2007 Formula One World Championship preview: With Melbourne mere days away, what can we expect from the top drivers fighting to be number one? Let's have a look...
The German's reign of terror is over. In a few days we head to Melbourne for quite possibly the most exciting season in a very long time. Let's have a look at what we can expect when the top teams wheel out their cars in Australia this weekend. The only certainty? Anyone betting money on the outcome of this years title is a very brave individual.
Let's start with the new McLaren "Dream Team". Fernando Alonso's McLaren adventure was announced well in advance when Renault wouldn't say if they were in F1 for the long haul. Alonso was ready to go elsewhere, and McLaren were more than happy to give the talented young Spaniard a nice shiny car. They also stole Vodafone Euros away from Ferrari as well.
Alongside the current world champion we have GP2 sensation Lewis Hamilton. Anyone who followed GP2 in 2006 saw that Lewis looks like the real deal. He left the series as champion after some truly spectacular drives. Hamilton, who has been guided by McLaren head Ron Dennis for many years, finds himself sat next to the current world champion, in a team who historically are one of the most successful in the history of the sport. A daunting prospect. Hamilton seems to be level headed about everything though, but the fact of the matter is being paired with a driver as talented as Alonso is going to be a real trial for him. His career could be over before it's even really begun if he doesn't measure up at all and at least stay close to Alonso. We've seen drivers rise triumphantly through the echelons of racing in the past and be touted as a future world champion, only to see them flame out in spectacular fashion. Let's not forget the last time McLaren fielded a rookie, it didn't work out too well. That rookie was Michael Andretti in 1993, who didn't even last a season.
The big question mark hanging over McLaren is reliability. Will 2007 see this problem solved? That is a very good question. However, could it be that the driving style of their team leader was exacerbating the issue?
Last year Kimi Raikkonen, upset with a car that always wanted to fall apart around him, decided he'd hop over the fence to sit in the vacant seat next to Felipe Massa at Ferrari. If pre-season testing is anything to go by, Ferrari will pick up where they left off last year, that being with the quickest car of the field. Both Kimi and Fernando are arguably the best drivers in F1 right now. One of them has gone to a team that is in a dry spell, to replace a driver who suffered chronic reliability problems and decided that red was more his colour. It's ironic really, but on paper, at first glance, you'd expect Kimi to be the one to beat in 2007, but will that really be the case? There are several issues potentially working against Kimi.
First of all, you have Felipe Massa. His debut season in a Ferrari didn't go well for the first half of the season. Perhaps the biggest ignomy was Australia, where Massa's race lasted one corner before he decided he didn't like what the engineers had done, and figured he'd try some remodelling. However, The Brazilian settled down as the season went on, and even those who don't rate him very highly begrudgingly admit that he sorted himself nicely, and went out on a huge high with his dominant win in Brazil. Ferrari undoubtedly have the car. A car that Felipe already knows extremely well. Kimi was unable to even sit in the car until January. This has to give Felipe some advantage, even if only psychological. Could Felipe be a championship challenger? Unlikely, but he does have the capability to be a very annoying fly in Raikkonen's ointment. Massa will not go down easily, and with no clear number one, he knows he can fight.
Then there is the issue of Kimi himself. Critics are very quick to point the finger at McLaren for their reliability problems in 2006. Now Kimi is undoubtedly an extremely talented driver, but is he perhaps too hard on cars? Almost nobody seems to have considered this, but if you look at his record in F1, there are so many failures, could it be perhaps that Kimi isn't so gentle on the hardware? There would certainly seem to be some evidence to indicate this. Perhaps his style is just adept at showing up a cars flaws. Rather than drive around the issues, he tries to drive through them. A technique which works well, right up until bits start to fall off or explode around him. To put it succinctly, is Kimi a car killer? We'll soon know if McLaren or Kimi were the problem.
Then there are the changes at Ferrari. The biggest change? Ross Brawn is gone. Brawn gets entirely too little credit for the Ferrari renaissance. If you look over the results, Ferrari didn't fully start their turnaround until Brawn arrived in 1997. The 1996 results, when a certain German arrived to great fanfare, the team actually scored LESS points that year than they had the previous two seasons with Berger and Alesi behind the wheel. To underestimate the impact of Brawn's departure would be to ignore history, and while it's being downplayed by all, losing Brawn has to have hurt Ferrari. The question is, how much? With no clear number one in the team, Massa and Raikkonen could take points from each other, though one would assume Ferrari would not allow this to happen. However, by the time a distinct one-two is settled upon, it may be too late.
