that he has a good sense of proportion about what's important in the World. He is on Twitter as @aussiegrit. He needs to retain that fighting spirit he had last season and not allow what happened at the end to distract him. He has the talent to win the title and he has a good car. His prospects for the season will be largely determined in his own head.


The thing for Ferrari is can what happened in Abu Dhabi stay in Abu Dhabi? How much pressure will principal Stefano Domenicali be under after presiding over what may well have been a championship losing mistake? Having said that, there was something karmic about it because if Alonso had won, it would have been by less than the 7 points he gained by the Hockenheim Team Orders fiasco.

Ferrari president Luca di Montezemelo is impatient for another championship win and nothing would make me happier than Felipe Massa getting out there and whipping Fernando Alonso's backside. Unfortunately, though, we haven't seen the sort of form which led Massa to almost win the championship in 2008 since his recover from his horrendous accident the following season.

I had mellowed a bit to Alonso in the years since Michael Schumacher retired, but after last year he's been making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end - most recently this morning in the Quali build up where he very smugly said that allowing team orders would help everybody.

Ferrari have looked promising in pre season testing and will be looking to capitalise on any Red Bull mistakes. Last year showed them, though, the importance of getting as many points in the bag early on as possible. Will they be able to make a strong start to the season?


I think probably the biggest wonder about McLaren is that two such monumental egos as Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton can co-exist quite peacably.  I'm sure that has to be a tribute to the management style and people skills of principal Martin Whitmarsh. There was certainly no serious needle between them last year even though they seemed to be genuinely treated as equals.

This year, it seems very likely to me that Jenson will have the advantage as smooth drivers who look after their tyres will be rewarded by being able to stay out longer and stop less. How many times last season did we hear Lewis bleating about his tyres while Jenson just got on with it?

This year's car, though, is not looking that great and hasn't fared well in testing, both in miles covered and positioning. The fancy exhaust system has been removed and there have been a good few changes for Melbourne. However, it's performed much more strongly over the weekend so far than anybody expected. Will they be able to pull off a surprise race victory tomorrow?

Lewis and Jenson are on Twitter as @lewishamilton and @jensonbutton 


Last year Mercedes were always playing catch up. Battling for the title, on a limited budget, in 2009 had not given them the time and space to develop the 2010 car which did not allow the magic partnership between Michael Schumacher and Ross Brawn to reach its full potential.

However, I was checking James Allen's excellent Twitter aggregator during testing and sighing as the team just wasn't setting the track alight. Until the final test in Barcelona, that is. Ross Brawn was candid that they needed to find another second, but the car started to look stronger with the upgrades. Unfortunately quali today has looked more like last season than I would have liked, especially with Nico Rosberg qualifying ahead of Schumi. Nico is looking for his first win and both drivers seem to think that race wins, but not the championship, is their realistic aim this year.

In terms of personnel, both drivers have new race engineers, with Andrew Shovlin being promoted to Chief Track Engineer. They also have appointed Bob Bell as Technical Director. Bell was the acting principal at Renault in the wake of the Singapore disaster and was credited with steadying the ship. Some might see his appointment as a bit of succession planning. But Ross Brawn isn't going to retire. Ever. I simply won't allow it. Having said that, I think that having a technical director will help share the load.

I think that they will start to win races this season. The marginal tyres and the complicated steering wheel will play into Michael Schumacher's hands so I expect him to ultimately outperform Rosberg.

Lotus Renault

You have to feel sorry for Lotus Renault. They develop a car that's their best in years and then a few days after the first test, Robert Kubica, who had all the ability to make some serious progress for the team, sustained extensive fractures to his arm, hand and leg. He's had a whole load of surgery since, and although the prospects for him are better than at first feared, if he reappears this season, it'll be a bonus.

This left the team having to find a quick replacement and they settled on Robert's old team-mate from BMW, Nick Heidfeld, who took the car by the scruff of the neck and got some good testing results in it. Unfortunately, his qualifying performance today, not getting beyond Q1 has seemingly vindicated those who think that although Nick is reliable and dependable, he doesn't have what it takes to get the best race results. Having said that, the team are putting his problems down to KERS issues and traffic, which are plausible. Let's not write him off yet. Especially as he spent some time working for Pirelli testing their tyres.

Vitaly Petrov had a solid debut year last year, showing at times that he's capable of some courageous on track moves. He is inspiring me to brush up on my Russian again, as he tweets in his native tongue @vitalypetrov10 and I want to increase the number of times I understand what he's saying.

Technically, the car has a bit of a magic exhaust system which might help them overtake Mercedes. It is also gorgeous with its black and gold livery.


