The travelling carnival that is the Formula One Grand Prix season has kicked off in Melbourne. There have been a number of rule changes, and also some significant alterations in personnel, since last year. The podium has also had a somewhat strange look about it – you might say it was lacking a certain Teutonic presence. Has the Age of Schumacher passed? Is Ferrari on the way out? Will the rule changes cause a dramatic upheaval, or are we just in for more of the same, a procession of Ferrari successes that have the bookies refusing to take any bets by the time the season reaches half way?
For those of you who like simple straightforward answers, no – the changes are going to make little difference at the serious end of the championship. While it may not be a cakewalk, Ferrari will win and win comfortably. Melbourne was the first race of 19, and to base a Ferrari obituary on this result would be akin to predicting the outcome of a soccer match based on the opening four and a half minutes. Some commentators are desperately trying to inject some life into a dismally predictable sport by sounding the death knells for the prancing horse. In their efforts to hype up the competition, they are ignoring certain salient facts.
Firstly, Michael Schumacher was particularly unlucky in Albert Park. The weather changes during qualifying cursed him and caused him to start in 18th position. In his efforts to fight through to the points, he took chances he wouldn't normally take and eventually paid a high price. Secondly, Schumacher's teammate Rubens Barrichello started in 11th position, and in what was arguably the best drive of the race, finished in second place. This would seem to indicate that the Ferrari team has very few problems where racing pace is concerned. Thirdly, they are still only using last year's car. The 2005 Ferrari is scheduled to make its race debut on 24th April, appropriately enough at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, Imola. With the team's unlimited budget and unrivalled expertise, it’s reasonable to assume the 2005 model will be a step up from the 2004. So as Mark Twain meant to say, reports of Ferrari's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
None of this is intended to take from Giancarlo Fisichella's well-deserved victory. Since he first joined Formula 1 in 1996 driving for Minardi, the young Italian has impressed most experts with his control and pace. Among the key changes this season are new controls around tyre use. A driver must use the same set of tyres for qualifying and racing, and can only replace them if they are punctured or damaged. This will reward the smoother drivers like Fisichella and Button, who are not as abrasive on the track and will be able to maintain their tyres at a higher standard of performance for longer. Conversely, drivers such as Juan-Pablo Montoya may suffer, as the Montoya style is more aggressive and involves throwing the car around the track and pushing it to its absolute limit in every manoeuvre.
Engine rules have also changed, and an engine must now last for two full race weekends. If a driver changes engines before qualifying, he will drop ten places on the grid. If the engine is changed between qualifying and race-start, he will be forced to start from the very back. The theory is that this will help the smaller teams, as the bigger ones will no longer be allowed to throw in a brand-new engine for each race. While this is true, it also means that engine reliability is rewarded, and who will have the more reliable engines? The teams who can invest most money in them, of course.
The rules governing aerodynamics have been tweaked also. Front wings must now be higher while rear wings must be further forward – both changes designed to reduce down force. In layman's terms, the FIA are trying to make it more difficult for the cars to stay on the track, leaving them no alternative but to slow down. Don't waste any time thinking about these changes or trying to predict the effect. By the time you read this (and it's being written after Melbourne but before Kuala Lumpur), the experts will have already overcome any intended difficulties.
The final significant change is the qualifying process. Grid placings will now be an aggregate of Saturday and Sunday qualifying sessions. This will reward consistent drivers, as one dramatically fast ‘fluke’ lap will no longer be enough to necessarily give you pole position.
The other striking difference between last season and this is that this is the last year of Jordan racing. Having eventually called it a day and sold his lot to the Russia-born Canadian, Alex Shnaider, Eddie Jordan is taking a step back. For this season, the team will still bear his name, and he maintains responsibility for communications and marketing. This is a smart move on Shnaider's part, as the ebullient Jordan is popular and respected within the GP scene and his presence will ease Shnaider's introduction into the game. Apart from a reputation for hosting the best of the post-race parties, Jordan has served Formula 1 well as a talent spotter. He gave Formula 1 debuts to Michael and Ralf Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello and Eddie Irvine. In addition, talented drivers such as Giancarlo Fisichella, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jean Alesi, and former World Champion Damon Hill have worn the distinctive Jordan livery.
The Jordan team peaked in 1999 when they finished third in the constructor's championship, boosted by wins for Frentzen at Monza and Magny Cours. Unfortunately the team was never to come close to those heights again. Unable to come up with enough funding or clinch an exclusive engine deal, they were forced to accept sponsorship money with conditions around the selection of drivers. While the drivers provided the exposure the sponsors wanted in their home countries, the compromise meant that the team suffered where it counted – on the podium. Most recently, Jordan has sadly become completely irrelevant when the prizes are handed out.
If you've been paying even passing attention to Formula 1, you won't be surprised if I predict confidently that Ferrari will win. I'm not even going to waste your time going into the detail. They've the most money, the best car, the best engineers, oh and the best driver. As near to a sure thing as you will ever find. For a more interesting bet, you will need to look beyond the odds-on favourites. Kimi Raikkonen will provide good each-way value in most races, while, if Alonso and Fisichella drive to their potential, they will give Renault a decent chance at second place in the constructor's championship. Sorry if it's not very exciting, that's the nature of the beast.