It’s that time of year again race fans. We’re days away from the V8 engines of the Formula One World Championship firing up in anger for the first time in 2010. This season is a whole new game. Last season, 20 cars started every race. This year, 26 cars are expected to be at most races but not all of them. Of course, that’s assuming that there will be a full grid at any race this season. To start our look at the 2010 F1 season, we look at the 12 teams that will be in the field and the other two that missed the cut.
#1 Jenson Button
#2 Lewis Hamilton
They were slow out of the blocks last year but all the money poured into developing the car last year looks to have carried forward to this year. The MP4-25 has been among the fastest cars during pre-season testing but there are still questions about their race pace. The Mercedes engine is rumoured to be one of the least powerful on the grid and doesn’t get as good fuel efficiency as the Renault engine. The most interesting thing to look forward to with McLaren is the driver lineup. It’s the 2009 World Drivers’ Champion against the 2008 World Drivers’ Champion. The last two times that Macca paired two world championship calibre drivers (Senna/Prost and Alonso/Hamilton), it didn’t go so well. I think it’ll be third time lucky for them because Lewis should kick Jenson’s arse all over the world.
Mercedes Grand Prix
#3 Michael Schumacher
#4 Nico Rosberg
There were all sorts of rumours of big money coming into Brawn for 2010 but I don’t think anyone believed that it would be a manufacturer buying the team. After all, McLaren was supposed to be the target of a takeover by Mercedes, not Brawn. The Merc money will help the in-season development of the car which was lacking a bit in 2009. Also, with the MGP01 a little off the pace in testing, it wouldn’t be surprising to see rumours that Mercedes shareholders aren’t happy with putting money into another F1 team. However, bigger than the takeover is the man at the helm of Mercedes GP. No, it’s not Ross Brawn. It’s seven-time World Drivers’ Champion Michael Schumacher. He’s (statistically) the greatest driver in the history of Formula One. But he’s been out of the sport for three years so it still remains to be if he can handle a full season. It will also be interesting to see if he can handle Nico Rosberg. Nico has been rumoured to have been desired by McLaren at various times but mostly due to Mercedes pressure. Rosberg’s shown flashes of talent but never much consistency. If he can pick that up from Schumacher, that would be the best thing for his career.
#5 Sebastian Vettel
#6 Mark Webber
In 2009, the RB5 was the best car on the grid that wasn’t designed with a double diffuser in mind. Just another illustration of the genius of Red Bull designer Adrian Newey. Now that he’s had time to build a car around the double diffuser so its use can be maximized. The RB6 hasn’t had as much dedicated design and development time as the Ferrari F10 but Newey’s car should be at least as good. He had a better start than Ferrari so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that less time working with a head start on the Scuderia should at least get Red Bull in the same place. Last year, Vettel and Webber proved that they can win races and finish on the podium. Vettel needs to find some consistency and Webber needs to find some luck to win the title. However, if the car is fast enough, they’ll make their own consistency and luck.
#7 Felipe Massa
#8 Fernando Alonso
It was a rough 2009 for the Scuderia. They put so much time and effort into the F2008 that the F60 (their 2009 chassis) suffered as a result. Kimi Raikkonen did manage a sole victory the race after Massa was knocked unconscious by a spring that came off Rubens Barrichello’s car. The F10 has been in development since last June and the testing times would seem to indicate that things are well sorted out this season. Part of that may be because of their otherworldly driver lineup. Felipe Massa fell just a point short of a world title in 2008. Alonso is twice a WDC and was 2 points short in 2007. It would be very hard to debate that they aren’t the best driver lineup on the grid. Vettel and Webber are good but I would choose the Ferrari pair every time (with the possible exception in the event of an epic monsoon). Did I mention that they’ve redesigned their wheel nuts for faster pit stops? They’re ready for a run at both titles this year.
