Formula 1 16 Feb 2006 05:17 pm

2006 F1 season approaching — what’s happening?

Warm up your VCRs, folks. The 2006 Formula 1 season begins in just 24 days.

For 2006, the first race is in Bahrain, to avoid a clash with the Commonwealth Games (yawn) in Melbourne. The Australian GP takes place on Sunday, 2 April 2006. Melbourne will revert to its usual place in the calendar for 2007.

I’ve been keeping an eye on developments over the F1 off-season. Here’s my slightly biased and probably uninformed view of the current state of play, team by team.

Williams

Williams comes to 2006 with many differences compared to 2005.

BMW has parted ways with Williams, and taken their low power engines (at least in 2005 they were) and prickly racing executive (Mario Theissen) to their newly-acquired BMW-Sauber team. Frankly, Williams is better off without them!

For 2006, power comes from the new Cosworth V8. Williams is Cosworth’s customer and has to pay for the engines. However, since it seems likely that WIlliams has lined up a deal for Toyota (branded Lexus) engines in 2007, Cosworth needs to put in a good showing in order to find a customer or two for next year.

Last year, Williams struggled to get reliable results out of the new wind tunnel. Things that looked good in the factory (in the wind tunnel) didn’t work on the track. Poor aero performance combined with a dud engine to see the team languishing near the rear of the field, especially in the middle part of the season.

For 2006, the wind tunnel seems to be correctly calibrated. The new car, with Cosworth engine, has been testing well. For the last two days, Williams drivers have been fastest in tests on the Valencia circuit in Spain. Faster than Renault. faster than McLaren. (Ferrari and Honda have been testing in Bahrain…)

On the driver front,
* Our Mark Webber continues as team leader
* Nico Rosberg is number two in the team — this is his first year in F1
* Alex Wurz has joined (from McLaren) as lead test driver (since Williams finished outside the top four teams last year, Wurz will be called on every Friday to test the tyre compounds)
* Narain Khartikheyan has brought some Tata money to the team and also has a testing drive.

2006 will be a challenge for Williams without the backing of a manufacturer or a naming-rights sponsor. Let’s hope the Aussies (Mark Webber and Technical Director Sam Michael) can keep Williams at the head of the pack.

Renault

After a stellar 2005 — winning both driver and constructor championships — Renault starts 2006 on a high.

Testing form has been strong. The car looks slippery. The engine has been reliable.

But all is not well for the Regie.

During the off-season, lead driver Fernando Alonso has signed with arch-rivals McLaren for 2007! How will this impact his commitment during 2006? What will it mean for the team’s preparedness to ‘swing in behind’ him to do all the things that must be done to win championships? How will Fernando get on with team manager Flavio Briatore (also his personal manager — but Flavio claims that Fernando went behind his (Flavio’s) back to sign with McLaren)?

And what will the imminent departure of Michelin from Formula 1 (they have announced that they won’t be back for 2007) mean for Renault?

I’m watching Renault with interest.

McLaren

… the team that won most races in 2005, but didn’t win the championship!

McLaren finished the year last year with clearly the fastest car. But have the wheels fallen off over the break?

* The new Mercedes engine seems to be down on power and has apparently had a last-minute re-design.
* At least one of the drivers must be leaving at the end of 2006 (to make room for Alonso). Raikkonen has apparently been talking to Ferrari. Montoya is talking to Renault and BMW. How committed will these guys be?
* There is no naming-rights sponsor this year (although Vodafone has made a massive commitment for 2007 and beyond).
* Several very high profile technical staff have left (Adrian Newey for Red Bull, Nicolas Tombazis for Ferrari).
* The Michelin question is the same for McLaren as renault.

I’m very interested to see whether McLaren can pick up where they left off in 2005. Or will 2006 be a wilderness year?

Honda

BAR sold the team to Honda last year. So 2006 sees a new name, but mainly the same faces.

On the driver front, English playboy Jenson Button (who needs to win a race in 2006 to prove that he can do it) is joined by Rubens Barichello (who has stepped out from under Michael Schumacher’s shadow at Ferrari). Frankly, I think Jenson may be in for a bit of a shock. And this shock may leave Honda wondering why they have paid so much and why they went through all the hassles of Buttongate II (see here for details).

