It’s pretty widely accepted now that this is the most exciting F1 season in prospect for a generation. The return of Michael Schumacher and the moves of Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg as well as the potent threat of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber at Red Bull, make this the best championship on paper anyone can remember.
F1 insiders are just as excited as F1 fans about the season ahead. It’s still early days yet and we don’t yet know who will have the fastest car, but the bookmakers are already giving odds on who will win the F1 world championship and it’s interesting to take a look at how things stand before the cars hit the track for testing, when things might change quite a bit. There could be some opportunities here.
They put Lewis Hamilton as favourite at 5/2, with team mate Jenson Button fifth at 7/1. Of course all predictions will be meaningless if the new McLaren tests as badly as last year’s model. I think at this stage though, the odds are probably fair. Hamilton had a great season in 2009 after a disastrous start. He’s matured a lot and is a match for anyone and if the car is right he will be very hard to beat. When the testing starts I will be watching his long runs very carefully to see how he manages the tyres. He will have to change his style a bit this year during races and that adaptability will be the key to his season.
Interestingly Michael Schumacher is joint second favourite at this stage on 4/1, based on his track record and the fact that he is driving for the team which won the world championship. Ross Brawn has said that he feels that once a few races have gone by and he’s settled back into racing, Schumacher can win the title in his first year back. The great man himself has said only that he wants to win it within three years with Mercedes.
The other driver at 4/1 is Fernando Alonso. He said last week that with a move to Ferrari and the adjustment to his new team, he would need three races to get up to speed. Today on the Ferrari website he made an interesting comment about his rivals for this season.
“The ideal would be if my fiercest competitor was Felipe: that would mean that we’re the best team, ” he said. But then he added, “Although I think that McLaren, Red Bull and Mercedes will be very competitive and hard to beat.”
Alonso is keeping expectations in check and he is right to do so, because until the Ferrari hits the track and we can see how it matches up to those three other cars, there is no point talking about championships. What will be crucial for Ferrari when the testing starts will be not just the pace of the car, but the performance over long runs. Ferrari used more fuel than it’s rivals to cover the same distance last season and they have been working hard to improve in that area so that they can carry a lighter load in races without compromising the ballast.
Sebastian Vettel is fourth favourite at 13/2 and this looks like a good bet to me. On paper he and Red Bull should be the team to beat. They finished 2009 the strongest and their car had plenty of scope for development. Vettel has already shown that he can lead from the front and isn’t afraid of anyone. If the car proves to be the class of the field when the testing starts, these odds will shorten a lot. Webber is even better value at 16/1. Consistency will be the key for him.
Button celebrates his 30th birthday today. His odds at 7/1 reflect the widely held view that he will be overshadowed at McLaren by Hamilton, which is a good position for him to start from as he can prove his doubters wrong. If the front running cars are closely matched speed in qualifying will be critical and Button will need the car to be right to challenge the others, who are more able to drive around problems. Button will be more relaxed in 2010 having achieved his lifetime’s ambition. Now he can drive with passion and enjoy himself and he could spring some surprises. “If I was at Brawn still, I would go into the season positive, but not as positive as I am now,” he said at the weekend.
Massa at 9/1 looks good value too. He’s the great unknown, coming back as he is from injury. His duel with Alonso at Ferrari will be one of the highlights of the season. The difference between their odds is greater than the difference between their likely performance, in my view so at this stage, he might be worth a bet, especially if the Ferrari turns out to be quick.
Similarly Rosberg at 14/1 is hardly a vote of confidence in the young German in comparison with his legendary team mate and especially given the car he’s driving. These are more like odds he would have driving a Williams. Rosberg is 17 years younger than Schumacher and comes to Mercedes full of confidence after a decent season at Williams where he improved a lot, despite a couple of costly mistakes. I don’t see him winning the title, but I think he’s a lot more potent than the odds he’s been given.