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F1: 2008 season preview

So, you’ve stocked up on food and booze, set the alarm clock (or planned to stay up through the night) and you’re all set for a hopefully thrilling season opener in Melbourne.

Who are the runners, riders and also-rans for the coming season, and who will you be backing for the drivers’ and constructors’ championships? Here’s our take on the proceedings:

Drivers: Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa. Car: F2008 (Ferrari engine)
It’s fair to assume Ferrari feels pretty good going into 2008. Having managed to secure both the drivers’ and constructors championships last year it heads into the 2008 season with a management restructure, a proven driver line-up and a lead driver who has finally found his feet with the car, to impressive effect in 2007. The one small cloud on the horizon is less than stellar times during winter testing with McLaren and even Williams regularly outperforming the red cars. But we all know how unreliable testing times are… Its mechanical reliability will probably be excellent, as ever, but a year’s experience for the former Michelin runners on Bridgestone tyres may have eaten into that advantage a little. The big question will be how it deals with events if its expected dominance fails to materialise in the early races. Read Ferrari’s season preview here >>
Drivers: Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen. Car: McLaren MP4-23 (Mercedes engine)
Huge questions remain for McLaren at the beginning of this 2008 season and it has everything to play for. Will long-time team guru Ron Dennis remain at the helm even as far as Bahrain? Can Lewis Hamilton live up to his incredible first season? Will Heikki Kovalainen thrive, and will the internecine warfare with Ferrari continue to dog McLaren’s steps? The team has been forced to halt development on certain aspects of its car thanks to the Spygate saga but winter testing seemed to indicate that it is still plenty fast enough. Hamilton appears, on the evidence so far, to be right on form and Kovalainen to be settling in well. The team will be looking to restore its damaged reputation and secure its first trophy since Mika Hakkinen’s season win in 1999 – sending Ron out on a high note? And it doesn’t even look like it will be starting from the last garage in the pit lane, since Bernie Eccleston’s reportedly been lobbying for a move to the slot between Red Bull and Williams. Read McLaren’s season preview here >>
BMW Sauber
Drivers: Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica. Car: F1.08 (BMW engine)
A tricky season ahead for this team after it performed massively ahead of everyone’s expectations in 2007 and was consistently runner-up to the ‘big two’. The under-appreciated Nick Heidfeld suddenly looked like a much hotter prospect and, in any season that did not include Lewis Hamilton, Robert Kubica would have been the most talked-about rookie for a long time. But can they keep it up? The team is already talking down its 2008 prospcts, with team boss Mario Theissen on the eve of Melbourne insisting that the car does not have outstanding performance. Certainly it did nothing special in winter testing, with Williams, Renault and Red Bull all giving BMW Sauber a run for its money. It looks unlikely that this team will be able to hang on to its ‘best of the rest’ status for the whole of the 2008 season – but it should certainly be a powerful contender. Read BMW Sauber’s season preview here >>
Drivers: Nelson A Piquet and Fernando Alonso. Car: R28 (Renault engine)
Interesting times at Renault with a major shake-up that saw the under-performing Giancarlo Fisichella evicted from the car in favour of the hotly-tipped but so far rather subdued Nelson A Piquet. An embarrassment of riches for this double world championship-winning team also saw the talented Heikki Kovalainen passed on to McLaren to make way for Alonso’s triumphant return. The manufacturer’s backing for the F1 team is reportedly rather more secure than it has been in recent times, hence Alonso’s willingness to commit. But Renault does not yet have its ducks lined up regarding the car. It suffered horrendously from the switch to Bridgestone tyres and is still looking for performance. All in all, it appears Alonso may have to wait a year or two for his third world title. And we suspect the potential for some really spectacular fireworks if the young Piquet doesn’t play the docile team-mate to his satisfaction. Probably a development year for this team. Read Renault’s season preview here >>
Drivers: Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima. Car: FW30 (Toyota engine)
It’s all a bit nail-biting this year for those with an interest in the Williams team. For ages things appear to have been distinctly dodgy for this most swashbuckling of privateer outfits. The dominance of the big manufacturers has been slowly pushing the independents up the beach until the Head and Williams-piloted ship is more or less the only vessel still afloat. But never underestimate the ability of those two to either cut a deal or to spot new driver talent. Despite the lure of silly money from McLaren, Nico Rosberg has not been released from his contract and seems more than happy to stay on at Grove. And Nakajima has put in a remarkably effective performance in his outings so far (no-one mention mechanics). The partnership with Toyota seems to have come together, delivering a rather fast car that was capable of topping the standings during winter testing. Suddenly the management is having to talk down the prospect of Williams re-occupying its traditional position of being in the mix with Ferrari and McLaren. However, after recent seasons, they must be absolutely delighted to have the chance to do that. Read Williams’ season preview here >>
Red Bull
Drivers: David Coulthard and Mark Webber. Car: RB4 (Renault engine)
