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Why the drivers will make the difference this year
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Why the drivers will make the difference this year
Posted By:   |  07 Mar 2009   |  3:57 pm GMT  |  19 comments

On Monday I’m off to Barcelona for the test session. For many teams it is the final test before the season starts. For McLaren, Williams, Renault and Brawn GP there are another three days of running at Jerez from 15-17 March.

So it’s a pretty vital week for a lot of teams, most of whom will bring heavly updated cars. It’s a huge week for Ferrari, who have still not shown exactly where they are in the pecking order. Meanwhile McLaren have been having problems with the rear wing and although they have those extra days in Jerez, they will want to get on top of their problems as soon as possible this week.

Essentially the problem appears to be that McLaren’s 2009 rear wing is stalling and causing rear end instability. They tried two difference versions in Jerez, but also stuck with the 2008 win for quite a bit of the time. They were never well up the time sheets and they did the lowest mileage of any team at Jerez.

This is a far from ideal state of affairs, but being McLaren they will get it sorted, I’m sure. It’s quite a complex problem, but they have some amazing facilities and they will be running millions of calculations at the factory to find the answer.

Ferrari did not top the time sheets in Jerez last week and seemed to be focussed on working on set up and reliability. I hear from Italian colleagues that both drivers are now really happy with the balance of the car and with the way it works on the various compounds of Bridgestone’s new slick tyre. They also seem pretty confident in their KERS system, which is a huge relief to them.

In Barcelona therefore, I expect them to bring many development parts and their job there will be to unlock more speed, because at the moment it seems that they do not have their noses in front. Part of the reason for that is the cool temperatures in Jerez last week. In the higher temperatures of Bahrain they were faster. The forecast is for clear weather n Barcelona, I’m delighted to say, so a lot of work will get done this week.

Renault are starting to look strong and all the signs are that BMW are doing the trick they did last winter of running with extra fuel to mask true performance. They trundle around and then every now and then do some electric laps, which indicates that the car has a lot of speed.

Toyota have been probably the most consistent team so far with good reliability, high mileage and good speed. Red Bull also looks pretty fast, Vettel did a very fast quali special in Jerez and this could be interesting in terms of the grid, as Webber is a sensational qualifier and I can see him sticking his car right up the front in Melbourne, Vettel too.

It looks like Force India are going to move up the grid as well. They have improved their chassis and the Mercedes/McLaren drivetrain and hydraulics package is a step forward. They’ve had some reliability problems and they were quite late out so they could be struggling to get the cars to the chequered flag in Melbourne, but I think they will be solid midfield runners this year.

So who’s going to be at the back? Well team engineers I’ve spoken to are all surprised at how close the field is, the opposite of what everyone expected with such a massive rule change. They are starting to suggest that it will come down to drivers as to who’s up and who’s down. Yes, the field is that close, the drivers could well make the difference, especially with all the new responsibilities they have in the cockpit with adjustable front wings, KERS etc. If this is the case then it’s brilliant news and I fear for the rookie Sebastien Buemi, for Nelson Piquet and possibly for Kazuki Nakajima, although, like Piquet he had some really good days mixed in with the bad ones last year.

The drivers will make the difference and I’m sure that this is why Ross Brawn went for the experience and speed of Rubens Barrichello over Bruno Senna.

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19 Comments
  1. Jon says:

    The form guides of BBC and ITV F1 suggest Ferrari is ahead at this point, not due to topping the times. But due to the fastest and most consistant stints. I payed attention to the times closely and agree with this summation, although I wish it wasn’t the case (there is still 1-2 more tests for things to change). The rest of the field seems incredibly close.

    I agree with your summation about the drivers having more impact, and it’d be fantastic if this was the case. It’s looking to be a fantastic season.

  2. Akshay says:

    Hey James, what about Kimi’s back? Seat fitting didn’t go too well for him? Is that sorted out now?

  3. Jonathan says:

    Poor Nelson, do you think he’s that bad?

  4. kaushal says:

    The 2009 season is going to be more exciting. I’m looking forward for good overtaking and nail biting finishes

  5. Rob Sinfield says:

    In the end, the driver always makes the difference – the gap between Heikki and Lewis last year just one of many examples of how one driver who is on top of his game will get far more out of the car than one who is always playing catch up.

    This years star? – Lewis Hamilton with Robert Kubica rattling his cage.

    This years Taki Inoue? – Poor Nelson Piquet, his final year in F1 – assuming he does the whole year..

    Enjoy Jerez James – from a fellow ITV scribe :-)

    Rob Sinfield

  6. Rich Cooper says:

    I can see a rather unusual season for McLaren with them having a poor start to the year & then really coming on strong once they get to Europe.

    Meanwhile the all new relaxed Lewis will not have the end of season pressure he faced last year & will sneak the championship..

    This is the most open season since 1982 I think.. cant wait , if only the cars looked better.

  7. I am absolutely loving this blog site. I only discovered it a couple of weeks ago and pleased that I found it.

    I think your assessment on testing so far is spot on. For me personnally Renault and Toyota have been the stand out teams so far. Vettel’s qualifying simulation was also very impressive for Red Bull. That car clearly has great raw pace, but how has their race pace been looking? What do you think James?

    I was initially quite worried about Renault but they have turned it around very quickly, resulting in me having to re-think half of my preview article I wrote about them.

