As the Formula One World Championship prepares to run its final race of the season in Abu Dhabi, many are already looking ahead to a 2010 season that is sure to shake up the F1 order in surprising ways. Here are ten predictions for the 2010 season.
1. Refuelling Ban Will Make for Processional Races
Since 2005, race-day fuel loads have added considerable drama to the sport. While qualifying has seen many a gamble between an advantageous long first stint and a lightly-fuelled run to pole, strategies have affected the outcome of many a race since the era of refuelling in Formula One.
However, all that will change in 2010, as refuelling will be banned during races. Only short stops for tires become necessary.
Although a ban on refuelling in the '80s and early '90s made for a series of memorable races, it was also true that little action occurred outside of battles at the front between legendary drivers such as Piquet, Mansell, Prost, Senna, etc.
While that is all well and good, the hot-button issue for years has been overtaking, and it remains to be seen if the refuelling ban will help or hinder in that regard.
2. Parity: Blessing or Curse?
A recent article on the Planet-F1 website made an interesting point: In recent races, the parity seen between any car besides a Brawn or Red Bull has had the effect of actually decreasing overtaking. Although most of the teams are very close, it has played out that a following car may lack that extra tenth or so required to make a pass stick.
I believe that with the 2010 regulations, we will see many occurrences of this phenomenon. With the aero regulations staying more or less the same in 2010, it is likely we will see the teams evening out even more. However, the overtaking issue brings me to my next point...
3. KERS Will Be Missed in 2010
Few topics have been more discussed this season than the introduction of the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) into Formula One. At the season's start, KERS held the promise of spicing up races, allowing for more overtaking and a strategy all its own.
The hybrid technology allows cars to store energy lost under braking and convert it to an approximately 80 hp boost for six seconds per lap. However, concerns over reliability, safety, and handling tradeoffs have raised the question of whether or not KERS is a blessing or a curse (no pun intended).
While Ferrari, McLaren, BMW, and Renault all started the season with the device, and Toyota, Red Bull, Williams, and Force India announcing plans to introduce KERS mid-season, only Ferrari and McLaren have continued to use it throughout the season.
There is no doubt that KERS has injected a measure of excitement into the season; the Renault drivers' good use of it in the early races, Kimi Raikkonen's KERS-boosted battle with Giancarlo Fisichella for nearly the entirety of the Belgian Grand Prix, and Lewis Hamilton's fantastic start at the Nurburgring have all been notable examples of the benefits of KERS.
However, with the system set to be dropped by mutual agreement in 2010 with the possibility of reintroduction in 2011, I believe Formula One will lose a great source of potential excitement.
As mentioned in my last point, many of the teams are now so close that tenths of a second make all the difference in the outcome of a race, and overtaking has actually become more difficult. Widespread use of KERS would almost certainly erase this issue and make for more great racing. One can only hope for a re-introduction in 2011.
4. Eight Drivers Will Challenge for the 2010 Championship
Lewis Hamilton was quoted this past week as saying that the 2010 season will feature "the best drivers in the best cars" (Autosport), and with the way the driver market is playing out, he does not appear to be far off.
Though both teams suffered dismal starts to the 2009 season, Ferrari and McLaren have both bounced back admirably. McLaren's midseason turnaround will likely go down as one of the greatest in Formula One history.
While Brawn GP and Red Bull Racing have established themselves as the dominant forces in 2009, Ferrari and McLaren have come back to challenge, both teams taking race wins in the second half of the season.
It appears that Formula One is set for a four-team fight next season.
Felipe Massa will be anxious to show that he is still a capable championship challenger, and he will have to be to fight off Fernando Alonso, his incoming teammate at Ferrari.
The driver situation at Brawn GP still appears up in the air, but Jenson Button is not likely to find a faster car for next season and will almost certainly continue at Brawn. Rubens Barrichello's situation is slightly more tenuous; he is reportedly in talks with both Brawn and Williams, pending a possible driver swap with Nico Rosberg. Either way, Brawn will have two quick drivers, including the 2009 world champion.
Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel will continue at Red Bull for 2010, comprising the best driver pairing on the grid. Combined with Adrian Newey's design prowess, Red Bull may well be the benchmark team in 2010.
Lewis Hamilton will hope to regain his championship-wining form at McLaren, and it seems likely that he will be partnered by Kimi Raikkonen, who has shown in 2009 that he has lost none of the speed that took him to the 2007 championship.
With Nico Rosberg the only driver linked to the top four teams who has yet to win a race, and all eight others having challenged for the title within the past two years, 2010 will be undoubtedly be a season to remember.
