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The 2005 Season Preview 02 Mar 2005

New wings on the Mclaren of Juan Pablo Montoya (COL) McLaren Mercedes MP4/20 Formula One Testing, Jerez, Spain, 7-11 February 2005. World © Bumstead/Sutton Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault R25 Formula One Testing, Jerez, Spain, 7-11 February 2005. World © Bumstead/Sutton Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari F2004. Formula One Testing, Barcelona, Spain 28 January 2005. World © Capilitan/Sutton Christian Klien (AUT) Red Bull Racing RB1. Formula One Testing, Jerez, Spain, 7-11 February 2005. World © Bumstead/Sutton Mark Webber (AUS) Williams BMW FW26. Formula One Testing, Barcelona, Spain, 18 January 2005. World © McNeil/Sutton

Testing is over and now the real work begins

The new Formula One season is set to provide the most exciting racing in years. Shaking things up will be new rules, new drivers and a new team. Renault and McLaren have looked strongest in testing, though Ferrari rarely show their hand before round one.

Can the dream pairing of Raikkonen and Montoya finally unseat Schumacher, or will it be the Williams of Webber and Heidfeld that spring the surprise? And can Jenson Button finally bring BAR their first Grand Prix victory? Red Bull Racing make their Formula One debut in the experienced hands of David Coulthard, while Jordan bring the first ever Indian driver to the sport. Former world champion Jacques Villeneuve returns full-time with Sauber, while the man he replaces, Giancarlo Fisichella, gets one more shot at the big time with Renault.

It all adds up to a thrilling championship in prospect. Here is our team-by-team look at the contenders…

Ferrari
2004 position: 1st
Drivers: Michael Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello

In recent year’s Ferrari’s habit of starting a new season with an old car has paid off handsomely. While their rivals struggled to get to grips with a new design, the champions used proven machinery to stack up the points, simultaneously perfecting their new challenger behind the scenes.

Pulling the same trick in 2005 could prove more difficult. Major revisions to the aerodynamic regulations, designed to slow the cars by cutting downforce, have prompted some radical and impressive responses from the likes of Renault and McLaren, whose all-new cars have set the pace in pre-season testing. In contrast, Ferrari’s F2004 M, effectively last year’s car with a revised aero package, has been keeping a relatively low profile in the timesheets.

Ferrari plan to use the F2004 M for the first four races before introducing their 2005 car at the Spanish Grand Prix in May. By then they will have had ample opportunity to assess the effectiveness of their rivals’ 2005 solutions. Whether they are competitive in the meantime remains to be seen, though of course, you underestimate Ferrari at your peril.

Any weakness in their aero package would provide only a small chink in their otherwise bullet-proof armour. Even last year their engines looked quite capable of lasting two race weekends and their relationship with Bridgestone, now supplying tyres to only three teams, is as close as ever. And then there is the team’s continuity – one of their biggest assets. Schumacher and Barrichello remain a formidable driver pairing and they are backed up by that technical dream team, including the likes of Brawn, Byrne and Martinelli.

Schumacher maintains he is as hungry as ever, despite his seven world titles, but could that hunger start to wane if he finds himself under pressure in 2005? Constant pressure is something he and Ferrari have not had to cope with for quite some time and the coming season looks almost certain to be the toughest in a while for the champions. Watching their response will be fascinating.

BAR
2004 position: 2nd
Drivers: Jenson Button, Takuma Sato

BAR ended 2004 on a massive high, seeing off Renault to finish second in the constructors’ championship. Since then a lot has changed – Honda have upped their stake in the team and David Richards is gone. Will these changes and those to the regulations affect their momentum? Honda’s enthusiasm and commitment is without question, though they have admitted struggling to hit the higher mileage targets required by the two weekend engine rule, and pre-season testing with the new 007 machine has not run smoothly, with a number of mechanical and engine failures.

On the plus side they are the only team apart from Ferrari to field an unchanged driver line-up – and a very good one at that. In 2004 Jenson Button proved his worth as a potential champion, not only in terms of pace, but also consistency and racecraft – assets that may be more valuable than ever this year if nursing tyres and engines turns out to be key in winning races under the revised regulations. And with the Williams debacle behind him he can concentrate on taking BAR forward, assuming the 007 will allow him.

Takuma Sato may not quite be in Button’s league yet as an all-rounder, but the Japanese star is not far off. He matured immensely in 2004, scoring his first front-row grid position at the European Grand Prix and taking his maiden Formula One podium at Indianapolis. Could he become the first Japanese winner of a Grand Prix in 2005? There is certainly an outside chance and, if nothing else, his speed will push team mate Button all the way.

