So here we are. Two weeks before the start of an eagerly anticipated season in Formula One. It will be a season encasing many intriguing sub-plots. How will Jenson Button do in new surroundings at McLaren? Will he retain the title? Will McLaren and Ferrari be at the front from the off? And of course, how will Michael Schumacher fare going up against the new young chargers like Vettel and Hamilton? The list could go on and on.
So now, I'm going to try and answer these questions as best I can. As always, it is tough to predict how the season will go based on testing times. I will go through team-by-team, giving my predictions on how far they will go in 2010.
Vodafone McLaren Mercedes —1. Jenson Button, 2. Lewis Hamilton
Surely the turnaround team of 2009. Finding two seconds in half a season was nothing short of remarkable, and the folks at Woking will want to make sure they start this season better than they did last season. They have two champion drivers in defending champion Jenson Button and 2008 champ Lewis Hamilton , so you could be forgiven for thinking Button could come into the team as No. 1.
Au contraire. All you have to do is think back to 2007, when Fernando Alonso joined the team, also as defending champion. His troubles have been well-documented, and the relationship ended in divorce after just one season.
Personally, I don't see it playing out any differently this time round. We might not see the scandals and betrayal of 2007, but we will still see Hamilton take preference over Button. Whether or not this battle will affect any sort of title challenge remains to be seen.
If it doesn't and we do see full impartiality, I fully expect to see both McLarens fighting at the front for wins and a title challenge. However, the inter-team scrambles will no doubt come into play at the later rounds, which I predict will derail any title push.
My prediction: Second
Mercedes GP Petronas—3. Michael Schumacher, 4. Nico Rosberg
Following the miracles of Brawn last year, Mercedes decided to take their relationship with the Brackley outfit beyond engine supplier by buying the team. And they wasted no time in announcing their arrival by naming an all-German lineup in the form of Nico Rosberg and, the legend that is, Michael Schumacher .
So what can we expect? Well, for a start, I still see them being at the sharp end despite the wishes of Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche to "give us some time as we are a new team." Newsflash Mr Zetsche. You are not a new team. You are a defending-champion team who have merely undergone a name change and a slight boardroom re-shuffle.
What else? I see Schumacher still challenging at the front despite the three-year hiatus. However, the new young guns like Vettel and Hamilton will push him just a little too much, and that is when Schumacher's age will begin to play its part.
He may still be a fit sportsman, but how many 40+ year olds today still excel in their sport? He will challenge for wins, that's a given. Any title challenge will fall away though towards the end.
As for young Nico Rosberg, 17 years Schumacher's junior, 2010 will be an important year. Why? After four years putting a sub-standard Williams in places it shouldn't be, he now has a chance to earn his stripes in genuine front-running machinery. This is where we will see whether Rosberg really can be marked out as a potential F1 champion. And in my opinion, I don't see how podiums are impossible for Nico. A race win or two could also come his way if luck is on his side.
The inevitable return to form of McLaren and Ferrari will undoubtedly dent the Silver Arrows' chances of taking the crown for a second year in a row. And, quite frankly, that doesn't upset me, as their livery alone doesn't merit any awards. Finishing just behind Ferrari and McLaren would be a success in my opinion.
My prediction: Third
Red Bull Racing—5. Sebastian Vettel, 6. Mark Webber
The fastest car of last year despite giving away up to 50hp with the Renault engine. I think they will do well to repeat that this year. They have kept their front suspension arrangement for this year, which has now been mimicked by a number of teams. Another pro is their continuity—keeping Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber as their lineup for a second year in a row, and also the Renault engines.
Vettel once again will be Red Bull's spearhead for the title. If he can maintain his form from last season, and iron the odd mistake from last year, then he will be challenging for wins and possibly the title come Abu Dhabi. What he does need is for Adrian Newey to continue developing the RB6 at the same rate as last season. If that happens, then we will definitely see the young German at the front in 2010.
I wish the same could be said for Webber, one of F1's most likeable and unlucky drivers. His wins in 2009 were richly deserved after all his years of poor machinery and luck. As much as it pains me to say, I don't see him repeating the feat in 2010. I fear his best days may just have passed. He definitely will still want to prove me and other critic wrong though. You can never doubt that.
