Accent on skill, stress on driver

Vijay Mallya (middle) with the Force India team drivers during the unveiling of the new car for the F1 season.-PTI Vijay Mallya (middle) with the Force India team drivers during the unveiling of the new car for the F1 season.

The ban on driver aids from 2008 could well mark the beginning of a new era in this high-octane sport, writes G. Raghunath.

Technological advancements, the old guard swears, have been Formula One’s biggest blight. Only recently Alain Prost, winner of four world titles, went on record saying Formula One had become very predictable and unexciting. “It’s like playing on a PlayStation,” the Frenchman told BBC. “It’s more speed, less brains, less tactics, less strategy and much less work together between a driver and the engineers.”

But all this is set to change with the apex body of motor sport, FIA (Federation Internationale de Automobile), deciding to ban driver aids such as traction control and engine braking systems from 2008. The season, set to take off in Melbourne (Australian Grand Prix) on March 16, could well mark the beginning of a new era in this high-octane sport.

One of the major amendments made to Formula One rules this season, the move to abandon traction control and engine braking systems is expected to put the accent back on the drivers after some years of incongruity when the emphasis was embarrassingly and overtly on machine than man. Drivers will now be required to pull in their skills in full measure, especially in wet conditions, to succeed. Quite predictably, the focus will be on both the high-speed and slow-speed curves, and it will all be down to the driver to handle the vicious wheel-spins. As Ferrari’s Brazilian driver Felipe Massa reckoned, “The driver has greater influence.”

The FIA ruling, as expected, has sparked off intense debate in the Formula One circuit with the drivers split almost equally on the merits and demerits of the move. If the head of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, David Coulthard, seemed excessively worried about the safety of the drivers, Nick Heidfeld of BMW Sauber contended that the absence of driving aids would lend a bit of zing to the sport.

“There will be more drifts; you will make mistakes more easily, which should lead to more overtaking manoeuvres, especially when you are under pressure. The season will be more interesting again,” he said.

The former world champion, Fernando Alonso of Renault, put things in perspective. “(Without the driver aids) it will be down to the driver to adapt and I am convinced that as the season develops we will have forgotten what it was like to drive with these aids,” he told the website, Formula One.com.

Even though such dichotomous viewpoints continue to peal in the circuit, the drivers are all braced up for the joust ahead.

The psychological warfare has already commenced, and if the pre-season testing is any indication, Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes seem certain to carry on their rivalry on the track. And teams such as Williams, Renault, BMW-Sauber, Honda and Toyota too have kept pace with the two front-runners, which means they would do more than just make up the numbers on the grid.

Though Ferrari has made it clear that it won’t confer any special status on Kimi Raikkonen despite its star driver being the defending champion and that he has to compete with team-mate Felipe Massa on level terms, the Finn still starts as the overwhelming favourite. There are a few observers though who, for some strange reason, believe that Raikkonen’s drive has already tapered off following his victory last year and that he has no appetite for another title.

Raikkonen, no doubt, is a laidback and easy-going person. He might not spend much time with the team after practice sessions and he might not even fancy wind-tunnel routine as a way of preparing for the races, but nobody can doubt his commitment to his team. The Finn is made of sterner stuff. “Anyone who thinks I’m now happy and satisfied is mistaken. It has never been fun for me to drive for a fifth or sixth place finish. I’m here to win,” he said, rebuffing his detractors.

Meanwhile, McLAREN’S

Alonso, who returned to Renault after a bitter and acrimonious season with McLaren last year, is the third force in the race for the 2008 World Championship title. The Spaniard and his team, though, are quite passive about their chances this year. Renault’s R28 has been more than a second off the pace when compared with the Ferrari and McLaren during the pre-season testing. So, Alonso has decided to take one race at a time this year. But then, you can’t keep an aggressive driver like Alonso down, especially when there are no driver aids to fall back on.

After Narain Karthikeyan’s run in 2005 with Jordan, it’s now the turn of Force India — the team jointly owned by Indian businessman Vijay Mallya, Jan and Michiel Mol — to keep the Indian flag fluttering in the Formula One circuit. In the cockpit of the gold, tungsten and white liveried VJM01s will be the experienced Giancarlo Fisichella, formerly with Renault, and Adrian Sutil, who drove for Spyker last year. Fisichella had a modest run in 2007, his best performance being a fourth-place finish at the Monaco GP. In 2006 the Italian had a far better showing with one victory (Malaysian GP) and four podium finishes. Though Force India is very realistic about its chances this season, it will bank on Fisichella and Sutil to garner as many points as possible from the 18 races. And if they manage to do that, it will be a great achievement for this fledgling team.