Lapping it UpFrom the tracks, schedule and the cars themselves, Simon Noble maps out the 2009 F1 season as it gears up for a total overhaul.
With the biggest shake-up in Formula One regulations for 25 years, the 2009 season is one of the most eagerly anticipated in the sport’s history. The wide array of radical rule changes—including aerodynamics, tyres and testing—are designed to promote both competiveness and cost effectiveness. While this is good news for the petrol-heads out there, it leaves serious F1 punters, looking for an edge, with an awful lot to digest, before taking advantage of some great value.
First off, a quick glance at the all important race schedule (sidebar 1) shows that there are now only 17 races, one less than in 2008, which has redrawn the racing calendar for the season ahead.
Retaining pole position again as the first GP of the season is the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, while Brazil loses its perch as the grand finale, as that honour now passes to 2009 F1 debutante, Abu Dhabi.
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will take place on November 1 at the brand new Hermann Tilke-designed track at the Yas Marinas Circuit. At 5.6 km, this also happens to be one of the longest on the schedule and its inclusion as the all-important final race should provide a fitting finale as few would doubt the sheer wow factor of the new venue—mixing marina, street and race track—made all the more exciting by the new challenges it brings.
With the omission of the Canadian Grand Prix this year, this will be the first time without a North American race since 1958. The French Grand Prix has also been lost following a rather farcical, off-on-off drama that unfolded around last year’s race, with F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone finally signing its death warrant as the credit crunch really began to bite in October.
Magny Cours wasn’t the only economic casualty, as Honda announced in December at an emotional press conference the withdrawal of its team from F1 due to the financial crisis. The news sent shock waves through the sport, leading F1 commentators to nervously await the next potential casualty.
With a buyer for Honda still yet to come forward at press time, only nine teams look set to start the new season. With the global economic situation set to deteriorate further in 2009, it could pay punters to keep as close an eye on both the financial and sporting headlines, given the intrinsic relationship between money and success in Formula One. The odds at PinnacleSports.com should be the first to twitch should another team run into funding difficulties.
Toyota, the World’s biggest car maker forecast an annual loss of £1.1bn in December—the first in its 70-year history—prompting speculation that the team it bankrolls would be the next up on bricks. Renault is at risk due to its sponsorship from struggling ING that expires at the end of the season, and is unlikely to be renewed, while Williams may be vulnerable without the backing of a major car manufacturer and the ongoing woes of RBS, one of its main sponsors.
The threats to F1 were again demonstrated when Credit Suisse pulled the plug on its sponsorship of BMW Sauber in January, which it held since 2001—so be warned.
As already mentioned, Formula One has introduced the biggest changes to its rules in 25 years, with the dual aim of making the sport more exciting with measures that promote overtaking, and competitive by reducing costs and increasing reliability. With a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the impact of these major changes, this may be one of the hardest seasons to call for F1 punters in outright markets. Motor-sports specialists Pinnacle can be relied on to provide odds up to 60-percent better than traditional bookmakers pre-season, but for those punters looking to see how things pan-out race by race, they also provide highly competitive qualifying, pole and race day markets.
The new regulations governing aerodynamic modifications are arguably the most visible and significant of the rule changes to affect the 2009 season. Down-force will be reduced by the banning of all extraneous bodywork items, superficially giving cars a much cleaner look.
The front wings are wider and lower and are intended to bring more stability with adjustable flaps that can be varied by up to six degrees twice in any lap. Conversely, the rear wing is taller and slimmer to reduce the amount of ‘dirty air’ being funnelled into the path of tailing cars.
The combined effect should result in closer proximity between cars on the track resulting in more overtaking. There is however, a potential downside in that this wider shovel-nose could produce more accidents, specifically on the grid, and could handicap aggressive drivers off the start.
This year sees the optional introduction of Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS), a device that stores energy under braking, which can then be later released to produce a maximum power boost of 80.5 horsepower for 6.67 seconds per lap.
It isn’t clear at this stage which teams are confident enough to deploy a workable KERS unit as the key issues are reliability and ensuring a greater benefit than the additional weight the unit brings. Implementation of the system has also proved costly at a time when other rules are geared to reducing such expenses, and teams will face tough decisions about whether it is even worth the risk or the expense.
Interestingly at the unveiling of Renault’s 2009 car, the management launched a verbal attack on the FIA over KERS being so expensive and potentially dangerous while adding nothing to the show. It certainly adds a large unknown to F1 in 2009 and results could reflect the amount time and money invested to get KERS right early on.
Slick, untreaded tyres will be reintroduced after 11 years of grooved tyres, with Bridgestone supplying Potenza Formula One tyres, which have been put through their paces in post-season testing. It is hoped the improved grip will counter-balance the loss of down force from the aerodynamic changes.
Of the current roster of drivers, only Giancarlo Fisichella (Force India) and Jarno Trulli (Toyota) have had race experience on slicks, while Rubens Barrichello could lend his skills should a buyer for Honda be found.
