MARCH 9, 2009
Who is going to be fast in 2009?
The change in the Formula 1 rules means that the sport is looking at a potential shake-up of the established order, but the testing in recent weeks has been very difficult to read and it has become clear that some teams are avoiding showing their hand until the Australian GP, while others are going for times in order to achieve other goals (such as selling sponsorship).
The latest tests in Jerez resulted in Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull setting the fastest time, although his Red Bull Racing team-mate Mark Webber was only 11th fastest overall. Most of the teams managed sigificant mileage with Toyota the only organisation to top 1300 miles of running, although Red Bull, BMW Sauber and Williams all did more than 1200 and Ferrari and McLaren were both in the 1100 range. Renault did only 830 and Force India did just 625. These figures are probably more interesting than the lap times or the order. Toyota's Timo Glock was second fastest with Fernando Alonso third for Renault. Then came Nick Heidfeld's BMW and the two Ferraris. Heikki Kovalainen was seventh quickest in his McLaren. This led to the inevitable stories suggesting that McLaren was in trouble but the reality seems to be that the team is keeping its powder dry. Ferrari is doing the same, while Williams and BMW are generally running with full fuel loads as playing games with the weight of the cars serves only to confuse.
Mark Webber told the Herald Sun newspaper in Melbourne that he reckons there are as many as seven teams in the running for victory in Melbourne because analysis of long runs, rather than qualifying bursts are more important. The degradation of tyres is going to be a key element in the sport this year as the new slicks are wearing out and so the fastest cars in qualifying may not be the race winners, particularly if overtaking is easier, as the drivers are suggesting.
Many of the teams have new parts that they have yet to put on the cars in public tests which they are going to use in Melbourne. There will be much interest in this, particularly at the rear where the diffusers are creating a lot of interest as teams have adopted very different attitudes towards the rules in this area. It remains to be seen who will use KERS and who will wait and see. In theory it is the way to go but most of the teams these days operate very strict systems of proving new parts and would rather not risk a mechanical failure with KERS.
When all is said done, therefore, the contest seems to be wide open.