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Formula One World Championship 2008

Formula One 2008

UKMotorTalk's Graham Benge looks ahead to this year's F1 Championship.....

With just under a month to go to the first race of the 2008 Formula One season and testing nearly finished – the final session in Barcelona is taking place as I write – we preview the teams and drivers prospects for the next gruelling 8 months as the F1 circus sets off globetrotting again.

There are more changes to the regulations for 2008 with still more to come in the next year or so, the most critical ones this year affecting each car’s driveability and the longevity of some key parts.

Engines

Engines are as those used during the last two races of 2006 – 2.4 litre V8s- and must now be used during the 2008, 2009 and 2010 seasons.

Although this move, designed to cut development costs, has been widely described as an 'engine freeze', some very limited development work will be allowed.

The major change for 2008 is the enforced adoption by all teams of an FIA standardised ECU – the electronic brain of the engine – and, with it, the removal of any form of traction control thus putting the emphasis back on the driver.

Most of the F1 drivers we have talked to welcome this change and are looking forward to it.

 

Aerodynamics

For the engineers and aerodynamicists the removal of traction control presents a new set of challenges to make the cars more driveable, more balanced, than in recent years. This has resulted in quite different looking cars for 2008 as a complete re-think has been necessary, rather more of a revolution than the usual season to season evolution.

Most teams have adopted new and softer front suspensions and have dramatically re-designed the front wings to make attitude changes less abrupt, this, in turn affects the airflow to the rest of the car so we are seeing cars that are generally lower, in some cases noticeably longer, with complex front wings, more sprouting winglets around the cockpit, slimmer yet more complex sidepods, more engine cover wings and simpler rear wings.

 

Gearboxes

The complex 7 speed gearboxes now have to last 4 complete race weekends, a durability unheard before, the gearbox often being the Achilles heel – almost literally – of many of the cars.

This has meant adding weight/durability to most of them so changing the balance of the car.

 

The Weekend

The wasteful “fuel burn” phase of the 3rd qualifying segment has now been dropped and the sessions changed in duration with teams required to start the race with whatever is left in the tank after qualy 3, a change which will have major strategic impact, expect many teams now to go for much earlier first stops but those with better fuel efficiency will benefit from greater flexibility.

 

Tyres

Bridgestone remain F1 racing's sole supplier in 2008, but there are minor changes to all of the tyres.

 

Safety.

The crash tests that Formula One cars must pass have been made more stringent, while the minimum size for the impact-absorbing structure has also been raised and the driver’s cockpit is better protected although this reduces visibility somewhat.

 

Testing

How much we can judge the relative speed of the 2008 cars from their testing times is a rather difficult guessing game with some of the teams launching very late, Force India only just making the final test with their new car and Super Aguri only likely to introduce theirs on the Melbourne grid so late is it and so cash strapped are they.

Hot news is that on the day of final testing at Barcelona McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton beat both Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher – back for 1 test - at the team’s first meeting on the same track.

All of the teams are trying to understand the new cars and the changes enforced upon them, the teams all running different testing programmes, different drivers, very different aero bits on the cars and in some cases, we suspect, different amounts of weight in the sandbagging which appears to be a tactic being practised by one of two teams who want to spring a surprise come the Friday in Melbourne.

 

Ferrari

The 2007 Championship winners have now tested at the same circuit as their major rivals – and got beat, see above - but the new car seems reliable and quick and the successful driver pairing of Raikkonen and Massa remains very strong, expect them to be the major force again this year and only McLaren to really compete with them on an equal footing.

The one team in F1 you can never write off as a threat is Ferrari, they’ve been going racing a very long time and even with Todt at a remove and Ross Brawn having abandoned his sabbatical year and gone to Honda, the team won’t slip, their success in F1 is far too important in terms of road car sales.

Expect multiple wins by both drivers but the balance between Raikkonen and Massa has changed in favour of the Finn as a side benefit of his championship win.

 

McLaren

With Lewis oh so close to winning the title in his rookie year he will be determined to shine again this year and benefit from the experience gained during a quite stunning maiden year.

But it won’t be easy, I’ve little doubt he will be pushed hard by his new team mate Heikki Kovalainen, a driver who will surely be a world champion at some point in his career.

So far the car looks quick and reliable, that has not always been the case early season with McLaren and bodes well for early season success.

With a promise from Ron Dennis of equal treatment, sparks will fly at McLaren as each spurs the other on, both will fight for the championship and I fully expect wins for both in 2008 with the number of wins being in favour of Lewis due to his greater experience.

Will Ron as boss survive the entire season is a separate question, troubled both by his relationship the FIA, with Max and now divorce looming all is not well chez Dennis. Personally, I have tremendous admiration for Ron and his success record is exceptional by any measure, despite his occasional lapses into Ronspeak F1 would be a poorer sport without his presence.

 

BMW Sauber

The new car was unveiled by Willy Rampf as a radical evolution but all has not gone well so far in testing, the car seems reliable but appreciably slower than many others despite the obvious talents of Heidfeld and Kubica.

