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Graham Benge

Preview of the 2009 F1 season
Graham Benge - 9th March 2009

 
With just two weeks to go to the first race of the 2009 Formula One season in Melbourne on 29th March, and the off season testing programme nearly finished, we preview the teams and drivers prospects for the next 8 months as the F1 circus – perhaps now reduced to a small travelling fairground - sets off globetrotting again for another 17 race season.

2009 may well be the year of THE big shake up among the teams. There are many and radical changes to the regulations, and the teams are nearly all suffering funding pressures as their car making owners or “financial wizard” sponsors all feel the global downturn and cut back on the huge expenditure that F1 demands, hundreds of millions of dollars a year the necessary stake to come to Bernie’s big boys poker table.

Honda are gone, the loss making car maker pulling the plug on the under performing team - although a last minute management buy out will now get the team onto the Melbourne grid with Mercedes engines. Williams have been bailed out, the leading privateer nearly going into bankruptcy as they haemamorraghed sponsors, especially the troubled Royal Bank of Scotland, their major sponsor, and all of the other teams have had to severely curtail their activities, in part by continuing cost cutting pressures from the FIA, in part by metaphorically circling the wagons to survive constant attacks by FIA president Max Mosley.
 
Even once mighty rivals McLaren and Ferrari are working closely together within the newly formed FOTA to manage the budget cutbacks to ensure the future survivability of the sport in a form all of the teams want, not just the “one size fits all” solution the FIA, or more accurately Mad Max, seem to want.
 
The other big change is that TV coverage will revert to the BBC who now want it again and ITV who don’t, preferring to buy in yet more football! It'll be interesting to see how the Beeb do, so far their website is very poor and their news gathering very slow, let us hope they up their game quickly. Jonathan Ledgard returns to lead the commentary team along with David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan joining Martin Brundle so the comment should be both informed and delightfully acerbic.
 
So, first to the regulation changes, they are many and dramatic. Designed by a working group of the top tech people from each team, their brief was to improve overtaking by reducing aerodynamic grip by 50% and increasing mechanical grip by 20-30%. So, after 10 years, grooved tyres are out slicks are back while all of those ugly stick on aero aids have gone and front and rear wings are simpler. Other changes are, once more, to improve the longevity of key parts and the introduction of the newest F1 acronym KERS … of which more later.
 
The hoped for overtaking benefit is yet to be tested but the cars seem to be turning about the same times as last season and the effect of the KERS system is yet to be seen as the teams try to discover what, if any, benefits it confers.

Engines
Engines are as those used during the last two seasons – 2.4 litre V8s- but now restricted to 18,000 rpm and must last 3 complete race weekends. Although this move, designed to cut development costs, has been widely described as an 'engine freeze', some limited development work may still be allowed. The three race engine rule no longer applies to Friday sessions. So, any driver starting a meeting with a fresh engine will not be penalised for a testing failure. It also means drivers may opt to use alternative engines on Fridays and save their race engines for qualifying and the race. Under a special agreement with all of the teams down on power, Renault has been allowed a few mods to catch up with the rest.
 
Testing
The severely curtailed pre-season testing programme is nearly out of time, then that’s it for all the teams as in season testing is now banned. Only the Friday session will now be available for any development work.
 
Aerodynamics
There are changes to the position and dimensions of both front and rear wings, the changes are intended to improve airflow to a following car to make overtaking easier although the front wing - now wider and driver adjustable – is going to be a lot more fragile and first corner incidents will inevitably be more frequent. Rear wings are taller but narrower. Almost every designer has interpreted the rules differently which may lead to some grid positioning upsets right from the off.
 
Tyres
Bridgestone remain F1 racing's sole supplier in 2009 and have had to abandon almost all they have learnt in the last decade and completely re-design the tyres which have now reverted to slicks after 10 years. Tyre warmers have also gone.
 
KERS – KINETIC ENERGY RECOVERY SYSTEM
All of the teams will be required to fit either a mechanical or electrical energy recovery system – all have gone for the latter – the driver will be able to call upon approx. 80 bhp extra in bursts of 7 seconds a limited number of times per lap to aid overtaking. It remains to be seen whether the benefits literally outweigh the 30 odd kilos this new system adds to the car.

Safety Car
Safety car regs have been modified again to prevent drivers all going into the pits as soon as the safety car comes out.
 