One thing which has gone against Red Bull this time round is the late launch date compared to its rivals. The first Valencia test has been the only fully dry test, with the other tests at Jerez and Barcelona being hampered by rain. Red Bull will also be praying that Renault have improved the RS27 engine—both in performance and reliability. I see a repeat of 2009, with Red Bull and Mercedes fighting each other. I just don't see it at the front though.
My prediction: Fourth
Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro—7. Felipe Massa, 8. Fernando Alonso
2009 was poor by the Prancing Horse's standards. Just one win, and a number of embarrassing performances will have to be put behind them. So far it's looking good. They've topped testing, with arguable the strongest lineup on the grid. The Scuderia will definitely start 2010 as favourites.
Felipe Massa has been putting in hundreds of laps during preseason as he looks to ensure he is fully recovered form his horrific qualifying crash at last year's Hungarian Grand Prix, and he duly topped the first two days of the Valencia test. However, we still don't know if he's fully recovered from his crash last year.
Putting in hundred of miles in testing is one thing, but racing against 25 other racers is quite another. This is Massa's big 2010 sticking point.
As for Fernando Alonso , it's looking a bit more rosy for him. After spending two near-fruitless years at Renault, he now has his wish—a seat at the most famous name on the Formula One grid, and he goes into 2010 as favourite to win his third world championship—his first since 2006. He's really shown his hand in testing by topping times consistently. He's hungry. He misses being on the top step.
The one disadvantage Ferrari have is, looking now, they have no clear number one. Both drivers are champion-material, and the management at Maranello will have to face the task of picking between these two great drivers.
Good luck Mr di Montezemolo. No matter what happens, I still see the Prancing Horses at the front, and on top of the championship at the end of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
My prediction: First
AT&T Williams—9. Rubens Barrichello, 10. Nico Hulkenburg
Once a giant in Formula One, possessing drivers like Mansell, Prost, and Hill, the Williams continues searching for a first win since the 2004 finale in Brazil. There have been many false dawns for the Grove team, and every year we seem to hear the same talk of promise for the year ahead. This year though, they have every reason to be confident of escaping the Formula One midfield wilderness. A strong driver lineup and an aggressive car design could be just the ticket they need.
After finishing third last year, Rubens Barrichello shows no sign of quitting Formula One just yet, despite 2010 being his 18th season in the big time. But why would he quit? Last year proved he can still fight at the front given the right equipment, and he scored points in all bar two of the 2009 races.
He knows Formula One better than he probably knows his wife, and this is why Williams have went for the veteran Brazilian. Development drivers are few and far between in Formula One today, so a team like Williams will feed off all Rubens' knowledge and plow it into developing the FW32 into a front-running machine.
Barrichello's other big job this year will be to help nurture the most anticipated new talent to come into Formula One in recent years. We have seen the Hamiltons, Rosbergs and Vettels come in recently, but none have dominated as many junior championships as Nico Hulkenburg .
He's dominated Formula BMW, A1GP, Formula Three, and GP2,and all the pieces are there for him to succeed in Formula One too. He's been looking pretty handy in testing, and he's a big hit with the Williams team. His only question mark is whether he's physically ready to break F1.
Everything's in place for Williams to break out of the midfield and begin to establish themselves yet again as one of the sport's leading teams. But the Cosworth unit in the back of the FW32 is unproven, and last time the team was powered by Cosworth, in 2006, the season was marred by unreliability. I still see Williams being the best of the rest behind the top four.
My prediction: Fifth
Renault F1 Team—11. Robert Kubica, 12. Vitaly Petrov
2009 was a year to forget for Renault. A poor car, poor performances, and controversies like "Crash-gate" littered their season. 2010 is a clean slate for them, with new investment and new drivers.
Robert Kubica almost seemed to give up at times in 2009 when at BMW. But no-one can doubt that he is one of F1's top talents. He's back at the team which gave him his first Formula One test in 2005, and he's hungry to get back to the front, where he belongs.
