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The 2011 Season Preview - Part Two 18 Mar 2011

Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Friday, 11 March 2011 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren with the new McLaren MP4/26 and a message of support for the injured Robert Kubica (POL) Lotus Renault GP.
Formula One Testing, Day 1, Jerez, Spain,  Thursday, 10 February 2011 Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F150 ?.
Formula One Testing, Day 2, Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, 9 March 2011 Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP MGP W02.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Monday, 21 February 2011 Vitaly Petrov (RUS) Lotus Renault GP R31.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, 10 March 2011

In the second installment of our look ahead to the start of the 2011 FIA Formula One World Championship, we examine the prospects of the key contenders in the race for the drivers' and constructors' crowns (Continued from Part One)...

Red Bull
1 Sebastian Vettel
2 Mark Webber
Red Bull-Renault RB7

A year ago Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz made it clear that he expected his burgeoning team to deliver a world championship. It looked at times as if they were deliberately seeking a means by which to make things as difficult for themselves as possible, but in the end they came up with not one, but two, the constructors’, which they clinched in Brazil, and then the drivers’ which Sebastian Vettel wrapped up in the dramatic finale in Abu Dhabi. Can they do it again?

Well, don’t rule out some serious Red Bull domination. For the first time design guru Adrian Newey (whose cars have now won for three different teams) got his new contender out early, and pre-season test form has shown the RB7 not only to be fast in qualifying and race trim, but also fearsomely reliable.

Factor in Mark Webber, who will be fitter and more determined than ever, and it is going to be very difficult to beat the team from Milton Keynes.

3 Lewis Hamilton
4 Jenson Button
McLaren-Mercedes MP4-26

Oh, oh. The signs this early in the season have not been favourable for McLaren. They deliberately ‘did a Red Bull’ and did not introduce their new car, the MP4-26, until as late as possible. But seemingly the plan has thus far backfired.

The new car looks the part, with its L-shaped sidepod intakes and trick rear end, but reliability issues dogged its progress in the three tests that it did, and the team have logged only about half the testing mileage of either Red Bull or Ferrari. That’s down to some technical issues which saw rear end problems - believed to have centred around the exhausts - seriously impinging on the test programme.

Jenson Button said he thought the balance was better when an upgrade went on the car for the final Barcelona test, while Lewis Hamilton has suggested that they haven’t really been able to put all the factors together at once, so that their form seems worse than it really is. Equally, however, the 2008 champion says the car is not yet a title winner... There’s much work to be done here.

5 Fernando Alonso
6 Felipe Massa
Ferrari 150° Italia

It is not possible to overstate just how much it burned Ferrari to have fumbled their world championship chance in Abu Dhabi last year. They were gutted. But where years ago heads would have rolled, Luca di Montezemolo and Stefano Domenicali simply pulled their troops back together over the winter and the Scuderia looks every bit as dangerous as it did at its title-winning best, even if the team did initially run into trouble with the Ford Motor Company after initially christening its 2011 contender the F150. The way it’s been going in testing suggests that nobody is likely to mistake it for a pick-up truck; it’s the one car that genuinely looks as if it is ready to give the Red Bulls a run for their money.

Alonso is raring to go, and remains what he has so long been: one of the two best drivers out there. If Vettel starts favourite, the Spaniard is right up there at his shoulder. Meanwhile, Felipe Massa knows that he has to deliver solid results this year, if he is to retain his Ferrari seat.

Mercedes GP
7 Michael Schumacher
8 Nico Rosberg
Mercedes MGP W02

The final test in Barcelona changed the way observers thought about Mercedes’ hitherto disappointing MGP W02 challenger. Up until then it had been generally disappointing, rather like the McLaren, but a significant upgrade transformed the car into something that was impressively quick in short runs. It remains to be seen how fast it is over a race distance, and the feeling persists that Red Bull and Ferrari will be the outright pacesetters, with Mercedes chasing them ahead of McLaren and Renault.

Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg both believe that the team, whose purchase from the former Brawn principals was finalised at the beginning of the month, now have the platform from which to make the significant progress that they lacked in 2010.

Schumacher said recently that while he does not believe they can challenge for the world championship, he does think podiums will be possible, while Rosberg will be going all out to prove that his dominance of the older German last year was no fluke.

9 Nick Heidfeld
10 Vitaly Petrov
Renault R31

Renault may have rallied quickly around Nick Heidfeld, but there is no doubt that Robert Kubica’s rally accident will have a very debilitating effect on the chances of a team that showed such promise in initial testing. The Pole has speed, commitment and charisma in spades and just loves driving an edgy car that gives its best at the very limit. Heidfeld is older and less aggressive, and prefers an easier car to drive. That difference may prove critical. That said, the German is a safe pair of hands, but one can’t help wonder whether the team would have been better off with Vitantonio Liuzzi, whom Kubica recommended.

Vitaly Petrov far from disgraced himself in his first season, despite a few heavy shunts, and his containment of Fernando Alonso in Abu Dhabi was indication of the progress he’d made.

Renault’s test form has been difficult to assess accurately, but their trick exhaust system has attracted a lot of interest and several other teams are investigating similar solutions. Expect Renault to challenge McLaren for fourth overall in the early going.

Continued in Part Three

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