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The teams, the drivers, the prospects: 2006 season preview
Monday 6 March at 08:45 : So every team is better prepared than ever before, talk is rife of Michael Schumacher’s retirement, every driver says his car is great and this is the best car any given team has ever built – according to their team owner. Sound familiar? Sounds like the reports from every off-season for quite a number of years of course.

The truth, however, is that this is not like the past few seasons. No, there is a new world champion defending the crown. The start of the 2005 season saw many reports of Ferrari’s lack of testing pace rubbished, the authenticity of Renault’s huge testing pace was questioned and concerns raised that McLaren simply wasn’t fast enough. Everyone who was anyone in Formula One predicted that Ferrari would run away with it once more. This, of course, did not happen. Renault’s pace was very, very real, McLaren had even more pace and Ferrari for once was everything but dominant. So what does 2006 hold for Formula One? The crystal ball was soundly broken last season but that does not leave us without any indication as to what the future holds. We will cover what is likely to happen, team by team, while Garett Murphy - a Formula One enthusiast and expert resident in South Africa - also airs his opinion:

Renault F1 Team
Drivers: Fernando Alonso, Giancarlo Fisichella
Current holders of both the drivers’ and constructors’ world championships, Renault are almost the natural favourites to take the crown this coming season. Aside from this fact, however, the team has proven once again over winter testing that they will be a force to be reckoned with. They developed their new V8 on the bench only until as late as January before putting it on track, sparking speculation that they were having difficulty developing the mill. These rumours could not have been further off the mark. Showing up in the top three of the testing times rather often no matter the track or conditions and displaying excellent reliability, they are looking strong.

There is always a chance that Alonso’s impending departure to McLaren could have an impact on team stability but the likelihood is small. Flavio Briatore is an experienced team boss who knows how to win and he’ll be putting his usual high level of energy into this year’s effort. One thing we may well see is a bit more focus on Fisichella than last year as the team strives for continuity from this season to 2007. Fisi is, of course, unlikely to beat Alonso to the flag but don’t be surprised if he finishes far closer to the Spaniard this year…

Garett Murphy’s view: Still the team to beat. Not altogether impressive in early off-season testing but will have had the foresight to plan long term. Alonso’s departure to McLaren in 2007 means he won’t be too keen to develop the car although Renault has a more than adequate development and testing team. With Montagny now involved at Super Aguri, test driving duties such as they may become are likely to become more Fisichella’s baby (alongside Kovalainen of course) than Alonso’s.

Team McLaren Mercedes
Drivers: Kimi Raikkonen, Juan Pablo Montoya
Widely thought to have the fastest car in 2005, they lost it in the reliability stakes. McLaren’s first tests in their new car (powered, naturally, by their new V8) were not encouraging at all. Time and again their times were in the bottom 30% of the list and this was widely believed to be a result of difficulties with the new V8 engine format. Early February saw a turnaround in this pattern, however, and McLaren started showing up at the very top of the list more often than not, with Raikkonen leading the charge. The team’s consistently fast testing times are a good indication that they’ll be challenging for the championship again but again reliability concerns have arisen. Their winter testing record is nowhere near as flawless as Renault’s and we may yet see a repeat of the 2005 championship battle. Expect a stronger showing from Montoya, whose tendency to make contact with other cars and walls took the blame for the loss of the 2005 constructors’ championship from none other than Martin Whitmarsh. Montoya’s pace was closer to Kimi’s toward the end of the season, though a close examination reveals that he never beat the Finn on merit. The battle between these team-mates promises to be one of the more titanic ones but expect Kimi to come out on top once more.

Garett Murphy’s view: Another difficult season lies ahead. With continued hyperbole surrounding Kimi’s future at Paragon it has to be asked how keen he is on developing a car he will possibly be trying to beat up on next year. It’s guaranteed that one of Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen will not be driving for McLaren in 2007 so the potential for instability will take unnecessary focus away from improving performance of the car – an issue already causing problems.

Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro
Drivers: Michael Schumacher, Felipe Massa
Many is the F1 punter who believes that Michael is losing interest, that he is due for retirement or will perhaps move to another team in 2007. His focus is gone they say, he is not a contender. This is simply not so. Cutting short his usual December holiday, Schumacher was out there testing for death in December, clocking up double race distances in a bid to avoid a repeat of Ferrari’s also-ran 2005 season – and his development skills are arguably worth much more than his pace behind the wheel. Ferrari’s early testing times looked blistering and it seemed like the re-introduction of tyre changes would see a return to Bridgestone dominance as the devastating compounds of 2004 were dusted off. 2006 times have not always looked so rosy but mostly Ferrari has been testing at Fiorano, their private test track – making time comparisons with other teams very difficult. You can, of course, never discount the Maranello team and they will likely be championship contenders. Their surprise signing of Felipe Massa still has heads scratching of course and not many expect the quick but temperamental youngster to keep Michael honest.

Garett Murphy’s view: Ferrari can never be discounted as long as Schumacher is in the cockpit. He is a developer par excellence and although Ferrari aren’t outright favourites for the title, the other contenders would be wise not to exclude Ferrari from their plans. Felipe Massa still has a good deal of maturing to do (despite his impressive progress thus far) before he can become a genuine contender. With Raikkonen looking good for a Ferrari spot next year and Schumacher possibly seeing out his contract, it’s possible Massa is filling up a seat.

>Panasonic Toyota Racing
Drivers: Jarno Trulli, Ralf Schumacher
Toyota came very close to beating Ferrari to the constructors’ title last season and it was only some poor luck that saw them miss out. The introduction of their new, faster car may also have, paradoxically, disadvantaged them as Trulli (by some margin their strongest driver last year) struggled to get to grips with its characteristics. Toyota introduced their entire new package in December – a surprise move which would give them a lot of track time with their 2006 package. Early testing times looked excellent compared to the other teams – also an encouraging fact for Bridgestone – but more recently their times have not compared well with the best out there. Winter testing times, of course, do not maketh the season but it is clear that Toyota have some work ahead of them. Expect a tougher battle between team mates this year, as Toyota’s car is more suited to Ralf’s driving style than Jarno’s. The quick Italian does seem to have come to grips with the car though and he may well end up dominating his team mate again. As for the team, they do not quite seem to be in Division A at the moment and at best they seem likely to challenge for fourth. This fact continues to baffle as, on paper, they should have a near-unbeatable package. Toyota’s engines have been on the sharp end since they joined Formula One and with Mike Gascoyne now firmly at the helm of the design team (following Brunner’s quiet departure) their car should, by all accounts, be competitive (remember the 2004 Renault and the 1998 Jordan – both very competitive despite power-deficient powerplants). Of course, with a seemingly solid base and a very aggressive development plan Toyota could still surprise us.

Garett Murphy’s view: Although not an outright failure, 2005 can only be seen as a disappointment for Toyota. With perhaps the biggest budget on the grid and a solid pair of drivers, much was expected of Toyota. Toyota will be expected – once again – to challenge consistently for podiums and wins. On the good side – points positions are now seen as business as usual so Toyota have definitely made progress in the last year. The pace of progress needs to pick up though.

Williams F1 Team
Drivers: Mark Webber, Nico Rosberg
Williams’ fortunes may seem to have turned with the loss of BMW engines and perhaps they have – but not for the worse as may be expected. With the exit of BMW came the entrance of Cosworth and the V8 rule certainly did not do the established BMW engine programme any favours. Early indications were that Cosworth was significantly ahead of BMW in terms of engine development and this really comes as no surprise. Cosworth has a racing heritage like few other companies and a depth of V8 experience unmatched by any other engine manufacturer on the grid. Encouraging then, for Williams. A bigger loss than BMW engines, perhaps, was Nick Heidfeld. Pairing up with the much-vaunted Mark Webber, Quick Nick certainly came out on top in the team-mate battle. Though struggling with the one-lap qualifying format, his race pace was spectacular and more often than not he would start two positions behind the fast-qualifying Australian, only to finish the race ahead of him. Webber has vowed to make up for his disappointing 2005 season and perhaps he can do so – he would do well to repeat the kind of performance he delivered in his rookie season. Nico Rosberg is an unknown entity in Formula One but he comes with a pedigree like few others: His world-champion father, Keke Rosberg, was certainly no slouch and Nico comes fresh from a hard-won GP2 title. Nico’s more recent testing times have also looked promising and, while no-one should expect the rookie to beat the seasoned Webber, he will certainly keep the Ozzie honest. As for the Williams team, their testing times have been hard to read. Showing up brilliantly every now and again, they were usually midfield. Most likely they will be competing against Toyota, BMW and Red Bull Racing but that Cosworth engine could prove the ace up the sleeve.

