The races that will define the season

Heikki Kovalainen, McLaren-Mercedes, 2008, Bahrain, 470150

Three races in, three different winners. The 2008 season hasn’t quite taken shape yet – there are still more questions than answers – but over the next few races that’s bound to change.

Barcelona and Istanbul are next on the itinerary and both are Ferrari strongholds. The red team have won five of the last seven races at the Circuit de Catalunya, and the last two Turkish Grands Prix.

If McLaren or BMW can take the fight to them at these venues, then we have a genuinely appealing season’s racing in prospect.

Monaco, on the other hand, was the scene of a dominant one-two for McLaren last year. Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton faced so little opposition they ended up warring between themselves. If the silver cars can’t challenge to win on merit around the streets of Monte-Carlo they can kiss their title hopes goodbye.

BMW are the hardest team to read at the moment. They’ve proven the F1.08 is quick enough for pole positions – but can it carry a race-winning strategy? Can the team keep up the pace of development throughout the season to keep the leaders in sight and even overtake them?

Ron Dennis says they can’t – but logically, to have closed the gap to Ferrari and McLaren over the winter, they must already be doing a pretty effective job…

The drivers

The situation between the top three teams’ drivers is even more interesting – and hard to read. On the face of it, all three teams are giving their drivers equal chance to win the races, at least for now.

The Kimi Raikkonen-Felipe Massa partnership continues to challenge expectations. Raikkonen is a champion and a very quick driver. But it’s been a few years since we saw a champion who wasn’t consistently ahead of his team mate week-in, week-out: Fernando Alonso did it to Giancarlo Fisichella, Michael Schumacher did it to Rubens Barrichello. But when Massa is ‘on it’, Raikkonen can’t live with him – and vice-versa.

McLaren’s start to the season has been so turbulent it’s difficult to say anything concrete about their drivers. But I think some of the paddock experts who were talking up Lewis Hamilton so much last year might have to make a little back tracking when confronted with how quick Heikki Kovalainen has been (two fastest laps in the last three races).

Hamilton has had three utterly different races: in Melbourne he was untouchable, and all the cards feel in his favour anyway. But in Sepang he was frustrated by misfortune and in Bahrain he was just nowhere.

In last week’s Autosport Mark Hughes suggested that something was playing on his mind (Kovalainen’s speed) and there were suggestions at Sepang on the Saturday that some kind of unforeseen drama in his personal life was at the root of his indifferent performance. Whether this is something or nothing, he’s had three weeks to get his head together and he can’t afford to drop the ball again.

Finally, Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld. After a season mostly in Heidfeld’s shadow, Kubica is the coming man once again. He had pole in Bahrain and he should have in Melbourne as well. In Bahrain only a few operational problems (getting the car off the line and not spotting the oil on the track on lap two) stopped him giving the Ferraris a much tougher time.

But has Kubica been flattered by BMW’s unusual approach to race strategy? In the first three races they’ve had one car on lighter fuel at the start, one with a more ‘normal’ fuel level. At Melbourne and Bahrain, Kubica had the lighter car, and started both races from the front of the grid.

It was Heidfeld’s turn at Sepang… and he got baulked by the McLarens. If he’s on the lighter strategy at Barcelona, put a few pounds/dollars/euros/rai stones on him.

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18 comments on The races that will define the season

  1. Journeyer said on 21st April 2008, 12:58

    rai stones?  Hahaha!  Some kind of inside joke, Keith?  :p

  2. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 21st April 2008, 13:11

    Nah I just wanted to end on a (sort of) joke…

  3. sChUmAcHeRtHeGrEaTeStEvEr said on 21st April 2008, 13:52

    i think the next 2 races will be won by ferrari, probably easily i think the winner will be decided by how good massa is, if hes in any kind of form like bahrain kimi will be struggling to get near im but if he cant beat him i think hell be 2nd in both so he wont lose out too much to massa.

    i dont think maclaren or bww will be able to beat the ferraris so i think itl be a close fight for the last podium place and i think if he wants to keep his championship hopes alive hamilton needs to score as many points as he can at the races ferrari are stronger so i think hel be thrid in both races. he needs a good result after 2 dissapointing performances in sepang and sakhir.

    i think bmw will remain close to mclaren and ferrari but i dont think theyl start troubling fpor wins just yet.

    just hope for some kind of action in spain as usually its the most boring race of the year…and istanbul isnt normally much better either.

  4. Dan M said on 21st April 2008, 15:45

    sChUmAcHeRtHeGrEaTeStEvEr-  Would we expect you to choose anyone else to win?

