The first decade of the 21st century is proving one of the most turbulent in the entire history of Formula One, in terms of changes to the rules of racing.
2006 sees the biggest change to the engine rules since turbos were banned at the end of 1988, as 2.4- litre V8s replace 3-litre V10s. We have our fifth qualifying procedure in four years, a knockout system halfway between A1 Grand Prix qualifying and the DTM ‘superpole’.
And – at long last – an extra team: The curious Super Aguri outfit, built by Honda to appease the masses of Japanese fans appalled by Honda’s sacking of Takuma Sato. Honda V8 engines are all the new team has going for them, stuck in a four-year-old Arrows chassis and piloted by total rookie Yuji Ide alongside Sato, who in three years never really justified his F1 place.
Wholesale changes to the technical rules tend to produce similar changes in the balance of power. And, sure enough, last year’s sixth-placed finishers Honda look like they have produced the goods for 2006. The car has proven stupendously reliable in testing, and Anthony Davidson fired an opening salvo before the team packed up for Bahrain, lapping Valencia half a second quicker than anyone else.
Honda look seriously competitive. But, then, they have some serious competition:
2005 champions Renault will lose reigning drivers’ champion Fernando Alonso to rivals McLaren for 2007. This cannot help internal relations and will cause Alonso to be kept in the dark about late-season technical development.
But the R26 has been bang on the testing pace and Alonso, whom many still carelessly underrate even after his championship year, will have even greater drive than last year. Team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella may find the new car’s handling more to his taste, but Alonso out-scored him 135-56 last year, and it’s hard to see Fisichella turning that kind of disadvantage around.
Last year’s runners-up have shown similar levels of prodigious speed and lousy reliability in testing as they did last season. But before wrapping up their test programme the radical chrome-effect machines were looking the equal of Renault and Honda.
Either Juan Pablo Montoya or Kimi Raikkonen will leave the team at the end of the year – or possibly both. Montoya is determined to bounce back from his injury- and error-riddled ’05 and overshadow Raikkonen in the same manner he threatened to towards the end of last year. Don’t bet against it happening, especially if Raikkonen confirms his rumoured move to Ferrari.
The prancing horse licked its wounds over the winter break and their 248, sporting aerodynamics clearly ‘inspired’ by Renault and Toyota, looks fast. Exactly how fast is difficult to say, as they’ve avoided testing alongside other teams, but the return of tyre changes will benefit rubber suppliers Bridgestone.
The obvious weak link is in Michael Schumacher’s new team-mate Felipe Massa, who seems like a one-year stop-gap before a potential megabucks partnership between Raikkonen and Moto GP hotshot Valentino Rossi – assuming, that is, that this really is Schumacher’s last year at the top level. Don’t count on it if the 248 brings him ’04 levels of dominance.
After making progress in 2005, their ‘must-show-progress’ season, Toyota enter their ‘must-finally-win-something’ season. Neither outright pace nor strong reliability have been much in evidence with the new package, which was first to hit the track late last year. Worse, home rivals Honda look very strong.
The intra-team rivalry at Toyota between the highly-paid Ralf Schumacher and highly-rated Jarno Trulli will be especially fascinating. Trulli took the most impressive results in ’05 and qualified strongly, but lost out to Ralf on points largely due to misfortune and unreliability. Will he firmly put one over baby Schu this year?
If one team seems to have got all their off-season decisions right, it’s Williams. Michelin, due to leave F1 at the end of ’06 anyway, are dropped for Bridgestone, who were much stronger before the one-off ’05 ‘no tyre change’ rules. GP2 champion Nico Rosberg (son of Williams legend Keke) arrives and so do Cosworth, replacing BMW who are off to do their own thing.
McLaren ace tester Alex Wurz has been poached and the arrival of Narain Kathikeyan – with his Tata megabucks – is the icing on the cake. The FW28 looks decidedly purposeful and even if it hasn’t been quite on the testing pace they’re certainly a good bet for strong points finishes early in the season.
The former BAR team look set to bounce back to their 2004 championship runner-up form – maybe even higher. Stability has been the name of their off-season game with the only significant change being the departure of shunt specialist Takuma Sato for seasoned veteran Rubens Barrichello.
Jenson Button’s bid for supremacy over his new team-mate will make for very interesting viewing, especially if, as seems likely, the two are battling over victories.
Red Bull Racing-Ferrari
After a surprisingly storming 2005, Red Bull have kept the pressure up during the off-season. Not content with poaching McLaren design ace Adrian Newey they have also incurred the wrath of Renault by luring many of their top staff away with fat wads of cash.
But the R2 – the first true Red Bull car – has had serious teething trouble in testing. The Ferrari engine may be an excellent power supply but its installation has proved difficult and the car has serious overheating problems – not ideal when the first two races will be in the sweltering heat of Bahrain and Malaysia.
BMW head honcho Mario Theissen has finally got his way and put an entire team at BMW’s disposal – yet, strangely, kept the ‘Sauber’ name, for the time being at least (presumably until they start winning.) The team have excellent resources at their disposal in the form of a massive wind tunnel, but the F1.06 looks basic and has shown little promise.
Jacques Villeneuve has clung tenaciously to his seat – to the obvious displeasure of Theissen & co. – and will have to put a resurgent (and now fully fit) Nick Heidfeld firmly in the shade to keep his place in Formula One.
Nor is their on-track performance likely to win them many admirers with a decidedly average-looking car and two rent-a-drivers. How long with owner Alex Schnaider consider it a worthwhile investment? Bernie Ecclestone has already said he mis-advised Schnaider about buying the teamâ€¦
Scuderia Toro Rosso-Cosworth
Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz knows a bargain when he sees one, and snapping up F1 minnows Minardi to form a Red Bull junior team (with an Italian name as an homage to the old Faenza squad) was one of his smartest moves yet.
’04 Formula 3000 champ Vitantonio Liuzzi finally gets a proper crack of the whip alongside Scott Speed – a somewhat inconsistent American who nonetheless could finally give those Stateside something to cheer about. Hell, they may even get a race to watch this yearâ€¦
Just how much did Honda’s public relations team hate the big bosses for dropping Japan’s favourite son Takuma Sato on the eve of his home race? Answer: so badly that Honda have shelled out serious cash to bundle him off into a Honda-powered ‘B’-team.
The FIA, sensing another precious signature on the ’07 Concorde Agreement, couldn’t butter up team owner (and ex-F1 driver) Aguri Suzuki quick enough – never mind letting them run four-year-old Arrows chassis and hand their bond payment in early. So much for keeping ‘embarrassingly bad’ teams from competing.