Alongside Kubica we have GP2 runner-up Vitaly Petrov . At first, it is easy to think of the Russian as another pay driver, and true he is bringing in a fair bit of money. But it is a tad harsh on the Vyborg native. He did finish runner-up in GP2 last year, and in doing so beat seasoned racers like Lucas di Grassi and Pastor Maldonado.
Renault have been an enigma in testing this time round. They've been fast at times, and slow at others, which makes it hard to predict where they fit in. If their car is good and reliable, I see Kubica challenging for higher end points.
If not, it's midfield anonymity, and past two seasons we have seen Renault been mired in that battle because of a poor car at the start. Either way, I see Petrov struggling at first, coming on stronger towards the end of the European season. It is because of this unpredictability that I place them behind Williams.
My prediction: Sixth
Force India F1 Team - 14. Adrian Sutil 15. Vitantonio Liuzzi
What a year 2009 was for Force India. Their first pole, podium and fastest lap were a richly deserved reward for a small team hat punched well above their weight. The VJM02 proved a useful car on low downforce tracks like Monza and Interlagos. Now it is time for them to build on this. With much better preparation this time round (they only secured a Mercedes engine deal a few weeks before the 2009 season), this year could be another step in the right direction for Vijay Mallya's team.
Adrian Sutil improved greatly over 2009, and was rewarded with fourth place and fastest lap at the Italian Grand Prix. Runner-up to Lewis Hamilton in the F3 Euroseries in 2005, it is now time for Adrian to iron out his mistakes and prove he merits his place on the F1 grid. 52 race starts show he has the talent to be in F1, but only six points show there's work to be done.
Sutiil's team-mate finds himself in a similar situation. After being shunned by Toro Rosso before 2008, the past two years have been character building for Vitantonio Liuzzi . Rightly or wrongly, he's had to settle with a test driver role at Force India for nearly two years, but following Giancarlo Fisichella's move to Ferrari pre-Monza, Liuzzi was given his chance to prove his mettle.And overall, he impressed, especially at Monza.
Basically, 2010 is the year everyone involved with Force India proves a point. Testing has looked good, and regular points finishes are definitely possible, hounding Williams and Renault along the way.
My prediction: Seventh
Scuderia Toro Rosso—16. Sebastien Buemi, 17. Jaime Alguersuari
After the highs of 2008, 2009 was a year to forget for the guys at Faenza. The testing ban hit them hard, with two vastly inexperienced, but talented, drivers who had barely hit 20. Couple that with the fact 2010 will be the first time in STR's career that they will have designed their own cars, and we can tell it may be a tough season for the Red Bull "B-team".
Last year was a solid season for young Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi . Scoring points in his first race was a great start, and was followed by three more points finishes in China, Brazil and Abu Dhabi. He particularly impressed in qualifying, making it through to Q3 on four occasions. But his big weakness is getting himself into a lot of accidents and incidents.
The same could be said for Jaime Alguersuari . The youngest driver to ever compete in Formula One was thrown in at the deep end, and hadn't properly tested an F1 car by the time he'd left the garage on Friday practice at Hungary.
So in fairness, he did a pretty solid job considering his inexperience. He even showed decent pace at Suzuka before enduring a violent crash at the infamous 130R, from which he emerged unscathed.
Here at STR, we have two highly talented if slightly inexperienced racers, and they've been putting in a lot of miles in testing. Their car looks similar to the Red Bull challenger from last year, and if a decent package, I see Buemi hustling the upper midfield, maybe the lower points at some races.
As for Alguersuari, I see the first few races being a struggle, possibly picking up towards the end. Finishing with points on the board would be a success for young Jaime.
My prediction: Ninth
Lotus Racing - 18. Jarno Trulli 19. Heikki Kovalainen
Here we have the first of the new teams in the form of the Malaysian Lotus team. It may not be the same Team Lotus which bowed out in 1994, but the new reincarnation looks set to maintain some of the standards of the old one, not least with the stunning livery they will field this season.
The Lotus team have pulled off a coup by signing two race-winning drivers. Jarno Trulli will assume a Barrichello-esque role within the team, helping them start on the right foot while also trying to turn the T127 chassis into a competitive one.
