As I begin to write, 11 days, 15 hours, 40 minutes and 13 seconds is all that remains until the beginning of the first race weekend of the 2011 Formula 1 season. I’ve been observing F1 for most of my life, but 1989 was the year when my interest (and understanding) increased to the sort of level it still is now. It also marked the start of the post turbo era and the return to normally aspirated engines. It might also have marked the start of an era in F1 when a Sunday afternoon procession of increasingly expensive motors began. A procession lacking many of the attributes you’d look for in a race – not least that holy grail of overtaking.
For me, I feel much the same as I have at this point in the last 21 seasons: optimistic. Those who know me would rarely describe as an optimistic person. I have always been optimistic that the coming season would provide: more overtaking, no team absolutely dominating, more than two potential winning drivers, more than one potential championship winning team. In these regards, I have usually been disappointed. That is not to say that I have been more generally disappointed. I haven’t – there have been some great spectacles and extraordinary battles, just all too often with only two protagonists (Senna/Prost, Schumacher/Hill, Alonso/Schumacher, Schumacher/Hakinnen….). Every season, the technical battle and political strife provide a great deal of interest, without fail.
Without the degree of overtaking I would like, the next best thing to hope for is a season, where you cannot predict at the beginning who will triumph at the end; a season where there may be more than two different race winners. In all my time, it was 2003 that failed to disappoint. That is, of course until 2007.
What happened in 2007? (I hear you all say). The race, to the title that is, did not disappoint. It hasn’t disappointed since. There have been some processional races, but the last four seasons have provided interest right up to the wire – a bookie’s nightmare. The debate about what changed could rage and rage; the F1 rules are a work in progress and many factors change each year. The impact that any change will have on the racing is never easy to predict, and often is only understood with the help of much hindsight.
All I can offer is my own view. F1 has always had great drivers. In F1, just being a great driver is not enough. You need to be a great driver in the greatest car of the season (or as Schumacher proved, an exceptional driver in a good car). F1 has shown me that being a supreme driver in another formula is no guarantee of F1 greatness; similarly drivers with no previous conspicuous greatness find their place in F1. For the last four years we have had a large number of great drivers at one time. How have we ended up with so many great drivers at once? I think it is because of the previous rules which allowed for more testing and the use of the third driver at race weekends (for the less successful teams) that has delivered so many greats at once. It was in this try before you buy era (now sadly ended) that the likes of Kubica, Vettel and Hamilton, found their way into the money seats. 15 years before they may not have had the chance to be seen. But it isn’t just a surplus of good drivers that has made the difference.
As ever in F1 it is not just about the driver. In the post turbo era, all too often there has been a predominant car and one which may be able to clip at its heels given the right circumstances. This seems to have changed since 2007 and we now have a number of cars which could win any given race. There could be a number of reasons for this: the standard electronics package; the ban on engine development; season limits on the number of engines used; a clearly defined limit to testing; the apparent ability of teams to develop cars within a season. Often rule changes have little impact on the track but instead an impact on the car or how the team develops it.
All of this stands for the current season. But this year, I am slightly more optimistic than usual that we will see something other than a procession. For a start, we are going to have a different tyre supplier, providing tyres designed to degrade more rapidly than last year’s. We shall therefore return to the strategic decision making that went with refueling. We shall also see the return of KERS . We have seen KERS before, but this time it might be fitted to more of the field and may be more reliable. This time around it is combined with a moveable rear wing, which can be deployed, by the driver, at parts of the track, as determined by the stewards. Even the drivers seem unable to predict whether it will indeed result in more overtaking or not – I couldn’t possibly say, but I’m sure it will provide much interest, both on and off the pitch.
It seems to me, that in this limited testing world that the teams now find themselves, risks have to be taken with the design. It can already be seen from the pre-season testing that many teams have come up with radical ideas: McLaren with its interesting sidepods, Red Bull and Renault with new (and different) exhaust systems; And that is just to mention a couple – even the lesser teams are will be trying radical things. Just by looking at the cars, I can’t help feeling, that thus far there is no certain or prescribed way of building the fastest car for this season. We shall have to wait and see who has got it right. Few would doubt that the Red Bull and Ferrari will be fast cars, and that the McLaren and Mercedes will become fast cars. But this year there might just be one or two surprises from the mid field, or even the rear.
Bring it on, just 11 days, 12 hours, 49 minutes and 47 seconds to go.