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The season ahead

WHAT can we expect this year in Grand Prix racing? Well, that is not an easy thing to predict. One can judge the teams on the money they have to spend or the number of people they have working the project but that will only give you a rough guide of where the teams SHOULD be in the hierarchy.

You can try to analyze winter testing times but this is a dangerous course of action. As Formula 1 becomes more and more of a media circus - and teams increasingly adopt the belief that any publicity is good publicity - the times set in testing prove nothing. Teams are allowed to run underweight and even with illegal systems or fuels. This can make a big splash in newspapers. At the same time, other teams deliberately do not set fast laps in testing, hoping to lull the opposition into a false sense of security.

This means that we will not really know what to expect until after the race in Melbourne. One thing that can be predicted, however, is that the racing is going to be closer this year. Last year was the first season of a "new" formula. The chassis had to be completely new because of safety dictates and McLaren used its collective brains better than everyone else and got ahead of the game. Ferrari had to play catch up. This year everyone will have closed that gap. This is a typical pattern in F1 history and so we can expect a very interesting World Championship.

Ask the Formula 1 engineers what is most important to have a fast car in 1999 and they will say: engine, aerodynamics and driver. The really smart ones will say that, with the new tire rules this year, mechanical grip is going to be more important than brute horsepower, because horsepower is no good if you cannot transfer it to the road. This explains why there has been such intensive work on differentials and close-to-the-limit electronic systems in recent months. The FIA has tried to close down some of the loopholes exploited last year but there are still problems for teams to know what is legal and what is not legal. The teams and the FIA Technical Department have spent the last months playing word games. A system can be legal for a team which uses the right words in its application for a system and illegal for one which asks the wrong questions.

In fact, the FIA Technical Department can only offer guidelines and it is the Stewards at each race who have the power to decide, which is a crazy situation when you look at the background of some of the people involved. Are Belgian pisiculturalists and Swedish management consultants really qualified to make such decisions? Apparently they are...

The explanation for all this is that the FIA has deliberately created rules which are open to interpretation and that means that there is an element of control over what happens in the course of the World Championship. The FIA seems to think that domination of a sport is a bad thing. I would disagree. NASCAR is not suffering from Jeff Gordon, it is riding with his success. His domination of NASCAR has proved that while you can control technical games, you cannot outlaw a team for being more professional than the others. Formula 1 bosses believe that domination by a single team is bad for the sport but I am not sure that is the case.

Most of the F1 circus would like to sign up Gordon for the year 2000 and, ironically, it would probably be the best thing for Gordon, F1 and NASCAR if that happened. It would free NASCAR from Gordon's success and open the way fro others; it would give F1 an American star; and it would give Gordon a new challenge now that he has proved his complete mastery of stock car racing. That is not to say that Gordon will end up in F1 - but it does make an awful lot of sense. The only problems seems to be a financial one - and these things can be solved when you are dealing with men who have bottomless bank accounts.

Playing with the F1 regulations has meant that arguments over technical issues have become inevitable but the FIA is smart enough to realize that this is not very important as controversy keeps the sport in the newspapers. There will probably be some bumping and grinding about the regulations this year.

But the most important element in F1 remains a very basic one. Pure horsepower. You can do well if you have it but you will not necessarily win. If you don't have it, you are not going to win. And so one must expect to see McLaren and Ferrari up at the front. There are no compromises in their engine programs.

Ferrari had some early delays in the F399 development program but these have been overcome. The car has been tested considerably more than all the other new cars. Almost all of that testing has been done by Michael Schumacher. The car should be reliable and if it is within half a second of pole position at a race, one must expect that Michael Schumacher will win the race. He makes the difference and everyone in F1 knows it - even if they don't want to admit it. Sitting down and drinking a beer with him does not appeal to many people, but he is the best driver out there and if the car is good enough he should win the World Championship. He could have done it last year if he had not blown it by crashing into David Coulthard at Spa.

It will be interesting to see what happens if the Ferrari is not as competitive as it should be. The Schumacher-Ferrari dream needs success in its fourth season to stop gangrene setting in. Michael's manager says that the German will stay with Ferrari until he retires. Perhaps he will, but if he is willing to accept losing over and over again, he is already on the slippery slope downhill. I can see him giving up the Ferrari dream at the end of the year and going to West McLaren Mercedes - which will pay him whatever he wants.

As well as being the best driver out there - in every respect except sportsmanship - Schumacher has the advantage of being Ferrari. Eddie Irvine may gripe and whine about it but he is Michael's man-servant.

The number one status at McLaren is another matter. Mika Hakkinen showed some moments of very real brilliance last year but he is yet to establish himself in Schumacher's league. Last year he got the better of David Coulthard but, according to the team, the number one status in the team will belong to the man who gets ahead in the World Championship. Last year that issue was settled at the first corner in Melbourne. They both know the stakes and neither Mika nor David is going to lift off in a 50-50 situation. A crunch like that could blow a World Championship out of the water and create bad feeling within the team.