    I think I am one of very few who early on thought the grid could close up thanks to the new regulations, as opposed to the popular opinion that the field will spread out more (we still have to wait till Melbourne to see if that will in fact be the case though. A lot can still change). Everyone refers to 1998 when the last major set of technical changes were (narrower cars) and how the field spread out then.

    The difference between then and now is the number of highly funded manufacturer teams we now have in F1, who are all capable of producing a very fast car. Back in 1998 there were a number of privateers not as nearly well funded including the likes of Stewart, Sauber, Minardi and Arrows to name a few. So adapting to a new set of technical changes for them back then would have been a lot more difficult than it is for the likes of Toyota, BMW, Renault and Red Bull now.

    Now that everyone is starting from exactly the same starting point i.e building a whole new and different car this list of teams can really shine. And from looking at testing so far it looks like they are doing. And even the current minnows Force India are looking promising thanks to their Mclaren link-up. I bet Minardi would have liked to have that in back in their day.

    The problem in the last couple of seasons with stable regulations is teams have just been evolving their current cars. The likes of Toyota and Red Bull have been doing a good job at developing their cars but because they’ve been 1.0-1.5 seconds behind Ferrari and Mclaren in the first place who have maintained their development rates, these teams haven’t been able to catch up despite their best efforts.

    That’s all change now. It’s like starting from scratch. We really will see some surprises this season.

    That’s my opinion on why the grid is unexpectedly close at the present time, but I could be a bit wide off the mark.

    When we get to Melbourne I suspect Ferrari will probably edge ahead of everyone, but they will have very stiff opposition.

  8. Peter says:

    Christ! We get more info from this website than the ITVF1 web page and the new swanky BBC page as well! Great work James! I’m worried about McLaren and their rear wing and I really hope they get it sorted ASAP! [ You tell them, kind Sir! Who knows, maybe a sponsor will read it and we can improve this service further -- Moderator ]

  9. rpaco says:

    Re McLaren’s rear wing stalling, presumably this means that it is stalling at too low an air speed. The idea of getting the wing to stall when flat on the straight is highly desirable, provided the resultant mess behind it does not create more drag.

    By the time we eventually get fully free variable front and rear wings in 2020 (just a date!) I wonder if the rigidity rule will go, this would enable wing warping. (as used by the Airbus) Not a new invention this, as it is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, but wing warping is somewhat more efficient than moving flaps. Cant help thinking that Starlite heatproofing should be allowed too. (Maurice Ward would be vindicated at last.)

  10. Finn says:

    At some point over the winter, I read an article about one engineer talking about creating disruptive airflow to disrupt following cars … perhaps Macca have tried to do something along these lines, but have ended up causing problems for their own cars. Calculations and wind tunnel testing should have identified any significant risk of stalling, so it seems odd that they created the problem in the first place and haven’t been able to sort it out so far. I heard that the kers system was adding to problems as well, especially under braking. Either Macca are sandbagging, or they genuinely have a problem that it will take them a long time to fix (until the cars get back to Europe?). The next round of testing will give us more info, for sure.

    Very surprised Bruno didn’t get a chance. Rubens has experience, but he doesn’t have long left as a driver because of his age and he certainly doesn’t have the media/sponsor profile of Bruno. I would have given Senna a seat: with Brawn GP being such a late and troubled birth, expectations would have been low and he could have had a season learning the tracks … plus Brawn GP could have got a lot of much needed attention and money. Would have thought, from a commercial view point, that Mercedes could have done with the publicity that Senna would have brought to the team. Total respect to Ross for making the call – he must know what he’s doing, but I just don’t understand it myself.

    Why, on this blog, do people go on about James making money? He presumably must be getting an income from somewhere to carry on going to tests, etc.

    I’m thrilled if James expands the site and can make a fortune from it, but by the look of things he must be ‘secure’ at the moment to be flying off to Barna, etc.

    Pretty sure, as well, that if James does want to expand the blog and make it into a more profitable site that he is well placed to get the backing he would need. Lots of people seem ready to support him and like the insight he is offering via the blog. [ ... I keep trying to tell him that good moderators don't come cheap, Finn. Perhaps you could put in a good word for me ... Moderator ]

  11. Finn says:

    If the teams really are close this year, then the season has got to look promising for Alonso and Renault … he’s the class of the field at the moment, with Vettel snapping at his heels.

    Unless Macca get a really superior car together, I think we’ll have a change of WDC this year.

    The season traditionally kicks off by this time in March … cruel that we have to wait and wait and wait and wait for this season to begin.

  12. rrnchrmbrs says:

    have fun in Barcelona! great place.

  13. guy says:

    can’t wait for the feedback from the test james, if mclaren don’t show some consistent speed i’ll be very worried. there is no way they’ll be sandbagging at the last test with a new boy in charge. keep up the great work james… since the itv f1 website started to turn down coverage this is the only decent place to keep up to date!

  14. lower-case david says:

    barca isn’t the last test for mclaren. along with a couple of other teams, they still have a few extra days lined up back at jerez.

    fascinating business either way: a misstep in the design dept, left stranded with a fundementally broken car, with no in-season testing to recover … or a massively confident program of precise calibration and correlation of their factory computer systems to ontrack performance, allowing them to aggressively and rapidly develop and upgrade all year, with no in-season testing for anyone else to recover.

    right now, pays your money takes your choice, me, i lean slightly towards the latter, but i fancy no-one here will no for certain till Q3 in melbourne.

  15. guy says:

    ………… and i was just about to organize a whip-round!

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