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The 2011 Season Preview - the best just gets better 18 Mar 2011

Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing RB6 (Centre) leads Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing RB6 (Right) at the start of the race.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 5, Spanish Grand Prix, Race, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 9 May 2010 The five Championship contenders line up for a photo (L to R): Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren; Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari; Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing; Bernie Ecclestone (GBR) CEO Formula One Group (FOM); Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren; Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 17, Korean Grand Prix, Preparations, Korea International Circuit, Yeongam, South Korea, Thursday, 21 October 2010 Ferrari F150 ? rear and rear wing detail.
Formula One Testing, Day 2, Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, 9 March 2011 Lotus Renault GP R31 side exit exhaust detail.
Formula One Testing, Day 1, Valencia, Spain, Tuesday, 1 February 2011 Pirelli tyres.
Formula One Testing, Day 1, Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, 8 March 2011

If you thought that 2010 was a classic year of F1, buckle up and get ready for the 2011 season in which four or even five teams seem set to go head-to-head as no fewer than five world champions go into battle, and the midfield fight promises to be harder-fought than ever.

Red Bull and Ferrari appear to have set the genuine pace in the four pre-season tests in Spain, with Mercedes moving up to a perceived third in the pecking order after the final runs but still slightly adrift, and McLaren possibly in trouble and seeming likely to battle initially with Renault for fourth place.

Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Michael Schumacher give Formula One tremendous heavyweight glitter, while promising rookies such as Scot Paul di Resta, Mexican Sergio Perez, Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado and Belgian Jerome D’Ambrosio underline the sport’s ability to keep re-inventing itself. In between them, long-time runners Felipe Massa, Nick Heidfeld, Jarno Trulli, Heikki Kovalainen and Nico Rosberg add further depth.

The midfield battle is also likely to be just as fraught as the fight for the title, with Williams, Force India, Sauber, Toro Rosso and, perhaps, Lotus, scrabbling for supremacy.

Yet again, the rules have been revised, throwing things back into the melting pot once more. Out go the double diffusers (that so helped Jenson Button and Brawn GP to the world championship in 2009), F-ducts and the adjustable front wings that were meant to promote more overtaking but which most drivers neither liked nor used. In their place come moveable (for which, read adjustable) rear wings, KERS (making a return after a year’s hiatus), trick exhausts and a new tyre supplier in the form of Pirelli.

The idea behind the rear wing is that in certain parts of the circuit a following driver will get a signal that he can momentarily activate the control that opens the gap between the upper and lower wing planes, in order to boost straight-line speed by reducing drag. The driver of the car in front cannot do that, thus conferring a temporary advantage on the follower. The exact location and length of the ‘wing zones’ will be decided by the FIA, who are committed to making the technology work.

There has been talk of making the Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) more powerful in the future, but for now the outputs are the same as in 2009 - 80 bhp. Unlike the rear wings, it’s up to the driver to decide when and where to deploy this technology. With KERS and adjustable rear wings to figure out, F1 2011-style is more likely to favour the more cerebral than the aggressive. In 2009 McLaren and Ferrari won with KERS, with which Renault, Sauber and Williams also experimented; this year McLaren, Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes, Renault, Williams and Force India will all use it, as may Sauber and Toro Rosso.

The forward-facing exhaust introduced this year by Renault on their R31 could, according to Mercedes GP’s Ross Brawn, be more significant than the double diffuser. By routing the gases forward, which the rules permit, teams can clean up the rear end of the car significantly, enhancing airflow and thus aero efficiency.

The arrival of Pirelli to replace Bridgestone has already started to shake things up. The Italian tyres degrade far quicker than the Japanese - deliberately, Pirelli stresses. Some drivers speak of only three laps on the super-soft compound and eight on the soft before performance drops off markedly, which suggests that the smoother, Alain Prost-like drivers will be advantaged when it comes to nurturing their rubber. Step forward Jenson Button...

With up to four pit stops envisaged at some races, it’s going to be a busy year for the pit crews and lap charters. Last year Ferrari and Virgin both recorded remarkable 3.6s stops, and that could well become the ante this season.

For all that, Fernando Alonso believes that it will still come down to the fastest car when all is said and done, rather than canny strategy, tyre preservation and fast stops. “As usual the quickest or best car will win the championship in the end,” the Spaniard says. “Maybe one or two races will be decided by very good strategy, which will be important, but over 19 races it will still be more important to have the best car and that’s what we will always be aiming for.”

Elsewhere, the dreaded 107 percent qualifying rule makes a return, which means that the tailenders won’t get to race if they don’t get within five or six seconds of the Q1 time on a Saturday afternoon. The ban on team orders has been lifted, in tacit recognition that it is almost impossible to police; the race stewards, aided once again by former F1 drivers, will have wider powers; and as drivers are now officially only allowed to move once to defend themselves in a corner, the act of crowding - such as Michael Schumacher did to Rubens Barrichello in Hungary last year - is now punishable.

So who is going to set the initial pace? It really is almost impossible to say. While Alonso acknowledges the inherent strength of Red Bull and counsels not to overlook McLaren’s threat regardless of testing form, Red Bull boss Christian Horner says he is feeling far from complacent.

“We genuinely don’t know where we are in comparison to the others,” he says. “The fuel loads make such a big difference.” In testing these could vary between 10 and 160 kg, with each 10 kg adding 0.3s to lap time.

“We’ve had our best pre-season to date, and arguably we are in the best shape ever,” Horner continues. “But there are no points for winter testing; the points start in Melbourne and right now everyone is on the same number.”

Continued in Part Two

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