#9 Rubens Barrichello
#10 Nico Hulkenberg
Last season was disappointing for one of the most storied teams in F1. (Granted, given the turnover of owners and names in recent years, only Ferrari, McLaren, and Williams have something you could call a legacy.) They were fifth of those who are left but were often behind engine supplier Toyota. Their 2009 challenger just didn’t have the same jump as the other teams despite having a head start on the double diffusers. They were, in fact, slower with a double diffuser ready car than many of the teams with single diffusers. Driver talent has improved greatly this year. Barrichello might be long in the tooth but I’d say he’s still as fast as Nico Rosberg, though by the end of the season I’d rather Rosberg’s youth and fitness. Hulkenberg hasn’t impressed me much so far in testing but he’s an improvement over Kaz Nakajima. Still, 6th would be as high as I can see Williams going this year.
#11 Robert Kubica
#12 Vitaly Petrov
If things were bad for the French outfit last season, they’re worse this year. The team is basically Renault in only name as a Belgian venture capital group bought most of the shares in the team. There’s also little sponsorship on the car so in-season development should be minimal. Robert Kubica has complained of a general lack of grip which has kept it in the bottom third of testing times for the most part. Vitaly Petrov is a fairly competent driver in GP2 but hasn’t shown much in his F1 testing performances. I would fully expect the boys at Renault to be ahead of Virgin and Lotus but behind the rest of the teams on the grid.
#14 Adrian Sutil
#15 Vitantonio Liuzzi
After making a couple surprise challenges in 2009, Force India is poised to secure itself a spot at the top of the mid-pack cars. They’ve been the fastest of the non-Big Four teams for most of testing. This year’s car is basically an evolution of last year’s car with the key priority being increasing downforce so they’re more competitive at circuits not named Spa and Monza. It sure looked like a good working plan in testing. Adrian Sutil has long appeared to have some talent at the wheel of an F1 car. He found himself in contention for points a few times before he was eliminated by bad luck (or Kimi Raikkonen). Liuzzi should be fairly competitive with his teammate this year. He was almost as fast as Sutil right out of the box despite not having driven an F1 car for most of the year. This could very well be a make or break year for the Indian effort. If they can’t capitalize on the momentum they started building at the end of last year, they may never crack the Top 5.
#16 Sebastien Buemi
#17 Jaime Alguersuari
For the first time in the team’s history, they designed their own car rather than borrow Adrian Newey’s design for the big team. The good news for them is that like the RB6, the STR5 is based on last year’s Newey-designed chassis. Unlike last year, the car was designed with the Ferrari engine in mind so it should be more aerodynamically-efficient around the back half the car than the 2009 car which was modified to fit the Ferrari V8. The driver lineup hasn’t changed since last year which isn’t exactly a good thing. Buemi and Alguersuari aren’t exactly likely to set the world on fire. However, I think the jury might still be out on Alguersuari’s long-term potential as he’s only really getting to familiarize himself with an F1 car for the first time. Last year, he was tossed straight into the deep end and never really managed to do much more than tread water. This year will probably be his only shot to prove the critics wrong, otherwise he will be out of a ride as opposed to just barely hanging onto it like this year.
#18 Jarno Trulli
#19 Heikki Kovalainen
The Lotus lot are an interesting bunch. It’s a Malaysian team under a traditionally British name with an American sponsor (CNN) and Italian and Finnish drivers. It’s a very multi-national effort. Sadly, the Italian part of the team may be the most apt because Kovalainen was reported as saying that the T127 is worse than the Minardi he tested in 2003. That’s fairly high praise considering that Minardi was regularly 3 to 5 seconds off the pace. Trulli thinks they’re about 4 seconds off the pace. On short runs, they’re slower than Virgin F1 but easily make up for it during the race (see the Virgin preview below for the reason). It looks like the Lotus boys are the best of the poor new bunch that have been invited onto the 2010 grid. Remember in 2007 when Prodrive was given something like a year-and-a-half’s time to prepare for its first season? Why didn’t the FIA try something reasonably intelligent like that?