Provided the team can resist the urge to reinterpret the rules (cheat) as they did in 2005, all the technical elements would appear to be in place to make a winning car. Michelin tyres are a question.

Testing looks good. Will the team score its first win? Who will drive the winning car?

Ferrari

Ferrari had a terrible year last year. The car was a dog. In one-set-per-race configuration, the Bridgestone tyres were duds. Schumi only managed one race win, and that was at Indianapolis where most of the teams couldn’t race due to problems with the Michelin tyres.

But we should never assume that Ferraris is out as well as down. The team has enormous technical resources and will almost certainly bounce back to a position of strength.

Interesting questions for Ferrari:
* How will Felipe Massa go as Michael’s team mate? Will he last the year? Will he cement a place in the team for years to come?
* Will Michael announce his retirement? He is the oldest driver in F1, and has little to gain these days from continuing to race. I think it likely that Michael will retire at the end of this year, irrespective of whether he is World Champion again (for the eighth time!).

BMW Sauber

Last year, BMW purchased the team from Peter Sauber. They now hold their future and their success entirely in their own hands.

The new car has been testing prtty well, but it’s probably a bit much to expect that they’ll even score regular podiums this year — it takes time for the investments to pay off.

Jacques Villeneuve has what must surely be his last shot at F1 success with BMW Sauber. Team Principal Mario Theissen has made it pretty clear that he would have preferred not to have Villeneuve driving, but that the contract with the former owner was too watertight! After a very lacklustre year last year, only a significant performance margin over new team-mate Nick Heidfeld will suffice!

Toyota

F1’s mega-buck team has yet to win a race. They got close to the front last year, and nearly won in Belgium, but have not really cracked the big time yet.

F1 commentators have been saying for years that Toyota needs to start winning races if the investment is to be seen to have any value. Well, Toyota needs to start winning races.

Little brother Ralf Schumacher seemed to get closer to the pace of team-mate Jarno Trulli in the closing stages of last year — will he manage to shake his Big Girl’s Blouse image in 2006?

And will Mike Gascoyne (Tech Director) stay with the team long enought to see it regularly on the top step of the podium?

Midland

Eddie Jordan sold out last year to a Russioan/Canadian businessman. The team carried the Jordan name for the rest of the year, but now it’s known as MidlandF1.

Drivers are Christijan Albers and the reliable Tiago Monteiro.

Despite the competitive Toyota donk, I’m not expecting much. They may beat Super Aguri (which you could probably do riding a dinky)…

Red Bull

Dietrich Mateschitz’s lead team gets Ferrari V8s for 2006, and is receiving massive investment. Adrian Newey’s arrival in a senior technical role probably won’t change much until the second half of the year — but this is a team that may surprise a few in 2006.

2006 sees a more settled driver arrangement: David Coulthard returns and Christian Klien gets the second seat full time (he shared it last year with Tonio Liuzzi).

Toro Rosso (that’s Italian for Red Bull)

Aussie good guy Paul Stoddardt sold F1 minnow team Minardi to Red Bull at the end of last year. Now renamed Scuderia Toro Rosso, the team approaches 2006 with more money, more owners (in the last few days, Red Bull has on-sold half the team to former F1 driver Gerhard Berger) and the potential for controversy:

* Minardi got a special dispensation (due to difficult financial circumstances) to run a de-tuned 2005 V10 engine in 2006. Torro Rosso plans to operate under this dispensation. Given that they are now well funded, other teams are likely to object — especially those at the back of the grid that may see points leaching away to TR. Court cases?
* F1 rules state that a team must design and build its own chassis. In testing, Torro Rosso has been running last year’s Red Bull chassis. If they turn up with this chassis to race meetings, expect protests!

Drivers are Tonio Liuzzi (this year in a full time seat) and appropriately-named American Scott Speed.

Super Aguri

This new team, headed up unsuccesful former F1 driver turned team owner Aguri Suzuki, is funded by Honda and seems to be a face saving way to find a seat for Takuma Sato.

Taku is a likeable driver who suffers from some sort of Tora Tora Tora complex when the lights go green. He’s joined by F1 newbie Yuji Ide.