Now we've gotten this far without a mention of Renault. Should we dismiss the team this year, simply because golden boy Alonso has gone? Well if the team was being lead by Fisichella, then yes. No offence to Giancarlo, but he is not championship material. Sorry to say, he's barely race winning material most of the time either. However, with the arrival of yet another Finnish sensation, Heikki Kovalainen, a lot of people are touting Heikki as Renault's saviour in the wake of Alonso's defection. He's a new boy, but Lewis Hamilton is drawing all the press attention, leaving Heikki relatively unburdened by the weight of expectation. Renault are expected to underperform this season, which means the weight of that pressure doesn't exist. Then for a teammate, he has Fisichella, who is most likely still psychologically damaged from the demoltion he suffered at the hands of Alonso, meaning Heikki is facing a far softer target than Hamilton. Put all that together, and you have one of, if not THE dark horse of 2007, who may just surprise everyone out of nowhere. There could very well be a Finnish world champion in 2007. Only thing is, it may an entirely different Finn than the one expected.
So that's three teams. There's usually a big four. Who is number four going to be? Logic would decree it would be Honda. However, the team seems to be spinning it's wheels somewhat. Very little forward progress seems to be forthcoming from the Japanese manufacturer, and one win not withstanding, neither Barrichello nor Button seem to be on the rise. Button had good reliability in the closing races, but reliability doesn't mean a damn if you're not finishing atop the podium.
Williams will see an upturn in fortune with the arrival of Toyota power, and will certainly humiliate the Toyota works team, but after the debacle of 2006, to expect Williams to crack the top four is absurd. So who will it be? The Deadly Bavaria/Hinwill Alliance!
Yep, BMW will take it's spot as number four in 2007. Two reasons, and they're both the nuts that hold the steering wheels.
Firstly, we have Nick Heidfeld, a driver who has shown flashes of brilliance in the past, but who has largely lived in the shade. Let's make no mistake. 2007 is Heidfeld's last chance, because sitting across the other side of the garage is the Polish Pulverizer, Robert Kubica. A driver who stunned many with his raw pace last year. His stock had risen very high come seasons end, however, Heidfeld is quick to point out that he basically spanked Robert most of the time. Kubica, despite only driving a handful of races, is seen by many as a future star, and rightly so. Heidfeld HAS to beat Kubica. It's that simple. Heidfeld beats Kubica, his stock will rise considerably. Kubica beats him, it's all over. It's a harsh statement to make, but Heidfeld has to go big, or go home.
However, Heidfeld is in the right place, at the right time for once. Something he never had the luxury of before. The BMW is a good car. In fact pre-season testing has shown it to be a very good car. BMW will not be content to sit back, and will be hellbent on making it a GREAT car. They want to win. BMW have the capability, talent and bank balance to do it. Some people have even gone so far as to predict Heidfeld for the 2007 title. Madness? Perhaps, but anything is possible. BMW are no slackers, and with Kubica pushing him hard, Heidfeld knows it's make or break. The mere fact you've got two guys, both of whom have different points to prove, will provide a huge spark for BMW. This is going to be a brawl for the ages. A battle for supremacy, under the watchful eye of the good Doctor Mario. I believe Heidfeld has the talent. Can he be world champion? I would say no for 2007, but I would be very surprised if he isn't top 5 in the World Championship come seasons end. Nor do I expect Kubica to be far behind him. With both undoubtedly talented drivers pushing each other so hard, BMW will be a fascinating team to watch in 2007. Constructors title by 2010? I wouldn't be at all surprised. 2007 will be the year BMW make it clear they aren't here to make up the numbers.
So final predictions then? Predictions are a mugs game. However, if you've read this far, you most certainly don't want me to wuss out, so...
For the drivers championship, I'd be happy to see: 1) Alonso, 2) Raikkonen, 3) Hamilton. However, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Kovalainen or Heidfeld in third, or possibly even second! Or to see first and second transposed. As for the constructors, I honestly don't know. I think McLaren have the edge though, with Ferrari close behind, and BMW and Renault being too close to call.
If I was a brave betting man, my pick would probably be drivers title to Raikkonen, and constructors to McLaren. Really, though, this year is the hardest season to call in a very long time. Throw in the new engine rules, tyre regulations, with drivers having to use BOTH compounds during a race, and it's really up in the air. All I will predict is we're in for a season that will be long remembered. Rarely does a season start with so many changes around the top end of the field.
I can't wait!