2011: Team Analysis
With the last opportunity for the teams to put their machinery to the test on the track ahead of the opening race now gone, we take a look at how the teams have faired. We analyse their prospects for the new season and highlight some potential weaknesses…
Red Bull Racing
1. Sebastian Vettel, 2. Mark Webber
It’s a whole different game for Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel now that they are the defending champions and it’ll be fascinating to see how they deal with the added pressure that brings. Then there is the relationship with Mark Webber which once again threatens to boil over with the added ingredient being that Vettel is now quite literally in the number ‘1′ car.
However, Adrian Newey appears to have once again delivered a great car, which shouldn’t be any surprise given that 2009’s RB5 was the cream of the single-diffuser runners. Furthermore, with the extra mileage of testing under their belts this year, Christian Horner will be hoping to avoid the early reliability problems that plagued the team last year. The Achilles heel in the package is the Renault-powerplant. Last year Red Bull were unbelievable in the corners but out of the running on the straights, and it’s possible that this could be a trait that might be exposed by KERS and the adjustable rear wings. Watch out, therefore, at Montreal, Monza and Spa where Red Bull struggled to exert their dominance last year.
Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
3. Lewis Hamilton, 4. Jenson Button
The radical design of the MP4-26 has been something of a headache for McLaren. They’d already missed the first test were they ran the 2010 car but were then further hampered by a succession of reliability issues as well as losing track time by testing a variety of exhaust positions. The end result is that McLaren have gone back to the drawing board to make major, and untested, changes to the car ahead of the season opener Probably more than any other team at the sharp end of the grid, McLaren will be glad of the delay to the start of the season and the opportunity to get their development back on track although it may be Turkey or Spain before they can really make an impact.
In contrast to Red Bull, McLaren’s driver pairing defied expectations and remained relatively harmonious. Furthermore, Jenson Button ran his younger compatriot close, especially in the first half of the season. However, the fact that Lewis Hamilton pulled away in the latter part of the season when you may have expected Button to be settling in more suggests that there could be more of a difference this year. Then again, there is the unknown of the Pirelli tyres to throw into the equation along with Button’s ability to conserve tyres which could throw the balance of power his way. However, Hamilton, will be the most experienced user of KERS on the grid. Given the difficulty Luca Badoer and Giancarlo Fisichella had in adjusting to the different braking characteristics of the Ferrari in 2009, will Button be similarly hampered?
Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro
5. Fernando Alonso, 6. Felipe Massa
F150 150th 150° Italia (it’s unlucky to rename a boat) Ferrari have a car that looks like it should be right up near the front. Then again everyone thought that last year and despite early success in Bahrain, they fell behind for the first half of 2011.
However, they also have a great driver in the form of Fernando Alonso but the one question mark hanging over the team for me, concerns how much faith Alonso now holds in the team’s ability to make strategy calls on the fly. With Pirelli’s tyres looking like giving much more marginal performance this year, making the right decision should be even more important this year. However, Alonso comes into 2011 off the back of Ferrari’s disastrous decision to pit early in Abu Dhabi, leaving the Spaniard visibly angry as his World Championship ambitions came up against the impassable Renault of Vitaly Petrov. It’s not as if that was the only bad call either, there was also the decision to sit out the early part of Q1 in Malaysia only to be caught out by the encroaching rain. Even the now-infamous radio exchange with Felipe Massa at Hockenheim hints at Ferrari’s short-sightedness. Massa may be the team’s other weakness. He looked a shadow of his former self last year, which suggests that the Constructors’ title may well be beyond The Scuderia.
Mercedes GP Petronas
7. Michael Schumacher, 8. Nico Rosberg
After acquiring the Championship winning team and then securing the services of Michael Schumacher it should have all gone right for the Silver Arrows. Yet 2010 was a frustrating year, especially for Schumacher who was outshone by Nico Rosberg, although few seemed to give Rosberg much credit for the fact. That’s probably not much comfort for Schumacher who, even if he does put the younger German behind him, will be judged against his Championship years. For many, race victories now seem to be necessary to justify his return for retirement.
Unfortunately for Schumacher, the team’s build-up has seemed even worse than last year. Both drivers have topped the practice sheets at some point but both have also been quite critical of the W02. Ross Brawn has talked about needing to find at least a second from their upgrades, unfortunately for the team, that assumes everybody else failed to find some more time. And yet, on their final day of dry running, Schumacher and Rosberg were right up there with Ferrari for what appeared to be qualifying runs. Perhaps Mercedes’ cloud does have a silver lining.