Garett Murphy’s view: Impressive off-season performance is better than poor off-season performance but it does not guarantee a good season. Williams have good reason to feel confident about the season ahead. The Cosworth engine is strong and Williams’ engineering is always good – if not as stellar as it once was. The down side of Williams this year is their driver pairing. Webber was routinely embarrassed last year by the first talented team-mate he’s ever had. His potential is undoubted but he has yet to prove himself in a top team so this year promises to be difficult as well. Rosberg is a somewhat unknown quantity in F1 – despite his impressive lineage. The approach of Sir Frank and Patrick Head will be interesting. Never being accused of molly-coddling their drivers, they might have to adjust their strategy slightly if they are to keep the rookie and the wounded Australian motivated. They are fast running out of decent drivers to make their cars look good.

Honda Racing Team
Drivers: Jenson Button, Rubens Barrichello
BAR Honda disappointed last year despite massive promise. Getting caught at cheating in an almost humorous parody of the 1995 Benetton case, and being punished in a complete contradiction of the FIA’s ruling ten years before, was a disastrous start to the season and the team never really recovered. Button showed blistering qualifying pace on many occasions but the car’s race set-up always seemed to let him down. Sato’s sometimes incredible but always inconsistent pace didn’t help Button or the team either. The team is now wholly owned by Honda though, so we can expect some renewed focus. Honda has a massive reputation for engine, chassis and suspension design and in these areas they should excel. Theirs will be a car that rides the kerbs well and with which their drivers will be able to attack the corners with venom. The new smaller engine rule will also do nothing to hamper them as Honda is notorious for high-revving, high-output, small engines. The fact that their car is likely to be able to carry more speed through the corners than their average competitor also bodes well for their upcoming season as the biggest point of difference of the new engines will be slower out-of corner acceleration. As with Williams, their biggest problem in 2005 was aerodynamics and it is likely this aspect which could make or break them. As Renault showed us last season, it takes a complete package to win. As for the much-awaited battle between Barrichello and Button, it will probably be titanic. Arguably the closest team mate match of the season, the pairing should provide for much excitement. Button has proven incredibly quick at times but has never won a race, while Barrichello has won races but has been overshadowed by his team mate at Ferrari for years now, not receiving the focus from the team that Schumacher has. With equal standing and his favourite number on his car (given to him by Button), he will prove to be a handful to the Brit. Venturing a prediction on the outcome of this battle is a dangerous thing but, if I was forced to put money on it, I would bet on Button to come out on top. In terms of winter testing pace Honda has shown up strongly behind Renault and McLaren until Friday the 3rd of March when they threw down the gauntlet in the form of a Valencia lap record from Anthony Davidson – at a blistering 0.9 seconds faster than any other V8 time ever set there. Honda could well be challenging for the championship this season and Button’s absence from the top step of the podium is very likely to end this year.

Garett Murphy’s view Securing the services of Rubens Barrichello has to be seen as a major coup. He may give some badly needed momentum to Honda and Jenson Button whose stock suffered somewhat in 2005. With the advent of manufacturer ownership, Honda start 2006 off as possibly the best bet of the outsiders.

Red Bull Racing F1 Team
Drivers: David Coulthard, Christian Klien
Having bought the struggling Jaguar Racing late in 2004, Red Bull charged onto the F1 scene with the kind of pace that no-one in Formula One predicted. Coulthard, advised by many to retire before the advent of 2005, was resurgent at his new team and drove like a man possessed – punching above his steed’s weight in many a race. Klien also showed signs of maturing as a driver, even beating Coulthard once or twice. Red Bull had already proven to be serious but went further when, in a massive coup, they signed the by now legendary designer, Adrian Newey. They also secured Ferrari engines for the season – a fact that may or indeed may not prove to be a wise decision. As discussed in The Newey Factor Newey will, of course, not have an immediate impact on the car, focusing largely on next year’s entrant. Expect this year’s car to enjoy some of his attention though, resulting in faster in-season development than is normal and a slow but sure improvement in finishing positions. Fighting it out with Toyota, BMW and Williams is company that Jaguar Racing never found themselves in and RBR is clearly intent on winning races. There will be no championship challenge this year but look out for them in the long run. The team-mate battle could prove interesting. Coulthard has shown that he still has what it takes and his long history with Newey could prove beneficial to him. Klien, however, has developed well and will beat the Scott at some tracks – though not enough so to take more points than the veteran.

