F1 Season Preview: Red Bull to dominate again?

25 March 2011

Written by: Ben Waterworth

After an action-packed 2010 season that kept supporters in suspense up until the very last race, the pressure is on Formula 1 to deliver again in 2011.

Last season saw the crowning of the youngest F1 World Champion on record, Sebastian Vettel, and the emergence of Australian Mark Webber as a legitimate championship threat, with both driving for Red Bull. Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso returned to the front of the pack, and McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button were ever present at the pointy end. However, none of them could consistently match Vettel and Webber for outright speed, and it looks like this might be the case again in 2011.

After the first scheduled Grand Prix of this year was cancelled due to civil unrest in Bahrain, Albert Park will be the venue where fans will see where the drivers are at at in terms of pace. This race will provide a curtain raiser of sorts for the rest of the season. Expect the front five teams to stay the same — Red Bull and Ferrari to lead the way, with Mercedes, McLaren and Renault not too far behind.

The 2011 season again introduces more rules and regulations. A new tyre supplier in Pirelli joins the sport after Bridgestone decided to exit after 14 years. The controversial KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) makes a return. The much maligned double diffusers and F-ducts leave the sport and adjustable rear wings are introduced.

The pit stop strategy for teams has also changed. Drivers will now be forced to make up to four pit stops, as the new Pirelli tyre is designed to wear much quicker than its Bridgestone predecessor. These changes are all in a bid to increase competition and make the races less one-dimensional. This seems to have worked so far.

In pre-season testing, the Red Bull and Ferrari drivers seemed to have an early edge over their competitors, with Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg shaping up as the third quickest outfit.

Webber described the offseason as ‘the most unpredictable winter, ever’.

‘We’re pretty happy with how we’re going,’ he added. ‘Of course you always want more in terms of lap time, but so far the car has proved reasonably reliable.’

In an interview at the most recent test at Catalunya, Red Bull boss Christian Horner said: ‘We genuinely don’t know where we are in comparison to the others.’

Button and Hamilton of McLaren look to have lost some pace on their rivals, as they pioneered the F-duct technology last year and it proved intrinsic to the speed of their cars. For Renault, the pairing of Nick Heidfeld (deputising for the injured Robert Kubica) and Russian Vitaly Petrov has improved on last year, partly thanks to their radical front facing exhausts, which allows the aerodynamics at the back of the car to be significantly improved.

The driver lineups have had the usual off-season shuffle. Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Lotus are keeping the same pairings as last year. But new rookies Paul Di Resta (driving for Force India), Jerome D’Ambrosio, Sergio Perez and Pastor Maldonado highlight the talent that F1 has in reserve.  In one bizarre circumstance, Renault was forced to change their lineup as their lead driver Robert Kubica suffered a horrific hand injury on a rally car crash. This means he will be forced to miss a good part, if not all, of the season.

Vettel and Alonso are the obvious favourites for the title of World Champion. Alonso has already won two titles and will be hoping to add another to the trophy cabinet to keep the Ferrari faithful happy. Vettel represents the changing of the guard, speed over experience, and youthful exuberance over reserved knowledge. He dominated most of last season, and appeared to be given preferential treatment in the Red Bull team by fans and by teammate Webber.

McLarens’ Button and Hamilton cannot be discounted, as they are both former world champions in their own right, and the indomitable Michael Schumacher at the tender age of 41 can never be excluded from any championship debate, even if only for novelty value.

The thing most Australians are concerned about, and rightly so, is the championship prospects of Webber and whether he can finally break through and become the first Australian since Alan Jones in 1980 to win the World Championship. The short answer is yes, but he will need his fair share of luck. Webber was a picture of consistency last season, but some mistakes, especially a late crash in the Korean Grand Prix, ultimately cost him the title. The key is to put the indifference that marred both him and teammate Vettel behind him, and focus all his energy on the track.

In an interview with the BBC’s Jonathan Legard, Webber said: ‘It’s not just about Sebastian (Vettel); we have Fernando (Alonso) and Lewis (Hamilton) as well as JB (Button), so it’s very, very unpredictable as to who’s going to be winning races.’

This year he’ll have learnt from his lack of experience at the front, and will  know how to handle the media and pressure upon him to produce results. He will be up there again in 2011, challenging for wins and he – as well as anyone – knows it could potentially be his last year.

Joel Peterson is a first-year student in the Bachelor of Journalism (Sport) at La Trobe University.  This is his first piece for upstart.