Another season of hope

Michael Schumacher’s return is seen as a perfect antidote for F1 racing ravaged by lurid scandals in the last two seasons. Racing buffs believe at least now the focus will be on the track rather than the pits, writes G. Raghunath.

Somehow the hype this time betrays a smothering desperation of the advocates of Formula One. Two most recent world champions, both of them British, racing for the same team, the return of a great driver — a legend in his own right, you could say — gifted with not just superlative driving skills but the temperament and nerve that defines a true champion, an Asturian, who has two world titles (2005 and 2006) under his belt, looking for redemption in a new team after having spent the last three seasons — probably his worst years on the circuit — in wilderness, three new teams on the grid, a few significant rules changes (see box), technical and otherwise, that demand a fresh look at team strategies…

A perfect condiment for a breathtaking 2010? A lip-smacking season it should definitely be, right? Not really.

Jenson Button, the defending champion, joining Lewis Hamilton, world champion in 2008, at McLaren is seen as some sort of a masterstroke whipped out by the Woking-based team’s principal, Martin Whitmarsh. A move reminiscent of Team Lotus of 1967 when its founder and director Colin Chapman signed up Graham Hill, world champion in 1962, to share the paddock with Jim Clark, a double world champion (1963 and 1965). But unfortunately for Lotus that season, both the British drivers, let down by their abysmally unreliable engines, were more than content steering their cars to the finish line in most of the races (Clark won four races while Hill drew a blank) — winning the championship was simply out of question.

McLaren, one can rest assured, won’t hurtle down a similar wretched path — both its MP4-25s have done remarkably well in pre-season testing. The team, however, should fortify itself against what could be a potentially deleterious situation — the two champion drivers trying to overreach themselves to the detriment of the team itself.

McLaren has never been comfortable having two high profile drivers at the same time in its camp as history would point out. In the late 1980s Ayrton Senna joined Alain Prost to form what was then touted as the ‘Dream Team’ of Formula One. But it wasn’t long before the McLaren dream turned into a nightmare. The frequent and open run-ins between the two drivers meant one of them had to move out, and in this case it was Prost. And more recently was the face-off between Hamilton and Fernando Alonso which forced the Spaniard out of McLaren.

So, one isn’t sure if Whitmarsh is dicing with disaster by signing up Button. For one thing, preventing Hamilton — who has made McLaren his lair and fancies himself as the number one driver — and Button — who believes he has a very good chance of retaining his crown driving for his new team — from heading towards a collision course is going to be as critical a job for McLaren as winning races and staying clear of controversies.

The team has had more than its share of embarrassing scandals in recent years, and the ‘Liargate’ at the start of the 2009 season is still fresh in one’s memory. It’s to the credit of the team that it picked itself up right in time to post some impressive results in the second half of the year. This year, the McLaren cars have already caused disquiet on the circuit with their ‘slotted’ rear wings and reports indicate that teams such as Red Bull and Ferrari have asked the FIA to explain the legality of what they call McLaren’s “different and innovative” wing. The slot in the rear wing, the teams contend, improves the car’s straight-line speed by reducing the drag.

Whatever be the FIA’s ruling with regard to the wing, McLaren, Ferrari (Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa), Red Bull (Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber) and Mercedes (Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg) are certain to fill up the front rows of the starting grid as the 2010 season kicks off at the Sakhir Circuit in Bahrain on March 14.

Michael Schumacher’s return is seen as a perfect antidote for F1 racing ravaged by lurid scandals in the last two seasons. Racing buffs believe at least now the focus will be on the track rather than the pits. And as for the seven-time world champion, what’s left to prove? Maybe an eighth world title that he let slip from his grasp in 2006.

Schumacher and Ross Brawn, the brain behind the German’s five successive World Championship victories with Ferrari, joining hands once again at Mercedes has without doubt lit up the circuit with the kind of fervour never seen in recent times. The German, who had to put on hold his comeback last year as a replacement for the injured Massa because his neck injury hadn’t healed fully, says he is back just for the love of racing. But in a grid of unrelenting young drivers who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals, Schumacher, at 41, would seem a little out of place.