The season could be release from the corporate chains of Toyota for the veteran Italian, and while we won't see him fighting at the front, I imagine he will be putting the car places it shouldn't be.
Trulli's team-mate goes into 2010 knowing he has a big point to prove. Heikki Kovalainen endured two tough years as Hamilton's understudy at McLaren, and has been suspect to poor performances and the odd crash. But don't judge Heikki on those two years. He is a very good driver on his day.
He's even a race-winner when he's got it hooked up. If you were going to judge him, I suggest judging him on the second half of his 2007 season at Renault, where he greatly matured as a driver and was rewarded with a second place finish at the flooded Japanese Grand Prix, where he even held off fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen.
Lotus will be looking to establish themselves at the best of the new teams, and everything's there to make it possible. They've had the upper hand over Virgin in testing, and with two race-winners in the team, I think we'll see the green machines in places we don't expect to see them. They might even embarrass one or two established outfits along the way.
My prediction: 10th
Campos Meta 1 - 20. TBA 21. Bruno Senna
Their problems over the winter have been well documented. They have been lacking finances and missing payments to car designers Dallara over the winter. Now though, they have finally secured investment, but it remains to be seen whether the Campos name will be kept due to the management reshuffle.
The big loser in all this is Bruno Senna . After narrowly missing out on a drive with Brawn last year, you could have forgiven him for thinking he'd be excited going into the 2010 with a drive secured. But the struggles within the team mean his drive is no longer secured, which is a cruel shame for Senna. He has the talent to make it in Formula One having just missed out on the GP2 title in 2008, and now he risks not having a drive at all in 2010.
A second driver has yet to be signed for the Valencia team. Various names have been bandied about, such as Adam Carroll , Karun Chandhok, and even Jose Maria Lopez , despite him already having a contract at the ailing USF1 team, which we will look at later.
Recently, Chandhok has emerged as the favourite to take the second seat, with his dollars no doubt helping his cause. If he does get the seat, it's hard to say whether he deserves it on merit. Yes he is a race-winner in GP2, which takes a lot of talent to achieve.
But his 2008 and 2009 seasons have been poor. 2008 especially, as he was in the leading iSport team alongside Bruno Senna, and all he could manage was one Sprint race victory on his way to 10th in the standings.
Missing all of testing will severely hinder Campos' season. Races in the early part of the season will be test sessions, which could prove dangerous. If they could come out on top against fellow strugglers USF1, it would save some sort of grace.
My prediction: 12th
US F1 Team—22. Jose Maria Lopez, 23. TBA
The USF1 team was supposed to be a showcase for American talent and technology within Formula One. Instead, it has turned into an embarrassment not just for the team, but Formula One itself. It has even got to the extent of team principal Ken Anderson asking the FIA to allow them to miss the first four races of the season.
What has caused this? It seems that the core of the team's problems is the lack of money that has been invested in the project. It seems hard to believe that, considering they managed to secure backing from big names like YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley. But their lack of progress has allegedly led to Hurley withdrawing his backing and taking it elsewhere.
They do have one driver signed in the form of GP2 also-ran Jose Maria Lopez . Once a part of the Renault Driver Development programme, he showed some promise in his junior days, most notably beating Robert Kubica to the Italian Formula Renault title in 2002, and also winning the V6 Eurocup the next year.
But since then, he has fallen off the radar following two unspectacular seasons in GP2 which yielded just one win. He defected back to the Argentine TC2000 touring car series, dovetailed by the odd sportcar appearance. Whist he has won back-to-back title in the TC2000 in 2008 and 2009, it was his dollars from the Argentine government which have got him his drive.
The recent troubles of the team have led to rumours that Lopez and his sponsors want to drive somewhere else in 2010, with Campos being linked with his services.
Like Campos, USF1 do not have a second driver signed. Unlike them, no names have been thrown around by the media.
And so the soap opera that is USF1 lies on the brink of oblivion, if reports from insiders are indeed correct. Making the grid at all this season will be a miracle, which is why I see them trailing around at the back of the field, if we do see them at all.