5. The Mid-Field Battle Will Be Just as Exciting
2009 has also seen considerable shakeups in the mid-pack teams. While Brawn GP (formerly Honda) and Red Bull have rocketed up the order, other teams have jumped up and down the grid as the season has progressed, and things look to be no different in 2010.
Renault are my pick to lead the mid-field teams in 2010. Despite the crash-gate scandal and the loss of former team principal Flavio Briatore and technical director Pat Symonds, Renault remain committed to Formula One and are still capable of designing a quick car.
Having secured the considerable talent of Robert Kubica for 2010 while hinting at recruiting another experienced driver to their second seat, Renault look to have at least a good, if not winning season in 2010.
Toyota will likely be right on Renault's heels.
The Japanese team adapted very well to the revamped 2009 regulations and had one of the fastest cars on the grid at early grands prix, though strategy calls erased the possibility of taking their maiden win.
Their form in the latter half of the season, however, has varied wildly. While the TF109 has struggled mightily on slow, high-downforce circuits, Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock have put in stellar qualifying efforts and race drives on other circuits, especially in Bahrain, Spa, and Singapore.
However, it is entirely possible that they will be losing both drivers next season; the team has been constantly hinting at Trulli's departure for the past few races, and Glock's drive appears in jeopardy as well. Toyota's design team took a giant step forward in 2009 and will almost certainly improve in 2010, but I believe the weak link will be the drivers, and for that reason, they will finish behind Renault.
After pulling off the shock of the season at Spa-Francorchamps and scoring several points thereafter, Force India appears to have stepped straight into the midfield battle. Although they started the season in unremarkable form, both drivers showed signs of a points challenge early on, Giancarlo Fisichella's drive at Monaco being a notable example.
However, their breakthrough race, and arguably one of the best races of the season, came at Spa, where Fisichella took pole and finished second after a race-long battle with Kimi Raikkonen.
Adrian Sutil has stepped up to fill in the gap left by Fisichella's post-Spa departure to Ferrari, scoring points since then, and Tonio Liuzzi has done an admirable job filling in for Fisichella. With Force India's jump in performance this season and three (four?) new teams filling in the backfield, look for Force India to continue their scoring ways in 2010.
6. The New Teams Will Struggle
Jumping into Formula One is never easy, even in a period of regulatory stability. Jumping into Formula One after one of the most politically charged seasons in the sport's history while building a car to a more or less new set of regulations that were not finalized until the resolution of the budget cap crisis could best be described as monumental.
Nevertheless, four new teams are posed to make their entry into the sport: Manor GP, Campos, USF1, and Lotus.
It remains to be seen how well each of these teams will do on their own, but none look set to turn the grid on its head. Manor is a well-known Formula Three constructor with whom Kimi Raikkonen won a championship before his entry into F1; though they have been more or less silent on the progress of their car, they have reportedly secured title sponsorship from the Virgin empire, giving them a solid financial basis if nothing else.
Campos are another team who have made their name in lower formulae and look to step up, but there has been even less word on their progress than Manor's; the only guarantee is that, like all four new teams, they will be using Cosworth engines.
Lotus were a late addition to the 2010 grid after the announcement of BMW Sauber's withdrawal, but press reports indicate that they are hard at work on their 2010 challenger, and that they may even have secured the services of Jarno Trulli for the coming season. Coupled with the technical knowledge of Mike Gascoyne, Lotus may end up springing a (relative) surprise once they have their feet on the ground in 2010.
USF1 appear to be the best-placed of the new teams. While the USA has generally not been known for innovation in Formula One, Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson have put together a team whose infrastructure includes one of the best wind tunnels in the world, a great deal of technical knowledge from inside the U.S., and a series of very wealthy sponsors.
Moreover, their operation has been in the works since at least 2008, and reports indicate that they will have a car running test laps before any of the other new teams.
Despite idle and frankly idiotic speculation to the contrary by Bernie Ecclestone, USF1 will be on the grid next season, and while they are unlikely to score points, they will almost certainly be the fastest of the new teams. Which brings me to my next point...
7. BMW Sauber, In Some Form, Will Race in 2010
The announcement from Munich of BMW Sauber's withdrawal from Formula One came as a surprise, to say the least. While the team had had an up-and-down 2009 season up until that point, they had begun to score points, and midseason upgrades appeared to give the F1.09 needed pace.
Moreover, for the team to announce their withdrawal from the sport just one year after their breakout season in 2008 that saw several podiums, the team's first pole and win, and Robert Kubica establishing himself as a legitimate title contender is mystifying, to say the least.