To call last year’s RB3 a dog would be libellous to dogs and liable, we believe, to provoke a letter from m’learned friends on behalf of the National Canine Defence League. Red Bull’s entire season will swing on whether the RB4 is any further up the evolutionary ladder and, crucially, whether its deal-breaking transmission problems have been sorted out. People keep mentioning the name of Adrian Newey in hushed tones – well, this year there will be no excuses if his latest creation fails to deliver. For the whole of the 2007 season there was a powerful whiff of exasperation coming off both Red Bull drivers, neither particularly known for mincing words. It seems highly unlikely that Mark Webber will want to spend another year sitting at the side of the circuit fuming while the back-markers file past him and smoke pours out of his car. (This is widely tipped to be Coulthard’s last season, but so have the last three, so we’re not too concerned about that.) For Red Bull 2008 will mark the difference between being seen as contenders or as also-rans. We’d link to the season preview – but it’s this: “Wishing all fans and media a great 2008 season from the Red Bull Racing crew.” Hmmm. Let’s hope their races last a bit longer.
Drivers: Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock. Car: TF108 (Toyota engine)
It’s at times like this that we ask ourselves why on earth Toyota stays in Formula One. Of course the answer is probably ‘because Honda does’. But in recent years it’s been hard to see what the company, with few fans and little on-track success, is actually getting out of all the millions it pours in. This year, as ever, the team will be looking for a breakthrough but with so many others on the verge of greatness its prospects don’t look particularly good. Still, you have to admire its perseverance. It’s got a nice balance in its driver line-up with veteran Jarno Trulli (his hairdo now considerably more aerodynamic than it used to be at Renault – every little helps) paired with GP2 alumnus Timo Glock. Unfortunately that young man has already seen fit to announce that the car hasn’t met his expectations, which is all you need to know, really. If this lot aren’t also-rans, we’ll issue a shamefaced apology in November. Read Toyota season preview here >>
Toro Rosso
Drivers: Sébastien Bourdais and Sebastian Vettel. Car: STR2B (Ferrari engine)
The Brits on Pole management must confess to having found Toro Rosso very, very irritating in the past. From the pretentious name and the eviction of our beloved Minardi from the grid to the shenanigans of inexperienced drivers and the blatant land-grab by parent company Red Bull – it all served to put our backs up mightily, and caused us to ask: “What is the point of them?” But this may be the year when we have to put aside our prejudices, quell our irritation and start taking this team a little more seriously. The reason is the fantastic driver pairing of ‘der Seb’ and ‘le Seb’. With our Champ Car hats on we were expecting Bourdais to walk it. But Vettel is not letting him have the best of it, oh no – just look at the winter testing times for proof. This is shaping up to be one of the keenest and most entertaining driver battles on the grid, and we will be sitting back to enjoy it. However their idea of a season preview tests our resolution about patience sorely – it’s the Red Bull one rendered into Italian…
Drivers: Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello. Car: RA108 (Honda engine)
The only way is up, baby, for you and me now. At reflective times like this, you have to ask yourself what appalling acts Jenson Button committed in a previous life to make him deserve Honda. Widely recognised as one of the best technical drivers on the grid he has, nevertheless, failed again and again to find a team that can help him fulfill his very clear potential. You could maybe blame him for mismanagement of his career, especially as regards the contract disputes with Williams, but now it’s eight, yes, eight seasons in F1 (not counting 2008) and one grand prix victory to his name. And we fear that the descent of Ross Brawn back to earth has come too late. If, as Brawn himself predicts, it takes him at least a season to turn the team around then both Button’s and Barrichello’s drives will be extremely desirable in 2009. Anyone hoping to stay in the car for longer than this season needs to prove himself in a big way this year. Read the Honda season preview here >>
Force India
Drivers: Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrian Sutil. Car: VJM-01 (Ferrari engine)
Here is a team that we are watching with interest. Indeed, if you have the slightest romantic streak about you, there’s a lot to appeal in Force India. In a world where manufacturers dominate, here is a flamboyant billionaire using his personal fortune to launch himself as a privateer and putting his initials on the car. In the driver line-up you have perpetual bridesmaid Giancarlo Fisichella having a last fling at glory alongside youngster Adrian Sutil who, despite never having had a really decent drive, succeeds in getting himself talked about as a team-mate for Lewis Hamilton. But the hard fact is that romance is rarely enough in the face of Formula One’s demands for hard cash, or Minardi F1 would still be in business. Let’s see whether Vijay Mallya is still as keen on the series by November. Read Force India’s season preview here >>
Super Aguri
Drivers: Anthony Davidson and Takuma Sato. Car: SA08 (Honda engine)
We’re glad this team has made it to the starting grid – partly because that means another British driver in F1 for us to write about. But mostly because every sport needs a plucky underdog. This isn’t quite so true when said underdog has the backing of a major manufacturer like Honda but, if recent remarks by Nick Fry are to be believed, Super Aguri is going to have to find its feet quickly in order to avoid being labelled a customer team. Frankly, anything it can pull out of the hat this season will be a plus with winter testing virtually cancelled, the drivers contracted at the 11th hour and only the intervention of some last-minute investors ensuring a presence in the formula at all. Nevertheless, we wish them well and hope they make it through the season. Read Super Aguri’s season preview here >>


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