The Ben Evans column – first thoughts on 2008

Posted on | Author Ben Evans

Lewis Hamilton, Heikki Kovalainen, McLaren-Mercedes MP4/23 launch, 2008, 2Already 2008 is looking like being one of the most interesting F1 seasons for a long time, if only because if 2007 was a year of transition, then 2008 will be a year of consolidation (although there are a good number of top driver moves too).

This is just my hunch, but I think that 2008 will be all about Ferrari domination.

By the end of 2007 the Raikkonen-Ferrari package was the one on the pit-lane that was working the most effectively. Sure the McLarens were quicker, but Raikkonen and his Ferrari seemed as one, whereas Hamilton and Alonso were never 100% hooked up.

Furthermore Raikkonen drove a champion’s season, when he didn?t feel the car was 100% he didn?t give 100% (e.g. Monaco), but instead he let the car come to him throughout the season so that he went into the final few races knowing that he would come away from the weekend unable to physically have gone any quicker.

Unlike McLaren and Renault, Ferrari is retaining the same driver line up for 2008.

Felipe Massa is still something of an enigma. He?s by no means a straight number two (like, say, Giancarlo Fisichella), as on his day he very fast. But fast Massa only shows up on six or seven Sundays out of 17. In fact Massa makes something of a perfect spoiler, unlikely to be consistent enough to seriously challenge for the title, but plenty quick enough to ruin Hamilton?s day if Raikkonen is off song.

Arguably in 2007 McLaren were de-railed (on the track at least) because they had two drivers going for the title, whereas Ferrari had one championship contender and another rapid pedaller, who could be deployed as needed (as in Brazil).

McLaren go into 2008 with golden boy Lewis Hamilton firmly ensconced in the team. However I have a hunch that he will receive a much stiffer challenge from Heikki Koivalinen than many are anticipating. This is for a number of reasons.

Like it or loathe it, in 2007 Hamilton was the beneficiary of Alonso?s astounding ability to develop and set-up a race car. Hamilton?s downfall came on the days when he couldn?t rely on the McLaren to be glued to the circuit ?ǣ the changeable conditions in Germany and China. On the days when the set-up wasn?t a dilemma Hamilton was unstoppable, but when he had to rely on feel he faltered.

On the other hand Heikki has feel in abundance, his natural car control is beyond question. Despite his year as a Renault test driver, he is maybe not as consistent in setting up a car so perfectly as Alonso. If Hamilton and Kovalainen do not set-up the McLaren to be bang on the money every time out (as happened in almost every race in 2007), then I think Heikki will come out on top as he is seemingly far happier to rely on feel and instinct than Hamilton.

Likewise I struggle to see McLaren being as dominant as they were in 2007. For all the negativity that Alonso fostered in McLaren, he came as close to winning the title as Hamilton did and did a huge amount to drive the car?s development. He may prove to be a bigger loss than Uncle Ron would care to acknowledge.

Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, 2008, pre-season test, Fiorano | Ferrari S.p.A.So Alonso returns to the fold at Renault, arguably his spiritual home. This move means that Renault?s now overflowing driver development scheme is likely to place up and coming drivers with QPR as a means of keeping them in Flavio?s clutches.

However the Renault Brazilian flair player Nelson Piquet Jnr has been promoted to the race team ?ǣ largely on the basis that he is less likely to pressurise Alonso than Heikki Koivalinen was. I understand Taki Inoue is on standby to take the seat mid-season if Piquet proves too fast.

However I think this is unlikely given that Piquet has never been as quick as his publicists would have you believe. Sure he won the British Formula Three Championship, but given that his main rival (Adam Carroll) was running on a minuscule budget with no testing, this is perhaps as much a triumph of circumstance. Likewise in GP2 he flattered to deceive, always being there or thereabouts but never really a locked-in favourite. At least his surly demeanour will prove a fitting replacement for Ralf Schumacher.

So what of everybody?s favourite pantomime villain (if you?re English), or second coming (if you?re Spanish)? Well Renault is Alonso?s home team and as such it is easy to expect great things. However Renault had a bad year in 2007 and seemed far enough from the pace that even Alonso would have struggled to turn the car into regular podium fodder.

You also wonder if going into 2008, Alonso is racing to win, or to beat Lewis Hamilton. I predict sparks flying whenever they meet on-track.

As for the rest. BMW will hopefully build on 2007 and with and ego and superstar-free setup they could be the dark horses of the year. Both Kubica and Heidfeld know a lot about the ups and downs of F1 racing and are safe bets for keeping a level head.

Honda need a good year or could seriously face closure ?ǣ after all what sensible organisation would pump hundreds of millions of dollars at an embarrassing and doomed enterprise?

Williams were one of the surprises of 2007, although the line-up is lacking in the development skills bought by Alex Wurz. For my money Nakajima is in the car a year too early, and Toyota could well spend much of the year underwriting substantial damage bills.

The Toyota works team seems all set to plough its unique furrow of mediocrity ?ǣ how long before Timo Glock develops the going-for-ninth mentality that has stymied the team in recent seasons?

Red Bull are another enterprise which must surely start performing to justify the investment. Mark Webber and David Coulthard are both solid performers, but its hard to see the package picking up much beyond a few fifth places. Toro Rosso have one of the more tantalising line-ups. Sebastian Vettel has proved his F1 worthiness but risks being poached mid-season, whereas Sebastien Bourdais will be either a triumph or disaster. There is no doubt the Frenchman is supremely talented, but for one so accustomed to winning, fighting for 17th place may be too disheartening.

Super Aguri seem all set for another year in 2008 and by retaining Sato and Davidson they remain likely to keep embarrassing their parent team. Force India on the other hand have ‘back row’ written all over them. If the team can afford to hire two drivers (rather than accept open chequebooks), then there may be some meaningful development of the car (for the first time since 2002/3 in the old Jordan days), but points will only come should the rest fall off.

Photos: Daimler | Ferrari S.p.A.

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Ben Evans

Contributing writer.