The 2009 Formula One season is upon us. It's time for us fans to do what Formula One fans enjoy most: speculation and prognostication. Following are ten absolutely bulletproof predictions sure to come to fruition.
As a forewarning, you will become maddened by the incidence of word "diffuser" when you are finished reading.
1. The "Diffuser Three" will dominate...So far, the conversation regarding rear diffusers has focused squarely on Brawn GP, who have come out of the gate with astonishing speed after nearly going away as Honda.
But the conversation has neglected Williams and Toyota, both of whom were also very quick in pre-season testing. And as we've seen so far in practice sessions in Australia, all three of these teams have put up dominant times.
It seems rather obtuse the idea that something as relatively straight-forward as the rear diffuser could be manipulated in a way that's worth as much as a half-second a lap, as Christian Horner and others claim.
But to see these exact teams dominating the time sheets in practice this weekend is eye-catching. But with so much downforce taken away from the car due to the removal of mid-body winglets and the raising and narrowing of the rear-wing, the natural place to look is the underside of the car to manage and settle-down the airflow, and Brawn, Williams, and Toyota have hit the jackpot.
Where the diffuser really has come into play is in the high-speed corners. If you followed the sector times in Friday practice, you would have noticed that drivers from "non-Diffuser Three" teams were able to keep pace in Sectors 1 and 2, which consist mainly of slow, second and third gear corners.
But in Sector 3, which consists of the 5th and 6th gear Turns 11-12 complex and the sharp 5th gear Turn 14 right hander, the "Diffuser Three" drivers really picked up time on the field. This is the section in which Rosberg routinely went purple.
But the rear diffuser is not the only reason for the early speed of Brawn, Toyota, and Williams. The fact is that all three began development of the 2009 car well before the teams we've grown accustomed to being F1's cream of the crop, who are McLaren and Ferrari.
They even got the jump on BMW, who essentially removed themselves from the 2008 championship race to focus on 2009 development.It's one thing to have a great piece like an efficient rear diffuser on the car, but without a car that is well-balanced in other areas, it's pretty much useless.
As great as it is to have the resources of McLaren and Ferrari, development time is everything in Formula One. The early emphasis on the 2009 car is paying off for the teams who appear to be the current front-runners, while the ones who started late are behind and must catch up.
2. But not for long...Ferrari showed pace in testing, and perhaps they were not giving their best effort in Practice 2 on Friday. However, they do seem to be behind the "Diffuser Three," and their concern is evidenced by their joining with the Red Bull teams to protest the Super Diffuser. McLaren, BMW, Renault, and the Red Bull teams all seem to be behind, as well.
They may well remain behind for the rest of the season, given the ban on in-season testing beginning this season. But Brawn, Williams, and Toyota should enjoy their glory while they have it this season, because 2010 will present a rude awakening to them. I speak of one of the most dreaded regulation changes on the horizon: the mandated use of KERS starting with the 2010 season.
Perhaps one of the performance advantages that the "Diffuser Three" are enjoying is the advantageous weight distribution of their cars provided by not running KERS.
By not running the controversial new hybrid power system, which is installed toward the middle-rear of the car, they are able to shift more weight toward the front of the car, allowing them to create better steering response and to better generate grip from the new slick front tires.
In the hands of silky smooth drivers like Jenson Button, Nico Rosberg, Jarno Trulli, and Rubens Barrichello, this is a frightening thing for the rest of the Formula One field.
McLaren, Ferrari, Renault, and 1/2 of BMW, on the other hand, are using KERS. This pushes more weight to the middle-rear of the car, meaning that in addition to what rear downforce disadvantage they may be suffering at the moment, they are also sacrificing front grip due to non-optimal weight distribution.
But paying the price this season in performance struggles may yield significant returns next season when KERS is mandated, with the teams gaining technical experience and knowledge with the sytem and drivers learning how to best manipulate it.
3. USF1/USGPE will in fact see the race circuit...Many fans have been skeptical that this project would successfully enter competition. Those who do so apparently aren't familiar with Ken Anderson or Peter Windsor, both of whom have long records of success in F1 and other forms of racing (in the case of Anderson).
Perhaps no two people outside of Formula One competition could pull this project off other than these two.
As Windsor stated in the Speed coverage of Practice 2 last night, the shop is chosen, and work on the 2010 car is soon to begin. Now all that must be sorted is to pick two American drivers and to find an engine supplier, both of which will generate plenty of interest from the media.
Already, the rumor that Danica Patrick is being considered has already made waves in American media. (Although, quite frankly, USGPE would have to be quite mad to put her in the car, as she is simply a rubbish driver by F1 standards.) But the engine story could be just as big.
Certainly, the manufacturers who have a sizable customer base in the United States- Toyota, Mercedes, BMW- will look to the possibility of supplying an American team with great interest. Hoewver, should Toyota or Mercedes decide to supply USGPE, they must drop one of their customer teams, given the current rules governing engine suppliers.
4. Nelson Piquet, Jr. will rubbish himself out of Renault...Everything about the new regulations spells disaster for poor young Nelsinho. A driver who displayed substandard (at best) car control skills during his rookie season, things will not be anymore conducive to finally putting a smile on the taciturn Brazillian's face with the reduction in downforce.
Currently backed financially by Carlos Slim, he brings money to Renault, which would be a shame for them to lose. But one must ask oneself how much more Flavio will tolerate.
5. Kimi Raikkonen will substantially outperform Felipe Massa and firmly cement his #1 status with Ferrari...The change in the technical regulations are sublimely paired for The Iceman. A driver with supreme car control and pitch-perfect manipulation of the car's dynamic energies, there is arguably no driver better tailored to a car with reduced rear downforce than Raikkonen.
