We're just under two weeks from the beginning of the new "Turn money into noise" season, AKA Formula One. And what a season it promises to be.
You can take the formbook from last year and dump it in the trash as this season sees the biggest rulebook rewrite in years. Formula One has had a largely stable ruleset for many years now. 2009 sees a raft of new changes that will turn the sport upside down and upset the established order we've become so depressingly used to.
The first thing people will notice is the new cars. The aerodynamics have been substantially changed in an attempt to improve overtaking opportunities. The most noticeable difference is the rear wing which has been shrunk considerably. It takes some getting used to as it looks a bit odd. Front wing rules have changed as well, so much so the new BMW looks like they've strapped an ironing board to the front, complete with little holders either end for the iron.
We've also had a ban put on all the stupid winglets and other aerodynamic nonsense that has infected F1 for a while. So the cars are sleek and clean and, from above anyway, the new Ferrari looks like a strawberry and may be the sexiest F1 car in a very long time. Then you'll notice the tyres... SLICKS ARE BACK BABY! Yep, proper rubber is back. Grooves are gone. YAY! We've now got more rubber than a Max Mosley Nazi sex party!
Under the engine covers are the new KERS devices. Kinetic Energy Recovery System. Not all teams will be running it, but it recycles energy from braking to give the car a power boost, essentially introducing a "push to pass" type feature to F1. A lot of people are complaining about this but I am waiting to see it in action. The problem the system has is one of weight. In a sport where weight is so critical, to run KERS gives you a substantial weight penalty. If a team runs without it, they'll have more ballast to place in the car, which they can place in more useful spots. In short, it gives them more options for weight distribution to balance the car.
Some teams plan to run KERS from the start, some plan to wait a few races, others don't plan to run it at all. In an era when the sport is becoming increasingly controlled and regulated, it's nice there are some areas where teams have choices. Clearly one path will be the best. Until the cars turn up in Melbourne, however, the only team that is seemingly guaranteed to run KERS is BMW. The rest, we'll have to wait and see.
There's other rule changes too. Engines now have to last 17 years.
I may have made that last bit up.
Perhaps the biggest story of the off season was Honda pulling out of Formula One after very little success. Rumours of a buyer always persisted, but never seemed to come to fruition. Poor old Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello were going to be stuck on the sidelines for the year until at the eleventh hour it was announced that Ross Brawn had bought the team, named it Brawn GP, and debuted a car that has been kicking the crap out of everyone in testing. Brawn GP assure us the pace is real. Well they would wouldn't they. What is more telling is other drivers like Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso believe the pace is real. Come the first race, the British media may be saying "Lewis who?" as Jenson takes his place as number one British driver.
McLaren might be making it easier for Jenson to assume the mantle as well. Martin Whitmarsh, the new head of the McLaren team (Captain Ron has stepped aside) has already written off the teams chances of winning in the opening races due to a fundamental mistake with the cars design. Nobody is quite sure what it is, but McLaren have not looked good in testing. You know if the team have come out and said they won't be winning, then things must be pretty grim, with very little time left to fix whatever the problem is. It's the MP4/18 all over again.
Some seem to be crediting the lack of a true developmental driver within the team as the reason for McLaren being off the pace. Lewis Hamilton, for all his speed, has neither the experience nor ability to develop a car it would seem. One of the problems of being thrust into a top team immediately is you lose the essential grounding and learning experience of working and developing a car in a lesser team. A driver being unable to develop a car if they're driving for Force India is hardly likely to attract much attention (no offense to Force India), nor punish the team too much.
Chuck them at the front of the grid however and any failure is going to be hugely amplified. Yes, Lewis is quick. Blindingly so, but he has no experience developing a car. Heikki has more experience having been a test driver, but clearly he's not of the caliber of Alonso or Raikkonen. McLaren's almost obsessive devotion to Lewis may have ultimately shot them in the foot. Time will tell.
Ferrari appear to be having no such problems this year. They're largely on the pace, though Massa is alarmed at the pace of the Brawn GP cars. BMW appear to have continued their pace and if the woes of McLaren are to be believed, BMW could replace McLaren at the top of the heap. Something which, as a fan of Kubica and Heidfeld, I would not be averse to seeing.
This is all assuming Brawn GP don't come in and grind everyone else into powder. Ordinarily you'd have to bet against it, but with Ross Brawn in charge, the man responsible for Ferrari's crushing dominance of Formula One in the early part of the decade, you'd be taking that bet with a fair amount of risk.
We'll find out how all the pieces fit a week from Sunday, and I can honestly say I haven't looked forward to a season this much since the early 90's.
For those interested in seeing me blather in 140 characters or less about my usually beloved sport, you can find me on Twitter where I'll be microblogging through the season with whatever random nonsense springs to mind.