New rules, new drivers and a new team for round one
Welcome to the 2005 FIA Formula One World Championship and the Australian Grand Prix in Melbournes Albert Park.
Thanks to new rule changes, both technical and sporting, there is tremendous anticipation in a new season which Sir Frank Williams, for one, believes could be the most open since 2003.
The major technical change is a significant reduction in downforce, due to the higher position of the front wing, movement of the rear wing forward and reduction in the size of the diffuser. The net result is less grip, anything up to 20 percent according to some teams. Nobody is admitting to having recovered all of that yet, with their latest aerodynamic solutions, but the signs are that lap times may not be noticeably different by mid-season.
The change which will have the biggest effect concerns tyres. Teams must now do all their tyre evaluation running on Friday. This will be particularly beneficial to those teams who are eligible to choose to run a third car - McLaren, Red Bull, Toyota, Jordan and Minardi (Sauber has again declined the opportunity on cost grounds and Minardi may do the same in Melbourne) - as they sift through the prime and option tyres from Michelin and Bridgestone. They have to make their choice by Friday evening, and from then on are only allowed three sets of tyres. They must choose just one of those sets to be used throughout the qualifying sessions and the race.
This will place a huge premium on tyre grip and longevity. The trick for the tyre manufacturers will be to make something with sufficiently soft a compound to provide good grip, but which is also durable enough to perform strongly for more than four times longer than tyres had to in 2004. It will also place a premium on smooth driving styles, especially when a driver is nursing his tyres in the closing stages of a race when they have been through several heating and cooling cycles since Saturday morning and are very close to the end of their effective life.
While this will remove the drama of tyre stops it should make the racing better, particularly in the final laps when traditionally the result has tended to be all but confirmed.
Also on the technical side, engines must now last for two race weekends rather than one as in 2004. If a drivers engine breaks during a practice session, he will lose 10 grid places based on what he achieves in qualifying with a replacement. If an engine breaks during qualifying, he will go to the back of the grid. Engines will be sealed between races.
Then there is a big change in qualifying. First of all there is an hour-long session on Saturday afternoon, in which drivers will do their usual single lap qualifying with low fuel loads. This is good, because they will have to push hard and it will give a valid indication of where each team is on sheer performance.
The reason why nobody can sandbag in this session is that there will be another, on Sunday morning, in which they must run with their race fuel load. The clever bit is that the times from both sessions will be aggregated to determine the grid positions.
The teams at a glance:
Ferrari: Michael Schumacher and Ferrari are adamant that they will be off the pace in Melbourne, and certainly the laps times of the modified F2004 have not been in the same league as McLarens and Renaults in testing, but you underestimate the red team at your peril. Schumacher in particular is good at conning his rivals. He and the faithful Rubens Barrichello are one of the strongest pairings in the business, and the teams inherent reliability should see them at least score points even if they cant fight for wins until the new F2005 is ready to race.
BAR: They had a fabulous 2004 season, in which they finished runner-up to Ferrari, and that has given them an awful lot to live up to. The new BAR 007 certainly looks the part and has a trick gearbox with super-slick changes. In Jenson Button they have a driver who is more than ready to win, and Takuma Sato has the speed to back him all the way. The main question is over the cars aerodynamics after less than impressive times in recent testing, but Button is confident that revisions for Melbourne will push them up the order and enable them to exploit Hondas proven horsepower.
Renault: They have set the pace virtually all through winter testing, vying with McLaren, and the blue and yellow team go to Melbourne brimful of confidence and with the tag of joint favourite. Their lap times in tests at Barcelona were only two-tenths of a second off 2004 times. The R25 is strong in sprint runs and over race distances, and is nicely balanced. Fernando Alonso and Giancarlo Fisichella are two of the fastest and smoothest racers in the business, so Renault also have a very strong pairing. They have their best-ever chance of success in a season in which Renault chief Patrick Faure demands that they challenge for the title right down to the last race.
Williams: Neither Sir Frank Williams nor Patrick Head expect the new Williams FW27 to set the pace Down Under as it is still suffering from unresolved aerodynamic problems which have their root in calibrating the teams new wind tunnel. But both believe they will get it on the pace faster than they did in 2003 and 04. Dont forget that they won the last race last year. New drivers Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld can be relied upon to get the best out of the cars in Melbourne, and if they are reliable enough to score good points it could prove critical later in the season.
McLaren: The Mercedes-powered team have been looking very confident in recent weeks and the new MP4-20 has been setting a blistering pace in testing. The only question mark is how well it goes over race distances. There is a definite air of expectation here. There will also be some fireworks as the season progresses between regular incumbent, Iceman Kimi Raikkonen, and newly slimline newcomer Juan Pablo Montoya who joins from Williams as David Coulthards replacement. If the silver cars are reliable, and they can get their season off to strong start in Melbourne, look for McLaren to be one of Ferraris strongest challengers.
Sauber: This is the last year in which Sauber will run Ferrari engines, but the usual bullet-proof reliability of the Italian engines should stand them in good stead. The new C24 looks good after an initial change to the suspension geometry, and the change to Michelin tyres has brought smiles to team faces. The driver situation is interesting, with bullish young Felipe Massa paired with laconic former champion Jacques Villeneuve, who has an awful lot to prove after his relatively unsuccessful return with Renault late last year. How the French-Canadian progresses will be one of the focal points of the year, and Sauber should have a good chance of holding on to their sixth place overall.
Red Bull: There is a new air of purpose about the former Jaguar team now that Red Bull magnate Dietrich Mateschitz is investing serious money. Christian Horner steps into Tony Purnells shoes to run the outfit, after two brilliant winning seasons in F3000, while Guenther Steiner returns as technical director with former Renault and Jordan designer Mark Smith as his deputy. The RB01 has looked very good in testing and McLaren refugee David Coulthard looks more relaxed than he has for years. Initially he will be backed by Christian Klien, but Friday test driver Vitantonio Liuzzi may also get a chance as the season progresses. After Sir Frank Williams admitted Red Bull could embarrass his cars in Melbourne, they might be worth an outside bet for points finishes.
Toyota: The Japanese team have reached crunch point after three indifferent years in Formula One racing. The companys directors in Tokyo have made it crystal clear that they expect at least podium finishes in 2005. In Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher they have proven race winners but so far it is not possible to offer an accurate assessment of the real potential of Mike Gascoynes all-new TF105. For everyones sake, it had better work.
Jordan: Its all change at Jordan these days, since Eddie Jordan sold out to the Midland Group, and Colin Kolles and Trevor Carlin stepped in as managing and sporting directors respectively. Theres a new driver line-up to go with all this, in the form of rookies Narain Karthikeyan and Tiago Monteiro who both showed strong form in the Nissan World Series last year. Third driver Robert Doornbos is the most experienced man, having run Friday sessions for the team late last year.
Minardi: Yet again Paul Stoddart has proved that he is the greatest survivor in the sport and is set to run his cars to 2004 specification for the first three races, assuming he can get all of his rivals to agree to let him, a situation which still looks unclear in Melbourne. New drivers Patrick Friesacher and Christjan Albers are rookies but the Austrian in particular has good pedigree and has won well in F3000. Its still going to be a major struggle, though for Formula One racings smallest team.