The Teams
So, to this years drivers' championship winners first or is that just a slip and I really mean the 2008 drivers' championship winners, McLaren.
 
McLaren, was one of the first teams to launch, the new car slightly overshadowed by the announcement that Ron was to step down as team boss in favour of his long time right hand man Martin Whitmarsh. But there was no talk of retirement; Ron is to spend time on the development of FOTA as one of the sport’s elder statesmen and in running the expanding McLaren group.
 
Little change is expected in the team as Ron and Martin seem to think alike on most things although Martin is a little less inclined to “Ronspeak”. The new car looks the business and the early launch – mid January - means maximum on track development time. The driver pairing remains, as world champion Lewis Hamilton, up for the double he says “I’m more committed than ever” who will take to the track bearing the coveted No1 and Kovalainen who is anxious to do better in 2009 after a less than inspired 08.
 
Ferrari, the 2008 Constructors' championship winners have also interpreted the new aero rules as freely as possible and there are some interesting twists on the F60 some of which may yet prove not to be legal, Melbourne scrutineering should be interesting. They have maximised their testing programme and fully expect to be quick right out of the box but their times so far do not seem to justify the optimism. Their driver line up is also unchanged with Kimi Raikkonen determined to do better than his lacklustre 08 season – in what may yet prove to be his last as an F1 driver – and Felipe Massa who seems re-energised after the disappointment of being runner up, so near yet so far.
 
BMW Motorsport Director Mario Theissen knows it is make or break time "We have set ourselves the task of further improving our performance … the 1-2 in Canada and a total of eleven podium finishes in 2008 set an exacting standard. In 2009 we are looking to maintain our first-class reliability record while at the same time enhancing our performance levels so that we can be at the front of the pack on a consistent basis. We are aware that we are aiming extremely high. This is the final step in our development, and that's generally the hardest one to take”.

The team retain both Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld although I fancy Heidfeld might well be in the ascendency this coming season as he loves being back on slicks. “I’m pleased to see the return of slick tyres. I never liked the fact that, in Formula One of all competitions, we didn't have slicks for such a long time”.

Red Bull unwrapped the latest Adrian Newey design and the RB5 is possibly one of his best yet with many innovations. It’s already looking like the season may be a very good one for the team, they’ve been strong in testing so far. Team boss Christian Horner was upbeat "this year will see us benefit from greater stability in terms of how we run the operation with all our key players in the technical group having been with us for at least two years … we should not forget they designed a car that won a Grand Prix in 2008, in the hands of Sebastian Vettel. There is no reason to believe we cannot do that again with these new rules."

"2009 arguably sees the biggest rule change for twenty years," said Newey “ we have taken a blue sky approach, looking at the rules and how to interpret them, while not changing things simply for the sake of change, apart from the gearbox internals, there is hardly any carry over from RB4."

Powered once more by Renault the upgrade permitted to the French engine makers may well benefit Red Bull even more than the number one team! The result is both a pretty and beautifully detailed car which has so far proven both quick and reliable in testing with Vettel proving his talent yet again, the hard charging Mark Webber likely to find his new team mate a bit of a handful in 2009.

Renault were one of the early launchers and the car looks good but seems to have struggled a bit in testing without any obvious reasons why. They should, having received the agreement of the FIA and all the teams to carry out an engine performance catch up have been at least mid time sheet.

Technical director Bob Bell “I feel we're on course to deliver a strong performance in Melbourne … it’s still very early days but I'm becoming increasingly satisfied with the performance of the car … both Fernando and Nelson seem happy with the balance of the car.

Both former champion Alonso and new boy Nelson Picquet seem bullish about the 2009 season but the time sheets don’t show this, expect a lot of development activity up the off at Melbourne.

Toro Rosso are the very last team to launch, with just a couple of weeks to go and as for Force India they have left themselves very little time to test the car before Melbourne.

Toro Rosso will probably only get 4-5 days running but they do have the advantage that the car is very, very similar to the Red Bull which has been pounding the test tracks for some weeks gaining experience albeit that the Toro Rosso has a Ferrari engine and gearbox so the rear packaging is a bit different.
 
They surprised many observers in 2008, sometimes even themselves, and are likely to feature high on the grid at odd times, Bourdais should have a better season in 2009 and Buemi really is worth watching this year.
 