Massa, on the other hand, has shown problematic car control in the not-so-distant past. He spun at Malaysia while running 2nd, his second year in the row of blowing the possibility of a podium with embarrassing mistakes at the high-speed track.
His performance in the rain (not the drying wet, but the actual rain) at Silverstone last year was complete and utter bullocks. He spun out of the lead at Monaco in the drying wet. He was unable to muster a qualifying performance on the level of esteemed wet racers like Sebastian Vettel and Heikki Kovalainen at Monza last year at a time in which McLaren rubbished Hamilton with poor pit strategy in Q2.
To be sure, Massa is quite quick and has a very technically-proficient driving style, which he put on full display with knockout performances on technical tracks like Istanbul Park, the Hungaroring, and Valencia.
But he is not Kimi Raikkonen, who has displayed his quite frankly legendary skill as a driver on more than enough occasions in his career. The main difference between the two is car control, an area where Raikkonen aces him. Because of this, Raikkonen will relegate Massa to the #2 driver role with his mastery of a low downforce car.
6. The "Winner-Take-All" Championship Proposal Will Ultimately Die...The teams were clever and caught the FIA with their technical pants down in getting the new championship system delayed for a season. They won't need to be so clever to kill the idea completely.
It's becoming quite clear that no one aside from the Great Terror Dwarf himself wants to see the new system. Most fans think it's silly. The drivers and teams don't like it. It is a solution in search of a problem. Ultimately, the pressure will be too much for the FIA to move forward with it.
7. A Rift Between Robert Kubica and BMW-Sauber Will Develop and Grow to the Point of No Return...We saw the beginning of some sort of rift last season, with Kubica upset that the team stepped up their efforts with the 2009 car instead of their support of his World Championship bid.
This weekend in Australia, BMW are running KERS only on Nick Heidfeld's car, due to the fact that he is a much smaller driver. While KERS would certainly hurt Kubica's performance due to the adverse it effect it would have on the weight distribution of his car relative to Heidfeld's, the Pole is reportedly upset that they are not giving him the chance to experiment with it and get used to it.
This comes at a critical time in the relationship between Kubica and BMW. With many observers tapping him as perhaps the most talented driver in Formula One, his name is sure to be at the top of the list of the sport's top teams for future open driver slots.
Kubica has already openly stated his desire to one day drive for Ferrari. If BMW struggles to keep up with the "Diffuser Three" despite having done extensive and early preparation work for 2009, do not be surprised if Kubica's name is floated around even more in the rumor mill of driver changes for 2010 and beyond.
8. McLaren will improve quickly...This team simply has too many resources to lag behind the competition for an extended period. Even in a down year in 2006 when the car simply didn't have the speed of the Ferraris and Renaults, Raikkonen was still able to win pole positions and challenge for Grand Prix victories.
McLaren may not challenge for the World Championship this season, but surely the car will improve to the level at which Hamilton will win at least a Grand Prix, perhaps even two. (Woe be the field when a wet race comes along.)
By all sounds of it, they know exactly what the problem is: poor rear downforce, most likely in the diffuser area. You can see this in the Sector 3 times of Hamilton and Kovalainen in Australia this weekend: both drivers are toward the top of the charts in Sectors 1 and 2, but suffer greatly in the high-speed corners in Sector 3, as evidenced by Hamilton's flying lap toward the end of the session being rubbished by a loss of rear grip in high-speed Turn 14.
The car certainly doesn't lack speed, as Hamilton was substantially faster than anyone else in the speed trap on the front stretch. Once they get this situation settled, they will be much more competitive, although their insistence on running KERS make sacrifice performance potential for the rest of the season.
9. The World Champion Will Win 3-4 Grands Prix...The new regulations have thrown a monkeywrench into the competition structure of Formula One. Three teams which previously were behind the curve are now at the top of the charts, and they all seem relatively equal in performance. Assuming this condition, and that all three teams win all the races, we're looking at the teams splitting the Grands Prix with about 5-7 each among them.
But Brawn, Williams, and Toyota likely won't win every race. Ferrari does seem to have the pace to be within shouting distance of challenging for Grand Prix victories.
The McLaren, and BMW all have the resources to improve relatively quickly, whereas Brawn and Williams are independent teams and Toyota has scaled back its F1 budget due to costs. Surely, at least one Ferrari driver and one McLaren driver will win. In any event, this will be the most competitive Formula One season in recent memory.
10. Jenson Button Will Win the 2009 World Driving Championship...Everything just seems to be coming together for him. Everyone knows how quick of a driver he is. He routinely won poles and challenged for Grands Prix victories in a BAR-Honda car that was well behind Ferrari and Renault in the mid-2000s.
His myriad of terrific performances in the wet have put his superb car control skills on display, which serves him well for the reduction in downforce. His silky smooth driving style renders him a great tire manager, which will be important with the new slick tires that will bear much more abuse than the grooved tires.
Furthermore, he finally has a championship-contending car spearheaded by Ross Brawn. The man is virtually a computer inside of the car who provides expert feedback to the engineers, which is another asset in the virgin years under new regulations.
Button has truly matured from boy to man before the eyes of Formula One fans. The quick but immature brat whose application was questioned at Benetton/Renault has become the most dedicated and intensely-training driver on the circuit, whose character has been hardened by disappointment with poorly-developed cars and the possibility of his Formula One career dying due with Honda's departure before it ever had the chance to shine.
This will be Jenson's year, and the man who has paid more than his fair share of dues will be perhaps the most richly-deserved F1 champion in series history.