F1 2011: the preview

They had another test, that F1 lot, cheekily, after the Bahrain Grand Prix was postponed due to internal problems. But the testing is finally over and now the talking will be done on the track by five world champions and their magnificent machines. There’s reigning champion Sebastian Vettel, in a Red Bull RB7, with his team-mate Mark Webber finally injury-free. There’s the fiery Spaniard Fernando Alonso, smarting from having done so much mid-late season 2010 and having lost the title at the last race. Then there’s the British boys in their silver McLarens, and their German rivals across the stable at Mercedes. And if that wasn’t enough, they’ve gone done spicing up the rules and regulations into the bargain. Hold tight. This is going to be a cracker.

Three drivers to watch
Before a wheel has been turned in anger you’d be a fool not to put your money on Sebastian Vettel. The man took his first title last season, closing with a series of metronomic performances that underlined his talent, even if 2010 as a whole had featured some impetuous errors. But that’s exactly why he is my bet for the 2011 title; because the pressure is off. Vettel should be a confident driver this season, and confidence as a personality feature in racing drivers of his ilk should terrify his rivals. Vettel is one of the fleetest of foot in modern times; his all-time greatness is only debatable at the moment because of the level of talent around him. But the fact that at the age of 22 he beat them last year… What is more, there is some evidence from testing that the RB7 is every bit as fast as its predecessor. Be afraid, the rest.

At this stage it seems as though Fernando Alonso is the only man who can hold a candle to Vettel for the championship in 2011. With the Ferrari F150th Italia looking at least as competent as its previous incarnation, Alonso is more determined this year, and he will be very disappointed if he doesn’t open his winning account early on in the season. Alonso is also more of a strategist, a thinker, as well as being more experienced than Vettel, and that could play to his advantage this season. During testing, drivers have reported a few difficulties with the number of buttons on the steering wheel – they are required, this season, to adjust the rear wing, turn KERS on and off, adjust the brake bias and deal with Pirelli tyres that reportedly degrade faster than anything else ever. And this is over and above figuring out their race strategy on the hoof. Alonso might just be good enough for all that.

It is for the same reason that Michael Schumacher is my third driver to watch this season. He is magic at dealing with moving goalposts, and anyone who believes he has lost that cunning may have to eat their words this season. He’s not as rapid as he was, it’s true, but he is mighty determined to prove the doubters wrong and will have been working massively hard over the winter to make sure he is in prime shape to supervise that consumption of humble pie. As hard, perhaps, as his team, whose W02 effort was not the car it was hoped to be at the first two tests over the winter. So they brought a comprehensive upgrade to the final test in Barcelona and it went and set the fastest time of all in Schumacher’s hands, no small statement of intent. You’d back it to be reliable, as well, something which Red Bull and Ferrari may trip up on this season. Schumacher may not win the title but he will surely challenge for the upper echelons of the grid. It’ll be worth watching.

Best of the rest
Lewis Hamilton is always entertaining, not least when the odds are pitted against him see 2009. This looks as though it is going to be the case again this season, as the radical MP4-26 does not seem to have the pace to match its swagger. Today’s announcement that McLaren are changing their entire exhaust system, three days before the start of the season proper, is not a good sign, by any means. But it has been said before the greats distinguish themselves in mediocre machinery, and sadly enough for his record-breaking aspirations, Hamilton may be only emphasising his skills to the connoisseurs this year. But he will be showing those skills, you can rest assured, which means talk of his leaving McLaren for pastures new is premature at best.

Then there’s Renault, who despite having lost Robert Kubica, may still have come up with a decent car in the R31. It’s got innovative exhausts designed to run hot air over the rear diffuser, for one thing. It really remains to be seen whether their makeshift line-up can step up to the plate. Heidfeld is in the last chance saloon, career-wise, whereas Petrov is unproven and could be more of a liability than an asset.

While we’re on the topic of nice-looking cars, we have Williams, whose rather neat new livery (whisper it) harks back to its Rothmans-sponsored designs of 1994-1997. This is no reason why it should be quick, of course, but their previous experience with KERS and some not-too-shabby times in Spain this winter are. Their driver line-up may be a weak point, though, with Rubinho’s skills surely on the wane and a pay Venezuelan in the other seat.

Over at Lotus (the green one) the picture looks good too. This is the team that stopped developing their first-born mid-2010 and still managed somewhat comfortably to be the best of the newbies. Jarno Trulli has spoken in confident tones of the neatness of Mike Gascoyne’s latest creation, and in this era of new technology, it may be that the tortoise triumphs over the hare on occasion.

Some who might not be so good
Loth as one might be to put him in this list, Jenson Button needs a car which suits him, and there is no indication at this point that the MP4-26 suits anybody. Button will not lack motivation but it is entirely reasonable to suppose, on the grounds of history, that he will have more difficulty driving around his car’s idiosyncrasies than will his team-mate.

Felipe Massa also faces a torrid season of being outdriven by the man in the other car. He desperately needs a big season to turn around the perception that he is a perpetual number two. He is capable of turning in performances, is the Brazilian, but not often enough for his fans’ liking.

Take nothing away from Mark Webber’s drive or determination – but this could be a challenging season for him too. The distracting nature of contract talks will come to be a factor in Webber’s season, and Christian Horner’s words in the last few weeks have hardly been confidence-inducing. But that may spur the feisty Australian on – he too will not have many more chances of glory.

As for HRT and Virgin it is sadly very difficult to see these two, the teams who were at the back last season, being competitive.

And the rest…
In the other Mercedes, Nico Rosberg’s fortunes depend almost entirely on how good this W02 is. If it isn’t amazing, especially with its tyres, he could look very good, again in particular by comparison to his illustrious team-mate. If the car is good, I expect the two to be very close indeed, probably closer than either Rosberg fans or Schumacher devotees suspect.

Sauber have got Sergio Perez on board, who may not be just a billboard conductor for Telmex. With Kamui Kobayashi opposite him, at any rate, he would soon be found out if that were the case. Toro Rosso have made a habit in recent years of looking decent in the off-season, and whatever the reason for that, you’d hope they might spring a surprise. From testing, Force India look like they might be facing an uphill battle to score a podium, but Scot Paul di Resta will surely distinguish himself as the best rookie this season.

The last word
No one really knows how moveable wings, tyres made of tissue paper and effective KERS are going to affect the racing. The fear, though, is that the FIA, in seeking justifiably to improve the spectacle, may have gone too far. Word swirls around that the powers-that-be are prepared to amend the regulations at the drop of a hat. Not the mark of supreme confidence, but only time will tell. On more practical matters, the time for talking is so very nearly over. Albert Park is the most fitting of places to start what promises to be an outstanding season. Roll on Melbourne…