F1 Season Preview: 2009

After a season that saw the crowning of the youngest ever World Champion, Formula 1 is back with in new season with a never before seen major rule changes. While the Sporting Regulations emphasize reliability and cost cuts, technical changes focus on reducing the aero effect on performance and making overtaking easier. As F1 goes around recruiting newer circuits each year, most traditional rounds are facing the axe.

Key changes include return of slicks after running on grooves for 10 years; emphasizing mechanical grip than aerodynamic grip. While slicks lead to better grip and lap times, this would be offset by reduced downforce. The fast corners would now be a tad slower. The cars now seem cleaner with winglets, barge boards, turning vanes and chimneys junked and look different with a wider front wing and a narrower and taller rear wing.

Towards making technology relevant to what could be used in road cars, F1 cars can now sport KERS, though optional. When used, this recovers the kinetic energy wasted during braking and is released by the driver through a button on his steering. But this comes with a baggage, the weight of KERS system and its impact on weight distribution of the car. On the engine front, these should now last for three races in place of two.

With the FIA coming up with a new rule that will see Drivers’ title go to the one with most race wins and the rest of the field lining up on points, many have raised questions that drivers may ignore reliability. It is yet to be seen whether this rule would stay or go. If this were to have been the rule last year, Lewis Hamilton would have had to wait for his maiden title yet! The request by teams for revision in points system was also junked.

McLaren, the bearers of the No.1 this year have admitted a performance deficit with both drivers complaining lack of drivability. Martin Whitmarsh the new Team Principal is now the man in the hot seat to retain Lewis’ title. Rival Ferrari has kept developments all hushed up as usual. While they seem to be confident about performance, reliability woes still haunt the Scuderia. Maranello has also seen Todt’s departure after a long innings.

BMW too is keeping a low profile a la Ferrari but seems more confident about both reliability and speed. Having already tasted a win last year, Dr Theissen would be pushing his drivers for the title. Also, this could be the only team with a working KERS at the first race itself and possibly a title favorite. Renault again, may be away from its old form. Still, the big constant in these four teams is that they have retained their drivers!

Surprise performances may come from Brawn GP, the new Mercedes powered avatar of Honda after a Management Buyout by Ross Brawn famous for Schumacher’s legendary wins. The Red Bull could unsettle the grid with its different design. Williams and their KERS may also rake in podiums. Force India enters its second season with renewed vigor after their newfound partnership with McLaren for Engines, Gearboxes and KERS.

Now, the calendar: Australian GP begins a little late for the locals at 1700; the rest of the world now needn’t wake up early to catch it. So is the case with Malaysia. The following Asian race at China moves up the calendar from its usual October spot. The teams then move to the logistically convenient Europe/ Middle-East for the next 10 races. Among the older tracks, the French race at rural Magny Cours is conspicuously absent.

With US GP being dropped last year Canada has sadly been dropped too. Next, races 14 to 16 are flyway ones starting with the floodlit Singapore round that was a mega hit last year. This is followed by the return of Suzuka after the last race in 2006 saw Schumi’s engine and his eighth title go up in smoke. With the newly built Yas Marina Circuit staging the finale, sport crazy Brazilians would now miss the season ender.

Amidst what could be an unpredictable and exciting season for motorsport fans, the long 4 week break before the European round and the 3 week break after the British race at Silverstone could possibly be boring. The full schedule for the races this season is enclosed and so is a pocket sized version that won’t let you miss your favorite races. As a Ferrari fan, predictably, I would say “Go Kimi! Go Massa! Forza Ferrari!” Cheers!