F1 2011 Season Preview: The Drivers and Teams

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 2011. Last season was a whole new game. Three new teams took to the track which brought the car count increase to 24 for the first time since 1997. All twelve teams return for 2011 which is an improvement over 1997 when there were 24 cars for only the opening race of the season. So to start our look at the 2011 F1 season, we look at the 12 teams that will be in the field and the drivers piloting the cars.

Red Bull-Renault
#1 Sebastian Vettel
#2 Mark Webber

As testing has proven, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The combination of Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and Adrian Newey’s RB6 dominated the world championship. While the Drivers’ title wasn’t decided until the final race, there was never any doubt that the RB6 was the best car on the grid. That’s why this year’s RB7 is essentially an evolution of the RB6. The car was never designed to maximize the potential of the double diffuser so its ban will affect Red Bull the least of all teams. The big question is how Webber and the team will co-exist this season. Webber was quite vocal that the team was favouring teammate Vettel. It is a bit of a surprise that he’s now talking about staying with Red Bull until he retires. But like I said, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This group won the title last year and there’s no reason to think that they can’t again this year.

#3 Lewis Hamilton
#4 Jenson Button

In 2009, the sweeping regulation changes caused McLaren to go very conservative with their car design and they were well off the pace. Fast forward to 2011 and people at McLaren and members of the media are talking about 2009 again. That’s not a good sign for the Brits. Hamilton and Button ran well for most of the season but couldn’t hold off the late season charges by Red Bull and Ferrari. Their 2011 challenger is probably the most radical looking of the field with the unique u-shaped sidepods which are designed to maximize clean airflow to the rear wing. In practice, the car has not been nearly as quick as they would hope. At the final test, the MP4-26 was well off the pace. If I’m a Macca supporter, I wouldn’t be expecting too much at the start of the season. Of course, Button is easy enough on his tyres that he could be fast enough over long runs that he can contend on pit stop strategy.

Scuderia Ferrari
#5 Fernando Alonso
#6 Felipe Massa

Despite having a chassis design that was initially described as conservative, Ferrari’s 150 Italia was one of the fastest in pre-season testing. It was also considered to be second-fastest to the Red Bull over the course of long-runs. Ferrari also focused a lot of their testing time on Grand Prix simulations and encountered very little in the way of reliability issues. Early in the season, finishing races will be just as important as raw speed so this plays to the advantage of Ferrari. The strength of the new Pirelli front tyres allows drivers to attack the apex of corners more than last year’s Bridgestones. That will play into the hands of Alonso and Massa who both like cars that oversteer which can be turned hard into corners.

Mercedes Grand Prix
#7 Michael Schumacher
#8 Nico Rosberg

Obviously, the big question heading into this season is will Michael Schumacher return to the form that made him a seven-time World Drivers’ Champion. At 42-years-old, it might be too much to ask of him to return to peak form. However, he has shown a couple of sparks that indicate that he can be one of the best on the grid. Maybe the talk will turn from when will Schumacher regain form to when will Schumacher retire again. If seven-time doesn’t get some early results, that will inevitable be the talk of the paddock. Nico Rosberg routinely outshone his teammate last year but some put that down to a car designed to be a bit more understeery which favoured Rosberg to Schumacher. The tendency of the car to oversteer or understeer will likely determine which Mercedes driver will finish on top. As for the car, it was off the pace for most of the winter but the W02 topped the time sheet at Barcelona for the final test of the pre-season. Testing times don’t mean much but that’s a good sign for the Silver Arrows.

Lotus Renault GP
#9 Nick Heidfeld
#10 Vitaly Petrov

It’s been an odd off-season for the former Renault squad. The Lotus Group bought Renault’s remaining 25% stake in Renault F1. Lotus will also be the title sponsor of the team through the 2017 season. That’s why the team’s R31 is painted in the old Lotus JPS colours of black and gold rather than last year’s yellow and black. As a result of Lotus buying into the team, LRGP will be racing under a British license for the first time since Renault took control of the team in 2002. Vitaly Petrov is back with the team after speculation that he would be dropped. (Russian sponsorship money will help you there.) Nick Heidfeld draws in for Robert Kubica who was injured in a rally in February. The R31 is one of the more radical designs on the grid this season. In order to improve downforce, it has an exhaust-blown diffuser with the exhaust outlets at the front of the sidepods. If the drivers are up to the task, Renault could be the #3 team this season. With Kubica at the wheel, it was a given that they would be a top five team. Without, I’m not so certain.

#11 Rubens Barrichello
#12 Pastor Maldonado

What happens when big sponsors like Phillips, RBS and Green Flag leave the team? You hire a pay driver. While he is the defending GP2 champion, Pastor Maldonado got his ride with Williams largely due to bringing a rumoured $36 million per year sponsor in Venezuelan petroleum company PDVSA. Rubens Barrichello retains his seat as team leader and mentor to the rookie Maldonado. Williams said they were bringing a fairly aggressively designed car into 2011. They’ve produced the smallest gearbox seen on a Williams F1 car and a small differential as well. The idea is that it improves the effectiveness of the rear wing and diffuser to increase downforce. Maximizing downforce is generally the name of the game in F1. While Williams hasn’t been the fastest during testing, they definitely have a good chance at scoring some podiums this season. However, I think there’s a substantial talent gap between Barrichello and Maldonado.