BAR were the success story of 2004. The downside of that success is that this season they will lose their third car for Friday practice. Last year Anthony Davidson proved invaluable in gathering data for Button and Sato, saving them precious engine mileage on their race cars, and coping without him will be one of BAR’s biggest challenges for 2005.

Renault
2004 position: 3rd
Drivers: Fernando Alonso, Giancarlo Fisichella

Flavio Briatore’s team have a lot to live up to in 2005. They may have run out of steam somewhat towards the end of last year, but in pre-season testing they have shone, with the R25 proving consistently fast and reliable. The car’s aerodynamics, developed by chief designer Tim Densham and his team, are not only pretty, but look to have clawed back a hefty chunk of the downforce lost under he revised regulations. If the Renault is not quick in Melbourne there will be almost universal surprise in the paddock.

It is not only Renault’s car that is impressive. So too is their driver pairing of Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella. Both men have a Grand Prix victory to their name and both have a lot to prove. For Fisichella it could be his last chance to finally show his true potential, which many in the sport believe is vast. Meanwhile Alonso knows he must dominate the Italian if he is to maintain his reputation as a champion in the making. In testing there has been little to choose between them and their rivalry looks set to be one of the closest and most productive of 2005.

Williams
2004 position: 4th
Drivers: Mark Webber, Nick Heidfeld

Williams’ media coverage over the winter was dominated by their hunt for a suitable team mate for Mark Webber. After the final showdown Nick Heidfeld got the nod over Antonio Pizzonia. Like Fisichella at Renault, Heidfeld is regarded by many as one of the great unsung talents of Formula One racing and the Williams drive could be his last shot at the big time. His first aim will be to beat the much-lauded Webber. The Australian shone at Minardi and Jaguar, where he gained a reputation for extracting unexpected pace from humble machinery. The move to Williams was meant to bring him the chance to win. Whether the FW27 is a potential race winner is unclear.

After a poor start to 2004 Williams gathered pace in the latter half of the season, with Montoya winning the final round in Brazil, though carrying that momentum into 2005 with its revised rules may be difficult. The team don’t have the level of continuity enjoyed by some of their rivals. Their drivers, though highly rated, are new and, as yet, not proven race winners. Sam Michael will be starting his first full season as technical director, with Patrick Head taking a relative backseat as director of engineering. And aerodynamicist Antonia Terzi, designer of the famous ‘walrus’ nose has gone, replaced by former Prost man Loic Bigois.

By their own admission, Williams are unlikely to be winning races early in the season. The drivers have suggested the FW27 is struggling for downforce as well as rear-end stability and Head has confessed to the British press that switching wind-tunnel facilities during its design process has not helped. One thing the team should be able to count on is BMW, whose V10s are usually among the best on the grid. And, of course, whatever problems occur they have a wealth of experience to draw on. Like compatriots McLaren, Williams have won (and lost) far too many championships to ever be discounted from the title race at the start of a season.

McLaren
2004 position: 5th
Drivers: Kimi Raikkonen, Juan Pablo Montoya

There is a real buzz surrounding McLaren going into the new season. For starters there is their driver line-up – arguably the most exciting the sport has seen since the team brought together Prost and Senna back in the 1980s. Finland’s ‘Iceman’ and a fiery Colombian may seem a strange combination on the surface, but already Ron Dennis reports that Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya are getting on like a house on fire. He has even suggested we may see a return to the practical jokes and off-track shenanigans last seen when Senna and Berger shared the McLaren motorhome.

On track their rivalry will be intense, as both are out and out racers. Of the two, Raikkonen should have the edge initially. He is more familiar with the team and is historically less prone to mistakes than his team mate. However, Montoya is looking sharper than ever heading to Melbourne thanks to an intensive training programme that has seen him shed several kilos over the winter. As always at McLaren there will be no team orders, though Dennis will not want to see any repeat of the run-ins witnessed between Montoya and Ralf Schumacher at Williams. The other fear is that Raikkonen and Montoya will end up taking points off each other, helping a rival team to the drivers’ championship.

Whether they are in contention for that title will depend on the Adrian Newey-designed MP4-20. Its predecessor caused Ferrari a few problems last year and the team appear to have maintained that momentum with the new machine. With a horn-like midwing on its airbox, it is certainly distinctive and with the pace to match its looks it has been one of the stars of pre-season testing, even if it has not been quite as consistent as Renault’s R25. Raikkonen suffered a heavy shunt at Barcelona, but that was thought to be a freak accident caused by debris jamming a brake caliper. The car’s only question mark could be its Mercedes-Ilmor engine, which last year scuppered the team’s championship hopes within the first few races.

