The 2009 Formula One season, only two months away from the first race, has more uncertainty surrounding it than for many a season.
Although the driver line-ups are more or less finalised with only Torro Rosso and Force India still to make a decision about their drivers, there are still many aspects of Formula One that are raising questions.
Off-season news and rumblings
The big news from the off-season is the decision by Honda to withdraw from Formula One and sell the team.
This leaves Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello wondering whether or not they will have a team to drive for in 2009 as rumours of potential bidders for the team emerge. Even before the announcement, it was not clear if Barrichello’s contract would be renewed, and the new owners (if any) will wonder whether his salary can be justified.
This leads into the other main story—the global economic crisis.
Honda’s decision is merely the most obvious sign of the tightening of belts that will be required throughout the sport. The future of other teams will also come into question, notably Williams and Torro Rosso.
Williams has drifted away from the pack at the front of the field ever since their split with Renault after the 1997 season. The link-up with BMW that saw them win ten races promised much but never came close to winning a championship, and the relationship was always fractious, with the fragility of the engine costing the team several victories early in their partnership, and BMW unhappy with the performance of the chassis in later years.
Without a major manufacturer backing them, Williams have been unable to match the budgets of the bigger teams, and although they have confirmed that the vast majority of their budget for 2009 is in place, they do appear to be vulnerable in the current economic climate.
Torro Rosso is a slightly different case. The Red Bull subsidiary made significant progress in 2008, winning in the rain at Monza with Sebastian Vettel and generally outperforming their parent team. However, they look set to fall foul of rules outlawing the use of customer chassis, and without a significant budget and manufacturing team allocated to the separate development of their own chassis, the future of the team is uncertain.
In addition, former part owner Gerhard Berger has sold his share in the team to Red Bull, and their continued investment in two separate teams in Formula 1 looks dubious if they are unable to utilise a “customer” car.
More generally, there remains a concern that manufacturers may reduce their support for the teams given their problems in the commercial world, that sponsors may withdraw or default on their payments, and that promoters and race venues may find that the economic decline leaves them precariously placed, and potentially unable to deliver events.
What’s new for 2009?
The season looks set to consist of 17 races according to the official schedule, beginning later than normal, at the end of March, and concluding on 1st November.
The final race is set to be at a new venue, the Yas Island Circuit in Dubai, which is still under construction as of this article. Other changes include the move back to Suzuka for the Japanese GP, and no place in the calendar for either France or Canada.
The French race has been under threat, with Bernie Ecclestone frequently asserting that he wanted a race in Parisinstead of the circuit at Nevers. The Magny-Cours circuit has had many detractors over the years, concerned about the dullness of the configuration, the site (in the middle of nowhere in central France) and the ownership.
Magny-Cours was one of the pet projects of Max Mosley’s predecessor Jean-Marie Balestre and used by the former Ligier team as a test track after it had been refurbished in the 1980s, but has long been considered under threat because of Ecclestone’s commercial interest in the Paul Ricard circuit and, of late, his desire to move the Grand Prix to a more prestigious location.
The Canadian Grand Prix has also been one of the races that has been regularly under threat in recent years. In the case of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve this has primarily been through commercial pressures, and with promoters unable to find the significant staging fees required by the FIA.
In terms of team structures, the most interesting change is that of Force India. Having used Ferrari engines in 2008, they have switched to Mercedes.
For 2009, a significant number of changes have been made to the rules.
In terms of the chassis, the most visible one is in the size of the rear wing, which has been considerably reduced.
There are also three technical changes which may or may not have a significant impact on the 2009 Championship.
First is the return to slick tyres. For the first time since 1997, the cars will run on tyres with no grooves. The prevailing philosophy that the grooves were required as a safety measure to reduce speeds has been overturned, with a return to maintaining a larger contact patch on the road and ensuring cornering stability.
Bridgestone will continue to be the contracted sole supplier of tyres and the FIA believe this means that as there is no competition between tyre brands, it should be relatively simple to control the tyre quality and ultimately to keep top speeds within reasonable limits.
The second technical change is that engines will be required to last for three races instead of two (following one allowed “joker” change of engine). This is intended to reduce the cost of supplying engines, but will probably not have a significant effect as the season progresses unless one manufacturer has specific issues with their reliability.
The final change is the adoption of KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) that can be used to store energy generated during braking for subsequent use during acceleration at the driver’s discretion. If successfully created, this may give a significant advantage to those teams whose developments come on stream earliest or which are the most efficient, however there has been considerable scepticism from drivers that KERS can both be implemented safely and still provide any significant advantage.
The 2009 Drivers Championship
Given all the above, the only significant area left to discuss is the identity of the contenders for the Drivers Championship in 2009.
Following Lewis Hamilton’s success in 2008, it appears that he will once again have a slight advantage in 2009. Whilst teammate Heikki Kovaleinen managed to win one race last year, he was never a threat to Hamilton, and therefore the defending Champion knows that he is the clear number one driver in his team.
By contrast, Felipe Massa’s performance in 2008 has created something of a dilemma for Ferrari, as they now know that they have two drivers capable of winning the title. Kimi Raikonnen will still be considered by many to be the better driver and most likely to repeat his success of 2007, but he knows that his teammate will be very hard to beat in 2009.
BMW started 2008 very well, and Robert Kubica managed to score points at an incredible rate and keep himself in with a shout of the Championship until late in the season, but his prospects for 2009 may well depend much more on how he adapts to the new car than his rivals. Teammate Nick Heidfeld has shown flashes of brilliance in the past, but it seems as though he has missed his time and been overtaken by Kubica.
Renault benefited from BMW’s performance drop off in the latter part of the year, and Fernando Alonso drove two canny races in Fuji and Singapore to pick up the pieces of races that might have dropped to anyone. The car improved as the year went along, and Alonso’s performances also improved as he gained confidence that his car could reach the heights he was looking for.
Alonso will once again be restricted by the level of performance that he can get out of the Renault, but if they continue to make significant strides could emerge as a title contender when others fall by the wayside.
Those will be the main contenders short of a real jump forward by any of the engineering teams. Whilst the likes of Vettel and Rosberg showed what they could do in 2008, I don’t expect either to have the car to challenge on a consistent basis.
Ultimately I expect Lewis Hamilton to retain his crown, but that it will be a hard-fought battle in 2009.