As the start of the 2009 Formula One season fast approaches, we are inundated with articles about how important this year is for top drivers and teams and who needs to do what to succeed. The vast majority of previews focus on the usual cast of characters.
Let’s face it. If Lewis Hamilton doesn’t contend for the championship, he will still make headlines. Fernando Alonso will still command attention to drive for teams that can afford him even if he doesn’t win a race this year. Toyota will still spend huge amounts of money, Williams and Force India are not expected to challenge for a title, and Ferrari will still be Ferrari.
What I am venturing to expose are the drivers and teams who truly have more at stake in the 2009 Formula One season.
When Honda announced their withdrawal from the Formula One World Championship, Ross Brawn was the first name that came up when the discussion turned to who would take over the team.
A few months passed and a plethora of names were connected with the former Honda team. Mexican billionaire, Carlos Slim, the new US F-1 team, and even Michael Schumacher were some of the names bandied about. When it all came about it was Ross Brawn all along.
At the teams debut at testing, two things stood out. First was the lack of any form of sponsorship and the second was the speed they posted compared to the other teams.
Many believe that these two events are related. Was the Brawn GP car fudging a bit with the rules to set fast time in order to draw more interests from sponsors?
The big question is can Ross Brawn financially maintain the team if he doesn’t get sponsorship?
Formula One is an expensive sport, where even the lowest team budgets run about $50 million a year. No word has been issued from Brawn GP about the financial terms of the Honda team takeover, which would give us a clue if they are on a solid economic footing.
Last year, the BMW Sauber team was on the cusp of greatness. Race after race they edged closer and closer to challenging the dominant McLaren and Ferrari teams culminating with Robert Kubica’s stunning win at the Canadian Grand Prix.
Then all things changed.
BMW Sauber announced that they were concentrating its efforts in developing the 2009 chassis. Race after race Kubica started falling back down the grid. Early in the season, the F1’s lone Polish driver easily outclassed his German teammate, Nick Heidfeld. Later in the season the roles were reversed, and Kubica look like he lost his enthusiasm.
At stake for BMW Sauber is if the decision to abandon development will reap benefits for the team in 2009. If they aren’t competitive right from the start of the season in Australia then the 2008 season will be viewed as an opportunity lost.
2008 was the year where the Formula One world was exposed to a future star in the form of a rookie from Germany by the name of Sebastien Vettle.
Driving for what is basically the Renault engined Red Bull Racing B-Team, Vettle regularly outpaced the A-Team in his Ferrari powered Torro Rosso, culminating with a spectacular win in atrocious conditions at the Italian Grand Prix. His reward was to be bumped up to Red Bull Racing.
What’s at stake for Vettle is the infamous Sophomore Jinx.
It is conventional wisdom that the main reason for the Scuderia Torro Rosso’s superior performance over the identical Red Bull chassis was the Ferrari engine’s obvious power advantage over the Renault. Vettle will have to outshine his much more experienced teammate in Mark Webber, or else he risks being yet another of a long line of F-1 flash in the pans.
Horner's performance as a team principal in Formula 3000 attracted the attention of Red Bull Racing, which lured him to Formula One. He started his career there a lot younger than any of the other team leaders in F1.
In 2008, he led a team with two experienced drivers a legend for a designer in Adrian Newey and a generous budget.
What’s at stake for Christian Horner is if Red Bull puts up with the embarrassment of having its B-team in Scuderia Torro Rosso out perform them on the track again in 2009.
Last year, the little team from Faenza, Italy took Red Bull’s own car and finished ahead in the constructors Championship. Red Bull now has the star of STR in Sebastien Vettle so Horner has no excuse. His future in F1 is riding on it.
The four-time Champ Car World Series Champion finally achieved his dream of landing a F1 seat in 2008.
Age, experience and a very young teammate all pointed to Bourdais being the team leader at Scuderia Torro Rosso.
Then the season started.
He scored points in the first race, then started on a run of four DNF’s in the next five races. He would only score points once more the rest of the season and was consistently outperformed by his younger teammate.
Then he had to sit and simmer as his team invited a series of drivers to audition for his seat.
What is at stake for Bourdais is his F1 future. Once again he finds himself with a young rookie teammate in Sebastien Buemi. How long will management at Torro Rosso keep the Frenchman in the seat if he is once again a non-factor on the F1 grid?