It's been a while since we've seen a Williams car without an RBS logo as it is this year. To be honest, I am relieved. I was a bit sick of seeing a car go by and thinking that as a taxpayer I owned it. Not that I wasn't proud of Rubens Barrichello, just that there are more pressing demands for public money. That withdrawal of sponsorship, though, means that the team has had to seek funds from elsewhere, which is why last year's promising rookie Nico Hulkenburg has been replaced by Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado who has the weight of the state owned oil company behind him.  Not every pay driver has talent, but Pastor is the current GP2 champion, so he can drive.

He is the luckiest person in the world, though. Imagine being able to learn your F1 trade alongside the most experienced, and the most generous, guy in the field, Rubens Barrichello. He's fantastic at development work which is presumably why he's been given another year at Williams.

Each of the midfield teams has a certain something they hope will propel it into the big time - and Williams is especially keen to regain the limelight and get its first victory in 7 years. For the team it's their tiny wee gearbox which Autosport said contributed to the "most aggressively packaged rear end on the grid". They also have KERS.

Rubens is on Twitter @rubarrichello.

Force India

This "spawn of Jordan" team has had some good moments in the last couple of years, but staffing changes appear to have had an effect on the development of this year's car which has not been performing spectacularly well.

Adrian Sutil, who apparently made more overtaking moves than any other driver last year, with 45 attempts to pass, stays at the team and is joined by Bathgate boy Paul Di Resta.  Di Resta told Autosport magazine that he sees his experience as current DTM champion as better than GP2 for F1 because he's had to learn about strategy.

I can't see that Force India's prospects are particularly bright this year as it will take some time for the new staff to bed themselves in.

Paul Di Resta is on Twitter @pauldirestaf1.


Sauber seem to have produced a reasonable car this year which has performed well in testing. What it doesn't have, though, is experienced drivers. Kamui Kobayashi, who drove for Toyota in the last two races of 2009 before joining the team, is plucky to say the least. He also shows absolutely no respect to his elders and betters on track and will overtake anyone given half a chance. He's joined this year by Mexican GP2 runner up Sergio Perez.

Sauber are also unique in F1 by having the sport's only female CEO in Monisha Kaltenborn.

Scuderia Toro Rosso

Red Bull's little brother is hoping its double floor will give it the edge this year along with the Ferrari KERS system. They have kept last year's team of Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguesuari.  Slightly menacingly, breathing down their necks is their Australian test driver Daniel Ricciardo. This team has previous form for sacking drivers mid season as they did with Sebastien Bourdais a couple of years ago and they already have a talented replacement in the wings. Paul Di Resta, who came up from test driver at Force India, similarly has former Williams driver Nico Hulkenberg breathing down his neck. Teams these days don't give much time to their young drivers to learn their craft.

Team Lotus

On the face of it, this is the new team which has most prospects, and ambitions to get well above its station. They hope the Red Bull gearbox and Renault engine will establish them in the midfield and that their experienced driver team of Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli will help them get there.

It's been a mystery to me why someone as personable and courageous (well, he did take his Hispania for a shakedown in the middle of a qualifying session last year) as Karun Chandhok hasn't a permanent drive and why one of India's biggest companies chose to sponsor Narain Karthikeyan than him. I was thrilled to see Lotus taking him on as their reserve driver, and watched through my fingers as he ended up in the wall in practice yesterday. Characteristically, he put his hands up to the mistake.

Lotus has pretty comprehensive Twitter coverage from Team Principal @tonyfernandes, Technical director @MikeGascoyne, @h_kovalainen and @karunchandhok being keen users.

Hispania Racing

They survived. They're back. Whether they survive to the end of the season is not in any way assured, particularly with the 107% rule.

I am not keen on the way they treated Karun Chandhok last year, so I have no affection for them, or desire to see them on the grid whatsover. They were lucky to have finished second last in 2010, but that was more to do with Virgin not being able to get to the end of a race until a third of the way through the season.

They do have a bit of money this year, from Tata Motors, an Indian company who is bringing Narain Karthikeyan out of obscurity.Tonio Liuzzi, previously of Force India, is their second driver.

Marussia Virgin

Hispania's rivals, fighting for the wooden spoon, will be Marussia Virgin. Their new title sponsor, and the  may give them the edge for their car designed by computer, without a wind tunnel, to save costs. They also have an experienced driver in Timo Glock and they've taken on rookie Jerome D'ambrosio to replace Lucas Di Grassi.

So that's a quick tour round the teams as they stand just now. I think that Red Bull are going to be hard to beat, but there may be significant changes in the pecking order in both the top flight and the midfield. I hope too that Lotus can detach itself from last year's new teams and establish itself in the midfield.

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