It will be interesting to see how things develop along these lines at Jordan. Damon Hill is supposed to be the number one driver but Heinz-Harald Frentzen may be the more naturally talented of the two - and Damon will have to work to keep him down. Both men are tougher than they used to be, so it could be an interesting showdown. Certainly the Jordan team finds itself in an interesting situation. The potential is clearly there for the team to win races but when one looks realistically at the situation, there is not much logic in Honda pushing Jordan too hard this year. The last time that Honda switched engines from team-to-team (Prost-Jordan), the team left behind suffered a half-season of disastrous engine failures. It looked as though Honda was trying out new ideas. The side-effect was to weaken the team - and help damage a future rival. With Honda coming into F1 with its own operation in 2000 there is no reason to help Jordan. Doing damage would be a better, if more cynical, policy.

I do not see the Supertec-engined teams being a threat for the World Championship in 1999. And, in a worst case scenario, I can see Williams and Benetton being overtaken in the hierarchy by Sauber, Prost and Stewart. BAR is a different story.

There has been a lot of hot air about the development of the Mecachrome V10 engine into the Supertec V10. Renault is no longer pouring money into the program. There is probably a dribble now and then when the powerful French unions and the Renault shareholders are looking the other way, but the Renault bosses have more important things to worry about as the automotive industry consolidates. They need to expand to keep the company alive and that takes money. Wasting money on racing can come later. This is a financial reality. Something which some F1 team bosses have never been very good at recognizing.

Last year Williams and Benetton paid Mecachrome for development and it paid Renault Sport. This year the three teams have to pay Supertec. Supertec is paying Mecachrome. Mecachrome is paying Renault. The engines are costing 30% more than they used to. But it is very clear that the extra money is not being spent on development. In testing we have already seen that the teams have been having trouble with engine-mapping. This is because there are not enough dynos to cope with the number of engines needed. Let's not bet silly about this. Supertec boss Flavio Briatore is a commodity trader. He has an expensive lifestyle. He is not into charity work. The extra money is for him and his partners.

At Williams Alessandro Zanardi (the name Alex is already being edged out) is going to have to work hard to stay ahead of Ralf Schumacher. Ralf is a man on a mission. Incongruously, he is driven by sibling rivalry yet helped by fraternal advice and example. This year he must stop making mistakes. Zanardi, a good steady, confident, professional, could emerge ahead. Ralf may be quicker in qualifying but there are not many to match Zanardi when it comes to racing.

At Benetton Giancarlo Fisichella and Alexander Wurz are ready for some success. They will become itchy and frustrated if the results are not better this year. There is no reason they should be. Rocco Benetton may find F1 rather more difficult than life in the New York jet-set.

We will have to see what happens with British American Racing. The team has made a lot of noise about how it is going to win its first race and take on the big teams that one feels almost restrained from suggesting that this may be a pipe dream of considerable proportions.

Even ignoring the absurd political battle BAR has been losing (and was always going to lose) with the FIA, the team has not done well in testing. Its 1999 car was ready to run in the middle of December. At the end of the shakedown tests at Silverstone last week BAR had managed to complete only around 1,475 miles with the new car. This is on a par with the new McLaren and the new Williams (although both teams ran thousands more miles of testing with old cars fitted with 1999 componentry). BAR has done more testing than Minardi and Stewart, but far less than Ferrari, Jordan, Benetton, Prost and even Arrows. The team has discovered that it really isn't that easy to keep up.

When the BAR 01 has run the results have not been particularly impressive, notably in South Africa where Williams was around a second ahead. If BAR wins in Melbourne it will be the fluke of the century. The team has had so much money and publicity swilling around it that dreams and realities have become confused. An F1 team needs time to grow and to be tempered by experience. Jacques Villeneuve will be surrounded by his mates (if they survive) but it is going to be a frustrating year for the 1997 World Champion. On the other hand I think it is worth watching out for Zonta if the team is able to run two cars at the same level.

Sauber seems a little stagnant at the moment but being stagnant with Ferrari engines has its advantages. The team needs a decent engine partner in the future. Jean Alesi will be his usual brilliant (if slightly mad) self while Pedro Diniz will probably find life trying to keep up with Alesi will not be easy. Pedro is a brilliant package for F1 in the 1990s. He's a good driver with $10m available every year. But he's not a Hakkinen or a Coulthard.

Prost will be worth watching. Any team with lots of money and John Barnard involved should not be overlooked. Barnard produced too many bills for Tom Walkinshaw's tastes but Alain seems to have deeper pockets than the Scotsman. The problem for Prost is that the team is still using a sprouced-up version of the old Peugeot V10 and that will be reflected on the race track. Expect some good finishes if the cars are reliable - and watch out for Jarno Trulli because in a good car he is going to be very fast.

If you are looking for surprises I think Stewart is a good bet. The team needed a good kicking at the end of last year and, to its credit, it has made changes - even if they have had to be disguised so as not to dent too many egos. Whether these are the right changes is another question. Ford has taken a monumental risk with its new V10. If it works the men in Dearborn will be heroes. If not... well, it is a time of rationalization in the motor industry.

I think Minardi will be better than it has been for many years but I cannot - even in my wildest dreams - imagine more than a World Championship point on occasion.

It is best not to talk too much about Arrows. The car will be as good as is possible given the team's circumstances. Tom Walkinshaw has always been successful when he is involved in motorsport. The problem with Arrows has been that he is not involved enough. He is too busy wheeling and dealing in his other businesses to focus on how to make Arrows a more competitive operation. It is a lesson which Ron Dennis learned the hard way at McLaren. But then he had an excuse, the team had been successful. Arrows never has been...

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