My prediction: 13th
Virgin Racing—24. Timo Glock, 25. Lucas di Grassi
Virgin Racing stole a march on the other teams by launching their all-CFD car earlier than scheduled—so early they were able to make the first Jerez test. But since then, poor reliability has curtailed their running, including the infamous front wing disintegration at Jerez. But it's not all bad for Virgin.
They have a very strong driver lineup, pulling off a big coup by signing Timo Glock . Glock joins the team off the back of two impressive seasons at Toyota, scoring three podiums along the way. Some see this move as a step back for Glock, considering he's entering the prime of his career.
It all depends on how Virgin develops over the next season or two. If he's able to turn the team into regular points finishers, the move will have been justified. If not, and Virgin don't live up to their hype, it could be a case of what might have been for 2007 GP2 champion Glock.
Runner up in GP2 that year was Brazilian Lucas di Grassi. While Glock has gone on to establish himself as one of the fastest drivers on the grid, di Grassi has been mired in the GP2 anonymity that has claimed Giorgio Pantano.
What has saved di Grassi is his technical feedback. He has thousands of F1 miles under his belt, which is hard to come by in today's F1, and has established himself as a highly skilled development driver—impressive considering he is still only 25 years old.
The lack of testing will have hurt Virgin, considering they had a whole extra test on their fellow new teams. Their radical all-CFD car (which means the car was designed fully on a computer without the use of a tunnel) is unproven in F1. But they have a strong staff force.
Team boss John Booth has run Manor Motorsport in junior formula (Manor got the F1 entry before receiving investment from Richard Branson of Virgin), Nick Wirth was team owner of Simtek in the 90s, and was also the technical mastermind behind the Acura sportscar programme, and they possess a strong driver lineup. Beating Lotus would be a good season, but I see them falling just short.
My prediction: 11th
Sauber—TBA. Pedro de la Rosa, TBA. Kamui Kobayashi
They may still be listed as BMW Sauber, but to all F1 fans they will always be Sauber! Peter Sauber returns to the head of the Hinwil operation following the departure of BMW after four years. Always known for developing a good car on a shoestring budget, 2010 appears to be no different, if their sponsor-less livery is anything to go by.
Pedro de la Rosa has his first permanent drive since driving a Jaguar in 2002. Since then, he has racked up thousands upon thousands of miles as McLaren test driver, and also subbing in nine times for the injured/NASCAR-bound Juan Pablo Montoya, with a best finish of second in the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix.
He may be 38, but he knows Formula One cars like he knows the inside of his eyelids. Whether he still has the speed and the physical strength to fight for position remains to be seen. But he will give his all, and also try and help his young team-mate.
At the end of last year's GP2 season, Kamui Kobayashi was on the brink of single-seater oblivion. Despite his talent and his test driver role at Toyota, finishing 16th in the standings two seasons a row was all he could manage. He had lost his budget for 2010, and was set to fall off the radar completely.
Exit Timo Glock, following his qualifying crash in Japan, and suddenly Kamui had his chance to prove his F1 credentials in the final two races of the 2009 season for Toyota. He took the chance with both hands, impressing everyone with his aggressive driving style, twice coming out on top in battles against Jenson Button.
But following the departure of Toyota at the end of the season meant Kamui's efforts may have come to nothing. Enter Peter Sauber, who signed the Japanese hot-shot for the returning Sauber team. He's a different breed of F1 driver, in that he has balls, which is why Sauber have signed him.
This lineup looks great on paper, and testing has shown Sauber have a competitive package. But as has so often been the case for Sauber, they don't have the resources of other teams, and inevitably, as the money goes, so does the performance. However, I see them challenging the Williams, Renaults and Force Indias for mid-to-lower end points.
My prediction: Eighth
So that's my predictions for the teams, but what about the new regulations? Will they improve the racing?
My personal belief is that the racing will only be as good as last year. While the banning of refuelling takes away one factor, and the narrower front tyres mean less grip, another huge problem still remains—the double diffuser. Teams now will have the concept sussed, so they will be even more effective than last year.
2010 will still be a cracking season. We may not see the miracles we did last season, but we will see the fireworks we saw in 2009. I don't doubt that one bit.