Garett Murphy’s view: Red Bull will be very keen to maintain the momentum produced in a very solid 2005. David Coulthard will be as hungry as ever to prove that he can still competitively drive an F1 car. As with so many other private teams in the past however, it is the second season which has often proven to be the most difficult.

BMW Sauber F1 Team
Drivers: Nick Heidfeld, Jacques Villeneuve
The bitter arguments between Williams and BMW had to come to a head at some point. Last year it finally did so as BMW announced that, as of 2006, they’d be in Formula One for themselves. They bought Peter Sauber’s established team and offered Frank Williams a customer engine – which he declined. Early reports of BMW’s V8 engine effort spelled a bleak season ahead but BMW seems to have gotten to grips with the vibration overdose that V8 engines are famous for, showing good pace in testing and comparing well with Williams – the one team they would obviously like to beat. Peter Sauber has stepped away from the team which may prove costly but they should benefit from the kind of focus that being a works team brings. Their driver pairing is also threatening. Despite his great 2005 season, Nick Heidfeld is still underrated and prising him away from Williams was an excellent victory in itself. The puzzling thing is how long they took to ratify Sauber’s contract with Jacques Villeneuve. Sure he disappointed in 2005 but he showed improvement toward the end of the season and besides, the man has masses of experience in developing Formula One cars and even transitioning a team (look back to BAR). There is a school of thought that believes the former world champion’s presence could prove destructive but every chance exists that his input will be very beneficial to the team. One thing’s for sure - he has it all to prove this season and he’ll be pushing as hard as he ever has.

Garett Murphy’s view: BMW have made it clear that 2006 will be a year of consolidation. With the politicking that was prevalent at Williams a thing of the past BMW will enjoy greater input into an already solid platform. With Heidfeld being part of the team BMW Sauber have a strong chance of being ‘best of division 2’.

Midland F1 Racing
Drivers: Tiago Monteiro, Christijan Albers
Many will be sad to see the Jordan name go. A team that managed to keep itself alive as many other privateers failed, their spirit was much admired and they put in some lightning performances along the way. As of late, however, the team has been flailing – their Midland sponsors seemingly lacking interest. MF1 racing, however, has now officially been born and perhaps Midland will now finally add the finance and focus needed at the team. One thing they certainly did right was secure Toyota engines for the season. Considering a very new, very different engine format this year, the engines being sold to MF1 cannot be very different from the engines Toyota are using themselves and these, at least, promise to be strong. There is not much to choose between the drivers and they should prove a good challenge to each other. In terms of challenging other teams, however, they should be racing only Scuderia Toro Rosso and the new Super Aguri team.

Garett Murphy’s view: Although the M16 is undeniably a far better car than the EJ15B and exceeding expectations in the process, the new season will not produce a lot of good points for Midland. With questions still being asked about Schnaider’s commitment, Midland will be doing well to score points consistently. A lot has been said about the reliability of last year’s car and while this is true, very few points were scored and the team found itself fighting with Minardi as often as not. Midland have it all to do in 2006.

Scuderia Toro Rosso
Drivers: Vitantonio Liuzzi, Scott Speed
The former Minardi squad should by all accounts take a step up this year. Red Bull’s influence on the former Jaguar team was telling from day 1 and this should be no different with STR. Expect Mateschitz to throw good money and management at his “feeder” team and even, as of next year, the odd touch of Newey to show up on the car. The fact that they chose to stick with limited V10 engines may or may not prove beneficial to them – depending on the effect of the limitations. Their choice of drivers has proven interesting, however. Liuzzi was not given as much of a chance at Red Bull in 2005 as he was promised and has not had a chance to prove himself beyond his stunning successes in the lower formulae and as such he should prove a good choice. Scott Speed, however, was clearly a culmination of a protracted programme to get a driver from the USA into Formula One once more. Comparing their test driver Neel Jani’s successes in the A1 series (despite machinery that has often seemed inferior to that of his competition) to Scott Speed’s record in the same series, you’d think they’d go for the man from Switzerland. That said, the inclusion of an American driver in F1 is certainly not a bad thing in terms of improving the image of the sport in the ‘States, especially after the absolute fiasco of the 2005 Indianapolis GP. Despite Red Bull’s involvement, STR has a long way to go and won’t beat any teams other than MF1 and Super Aguri this year.

