NEWS FEATURE

A preview of the year

It will be hard for Formula 1 to match 1999 for sheer drama and the sport may suffer a little as a result. People have come to expect that there will be a monkey swinging from the chandeliers and a naked lady popping out of a cake at every event. We were spoiled in 1999. Just as we were spoiled in the 1980s by having so many charismatic stars at the same time. F1 could use a little more charisma as World Championship rivals Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen do not excite the public as Ayrton Senna or Nigel Mansell used to do.

This is probably the best way to explain the enormous coverage that Williams received over the winter when they announced that they had signed up 20-year-old Jenson Button. People want something new and exciting.

It would be new and exciting if Ferrari could have a competitive car at the first race. Normally at this time of year the Italian team is busy sticking a new rear end on the back of a recalcitrant chassis or something similarly dramatic. In theory the weak point this year should be the new V10 engine but everything seems to be going well.

Michael Schumacher says he is fit and eager to win the World Championship. The Silverstone accident has taken its toll on him. He looks a little older now, but we have yet to see if it makes any difference to his speed. He's tough nut but you never know. He looks like a man who has reached the top of his trajectory as a driver and is hovering there, as Ayrton Senna was in 1992-93. Another World Championship is definitely on the cards - if the car is right.

Rubens Barrichello's announcement that he was to join Schumacher at Ferrari was seen by many in F1 as a suicide note. The Brazilian is very quick but in the past has shown himself to be weak under pressure. He struggled against Eddie Irvine in their final year at Jordan and he got flustered last year when Johnny Herbert began to beat him at Stewart. Marching up to Schumacher is like attempting to climb the Mount Everest of F1. It is going to be a rocky, cold and lonely path and one has to worry that Rubens will be swept away.

Mika Hakkinen looked decidedly wobbly at times last year but, in the finest traditions of the cinema, he came through the firefight, slaughtered the bad guys and got the girl. That would have worn out even Bruce Willis and so over the winter Mika has been relaxing. He says that his target is to win three World titles in a row, something which has not been achieved since Juan-Manuel Fangio managed it in 1956. It would be an extraordinary achievement and one must hope that the self-proclaimed super-professional McLaren team will not get involved in the amateur dramatics we saw on occasion last year. If they are to beat Schumacher in a competitive Ferrari the Woking team is going to have to deliver the goods.

David Coulthard is faced with a similar need to prove himself. The Scotsman has been at McLaren for four seasons and the time has come for him to deliver the goods or ship out. David is a winner and he has been toughened up mentally during his time at McLaren. Now he must take the fight to Hakkinen and stop making mistakes. If he does not give Hakkinen a harder time in 2000 it is in everyone's interest that he moves along to Jaguar Racing, his most likely destination.

The new green team will certainly attract a lot of interest but one cannot help but conclude that it is a halfway house between Stewart Grand Prix and a fullblown Jaguar effort. Jackie Stewart has stood down as team boss but no-one has stood up. Rumours suggest that the job is being left open for Ross Brawn in 2001.The Ford Motor Company will be pushing hard for success but it is hard to imagine that the cars will be challenging for the World Championship just yet. There seem to be too many loose ends.

What will be fascinating will be the fight between Johnny Herbert and Eddie Irvine. The pair do not form a mutual admiration society and Herbert knows that unless he does something exceptional this year he will be following Damon Hill out to pasture at the end of the year. Irvine may have finished second in the World Championship but his period as Ferrari team leader was not very convincing and there are many in the paddock who feel that Ford has made a big mistake. Eddie will be out to prove them wrong.

There could be similar fun and games at Jordan, which will be a two-car team again this year with the arrival of Jarno Trulli as Heinz-Harald Frentzen's team mate. The Italian has been promising for long enough and now has to prove that he has what he takes. Frentzen's reaction will be interesting. He was brilliant last year but under pressure from Jacques Villeneuve at Williams in 1998, he was very disappointing.

The big question mark at Jordan is the Mugen Honda V10 engine. Honda has arrived in F1 in its own right and it is hard to judge what the inscrutable chaps from Tokyo are planning. British American Racing spent a lot of time on the ropes last year and is beginning to show signs of learning them, but it may be too early for Honda to strangle the Mugen project. Ultimately however it will be iced and Eddie Jordan must either wrench the works Honda deal from BAR or find another car manufacturer.

While Jordan stares decisions in the face, Williams is chin-to-chin with problems. The team has its usual hard exterior but this year it seems more like a creme brulee than a block of marble. This is not the fault of the team but rather because there seems to have been a nasty outbreak of Bavarian arrogance at BMW Motorsport in Munich. Those with long memories will remember the unholy mess that Porsche made of F1 in 1991 because the engineers thought they knew better than anyone else. One gets the very distinct impression that something similar has been happening in Munich as the company has contrived to lose a good F1 engine designer after just a few weeks on the job.