But that poor start to 2004 has handed McLaren an additional, secret weapon for 2005 – a third car on Fridays, piloted by either Pedro de la Rosa or Alexander Wurz, both highly competent test drivers with plenty of race experience. With race engine and tyre life at such a premium under the new regulations, that third driver is likely to be kept very busy and may well give the team a critical edge over their rivals.

Sauber
2004 position: 6th
Drivers: Jacques Villeneuve, Felipe Massa

Peter Sauber’s team had a solid, if unspectacular, year of steady progress in 2004. Sixth in the final standings, there were never likely to challenge McLaren for fifth, but were in a different class to the Jaguar team behind them. Their impressive in-house wind tunnel facility began to pay dividends and both Felipe Massa and then team mate Giancarlo Fisichella were regular visitors to the points. Since then they have switched from Bridgestone to Michelin tyres, a move which has puzzled many, given Sauber’s traditionally close relationship with engine suppliers Ferrari. That was, of course, until Frank Williams revealed an expected BMW-Sauber deal for 2006.

The transition to French rubber on the new C24 looks to have gone smoothly so far, though there will be still be plenty to learn over a race weekend. Arguably less smooth has been the arrival of Jacques Villeneuve. After a somewhat rusty return with Renault in the closing races if 2004, the former champion is about to embark on his first full season of Formula One racing since leaving BAR in 2003. He has admitted that adapting his driving style to the latest Sauber has not been easy and it has been left to Massa to show the car’s potential pace in testing. Villeneuve’s reputation is very much on the line. Critics may give him the benefit of the doubt for the first few races, but if he’s not up to speed by the start of the European season there will be more than a few smug voices in the paddock saying ‘told you so’.

Sauber are in something of a no-win situation. They are already far and away the best independent team, with Jordan and Minardi showing little sign of upsetting the status quo. However, improving on their 2004 placing is going to be tough, barring disasters at any of the top five teams. In all likelihood they will have to be satisfied with taking occasional points off the likes of BAR and Williams, while again looking to stay ahead of the manufacturer-backed might of Toyota - something they did with ease last year. And then there is Red Bull, former Sauber sponsors and now owners of their very own team - Peter Sauber will not want to get beaten by them.

Red Bull
2004 position: NA
Drivers: David Coulthard, Christian Klien (Melbourne)

The Austrian-owned newcomers could be one of the surprises of 2005. The team they bought at the end of last year, Jaguar, hardly set the world alight in 2004, but their R5 machine, from which Red Bull’s RB01 is evolved, did show hints of potential – it qualified on the front row in Malaysia and third in Japan. Since then plenty has changed at the team. New owner Dietrich Mateschitz has swept aside the old Pitchforth-Purnell management regime, instead bringing in fresh blood. At 31, new sporting director Christian Horner may be the youngest team boss in Formula One racing, but he has tasted plenty of success in F3000 with his Arden International squad.

Joining him following a stint with Opel’s DTM programme is former Jaguar man Gunther Steiner. The respected Italian-born engineer takes on the role of technical director. Add a driver of David Coulthard’s calibre and experience into the mix and the line-up is starting to look quietly confident. Of course, it may take some time for the team to gel following such major staff upheavals, but so far the signs appear good. The RB01 has put in some solid testing performances, and, like many of the other engine manufacturers, Cosworth have said their V10 is already up on power over last season, despite the tougher reliability requirements.

Red Bull may seem a big step down for Coulthard after McLaren, but the Scot will relish the challenge of being lead driver with a new, up and coming team. And after the highly corporate atmosphere of his former employers, he should enjoy being ‘let off the leash’ - he has already been seen casually sporting a stubbly, almost ‘Villeneuvesque’ look at test sessions. Red Bull will be counting on Coulthard to take young team mates Christian Klien and Vitantonio Liuzzi under his wing. The more experienced Klien will start in Melbourne, but Liuzzi looks certain to get a race or two later in the year, and many believe the Italian, last year’s F3000 champion with Arden, to be the more exciting prospect.

