The races that will define the season

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

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.