"In 2008 our performance exceeded our expectations,” commented team principal, Franz Tost. "It's going to be tough to live up to that this year …stability comes courtesy of the input of Red Bull Technology. From Red Bull Racing's first test in Jerez it appeared the chassis was competitive and that Adrian Newey and his team had come up with a very promising package. This year marks the third year of our collaboration with Ferrari, which, on both a human and technical level, works very well. In 2008 we lined up two F1 novice drivers, but Bourdais now has 18 grands prix under his belt, and this year's rookie, Buemi, has already shown well in winter testing."

Williams - the FW31 nomenclature shows how long they have been around and they have enjoyed huge success in the past, but the last few years have not been kind to Williams and they have lost a frightening number of sponsors over the winter but Frank and Patrick are still hanging in there and fighting their corner.
 
Sam Michael, Technical Director “we’ve had a productive time evaluating aerodynamic components and mechanical set-ups, as well as putting valuable mileage on engines and transmissions to be ready for Melbourne. Although we have not completed our programme fully, the Toyota engine’s durability (with the new, longer life regulations) has been extremely impressive.”

Nico Rosberg as lead driver needs a boost this season, it’s been tough for him to commit this last two years as the cars have under performed, Kazuki Nakajima may contribute more in 2009, he seemed a bit over awed last year.

Honda – or as it now is Brawn F1 – has been rescued at the 11th hour by Ross Brawn buying all of the shares, having done a deal with Honda to buy all of the assets of the team and a deal with McLaren to supply engines and gearboxes. Much midnight oil has been burnt re-designing the back end of the car to accommodate the new engine and transmission but the team will suffer hugely from only taking part in the last two testing sessions and will inevitably be playing catch up through the first half of the season.

They will retain both Jenson Button, who would otherwise be out of work, and the most experienced F1 driver of all, Rubens Barrichello. Apparently both, and all of the management team, have taken a 50% pay cut to get to Melbourne. Given all of the uncertainties about the team, driver stability will prove to be critical in developing the car, even if that means not seeing the name of Senna once more on an F1 car... Surely someone will soon give Bruno a drive. Ross is frank about the limitations of their very late start but says “the journey ahead will be challenging but exciting and we know we can count on continued enthusiasm for our team and its ambitions."
 
Toyota - With Honda departing rapidly many expected the world's largest car maker, itself suffering a two thirds decline in global sales, to pull the plug on its less than successful F1 team but it has resolutely hung in there and may in 2009 finally be rewarded for it’s years of massive investment.
 
So far the new car has proved very quick in testing and Glock has once more confirmed he is one of the fastest rising stars of F1, expect them to be among the front runners this season even old stager Trulli seems re-enthused and is turning in some very respectable testing times. Expect much greater consistency in 2009 than in previous years, if not they may not be around in 2010 and the whole team know it
 
Force India were almost the last to launch just a week ago and their lack of pre-season testing will surely show during 2009. Having had a massive shake out of all of their top tech people last Autumn they have changed designers, technicians, engine suppliers etc etc in the space of a few weeks, pretty traumatic for any team. Force India will be hampered by lack of testing and development and are in for another disappointing season despite the Mercedes engine and gear box in the back, how long will they survive just on Kingfisher beer?


Prediction time!

So, how will this new season play itself out?

With sponsors dropping like flies it’s going to a tough one for all of the teams as they struggle to keep afloat without the vast amounts of money they have become used to in recent years, struggle to develop the radically new and different cars with, effectively, no in season testing and keep their place in the F1 pecking order as all about them changes.

2009 is likely to see many grid upsets and the form book will be re-written right from the first race.

McLaren and Ferrari are likely to remain the front runners by virtue of their technical and organisational strengths but the next up group will now include BMW, Red Bull and Toyota.

Williams and Renault are likely to have tough seasons, the former enduring another season sliding down the grid, the latter perhaps a bit slow to embrace the changes.

Toro Rosso are likely to have more flashes of brilliance but lack consistency whereas Force India will come to regret removing from their team virtually all of the experience they had on the pit wall, a management shake up that will prove cataclysmic however good the new car proves to be with it’s Mercedes engine.

The new Brawn F1 may well start to feature as a serious player in the second half of the season; I would never underrate anyone who has masterminded 7 world championships either from the wind tunnel or the pit wall or usually both.

For my money McLaren will prove to be on top of the new technologies faster than anyone and will build an early lead in both championships that will carry Lewis to his second title and the team, with an improving Kovalainen, to another constructors' title.
 


 
 

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