Double world champion Fernando Alonso, who clocked some remarkable times in pre-season testing, is seen as Ferrari’s messiah this season, especially after the Italian team had had a horrendous 2009. “It’s the best car that I’ve ever driven,” said the Spaniard after testing his team’s new F10.

He also regards Schumacher’s return as not a threat but a lucky omen for him. “Since Michael left I haven’t won any championships, so hopefully this is a good sign for me. Maybe there is some relationship between Michael and my success!” the website ‘crash.net’ quoted Alonso as saying. The Spaniard also admitted that the arid years he spent with McLaren and Renault — in his second stint — have made him a better driver. “So put your money on me,” he exhorted.

German Sebastian Vettel, who had finished second behind Button last year with four victories, is another driver who refuses to look at anything other than a World Championship crown this year. Comparisons with Schumacher — he is often referred to as ‘Baby Schumy’ — have annoyed Vettel but not distracted him. “I don’t even need to think about it for a second, my goal is to be world champion,” he told the media at the launch of Red Bull’s new car for the season, RB-6.

Three new teams — Lotus Racing, Virgin Racing and Hispania Racing — have entered the fray for 2010, making it a total of 12 teams and 24 drivers. In fact a fourth team, US F1, was scheduled to take its place on the grid but pulled out a fortnight before the start of the season due to financial constraints!

Despite FIA’s patronage, teams with shoestring budgets, coming in as replacements for leviathans such as Toyota and BMW, who pulled out of Formula One at the end of last season, aren’t guaranteed a long and smooth run unless they strive to emulate Brawn GP’s showing last season.

The week leading up to the 2010 season was a harbinger of good news for India though. Karun Chandhok, who had a good run in GP 2, the feeder series, is all set to make his Formula One debut at Sakhir with Hispania Racing. The other driver of this Spanish outfit is Bruno Senna, nephew of the late triple world champion Ayrton and Karun’s partner at Team iSport Racing in GP 2.

The 2010 calendar has been expanded to accommodate 19 races as against 17 last year. While Canada returns to the Formula One fold after being out of it in 2009, South Korea will stage its first F1 race on October 24 at Yeongam.

* * * TEAMS & DRIVERS McLAREN

Lewis Hamilton & Jenson Button (both Great Britain)

FERRARI

Fernando Alonso (Spain) & Felipe Massa (Brazil)

MERCEDES GP

Michael Schumacher & Nico Rosberg (both Germany)

RED BULL

Sebastian Vettel (Germany) & Mark Webber (Australia)

WILLIAMS

Rubens Barrichello (Brazil) & Nico Hulkenberg (Germany)

RENAULT

Robert Kubica (Poland) & Vitaly Petrov (Russia)

BMW SAUBER

Pedro de la Rosa (Spain) & Kamui Kobayashi (Japan)

FORCE INDIA

Adrian Sutil (Germany) & Vitantonio Liuzzi (Italy)

TORO ROSSO

Sebastien Buemi (Switzerland) & Jaime Alguersuari (Spain)

LOTUS RACING

Jarno Trulli (Italy) & Heikki Kovalainen (Finland)

HISPANIA RACING Karun Chandhok (India) & Bruno Senna (Brazil) VIRGIN RACING

Timo Glock (Germany) & Lucas di Grassi (Brazil)

* * *

Like every other season, 2010 will also see a few rule changes that would impact the teams and their strategies. The major changes for the season are:

Ban on re-fuelling

For the first time since 1993, Formula One has decided to abandon in-race fuelling. This means cars will have to carry a larger fuel tank with a capacity in excess of 225 litres. So the cars this year will look a lot different with a wider rear body and longer wheelbase. With re-fuelling banned during the race, pit stops will be mostly for changing tyres and they will be a lot quicker.

New scoring system

The new points system — it extends down to the 10th place — rewards the winner with 25 points, followed by 18 for the runner-up, 15 for third place, 12 for fourth, 10 for fifth, eight for sixth, six for seventh, four for eighth, two for ninth and one for 10th. Under the old structure, points were awarded to the top eight drivers as 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1.

No KERS

The Kinetic Energy Recovery System that turned out to be a major flop last year — only Ferrari and McLaren used it through the season while the other teams jettisoned it midway — has been dumped by mutual agreement.