Will the 2009 F1 rules allow Honda to catch McLaren, Ferrari & the rest?

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Honda are having a tough 2008 but have focussed their efforts on 2009
Honda are having a tough 2008 but have focussed their efforts on 2009

Next year will see the biggest change in the technical regulations for some time. It’s certainly the greatest since the grooved tyre/narrow track switch in 1998, and perhaps the largest overhaul of the rules since turbo engines were banned after 1988.

In 2009 F1 wing sizes will be reduced, movable front wing flaps allowed, slick tyres will return and engines will be allowed to use Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS). It’s a lot for the teams to get to grips with.

Some of those towards the rear of the field see this as their chance to make a leap forward and have sacrificed efforts on their 2008 programmes to get 2009 right. Which ones stand to make the biggest gains?

Honda are the team that seem to have gambled the most on next year. They’ve brought fewer developments to the 2008 car than their rivals and were the first team to test a working KERS. As a result, there have even been rumours that Fernando Alonso may join the team in 2009 as a stop-gap before his widely-expected switch to Ferrari in 2010 – because he considers Honda a better prospect for next year than Renault.

Force India might be expected to struggle in 2009 as one of F1’s smaller teams. However for the first time in several years it looks set to go into a second consecutive year with the same owner, and that consistency will be hugely welcome.

Team boss Vijay Mallya recently said:

Force India have clearly demonstrated that we have caught up and improved. One realises how tough Formula One really is and it reinforces the challenge that I have before me for 2009 to be really competitive.

I’m not only catching up from last season, but from the last three seasons. And we have caught up, even though F1 has become so competitive, which is good.

I am quite optimistic, however, that my experience so far has pointed us in the right direction. I now know precisely what I’m up against, so I can plan better. Maybe I learned the hard way, but it’s good to learn. So 2009 will be much more competitive for the Force India team.

Williams bought a stake in Automotive Hybrid Power, a company which makes Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems, in April. They also invested a lot of effort in their 2009 programme, but a few weeks ago revealed they were switching some efforts back to their 2008 campaign. Has the team lost its way?

Renault was telling everyone this time last year they would do much better in 2008 – but the R28 has scored fewer points so far than the R27 had at the same point last year. Their problems stem from a lack of engine power as recently admitted by Flavio Briatore, and continued difficulties adapting to the Bridgestone control tyres. The switch from grooved tyres to slicks will at least let them start from a clean sheet of paper in that respect.

Red Bull had a fire when they tried out a KERS, and have pointed out that they project is of little value to them, not being a car manufactuter. Given their lesser degree of resources relative to the like of BMW and Toyota, they may struggle early in 2009. What they intend to do with Toro Rosso isn’t clear.

BMW appeared to refocus their efforts on 2009 after achieving their objective of winning a race in Montreal. Rumours suggest Robert Kubica, who led the title race after Montreal, was not happy with this. They had a high-profile problem with KERS when one of their mechanics was electrocuted. But their Albert 2 supercomputer has allowed them to make excellent progress with aerodynamics and you’d expect them to do a good job of adapting to these new rules in particular.

Toyota have been strong supporters of the move to KERS and have encouraged the FIA to increase the power that can be supplied by the device. They manufacturer the world’s most hyped famous hybrid road car, the Prius. Toyota has made great progress in 2008 after a poor 2006 and 2007. But have they diverted enough of their resource to the 2009 aero programme?

Ferrari and McLaren will be pushing their 2008 programmes as hard as possible in an effort to win the championships. Their rivals will be hoping it compromises their ability to prepare for 2009, but Ferrari have said they are already manufacturing parts for next year.

McLaren’s rate of progress with its 2008 car seems to have outstripped even Ferrari’s, and the popular theory is the full resources of its expensive Technology Centre are now bearing fruit.

These two teams have been at the sharp end of F1 for decades and they’ve seen huge changes in the rules before. Are they going to be caught out by this one? I wouldn’t bet on it, but I’d look to the likes of Honda to make big steps forward next year.

Download next year’s regulations from the FIA site

F1 2009 season