The four month winter break between Formula 1 seasons can really drag, but even the most impatient of fans wouldn’t want a race to go ahead when the host country is in turmoil. After the civil unrest in Bahrain the country’s Grand Prix, due to take place on the 13th of March, was rightly abandoned. Instead the new season debuts in Melbourne this weekend, kicking off an eight-month season that is tipped to be every bit as exciting as 2010.
There are no changes to the line-up for Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes, Toro Rosso or Lotus, but elsewhere we have four new rookies on the grid: GP2 Champion Pastor Maldonado (Williams), DTM Touring car champion Paul di Resta (Force India), and GP2 drivers Sergio Perez (Sauber) and Jerome D’Ambrosio (Virgin). Meanwhile, Hispania is hoping to improve on last place by signing two more experienced drivers: Vitantonio Liuzzi from Force India, and Narain Karthikeyan, who returns to F1 after a five-year absence.
Back in February Renault’s top driver Robert Kubica suffered serious injuries, including a partially severed hand, in a rally crash. He is said to be recovering well after major reconstructive surgery but it’s likely to be many months before he can drive again. The accident was a real blow for Renault, who were all set for a competitive year. Kubica is often regarded as being one of the most talented drivers on the grid and his replacement Nick Heidfeld will be hard-pressed to live up to his standard of driving.
Winter testing also saw the usual parade of new car designs proudly unveiled by the teams and drivers. McLaren revealed the MP4-26 in typically grand fashion, and drivers Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton could not have looked more content with their new toy. But then they began to test the car. It became very clear that for all the shiny ‘updates’, McLaren’s car was still off-pace in comparison to Red Bull and Ferrari. Concerns have been raised that after the MP4-26’s lacklustre performance in testing, Mercedes will now replace McLaren as the third best team on the grid. However, if any team can make a comeback – it’s McLaren. Frantic adjustments have already been made, and though they are likely to lag behind over the next few races, their resurgence is by no means impossible.
But for now the team to beat in 2011 remains Red Bull. They finished 2010 as Constructors’ and Drivers’ champions and so having the numbers ‘1’ and ‘2’ painted onto the cars will be a real boost. It’s hard to see how they can go far wrong with design genius Adrian Newey and World Champion Sebastian Vettel on board, and testing has proved that they once again have the blistering pace needed. Red Bull will be hoping that winning the championship last year will give Vettel the confidence he needs to be more focused and less impetuous in his overtaking. But with Mark Webber still hot on his heels, this is a partnership that still has potential to cause sparks.
Despite last year being hailed as one the most exciting in the sport’s long history, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone can’t seem to resist toying with the rules. One of his most recent suggestions was to introduce ‘artificial rain’ (in other words: a sprinkler system) to liven up races in case they get boring. But not everyone has been enthusiastic about this plan; Mark Webber responded by saying that Jimmy Clark and Ayrton Senna would be “turning in their graves”.
However many other, less radical, new rules have been introduced. This includes the re-allowance of team orders after last year’s German GP when Ferrari demonstrated that banning them was ‘unenforceable’. But mainly the new changes are designed to boost overtaking. Double diffusers and F-ducts have been banned, but KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) are now permitted to help give drivers a ‘boost’ when overtaking. Adjustable rear wings will also serve a similar purpose, and can be activated at pre-determined sections of the circuit during the race or anywhere during practice and qualifying.
However, all these changes add to the ever-growing workload for drivers. Rubens Barrichello has raised concerns that the changes such as the adjustable rear wings will make cars unstable as well as distracting drivers. Barrichello said: “I don’t want to wait for someone to run into another driver for something to be done”. It has also been pointed out that KERS requires drivers to take their eyes off the road to read data from their steering wheel. Champion Sebastian Vettel added to the concern: “Most drivers agreed it could be a safety issue. That doesn’t necessarily mean we will go on strike; we’ll try to find a solution with the FIA first.”
One thing we can be certain of is that the new Pirelli tyres are going to deteriorate rapidly in each race. Some drivers were put off after testing, but as other drivers and Pirelli itself have pointed out: they have been purposefully designed to be difficult. The aim is to encourage more frequent stops, carefully thought out strategies, and hopefully some really varied races. However, we could also see drivers such as Jenson Button, who favour a smoother style, able to nurture their tyres much better. Having the fastest car will not guarantee race wins under these new conditions – tactics will be just as important.
We won’t really be able to tell what the year has in store until several races into the season, but with five world champions, some competitive mid-fielders and very talented new blood on the grid, we can be sure that it’ll be closely fought. The winter break has ensured that we have new circuits, new rules, new cars and new faces to look forward to in 2011. But I for one am just glad that the long wait is nearly over and that in a few days the speculation can end and the racing can finally begin.