Given that the team didn’t even exist in November, and the fact that they’ll be using modified 2003 Arrows chassis, I don’t expect much. The team is lucky that F1 no longer has a 107% qualifying rule… (In days gone by, cars with qualifying times greater than 107% of the fastest car could not start the race.)

*****

Why not post a comment with your thoughts about the forthcoming season?

8 Responses to “2006 F1 season approaching — what’s happening?”

  1. on 17 Feb 2006 at 13:04 (Sydney) 1.Pete said …

    Interesting discussion of the issues.

    I’m sad that Spa is no longer on the calendar, and hope that Europe and Germany manage to lock down their funding.

  2. on 17 Feb 2006 at 13:25 (Sydney) 2.Richard said …

    Yes, it is sad that the mighty Spa circuit won’t see a GP this year, but it will be back in 2007 (if the press is to be believed).

    I wouldn’t miss the (new) ‘Ring. And I do miss the old Hockenheim. The emasculated version that they race on today is no fun at all. They left in the dreary infield section and deleted the fabulous forest sections!

    And while we’re on the subject of circuits, let’s take the French GP back to Paul Ricard (the LONG circuit). And who can remember Dijon-Prenois, home of the French GP 25 years ago and the Swiss GP in 1982 — a fabulous circuit with real gradient. The up-hill hairpin is my favourite part…

  3. on 20 Feb 2006 at 12:30 (Sydney) 3.Pete said …

    I too miss the old Hockenheim… Cars zooming through a forest look fantastic on TV but there’s no ‘gate revenue associated with a forest.

    I’m hoping Super Aguri is competitive because I believe part of making F1 more exciting is having more passing, which is related to the number of cars on the grid.

    I’m also saddened that Alonso is jumping to McLaren in 2007. Renault to me comes across as equal parts French-style and cut-down/focused engineering. Besides, they’re my team!

  4. on 21 Feb 2006 at 19:16 (Sydney) 4.Lizzie said …

    ummmmmmm……. very long! Only my dad would write that.

  5. on 21 Feb 2006 at 19:47 (Sydney) 5.Richard said …

    Gee, thanks Liz. Dad.

  6. on 24 Feb 2006 at 11:36 (Sydney) 6.Pete said …

    There’s an interesting discussion of the loss of Spare at the ITV site:
    http://www.itv-f1.com/Feature.aspx?Type=TalkBack

  7. on 27 Feb 2006 at 9:23 (Sydney) 7.Richard said …

    Interesting indeed, and good points for the most part.

    I was interested to see one person’s view that China is a GP best watched on fast forward. I’m inclined to agree with that — although we do have to be sure to watch the pre-grid laps carefully, as there is sometimes action then… Or when the drain-covers come loose.

    I thought Turkey was the best of the new breed of tracks. Some interesting gradient and a pretty good race.

    But in the end, Spa is magic and we will miss the magic…

    (The first GP I ever watched on telly was the 1981 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. At the start of the race, Ricardo Patrese stalled his Arrows. A mechanic jumped the fence to try to restart the car, but the race was started while he was still working at the back of Patrese’s car. He was struck by team-mate Siegfried Stohr, but fortunately was not seriously injured. After a restart, the race was eventually won by Carlos Reutemann (Williams-Ford). The last F1 race at Zolder was in 1984. The track is still operating, but in the midst of a major upgrade.)

  8. on 14 Mar 2006 at 13:37 (Sydney) 8.Jason - sydney said …

    I’m wrapped I have found some knowledgable (thats not how u spell that is it?) F1 fans in Aus, maybe I’m niave but I haven’t met anyone with the passion for it like I have yet.

    I’m a recent convert of only 4 years and I’m not the almanac, statistic memorizing fan some are, but I watched most of Bahrain standing up last Sunday I missed it so much.

    Race 1 is always a buzz and usually throws up the odd upset but I found this year that the front runners were already fairly reliable, consistant and quick!

    How brilliant is Raikkonen? He is the future of F1. Michael and Fernando are proven quantities to him but I’m sure he has sat alone somewhere yesterday or today with Nico Rosberg’s telemetry having a close look.