BMW F1 Launch 2008

The team know they have problems to solve and little enough time to do so but the 3rd team in 2007 will solve their problems, they have massive financial and technical resources to call upon.

I fully expect them to score good podiums for most of the season and wins are possible if they can catch up in the final stages of testing.

Kubica will push Heidfeld all season and I expect them to end up with very similar points totals.

BMW have high expectations for 2008, they expect regular podiums and perhaps wins, they have a point to prove.

 

ING Renault

A poor 2007 saw the team lose heart and impetus but the return of the prodigal – double world champion Fernando Alonso – seems to have re-energised them.

Clearly Alonso is a class act still, the problems at McLaren – many of them of his own making – are behind him now and he is one of the most complete drivers out there, focussed, fast, analytical and fearless and will probably be in the running for a crack at his third title if the car proves good enough and reliable.

Unlike the situation at McLaren, his new team partner Nelson Picquet Jr, while a fine driver and a future front runner, will neither have the experience or the team’s even handed support to pose a serious threat to Alonso’s dominance in ’08.

So far, the new car seems both reliable and competitively quick, they will give BMW a hard run all season but wins may be harder to come by.

Alonso has lost none of his raw speed and ability to both attack on track and think strategically when it is needed.

 

Williams

Another team that had a lean 2007 but in their year of many anniversaries, 30th birthday, 500 Grands prix etc, etc, they will doubtless bounce back and score points consistently, I expect them to be one of the front runners in the second group, probably vying for podiums with BMW and picking up any crumbs dropped by McLaren and Ferrari.

The new car has been very quick in recent testing after a slow start and they will be one of the surprises of the season.

Nico Rosberg is a proven quick runner and Nakajima seems no slouch as he gains in experience.

I expect a very substantial turn around in the Williams fortunes in 2008 and podiums are very much back on the agenda for the Grove outfit.

 

Honda

Another of the teams that will come back to strength in ‘08 after two dismal seasons.

Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello are two of the most competitive and experienced drivers on the Formula One grid who work together well.

Honda F1 Launch 2008

Expect to see a great deal more of the Hondas in 2008 than we did in 2007 when things were going very wrong with the car and the driver relationship as both Jenson and Rubens became increasingly frustrated with the lack of speed and reliability of the car, their frank comments were deeply felt by senior Honda management who have reacted quickly to improve things, not least by luring Ross brawn back into F1.

I expect a much more successful season for Honda with perhaps more podiums and even more wins for Jenson, he knows time is moving on if he is to mount a serious title bid and not just become another great British driver who couldn’t deliver.

 

Red Bull

Red Bull already look strong for ‘08 both Coulthard and Webber have been regularly posting good testing times and it seems to be their best car yet.

After several development seasons the team has to deliver in ’08 to begin to justify the enormous amount of money Red Bull has poured in, they will be a major points scorer and podiums seem very possible in possibly Coulthard’s last season.

 

Toro Rosso

Red Bull’s other team have all too often fought only for the rear of the grid but look likely to improve this coming season, at time of writing they had only just launched and only 1 car was ready, Vettel seemed quick in it but Anthony Davidson was yet to get his drive, we wish him well for the season, time he got a few lucky breaks.

 

Toyota

Toyota has probably spent more money on F1 than any other team in recent years yet has precious little to show for it so far. Some say their management structure is too large, too corporate, for F1 which needs quick thinking and action.

Toyota has ambitious goals in Formula 1 and in 2008 the objective is to win or at least best Honda.

Let’s hope Toyota gets its money’s worth in 2008 but, so far testing has been less than impressive with both drivers down in the teens in terms of times but I have no doubt Glock will work hard for them and they ought to be able to regularly run midfield, but for the world’s second largest maker with all it’s resources that spells failure.

 

Force India

Re-named in deference to their new Indian owners, launched with a big display a couple of weeks after the other teams but the car has just had it’s first test and acquitted itself well in the hands of Liuzzi and Sutil.

The core organisation remains the old Jordan team and there’s a lot of experience behind that new name, they’ll surprise a few people this season.

 

Super Aguri

Oh dear - Super Aguri have already cancelled several tests and now are only likely to introduce their 08 challenger on the Melbourne grid so late is it and so cash strapped are they.

 

Conclusions

So, how will 2008 play out in the new era of the level playing field of just one tyre supplier, more restrictions on engine and chassis development, more overtaking opportunities – if the aero changes work out - and the removal of traction control placing the emphasis back on the drivers skills?

I fully expect McLaren and Ferrari to remain the front runners with Lewis, Raikkonen, Massa and Alonso all standing on the top step at various times but the names and faces on the other steps of the podium will change more in 08 than in recent seasons, there’s some very quick younger guys on the way up, watch out for Kovaleinen, Heidfeld and Kubica to all score well.

No-one will get a major points haul in 2008, there are too many drivers capable of winning races and a good number with experience of doing so but for me McLaren for the constructors title by a small margin – but the for the drivers title? My heart says Lewis Hamilton, my head says a second title for Raikkonen but it’ll be close again and the championship will not be decided until quite late in the season.

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