Lotus Renault GP
9. Nick Heidfeld, 10. Vitaly Petrov
The black and gold livery is back but are they Lotus? Are they even Renault? The answer seems to be that they’re actually Genii but then who actually owns Genii? Either way, the team is now registered as British as yet one more of the ties with Renault is cut. The legal wranglings and all too public back-biting might have hogged much of the team’s limelight but technologically, it is the innovative forward-facing exhausts that has everyone talking about them. There is even enough in their pre-season form to suggest they could spring some surprises at the front, although the Renault engine may hinder them at several races.
It is unfortunate, therefore, that the team have lost the services of Robert Kubica while he recovers from his rallying crash. Nick Heidfeld is a worthy replacement but it is always difficult to come in and replace the team leader around whom the car has been designed. However, it hands Vitaly Petrov a fantastic opportunity that he will need to grab with both hands – out of the shadow of Kubica and in his second season with the team, this is Petrov’s chance to show he is more than just a pipeline to roubles.
AT&T Williams F1
11. Rubens Barrichello, 12. Pastor Maldonado
If you thought Red Bull had a small rear to their car, it’s nothing compared with the positively anorexic FW33. A short gearbox and nifty rear suspension setup has reinvigorated the independent team, even if a number of reliability problems have limited their testing program. Despite the growing commercial success of the team’s flywheel kinetic energy recovery system, the team have opted for a more compact battery system which has been the source of several of the problems.
Williams surprised many by letting Nico Hulkenberg go, raising questions about the financial stability of the team when they opted instead for the Venezuelan state oil company-backed, Pastor Maldonado. Nor, did the subsequent share offering do little to dispel that feeling, after all, major sponsors RBS, AirAsia and Philips had dropped out. Maldonado may be the reigning GP2 Champion but he took a long time getting there compared with the young Hulkenberg and it remains to be seen if the change was the correct decision. The car may well be a clever piece of design but it seems likely that the team’s fortunes will rest on the shoulders of Rubens Barrichello, a man entering an incredible nineteenth season of Formula One.
Force India F1
14. Adrian Sutil, 15. Paul di Resta
Haemorrhaging key personnel (pun unavoidable) Force India feels like a team on the wane and their testing pace has been nothing to shout about either. Last year’s seventh place finish in the Constructors’ Championship was the team’s best finish to date but that could be a hard act to follow this year. Then you start wondering how long the team will maintain Vijay Mallya’s interest. However, as Paul di Resta joins Force India stalwart, Adrian Sutil the team are still facing a big milestone – the opportunity to compete in their home grand prix. Still, they do have the Mercedes and McLaren links in the form of engine, KERS, gearbox and hydraulics so it would be foolish to overlook the Silverstone-based outfit.
Then there is there is di Resta of course – prepare yourself to hear how he beat his team mate to the Formula 3 Euro Series title a few times before the season is out. Then again, what did Sebastian Vettel ever go on to achieve?
Sauber F1 Team
16. Kamui Kobayashi, 17. Sergio Pérez
Having finally dropped the BMW from the name, perhaps we can focus on the Ferrari blood running through this car. A strong engine, coupled with a tried and tested KERS makes Sauber a strong contender to make significant progress from their 2010 season. The recruitment of James Key as technical director was also a shrewd move. However, on the other side of the coin, the driver line-up is one of the most inexperienced on the grid. After just one full season, Kamui Kobayashi will be expected to the lead the team while new boy, Sergio Pérez settles in. Pérez brings plenty of financial support with him from Mexico, which looks to have secured the team’s long term future. In fact, from a car devoid of sponsors at the start of last year, they now have a sponsorship portfolio that most of the grid would envy.
Sauber have looked good in testing but of course the same was true last year. However, the financial standing of the team is worth taking into account. Last year the team needed to attract sponsors and perhaps they can be forgiven for running light on fuel in order to increase their exposure, not something that is necessary this year. The car would seem to have promise – can their two youngsters handle the pressure?