Toyota
2004 position: 8th
Drivers: Jarno Trulli, Ralf Schumacher

The Toyota team will have few excuses to hide behind if they don’t succeed in 2005. With a huge budget, the first car designed entirely under superstar technical director Mike Gascoyne, and arguably their best driver line-up to date, the bosses in Japan are understandably demanding podium finishes as a minimum requirement. However, Formula One racing is a notoriously tough nut to crack – witness how long it took BAR – and in only their fourth year Toyota still have long way to go if last season’s performance – nine points and eighth in the standings – is anything to go by.

But the team are convinced they are on the right track. Gascoyne knows how to win – he did it at Jordan and Renault – and development of the TF105 (the first 2005 car launched) has been moving at a furious pace. It has already undergone one major aerodynamic overhaul and more are expected. And just to be clear, Gascoyne insists this is not a reflection of any significant failings on the part of the original design, but rather of the team making best use of the huge resources they have to draw on in developing the car to its ultimate potential.

From its track outings so far, drawing conclusions on that potential is difficult. Both Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher have been subdued in their comments, though both reported positive progress with the latest aero package. To move the team forward, much will depend on their ability to wring the best from the car, something neither the Italian nor the German is particularly renowned for. Both have won races and both can be very quick given the right machinery, but pushing Toyota up the grid will provide a stern test of their true, all-round ability. Backing them up will be Ricardo Zonta, as third driver on Fridays, and the highly-experienced Olivier Panis testing behind the scenes.

Jordan
2004 position: 9th
Drivers: Narain Karthikeyan, Tiago Monteiro

Following Eddie Jordan’s sale of the team, 2005 will be their final season under his famous name before they become Midland. As such, it will be very much a year of transition and already much has changed. Trevor Carlin, of Carlin F3 fame, makes his Formula One debut as sporting director, with another successful Formula Three team boss, Colin Kolles, as managing director. They will start their campaign with the EJ15, an evolution of last year’s car, albeit now with Toyota power. Its pace in testing has been modest, suggesting that Minardi may well be their closest rivals come Melbourne.

Jordan’s driver selection has also prompted much debate. Whereas Red Bull’s new management chose the experienced Coulthard to lead the team, Midland have opted to go with new talent rather than look to former drivers such as Timo Glock or Robert Doornbos. Narain Karthikeyan and Tiago Monteiro are the names in question. As India’s first Formula One driver, the former should guarantee the team plenty of media coverage. Both he and Portuguese team mate Monteiro have graduated from the Nissan World Series, where both raced for Carlin. Monteiro was 2004 Rookie of the Year, but both he and Karthikeyan have completed only limited Formula One test mileage. More experienced is third driver Robert Doornbos, who carried out Friday duties for the team at several races last year.

So much new blood could bring problems, though one should remember that behind the scenes at Jordan there remain plenty of staff with no end of Formula One experience, including winning Grands Prix. Midland’s long-term plans for the team should become clearer as the season evolves. Founder Alex Schnaider has talked about an all-new concern for 2006, with chassis built by Italian firm Dallara, so how much resource actually gets ploughed into the current car remains to be seen. Whatever their success, 2005 will provide Midland with a very valuable year of learning, one they would have foregone had they passed up on the Jordan deal and chosen to go it alone.

Minardi
2004 position: 10th
Drivers: Christijan Albers, Patrick Friesacher

Minardi may be at the back end of grid, but sometimes it seems they get as much media attention as Ferrari at the front. Outspoken team boss Paul Stoddart has a lot to do with it, especially since he began his much-publicised war of words with FIA President Max Mosley. Stoddart intends to start the 2005 season with last year’s Minardi, which will of course not meet the new regulations. To get round this his plan is to obtain permission from his fellow team principals to run the car, given that its pace is unlikely to trouble their machines. They are widely expected to agree, even if the sport’s governing body and the stewards in Melbourne do not like the idea.

The men due to be in the cockpit of the PS04B until the new car arrives for San Marino are Dutchman Christijan Albers and Austrian Patrick Friesacher, another two Formula One rookies. Albers, a former reserve and test driver with the team, returns from a successful spell in the German DTM series, while Friesacher is a former winner in F3000 and finished fifth overall in last year’s championship. Both have solid reputations and both will be hoping to follow the likes of Alonso and Webber in using Minardi as a stepping stone to bigger things.

Stoddart has talked of a major step forward with the PS05, due to debut at Imola in April. It is expected to be the team’s first all-new chassis since 2002 and should be a far more integrated package than its predecessor, having been designed with its Cosworth V10 engine specifically in mind. In fact, there is an air of quiet confidence in the Minardi camp and with so many changes going on at Jordan moving off the bottom of the table may not be entirely out of the question.