Kimi, KERS, and the End of an Era? F1's 10 Biggest Questions in '09
It's no overstatement to say that the 2009 F1 season has more uncertainty and subplots attached to it than any that the sport has seen for over 20 years.
Not since turbo charged engines were banned in 1989 have such fundamental technical changes thrown the established order up in the air, and as the speculation intensifies ahead of the Aussie GP over how they'll land, here are the ten most pressing questions of the 2009 F1 season.
Will the technical changes improve the spectacle?
The unimaginatively named overtaking working group (I'd have called them something fast-sounding like the Blast Past Task Force…but that's just me) has come up with a raft of aero changes designed to make the cars less sensitive to the dirty air that spills off the back of a race car.
They've also tried to minimise the amount of dirty air each machine produces. The upshot has been a lower nose cone, a higher, slimmer rear spoiler and a complete clear-out of all the fins, wings and gills that adorned the 2008 cars.
The hope is these changes will minimise the disadvantage a chasing car has when it gets close enough to overtake, but have they gone too far?
A driver has to be in control to make a pass, and free practice in Australia has shown the significant reduction in down force is making the cars much more prone to sliding sideways and much harder to handle over the bumps.
If you're not in control, you can't stick a pass.
Will Kimi Regain His Fight?
Even the most ardent Iceman fan will agree that he lost his hunger for the fight towards the end of the 2008 season, and his detractors will say it happened as soon as he realised the F2008 car didn't suit him.
There is no doubt he has the pace and the mental strength to win a title if he gets himself into the championship battle, and the theory is this year's machine, with its light rear end, will suit Kimi more than the F2008.
There's always a but with F1 though and we won't know if this is the case until we've seen him in anger a few times.
The concern for Kimi fans must be that if his team is playing catch-up on the likes of Brawn, Williams and Toyota for the first few races will Ferrari be able to hold the Finn's interest in a winning a second world title.
How Good Is Ross Brawn?
BrawnGP's pace has been the story of the season before racing has even started. Three weeks ago the team didn't even exist, today some betting sites have Jenson Button installed as favourite for the title.
Contrary to the romantic view of the Brawn GP privateer giant killer, there is a huge amount of Honda time and money in the BGP001 car.
We'll only really get the measure of F1's newest outfit if they start facing reliability issues, or once the better funded teams close the gap on them later in the season.
How Quickly Can McLaren Recover?
Fast enough to give Lewis the chance of a retaining the title? It will be a stretch. As Brawn GP was making it's supersonic rise, McLaren was pitching down the order so fast that they probably blinked and missed each other on the way past.
Aero issues and a lack of rear downforce have left the McLarens of Heikki Kovalienen and Lewis Hamilton mired in the midfield around two seconds off the pace.
The final test in Jerez gave some cause for optimism but unless the last two months have been an exercise in monumental Machiavellian misdirection they have a long way to go…
Is KERS a White Elephant?
It costs a lot to produce, it buggers up weight distribution, F1 teams don't believe it will filter down to road cars, the fastest team in testing haven't bothered producing one, no-one has proved it provides any net time advantage, it adds the equivalent weight of racing with a Labrador on the driver's lap, and it electrocutes poor unsuspecting BMW engineers.
Errrm, I'm not convinced...
Are we set for a driver cull at the end of the season?
It's crunch time for a host of F1 drivers. All in their mid 30's, Barrichello, Trulli and Fisichella are coming up quickly on the end of their careers, while Piquet, Bourdais, Kovalainen and even Heidfeld are all under pressure to get significant points on the board this year.
A recce of GP2 shows any of seven drivers could land the title, while Bruno Senna, Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson are all still floating around out in the ether so there is no shortage of talent eager to capitalise on a weak season or two.
Is F1 immune to the credit crunch?
The disappearance of Honda would suggest not, but Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo has said the credit crunch will be a good thing for F1 and Berni, in true Bernie style, has been quoted as saying the sport won't be affected.
Looking at the cars this year there hasn't been any great decline in sponsors, and rumour has it Richard Branson is about to back the Brawn GP team.
But, F1 sponsorship deals are rarely one year contracts and the vast majority of decals on this year's cars will be part of deals signed when there was a lot more cash sloshing about in the world.
It also looks like race attendances might be down this year, a quick glance around Albert Park already reveals smaller grandstands than '08.
How will Hamilton handle not being in the fastest car?
It's easy to forget that Hamilton has only been in F1 for two seasons, and it's worth remembering right now that he's started on the front row of the grid 21 times in his 35 races.
Aside from the questions about whether he has the right mentality to chase from midfield for a season there is the very practical fact that starting from halfway down the grid is an entirely different, and infinitely more messy pastime than going at it from the front.
He's shown touches of poor judgment and impetuousness in the past as well as flashes of heroic brilliance–in the midfield melee their polar effects will be magnified and which ever we see the most of this year will determine his season.
Is this the last big manufacturer season?
Honda has gone. Rumour has it Toyota and even Renault are pondering cheaper hobbies and leading the '09 charge is a privateer (albeit a manufacture-funded one at present).
Then there is the budget cap factor–eyes down, because this is quite a big story.
It slipped under the radar a bit while the media was distracted by the new points system, but a £30m voluntary budget cap has been put in place from the 2010 season.
Teams can go over this spend if they wish, but will be subject to stricter technical restrictions than those who don't, and Max Mosley has stated that these restrictions will be decided on a rolling basis.
So in theory, a wealthy manufacturer team could plough millions into new kit only for the FIA to turn around and tell them they can't run it because it gives them too much of an advantage.
Not a particularly attractive prospect. The alternative for manufacturers is that they stay within the budget cap, but that in turn makes it more likely for a prestige manufacturer like Ferrari or BMW to get beaten by a small private team.
You can almost hear the PR men groaning…
And finally…Who will win the championship?
It's not a question unique to this season of course, but I can't remember a year where it has been so hard to predict even three favourites.
Button, Barrichello, Glock, Trulli, Rosberg, Raikkonen, Massa, Kubica and even Hamilton are in with a shout because we have no idea how quickly the cars can be developed this year.
One thing is for sure though, I wish I'd stuck a tenner on Button a month ago…