F1 2009 Preview: Brawn, Ferrari Fast, McLaren Searching

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F1 2009 Preview: Brawn, Ferrari Fast, McLaren Searching
(Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

New rules, new races, new cars, new technology…new season! The 2009 Formula 1 Season will commence this weekend in Melbourne Australia after, arguably, the most radical changes in formula the sport has ever seen.

Sure, we’ve had preseason testing to gauge how teams are doing, but that isn’t always the most accurate of portrayals. In 2001, the Prost team was very quick all through testing. However, that was because they ran the car underweight, hoping their appearance near the top of the time sheets would attract sponsors.

Once the season started, they added weight to the car (to make it legal) dropped to the back, eventually falling off the grid entirely.

Of course, preseason testing is all we have to bank on right now, and many a headline has been made throughout the winter. So, what do we have to look forward to this season? Who might be slated to do what? Who could potentially make headlines (whether good or bad) this season?

Brawn GP: Are they for Real?

It appeared that Formula 1 was dangerously close to losing a second team in less than 12 months (Super Aguri shut down last May). That is, until Ross Brawn (one of the masterminds behind the dominance of Michael Schumacher) formally bought into the outfit.

They were saved…and that was enough to make us all happy. Surely, they would simply take up Honda’s usual spot near the back of the field right?

Hold on though. They may have gotten a late start in testing, but the BGP001 has been a rocket straight out of the gate, topping several sessions over the past month.

Raise your hand if you saw this one coming. Don’t worry, I don’t think anyone did. But, perhaps it shouldn’t be that much a surprise. Their car has been in the works longer than anyone’s, and Ross Brawn’s technical mastery did touch this piece.

Sure, it is only testing, and we won’t know the full capabilities of the car until Melbourne (or afterward, given the recent Diffuser row). All the same, it is has been a sensational month for Brawn GP, and they have won over many a heart for those who love pulling for the underdogs.

If their testing pace proves truthful, watch for Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello to not only have a resurgence, but to potentially contend for a title.

No one knows what will come of this operation

But one thing is for certain. With a team that was believed to be all but dead, a car always assumed to be as sluggish as the previous chassis, two drivers many believed to have past their best days. The latest start of all the teams, they could be the Cinderella story of the year. What a joy it would be to see them stun the big dogs!

Ferrari Confident, McLaren Confused

As has been the norm, Ferrari produced a very competitive piece. Mother Nature did her best to hinder the team’s development, throwing all things rain and sand at them, preventing them from showing what the car may truly be capable of.

However, Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa exude a quiet confidence that suggests they will be strong again this year. One shouldn’t be completely shocked here, as Ferrari is always a team that is near the top of the time sheets.

What is surprising is the obvious lack of pace from the new McLaren. Sure, Heikki Kovalainen did turn the fastest lap of all during the final Jerez session, but the car lingered at the back for so long that it has eyebrows raised in concern over in Woking.

It is very clear that the McLaren is lacking speed, and team principal Martin Whitmarsh has admitted such. However, this could be a test for reigning champ Lewis Hamilton.

Many believe that the truly great drivers can win with a car that is not fast enough to do so; transcending the car’s capabilities by dragging it up the grid has been a defining aspect of the abilities of Senna, Schumacher, etc.

One of the big arguments against Hamilton has been that he has driven one of the best (if not the best) cars on the grid; he is a product of the team, not of sublime driving ability.

This year, he won’t have the luxury of driving one of the best pieces. If he can manage to take the MP4/24 and thrust it into podiums, or even a win, in the first few races, then he will cement himself as a top tier driver whose success is because of his talent, not the car the he drives.

A championship may not beckon this year, but a chance to prove his real worth is. Keep an eye on him and how he handles the adversity to come.

BMW, Toyota Aim for Title, Renault Hope for More Alonso Magic

BMW Sauber has been tabbed as a potential title contender since last year. In each season under the leadership of Mario Thiessen, the German-Swiss operation has set and matched every goal they’ve set out: regular points in ’06, podiums in ’07, and a win in ’08.

Now, they’ve set their eyes on the big prize: a world championship. Like the boys at Ferrari, Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica seem confident that their car will be fast, and their KERS is ready to race, which could give them a huge advantage.

On the flip side, the Renault piece has a fair many naysayers. Many believe (myself included) that the Renault’s successes this offseason (and late last season) were a result of Fernando Alonso’s driving brilliance, and the car’s true pace can be seen from Nelson Piquet’s times.

What’s more, Flavio Briatore is the head of those of challenging the diffusers on the Toyota, Brawn, and Williams cars. So, they may garner more attention from off-track antics than on-track success.

This is a very critical year for the Renault team; ING is pulling its funding after this year, and they’ll need to be fast to attract new sponsors (and keep Alonso, who has been reported to eye a spot at Ferrari). It could be “do or die’ this year for the French operation.

Toyota, Red Bull Eye Improvements

For all the funding each of these teams has had over the years, the results they have produced have been disappointing.

Aside from a simply remarkable 2005 season, Toyota hasn’t done anything noteworthy, a bad statement against them given their lucrative budget. On the contrary, the Red Bull cars have been quick, but they’ve always been very fragile.

However, Toyota says ’09 could (or should) bring a break through win, which is believed necessary in order to assure them a place on the grid permanently.

Red Bull, and Toro Rosso by extension, may have the best looking car on the grid this year, and have certainly turned heads based on aesthetics. Add in Sebastian Vettel’s presence in the “A Team,” and Red Bull has the potential to rocket up the grid this year.

However, the car hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire, and reliability may be a question mark (again). Plus, the Toro Rosso team may fall back, given Vettel’s departure and entrance of rookie Sebastien Buemi.

As I mentioned earlier, the basis for any confidence or doubt in teams is a result of testing, which has proven to be unreliable in the pas. The season remains impossible to predict at this point, and we won’t know, for sure, who is capable of what until Melbourne. However, this year will be a lot of fun to watch.

With that, the 2009 Formula 1 season beckons. As the immortal Murray Walker would say “one light, two lights, three lights, FOUR LIGHTS, GIVE LIGHT…AND IT’S GO GO GO GO!”

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