Saturday, 26 December 2009

The Return of the King II: Return Harder

Yes, yes, I was going to wait until the full driver line up was announced, but I doubt there’ll be much big news as we already have Schumacher for Mercedes, Button for McLaren and Senna for Campos.

In this article I’m going to examine the drivers who can hope for a tilt at the title. The next one (due sometime before February when testing starts) will cover rule changes, notably no more refuelling and an altered points system.

What’s interesting about 2010 is that there is a large range of genuine contenders, from a number of different teams. From McLaren Button will hope to retain and Hamilton to take the prize, Schumacher from Mercedes is a strong prospect, both Alonso and Massa could do it, and Vettel from Red Bull is a great driver.

In F1, the car does matter more than the driver. But the driver can, and does, make the critical difference when cars are identical or evenly matched. It pays not to neglect either one. Red Bull suffered some reliability issues with Vettel (his engine kept exploding) and I warned against backing a seemingly strongly placed Kovalainen because although his car was in a great position he never fails to underwhelm in a race. [All prices in the bit below are on Betfair at the time of writing].

First up, McLaren. Hamilton is favourite at 4.2 and Button is 5th favourite at 11. Hamilton is a better driver, I believe, by some distance, plus he’s been at McLaren since he was a toddler and he’s already had two great seasons and even the last, which began poorly, ended well. Button is a good driver, but his six Brawn victories were delivered by a car that was both ideally suited to his silky smooth driving style (a stark contrast with Hamilton’s) and streets ahead of everything else, slightly excepting the Red Bull. We’ll have to wait and see how testing goes, but if Hamilton doesn’t win it, I can’t see his team mate doing so.

Secondly, Ferrari. Alonso is second favourite at 5, and Massa is 6th favourite at 15.5. To me, those odds are wrong. Massa may be slightly inferior to Alonso (I’m not so sure, actually) but he is not more than three times less likely to win, unless last season’s crash did lasting damage. Alonso is very reliable and very quick, but he’s also an arsehead so Massa may not play as rear-gunner or a willing number two if asked to. These two are probably the most evenly matched driving pair of the top teams.

Thirdly, Mercedes, née Brawn. I bet Nico Rosberg is pissed off. I had him down as a reasonable contender, with true race pace unknown but a pretty good chance if Mercedes start as brilliantly as Brawn did (apparently Brawn/Mercedes did sod all development during 2009 meaning they’ve done tons for 2010, boding well for the German outfit). However, some say his team mate is the best racing driver of all time, and that as you get closer to him in the race for the title the odds on being coincidentally rammed off the track increase. Schumacher didn’t return last season due to his neck injury, so he must be pretty sure it’s healed. He’ll not only be a great driver (probably), but he’ll aid development of the car a lot and obviously has great personal chemistry with Ross Brawn, engineering genius and team leader. Schumacher is 6.4 and Rosberg is 17.5. I think Schumacher should be second or joint favourite, ahead of Alonso. I suspect the Mercedes may be the best car in testing, but that’s just a hunch.

Fourthly, Red Bull. Vettel’s 7.8, Webber’s 26. I think Vettel’s a shade long perhaps but Webber (who I consider middle of the pack, similar to Coulthard but more obnoxious) is about right. Vettel had the best qualifying record last season, which could prove handy this time as with no refuelling qualifying will grow in importance. However, he was as reliable as a Frenchman in a war, making some critical schoolboy errors or suffering mechanical failure or just bad luck (at Interlagos during qualifying, namely). The Red Bull is powered by Renault, entirely because the team has full confidence in the engines of Renault, and not in any way because they left it too late to get a Mercedes engine. I think Vettel’s a top driver, second only to Schumacher, but his reliability issues (both personal and mechanical) need sorting.

In order, the top drivers in my eyes are:

I can offer this early pre-season tip: wait until testing before putting money on anybody. Having an idea of driving talent is useful but the car does matter more. The people I’ll be keeping an eye on most of all are Vettel and Massa. They both stand decent shots (assuming their teams have sorted their cars nicely) but are longish, Massa especially.

Before 1 February (when testing commences) I’ll write a probably much briefer article about rule changes, and then the remaining pre-season articles (I intend to do at least one about who to back for the Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles) will focus upon testing results.

Anyway, the first race is on 14 March in Bahrain, the first of 19 races. Hopefully I’ll have the same luck I had for most of last season when it comes to race predictions.

Morris Dancer

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