#20 Karun Chandhok
#21 Bruno Senna
One of the two approved new teams that may not make the grid this year. They’re apparently making a late push to be on the grid but who knows if they actually will make it to Bahrain. They recently got a new investor which forced a name change from Campos to Hispania Racing Team (HRT). The new money looks to have fixed all the issues that Campos was having in getting off the ground. They still have to overcome the problems of not having fired a car up or running it on track. Oh, and there’s the whole having two rookie drivers for their cars. Senna has tested an F1 car before and has been linked to a couple of rides. I don’t remember Chandhok getting a sniff from anyone but I wouldn’t be shocked if Force India gave him a test day once. It’s still a ways for HRT to make the grid but at least they were in better shape than the next team in our preview.
#XX Jose Maria Lopez
Oops… About that… They’ve closed up shop and at the very least given up on the 2010 F1 season. The best case scenario is that they’ll be allowed to defer their entry until 2011. The worst case is that the FIA tells them to take off (ya hosers) and not bother to reapply. It’s a shame, too, because they really seemed to have a decent plan in place when they made their proposal last summer. Between the failure of US F1 and the exodus of manufacturers from the sport, it appears we’re further than ever from an F1 return to the United States. And rumour has it that Lopez and his money are going to HRT as a test driver.
#22 Pedro de la Rosa
#23 Kamui Kobayashi
While Sauber (officially BMW Sauber, though I refuse to refer to them by that ridiculous name) is not new to F1, in the eyes of the FIA, they are. That’s because BMW withdrew and was replaced and Sauber’s entry bid was only approved once Toyota dropped out. It makes absolutely no sense when you think about it but the important thing is that Sauber is still in F1. They look to be a solidly mid-pack team. They’re near the top on qualifying speed but not as consistent on long runs because the car is having some tire management issues. The driver lineup is among the best of the new teams. Kobayashi was a real surprise replacing Timo Glock last year and opened many eyed when he pressured Jenson Button into a mistake in Abu Dhabi. Even if Button was fresh from a pit stop and Kobayashi was light, forcing the World Champion into a mental error is impressive for a rookie driver. Pedro de la Rosa is an expert car developer so having him work on setups will be an immense boost to the team and Kobayashi. For a small privateer team, this is probably the best lineup they could hoped for. Yes, I like this line up better than Lotus or Williams.
#24 Timo Glock
#25 Lucas di Grassi
Originally launched as Manor House, they were quickly taken over by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group who sponsored Brawn GP last year. That’s an awful big drop in the pecking order for a company that was looking for a successful team to sponsor for not a lot of money. It looks like Virgin will fail on both counts this year. The VR-01 was the first F1 car designed purely with Computational Fluid Dynamics so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the hydraulic system has suffered repeated failures. Seeing as the hydraulic system drives damn well near everything on the car, that’s a pretty big design problem. The team has a quick fix for the first few races and is working on a total overhaul of the system. So while Timo Glock might have good race pace, he won’t get to show it because his car may not make it past the first pitstop.
Stefan Grand Prix
#XX Jacques Villeneuve
#XX Kazuki Nakajima
They were all ready for the red lights to go out but when you piss off the FIA, they’re likely to cut off their nose to spite their face. They’ve shipped two cars and equipment to Bahrain for the opening race despite not having a spot on the grid. They signed the unimpressive Kaz Nakajima to drive and 1997 World Drivers’ Champion Jacques Villeneuve was rumoured to be the leading driver for the effort. SGP was probably the best positioned of the new teams to reach the mid-pack. They had the 1997 World Champion at the wheel and Toyota technology and financial backing for the season, after all. They would have easily trumped the rest of the new kids on the block but they had to complain about the tender process. Then they had to show up the FIA’s chosen boys by saying they’ll be in Bahrain to fill in any holes on the grid. They were needed to fill in US F1’s hole and would likely have done a damn good job of it too. But this is what you get when you deal with a ridiculously bureaucratic organization such as the FIA. It’s too bad. I was looking forward to a large grid this year.