Force India-Mercedes
#14 Adrian Sutil
#15 Paul di Resta

After a season where it looked like they ready to make a leap solidly into the midfield, it looks as though Force India has regressed in 2011. Their testing pace has them slightly ahead of Lotus but not really in touch with any of the established teams. You almost have to wonder how much the team’s driver drama distracted them from hitting the ground running for testing. The team had four drivers under consideration for their cars at one point. Sutil was the team leader and likely to get a seat. Paul di Resta was likely to get a seat at the request of engine manufacturer Mercedes-Benz. Nico Hulkenberg was a free agent with upside thanks to his pole for Williams at Brazil. And Vitantonio Liuzzi was under contract and threatening to sue if he wasn’t racing. The team paid off Liuzzi and went with Sutil and di Resta. I can’t imagine that drama helped team morale or productivity over the winter. Force India has always run better on low-downforce tracks so perhaps the draw of testing tracks has not shown their strengths. However, I’m not convinced that this team hasn’t settled back to Midland/Spyker levels of performance.

#16 Kamui Kobayashi
#17 Sergio Perez

Between Sauber’s two drivers, there is a staggering 21 Grand Prix starts worth of experience. All of those starts belong to Kobayashi. The Japanese driver is considered one of the most exciting drivers currently in F1 thanks to his uncanny ability to overtake and his willingness to take a chance on an overtaking move. Sergio Perez finished 2nd in last year’s GP2 series which combined with sponsorship from Telmex got him a seat with Sauber. Neither driver is a slouch behind the wheel. They’ve both been quick in pre-season testing with Perez topping the sheets during one day’s running at last week’s final test. There definitely is some pace in the Sauber C30. It isn’t podium finish speed but they will definitely score a few points finishes.

Toro Rosso-Ferrari
#18 Sebastien Buemi
#19 Jaime Alguersuari

Toro Rosso will retain the same driver line-up as last season despite apparent pressure from sponsor/owner Red Bull to run their development driver Daniel Ricciardo. The consistency in drivers is offset by a change in designers. Changes in the rules have caused this year’s Toro Rosso to be essentially their first independently designed chassis as last year’s was derivative of the Red Bull RB5. The STR6 features a “double floor” and upswept sidepods designed to channel airflow to the rear wing and diffuser to maximize downforce. Toro Rosso has looked surprisingly quick in pre-season testing. There is definitely some potential to move up to the top half of the grid.

Team Lotus-Renault
#20 Jarno Trulli
#21 Heikki Kovalainen

Team Lotus is the only of the three new teams from the 2010 season that maintained the status quo for the 2011 season. There was a name change for the team with the name changing from Lotus Racing to the traditional Team Lotus name from the Colin Chapman days. The irony of that being that the team runs under the Malaysian flag despite being a British effort in just about every facet but owner. Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen return for a second season with Lotus despite rumours suggesting that the team would drop Trulli after the 2010 season. The car has been described by some cynical media members as looking like a modern Formula One car, a jab at the dated appearance of last year’s T127. It’s testing form has the team looking close to the midfield now. Getting out of Q1 on Saturday qualifying would be a good step in the right direction.

#22 Narain Karthikeyan
#23 Vitantonio Liuzzi

There’s really not much to say about Hispania right now. They’re probably looking to improve over their 13 retirements from 38 starts and best finish of 14th last season. Their 2011 car, the F111, made its debut during the lunch break during the second-last day of testing. The problem was that their car never actually reached the track because some parts were held up in customs. That begs the question of would HRT have been ready for the Bahrain Grand Prix had it not been cancelled. In other words, despite having a season under their belt, the crew at Hispania is no better off at the start of this season than last. In fact, I’d say they’re worse off at the start of this season because their rivals are all better prepared this season compared to last. HRT does have two new drivers in Karthikeyan and Liuzzi. In terms of experience and sponsorship money, it’s an improvement over 2010 but I can’t help but feel that Karthikeyan is a step down from Bruno Senna.

#24 Timo Glock
#25 Jerome d’Ambrosio

After finishing last place in 2010 by virtue of having one fewer 14th place finish than HRT, Virgin is looking to move off bottom in 2011. There are positive signs at Virgin. Russian car manufacturer Marussia purchased a controlling interest in the team after the 2010 season and guaranteed the team’s entry through the 2014 season. The team will be entered as a Russian team, rather than British, as a result. The capital inject has also allowed an upgrade in the team’s computational fluid dynamics facilities. Behind the wheel, Lucas di Grassi is out and 2010 GP2 12th place finisher Jerome d’Ambrosio is in. This team is definitely poised to improve from 12th place but I think anything higher than 11th would be nothing short of a miracle… Or a fluke.


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