Whatever the reason, BMW has withdrawn its support, and has not signed the 2010 Concorde Agreement, guaranteeing the team a place in the sport.
However, there is hope for the team, which has found a buyer in the form of Qadbak Investments, and it appears that the team is more or less prepared to compete in 2010.
Whether they will or not depends on the pullout of one of the new or existing teams, as the FIA has granted Sauber the "first reserve" position. Rumors have flown as to the status of some of the new teams, but if I were putting money on it, I would bet on Campos withdrawing from the 2010 system, with Sauber filling in.
Word from the Campos team has been almost nonexistent as to the status of their car development, drivers, and sponsors; while media reports, or lack thereof, can be misleading, it is a telling fact that the three other confirmed new teams, even Lotus, have given concrete updates on their development status.
If Sauber is on the grid next season, then the loss of one of the most famous names in Formula One will have been averted.
8. The British Grand Prix Will Stay at Silverstone
Few races have had a more difficult time of it in the past few seasons than the British Grand Prix.
While Silverstone, a perennial fan favorite, continues to provide great racing and near-sellout crowds, commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone just as continuously bashes the facilities and infrastructure of the circuit and the British Racing Driver's Club which owns Silverstone.
It seemed this past season that Ecclestone had won his battle of one against Silverstone by securing a 17-year deal for Donington Park to host the British GP from 2010.
However, the deal itself appears to be the only thing that has gone right. The amount of money, work, and development required to upgrade the Donington circuit to F1 standards appears to be too much to complete by the race's scheduled 2010 date, and Donington owner Simon Gillett's financial issues in securing funding for the circuit upgrade have been well-documented by the press.
Combined with the slower-than-expected pace of work at Donington, it appears highly unlikely that the circuit will be ready to host the British GP.
So what of the race itself?
When the Donington deal was first signed, Ecclestone repeatedly stated that if the circuit could not be prepared in time, then there would be no British Grand Prix. However, it is more or less taken as fact that this won't happen. First of all, Max Mosley and other FIA members have stated that Silverstone will host the 2010 race if Donington is unable to, and may host a race either way, possibly under the European GP banner.
Even Ecclestone himself has gone back on previous comments, stating that Silverstone "could" host the 2010 race.
Second, dropping the British Grand Prix would be an unmitigated disaster for Formula One.
Not even Bernie Ecclestone is rash enough to take a grand prix away from the country that hosted Formula One's first race in 1950, consistently posted some of the highest attendance rates for the race, and has given Formula One its last two world champions.
The idea of stripping Britain of its grand prix is not only thoroughly idiotic; it is utterly unthinkable.
With Donington's ability to host the 2010 grand prix in serious jeopardy, it looks more and more certain that the British Grand Prix will continue at its sentimental Silverstone home.
9. The Korean Grand Prix Will Not Happen
When the Korean Grand Prix in Seoul was announced on the provisional 2010 calendar, it was something of a surprise. Not only was a country with no history of Formula One involvement being chosen to host a grand prix over countries such as the United States, the circuit in question had not even been built yet.
This is a troubling trend in Bernie Ecclestone's calendar planning, and I believe it will prove a similar situation to the British GP debacle.
Like Donington Park, the circuit in Seoul is only partially completed, and if Donington's example is any indication, the Korean International Circuit will not be up to spec in time for the scheduled race. It does not appear that there is a "reserve" in place should the Korean GP be canceled, so it appears that unless the circuit builders pull off an incredible job, Formula One will have an 18-race calendar next season.
10. The New FIA Will Return Credibility to Formula One
It is hard to argue that in the past few seasons the management and sanctioning of Formula One has taken a degree of credibility away from the sport.
Between Max Mosley's personal scandal, Bernie Ecclestone's questionable decisions with regard to the F1 calendar and comments ranging from implied glorification of Hitler to the popularity benefits of Ayrton Senna's death, a seeming disregard for the opinions and desires of Formula One's fan base, and a rash of bad stewarding decisions spanning several seasons, many fans and prominent figures in the sport seem to have lost faith in F1's governance.
With Max Mosley stepping down, it seems that the FIA has the opportunity to turn over a new leaf with regard to the governance of Formula One. Both new candidates (Jean Todt and Ari Vatanen) have offered changes with regard to F1 governance and stewarding, though it remains to be seen how well either will follow through.
Regardless, Max Mosley's departure will almost certainly herald the end of an era of personal politics within the FIA, and will hopefully go a long way towards restoring credibility to the sport. Whether Todt or Vatanen are elected, the only way to go is up.