The annual Ferrari junket to Madonna di Campiglio in the Italian Alps last week is, understandably, regarded by motor-racing journalists as the king of freebies. Expect a whole slew of sports stories about the new Formula One season, which roars off in a few weeks in Bahrain. But, in truth, 2011 has a fair bit to live up to.
There was an excellent narrative last year as the championship battle went to the wire in Abu Dhabi with four drivers still in the hunt. The season might have been a thriller but it was still very apparent that modern grand prix racing cars aren’t very good at their core purpose: racing.
So this year, a lot of very rich men will be crossing their fingers that the on-track show will have improved. A number of rule changes should make overtaking easier, though the purists hope that the exercise of getting ahead of the car in front doesn’t become so simple as to render the manoeuvre almost meaningless.
Gone are the dreaded exhaust-blown double diffusers at the back of the car, making close pursuit at corners impossible. In come the KERS (don’t ask) which provides extra power harvested from the brakes and, more importantly, the movable rear wing. A driver following an opponent less than a second ahead will be able to open a 5cm slot on his rear wing that will make his car much quicker in a straight line. The car in front will be almost defenceless.
No one is quite sure how all of this is going to play out and the five pre-season tests will be vital for the fine-tuning process as the teams grapple with the new gizmos. The need for a competitive car is a given but the main beneficiaries will be the drivers that adapt best. There are five world champions on the grid this year and all of them will be holding on tight to steering wheels that will have more buttons than a pearly queen’s jacket.
Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber at Red Bull, Fernando Alonso at Ferrari and McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton were the main players last season, but will they all be challenging again in 2011? My guess is that it might be tough for Webber after he seemed to unravel mentally at the sharp end of last year. The other three are champions and the cream of what Sir Jackie Stewart recently referred to as the ‘finest crop of drivers ever assembled’. There is little to separate them but if they all poured their talent into jars then Hamilton’s would be the fullest. The Englishman often made his McLaren go faster than it really wanted to and had no business in having an outside shot at the title in Abu Dhabi last November. Should Hamilton feel at one with his McLaren, then he will take some stopping. Is Lewis just too brilliant to be champion again, too flamboyant? In a sport where it pays to be methodical, is Hamilton too much of a virtuoso?
Hamilton’s team-mate Jenson Button and Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher are the other two former champions in the field. Button, I think, has had his moment. Schumacher might be more interesting, and worth an each-way tickle. He and Mercedes had largely given up on their car by the end of last season, but when it comes to activating KERS or the rear wing at the right moment the steely German could well be the most proficient. All those buttons on a steering wheel control a lot of factors, so cool heads and an analytical brain will be as vital as a heavy right foot and big dollop of bravery.
All along the pit lane in Valencia there will be designers and engineers hoping that they have built in the demon tweak that gives their cars the crucial edge that their rivals will spend 20 races trying to wipe out. The ingredients for the new season are enticing, whether they have that little on-track extra to top last season remains to be seen. The feeling is that it will have been worth the wait.