In November 2008, the FIA stated that drivers must use the same engine for three, rather than two consecutive races, helping to keep costs down further.
An in-season testing ban has been applied, leaving the Fridays before race day as the only real opportunity for teams to tweak their cars, again placing a premium on all the work done with new cars before the season starts.
Against this backdrop of radical rule changes, F1 fans got their first look at a modified car when Ferrari unveiled the KERS-equipped F60 at Mugello in Italy, accommodating all the rule changes with a cleaner shape devoid of banned aerodynamic appendages. Michael Schumacher has retained a pivotal role in testing and advising, and the seven-time champion’s experience with slicks could prove invaluable for the Scuderia drivers.
Ferrari’s President Luca di Montezemolo joked that it was Kimi Raikkonen’s twin brother driving by the end of last season, which saw Felipe Massa in the ascendancy. The Brazilian should build on his breakthrough year, but also expect the Finn to come back stronger.
In keeping with Ferrari's model, the Toyota TF109 incorporates a host of modifications to meet the new rules, as the car was launched in very low-key, un-Formula One-like style online. Following years of underachievement, Team President John Howett said, “We have to win a race, that's clear. This organisation only exists to win.” Driver Trulli said Toyota were “better prepared than ever” and “ready to face the fight for 2009.”
Trulli finished ninth in the 2008 drivers' championship, with team-mate Timo Glock 10th, leaving Toyota fifth in the race for the constructors' title—a position on which the team will want to improve this year. “We've got KERS developed and in the car,” said Trulli. “But we don't know if we will start the season with it or not.”
McLaren became the third team to roll out their 2009 car, when the wraps came off the MP4-24 at the team’s base in Surrey. It was a great photo opportunity for defending World Champion Lewis Hamilton but there was also the news that Ron Dennis would be stepping down as team principal ahead of the new season, a position he has held since 1981. Martin Whitmarsh, who has been with the team since 1989, will instead take over the running of McLaren's F1 operation.
“It's time for Martin to take over. It is 100-percent my decision—this is a job he will embrace and from now on, most race-day decisions will be his,” said Dennis. This changeover should be seamless, but any problems will inevitably place an unwelcome focus on this change of captain.
Despite being defending champion, Hamilton may paradoxically feel less pressure, having finally delivered on the potential of his 2007 debut season, albeit by the slimmest of margins, with suggestions that Glock lent a huge hand by allowing Hamilton to amazingly make up 18 seconds on the German on that final lap in Brazil before overtaking him.
Hamilton can silence those naysayers, and underline his pure driving credentials, were he able to win another title under such changed circumstances, which will place a higher premium on raw driving skills. However, last season, as pressure mounted, Hamilton continued to show a worrying tendency for rash decisions, which could prove costly with so many new factors to consider, and a different man at the team’s helm.
The team won its first race in 2008, and finished third in the Constructors’ Championship behind Ferrari and McLaren, with Robert Kubica establishing himself ahead of Nick Heidfeld. With the F1.09, the BMW team are aiming to make a serious championship challenge, having achieved targets in each of the previous three seasons in the eyes of director, Mario Theissen including a one-two finish at the Canadian GP.
BMW are contenders but the team’s decision to focus on helping Heidfeld overcome his problems with the car at the midpoint of last year, rather than supporting Kubica’s championship challenge, does call into question their tactical abilities. The way the season eventually ended, Kubica might even have become crowned champion had the team focused all of its energy on him in the second half of the year.
Williams performed poorly last season, finishing eighth in the Constructors’ Championship, but technical director, Sam Michael offered mitigation as the FW31 was launched in January. “Going into 2008 we increased our resource significantly throughout last season, which is why we took quite a big penalty on the old car,” he said. “Hopefully that will pay off now with a more competitive 2009 car.” Interestingly Williams are the only team to trial a flywheel KERS rather than the battery-operated option preferred by other teams. No word, however, as to whether this will feature in their race ready model Williams, who have kept drivers Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima.
Renault showcased the R29 in January; the car they hope will propel Fernando Alonso to a third drivers’ world championship. Saving the obvious design changes, the most noticeable difference is the colour of this year’s car with yellow replacing blue and orange.
After a poor start to the season, Renault finished 2008 strongly with two wins in the last four races, to renew belief in the team's ability to challenge for the title. With team leader Alonso the top scoring driver in the second half of the season, Renault could be a force to reckon with again.
While the various launches give an initial impression of each team's work in winter testing, all the cars will be dramatically modified before the F1 season begins on the March 29 in Melbourne.
With rules surrounding aerodynamics radically changed and KERS an untested concept for F1, speed of development will be crucial over the coming months. It could be the team that innovate the fastest who land the spoils. This will of course favour those teams with the best resources and deepest pockets. Whatever conclusions you reach regarding the impact of these major changes within F1, the rules of gambling stay the same: always get the best available price, usually found at a low margin online bookmaker like Pinnacle.