Frank Williams and Patrick Head are not men who like to finish second, let along fifth or sixth. The plan to slide gracefully from success with Renault to success with BMW has just gone over a large bump and they are in the air. There are two choices available: grit the teeth, stick with BMW and wait for the bump, or jump elsewhere. The sad thing is that the team has great drivers - and too many of them. Ralf Schumacher looks like a chip off the block from which his brother was hewn. Juan-Pablo Montoya is lurking in America and new boy Jenson Button is the man of the moment. Beating Schumacher will be a major achievement for Button. He is quick and he is mature but he is going to need to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground.

The Benetton team has had a fairly major clean-out of staff in recent months. Nick Wirth was pushed out but others left and the only top managers left standing are technical director Pat Symmonds and team boss Rocco Benetton. This year's package should be OK but it will not be great. The Supertec engine is pretty good - if you can afford it - but it is not a Ferrari or a Mercedes. Nor for that matter is it a Cosworth or a Mugen or a Honda. Do you get the picture?

Giancarlo Fisichella's tendency to come apart under pressure - as happened at the Nurburgring last year - is worrying if the Italian still has dreams of being a real F1 star, while Alexander Wurz seems to have many of the skills necessary to be a top driver but appears to lack the ultimate pace of his team mate. The team should produce solid results but what is needed is a new engine package if Benetton is ever going to get back in Victory Lane.

Sauber is another team which needs a proper engine. Secondhand Ferrari V10s are never going to make the team a winning force. The team has been stuck on the same plateau for the last three seasons and now needs to move on. There are many folk in the F1 paddock who feel that you cannot hope for success if you base yourself in Switzerland because you cannot attract the top engineers. Peter Sauber disagrees although he lost his partner Fritz Kaiser last year over this argument.

This year is vital for Sauber because the Petronas deal is up for grabs at the end of the year and if you stand outside the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur over the next few months you will see all the marketing men from rival teams going to have a look at the impressive architecture. Mike Salo and Pedro Diniz make up a good solid driver line-up, which tells you how much the Brazilian rich kid has come on in recent years.

What can one say about Arrows without upsetting Tom Walkinshaw? Not much. To give the squat Scot credit, he has got together a bunch of very good engineers and has signed a deal to run Supertec engines but, whether he likes it or not, Tom has to face the fact that someone has to pay for all this and the team has been singularly unsuccessful in spearing cheques while out hunting money. The other weak point (whether Tom agrees or not) is that he is too busy running his other businesses to do the F1 job properly and we have yet to see him put someone in charge who can do it. Winning in F1 is all about having all the elements together at the same time. Tom has some but it is not enough. Pedro de la Rosa and Jos Verstappen are extremely good pay-drivers, both capable of producing results with the right machinery.

Ironically, money is not the problem for Alain Prost. He has the marketing side of the business well under control. He has good engineers. The problem is that he has a Peugeot engine. Peugeot Sport has never been a very convincing force in Formula 1 and now, with a World Rally Championship programme becoming successful, there is a perfect opportunity for the French company to slip out of the rotating door at the back of the grid without too many people pointing and laughing at the failure. But a failure it has been and there is no sign that the new engine is much better than the old ones. Prost smiles his resigned smile and says all the right things, but you can hear his brain whirring in the background. His future has got to be as a second Mercedes-Benz team. He is looking to 2001 and 2002 rather than worrying about this year. Jean Alesi is colorful and quick (and sometimes forgets to stop for fuel) and Nick Heidfeld is rather dull and in Formula 3000 has shown that he has some odd ideas about overtaking manouvers. However, he is German and a Mercedes-Benz protege so he fits the bill. There may be a few points for Prost this year but do not expect victory parades in Paris.

Minardi survives. Marc Gene is obviously quite a useful driver while no-one knows much about Gastone Mazzacane except that he had some pretty spectacular accidents in Formula 3000 in 1998. The team's sponsor Telefonica needs to make up its mind what it wants to do with the team. Until then Minardi will be a team of sportsmen. A dinosaur.

BAR arrived in F1 like a great big circus. In the course of the year the lion-tamer was eaten, the sword-swallower cut his throat and the fire-eater went out in a blaze of glory. This year the team has adopted a low-key approach so there should be an improvement this year. A lot of F1 people are betting that Adrian Reynard will eventually arrange for Craig Pollock to exit F1 with a dirty boot mark on the bottom of his chinos, but others think the opposite will happen. And there is the problem. Teams which are split by internal politics do not win races. The car has not shown very much in the way of speed in testing but with Jacques Villeneuve driving there could be fireworks. Ricardo Zonta will be wise to keep a nice low profile, matching or even beating Villeneuve if he can.

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