    Here’s hoping for Nick to be on the top step (and yet still shorter than the others). He deserves it. Remember that he was faster than Kimi back in the Sauber days.

  5. frecon said on 21st April 2008, 15:57

    There is a fact that maybe a lot of people unknow. In the last fifteen years, 13 times, the car which won Spanish GP, was the car of the champion. I mean, last year won Felipe, and the championship was won by Kimi, but both of them drove Ferrari.

    Some engineers says that if your car is fast in Montmelo, it will be fast in most of the others circuits. I think this weekend we can have a very accurate idea of the real contenders for the championship.

  6. Journeyer said on 21st April 2008, 16:14

    Good point, frecon!

    In fact, the pole sitter for all but two of the races in Montmelo have gone on to become champion.  The 2 exceptions were Kimi in 2005 and Felipe last year.  Otherwise, all have become champion.  :)

  7. frecon said on 21st April 2008, 16:38

    I case some is interested in the whole stats

    Year – Spanish GP (Circuit of Catalunya) – Championship
    1991 – Mansell (Williams-Renault) – Senna (McLaren)
    1992 – Mansell (Williams-Renault) – Mansell (Will-Ren)
    1993 – Prost (Williams-Renault) – Prost (Will-Ren)
    1994 – Hill (Will-Renault) – Schumacher (Benetton-Renault)
    1995 – Schumacher (Benetton-Reanult) – Schu (Ben-Ren)
    1996 – Schumacher (Ferrari) – Hill (Williams-Renault)
    1997 – Villeneuve (Will-Ren) – Villeneuve (Will-Ren)
    1998 – Hakkinen (McLaren) – Hakkinen (McLaren)
    1999 – Hakkinen (McLaren) – Hakkinen (McLaren)
    2000 – Hakkinen (McLaren) – Schumacher (Ferrari)
    2001 – Schumacher (Ferrari) – Schumacher (Ferrari)
    2002 – Schumacher (Ferrari) – Schumacher (Ferrari)
    2003 – Schumacher (Ferrari) – Schumacher (Ferrari)
    2004 – Schumacher (Ferrari) – Schumacher (Ferrari)
    2005 – Raikkonen (McLaren) – Alonso (Renault)
    2006 – Alonso (Renault) – Alonso (Renault)
    2007 – Massa (Ferrari) – Raikkonen (Ferrari)

  8. I think the most interesting thing will be if Fernando Alonso can squeek out a win at some point this year.  He is in contention for best driver of all time…  winning a race or two this year in an inferior car and then winning a couple of championships in a row with Ferrari or some one else will put him very rare air.He is already on the list for being the youngest champ (twice!) and he doesn’t seem to have lost any of his edge after finishing one point out with perhaps the most disfunctional and poorly managed major teams in history.Alonso has taken a lot of criticism for his public dissatisfaction and "whining"  but anyone who is surprised by a Spaniard acting in an arrogant and egotistical manner are just not paying attention.

  9. Gman said on 21st April 2008, 18:52

    For all of you F1 vets out there, would you say that the Spanish GP at it’s current venue is more boring/dull than other races with that same reputation- say, perhaps, Hungary?

  10. To be honest I am never sure why Hungary or Circuit of Catalunya are never threatened but Silverstone and Spa always seem to be.

    I hope that the new Spanish Grand Prix (European Grand Prix technically) is an enourmous success. This means that once Alonso leaves the sport (many years from now no doubt) it will be there and not Circuit of Catalunya that becomes the Spanish Grand Prix.

  11. Dan M said on 21st April 2008, 19:52

    Atleast Hungary has one good turn.

  12. Lady Snowcat said on 21st April 2008, 20:39

    Massa is pretty handy in Spain and Turkey so although I am an avid Kimi fan I think Felipe will do well…

    But he’ll be nowhere again at Monaco…

    Kimi will do well in all three even if he doesn’t win them all … and unless the car breaks down….

  13. Wesley said on 21st April 2008, 22:51

    I am keeping my eyes on Nick and Kimi to be very fast this year.Kubica is really showing speed too.I don’t think Hamilton is as much of a threat as everyone thinks.McLaren still has the edge in Monaco,Ferrari @ Monza but ,BMW is going to give fight all season .BMW POWER !!

  14. Daniel said on 22nd April 2008, 0:10

    Massa desperately needs to win at Barcelona and Istanbul… only after "defending his points" (to make a tennis analogy), I think he’ll be a real title contender for this season…

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