Scuderia Toro Rosso
18. Sébastien Buemi, 19. Jaime Alguersuari
Could Toro Rosso be the surprise package of 2011? After Sebastian Vettel’s victory for the team in 2008, 2009 was an altogether quieter affair while last year was virtually anonymous. The team, in their second year of having to design their own car have taken the radical step of introducing sidepods so deeply undercut that the result is a ‘double floor’ similar to that employed on the Ferrari F92A. Coupled with the team regularly placing near the top of the time sheets, the result has been to make people sit up and take notice of the team so overshadowed by their sister team. It even prompted Lewis Hamilton to declare that “Toro Rosso looks ridiculously fast. They could be the most interesting one to watch.”
Behind that is the stability of the Sébastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari partnership, entering their third season together. The corollary of that is that neither have yet to show anywhere near the promise of Vettel and will be under pressure from those coming up Red Bull junior driver programme escalator, most notably Daniel Ricciardo who will be taking part in the first practice sessions this year. However, the bigger picture is that if Toro Rosso isn’t producing the Red Bull drivers of the future, why keep funding the team?
20. Jarno Trulli, 21. Heikki Kovalainen
The Team Lotus name is back. Well, for now at least – whether that remains the case is up to a court to decide. The best of the new teams last year, Team Lotus have taken the biggest steps towards not only maintaining that situation but also in closing down the gap to the established teams. Mike Gascoyne has been able to lure some significant personnel to the team but perhaps the biggest coup has been the capture of the Renault engine and Red Bull gearbox.
Given the investment and ambitious plans, Lotus’ year will no doubt be measured by whether they have indeed caught the midfield. While it’s virtually impossible to be sure about what fuel loads have been carried, pre-season testing suggests they are close, although reliability may be a worry going in to the early races. Then again, will simply closing the gap be sufficient? Riding near the back of the midfield, without KERS to boot, will mean relying on retirements ahead of them to turn that pace in to points. They’re the best placed of the “new” teams to get off the points mark but it still looks like needing a healthy slice of luck to achieve.
Hispania Racing Team
22. Narain Karthikeyan, 23. Vitantonio Liuzzi
Last year, the Spanish team barely got one car on to the track for the first free practice session of the season. This year, presumably they would have failed to have even achieved that if the Bahrain Grand Prix had gone ahead as originally scheduled – once again they start the season without having given the car its track début. Not an auspicious start.
After using four drivers during the course of last season, it’s all change again with two more names on the Hispania roll-of-honour. Narain Karthikeyan returns to Formula One after an uninspiring 2005 season but the more significant signing is probably the recruitment of ex-Force India pilot, Tonio Liuzzi. Liuzzi brings the element of experience that Hispania were desperately lacking last year – Christian Klien might have had two and half years in Formula One but the last of those was in 2006! Liuzzi had the opportunity to test Hispania’s car from last year and the fact that he felt the car needed a lot of work to set-up shows how badly the team got it wrong last year. As for this year’s car, your guess is good as mine although I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that they won’t be threatening Q3 of qualifying.
Marussia Virgin Racing
24. Timo Glock, 25. Jérôme d’Ambrosio
The team that ended up finishing bottom of the pile last year seems to be pinning its hopes on starting the season with much stronger reliability. The reason is quite simple – Virgin ended up last because of the finishing positions that Hispania achieved near the start of the year in races of high attrition. The tactic makes sense but it does suggest a lack of ambition in a team that has now switched to being Russian (even if it is still based in various parts of England). The Russian legacy comes as a consequence of supercar manufacturer, Marussia – title sponsor and a significant shareholder in the outfit.
The other change at the team is Belgium’s Jérôme d’Ambrosio who replaces Lucas di Grassi. d’Ambrosio arrives on the back of a not exactly thrilling GP2 career record – one victory in three seasons of the main series and two of GP2 Asia. However, he compares well with his GP2 team mate, Kamui Kobayashi so lets not rule him out too soon.
The car continues to be designed without the aid of a wind-tunnel and let’s just hope they got the fuel tank right this time around. Unfortunately, Virgin look like having another tough year and I strongly suggest that Sir Richard Branson avoids any further wagers with his rivals.
Credits: Paul Gilham/Getty Images/Red Bull Racing, Pirelli Tyres, Sauber Motorsport, Andrew Ferraro/LAT/Lotus Renault GP, Mercedes GP Petronas, Marussia Virgin Racing, Team Lotus