Garett Murphy’s view: Dietrich Mateschitz must have the constitution of solid iron. Buying a private team when all the privateers are queuing to get out is impressive enough. Buying a second team is an all-or-nothing move. It will either pay off handsomely or explode in the energy drink magnate’s face. One might have expected a larger amount of backing from Mateschitz than is the case to give his new B team a fighting chance. The indications are however that Toro Rosso will be left to go it largely on their own. From a survival of the fittest point of view this has some very positive implications if Toro Rosso do indeed last longer than the end of 2007. As long as they continue making the best coffee in the pitlane, no-one will notice anything different.

Super Aguri F1
Drivers: Takuma Sato, Yuji Ide
Super Aguri sees the first introduction of a new team in many, many a year. Not a taken-over or purchased team, but a brand new team. This is excellent news as two more cars on the grid will always be welcomed by every Formula One fan, as well as being an indication that privateers may well be seeing a light at the end of the tunnel as far as costs, and likelihood of success, go. That said, this team’s struggle will be a long and hard one. Their first mistake was the intention to enter with year-old Honda chassis – a move blocked by the FIA as illegal. Developing a new chassis in a few months is impossible of course and they opted to buy the last chassis and grounds of the defunct Arrows team. They will be running the first few races with those chassis – developed to comply with modern safety regulations. Running chassis that weren’t competitive two years ago does not promise much but Honda power may well prove to be their saving grace. That seems to be all the help they can expect from the Japanese engine manufacturer however, as Honda themselves have made it clear that all their focus will go into their own car. The driver pairing is a mixed bag. Sato was, despite his infamous reputation, a good choice. He certainly has pace, if not consistently so, and his experience at BAR Honda will prove valuable to the new team. Not that Aguri had much of a choice – after the Japanese outcry at his axing from Honda, he most certainly came as part of the Honda engine package. Ide, on the other hand, is nothing but a result of Aguri’s determination to keep the team all-Japanese. 2nd in the Formula Nissan championship in Japan in 2005, along with successes in other formulae, he has a good track record but establishing yourself in F1 above the age of 30 these days is a remarkably difficult task. Signing a veteran without a drive, or even a driver that has had only a couple of years of test driving in Formula One under his belt, would have been a wiser decision. Where Aguri is right now, they are not in need of a driver that’s going to light up the track (Sato will do that anyway – one way or another) bur rather one that can tell them where they’re going wrong, tell them about the performance of the car and help improve it and help guide the direction of the team. Expect the Honda engine to prevent them from being lapped too many times but at the same time they will almost certainly finish stone cold last this season. That said, show lots of respect for the new team – they are taking on the big, scary world of F1 and they are to be welcomed with open arms and made to feel at home. We want them here and here to stay. Williams and McLaren were also once privateer teams with small budgets and no backing in the world and no-one would dare mock them now.

Garett Murphy’s view: The new boys on the block. Having only made it onto the grid by the skin of their teeth, they will be doing well merely to survive the season. No-one is expecting them to do very much at all so this may give them the breathing space to work on the car unencumbered by the pressure of sponsor’s expectations. Sato is a good catch for a team at Super Aguri’s level and, at the very least, Sato’s antics have the tendency to ensure good exposure for the sponsors.

In closing, we have, once more, three divisions this season. While division three is a clear cut affair with Scuderia Toro Rosso, MF1 Racing and Super Aguri contesting, divisions one and two are not that well defined. Almost certainly it will Renault, McLaren, Ferrari and the dark horse Honda fighting it out for the top spot, but a number of the division two teams stand a serious chance of challenging for podiums or even wins – Toyota, Williams and BMW have all shown intermittent strong pace and even Red Bull Racing has looked very, very strong on pace every now and again. By all accounts the above synopsis promises a season filled with competition, close racing and excitement – even more so than last season. With so many teams in with a chance we can only say one thing: Bring on Bahrain…

Edu de Jager

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» This reply is added by MC on Tuesday 7 March at 02:51
Another great article from Edu de Jager..
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