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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Who Are Looking Like the Current Front Runners

This is promising to be a fantastic season. Going to Melbourne, there are three or four teams who will be starting the weekend thinking they have a decent chance of winning the race.

Throughout testing, Ferrari, BMW, and Toyota have been extremely closely matched at the top of the timesheets. When they have been doing similar runs in testing this week, their times have evenly matched. They all look like fast, consistent cars.

In the Bahrain test, these three teams were always covered by just a couple of tenths. When they joined the other teams in Jerez and Barcelona, that theme continued. Except they have also been ahead of the other teams, too (with the possible exception of Brawn GP, which is explained in the next section).

Toyota has impressed me most in testing. They have clocked up a huge amount of mileage, and the car is extremely reliable. Jarno Trulli is very bullish about his chances in Melbourne. I think this could be Toyota’s big long last. They look as if they are finally realising what it takes to be successful in Formula One.

Their team members have become more passionate about racing, rather than acting all corporate. I am sure this has made a substantial difference. If Toyota doesn’t win races this season, then they will be very disappointed. It could be a big year for Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock.

Ferrari, again, have built another fast car. However, their testing hasn’t been without reliability problems. They have had a couple of scares with their KERs (Kinetic Energy Recovery system) device. Ferrari has seemed pretty intent on using their device from the start, but they may have second thoughts about that before Melbourne. Leading 1-2 in Melbourne and then having a double car failure (like Mclaren suffered in the 1999 season opener) would be seriously gut wrenching.

Their other issue is that it still takes a long time to warm up the tyres. This is at its worst in cooler conditions. This means that like the last couple of seasons, they will be at a disadvantage to their main rivals in qualifying. As things stand, that could be very critical. With the front runners so closely packed, not having a great qualifying car could cost them far more than it did last season. They need to work on this. Historically, Ferrari’s race pace has always been their strong point compared with qualifying pace. This isn’t just a recent trend.

BMW also looked to have made the step forward to regular race win contenders. BMW gave up full development on their 2008 car pretty early on, and started to focus much more on the 2009 contender. They recognised that 2009 was a unique opportunity to gain on the front runners.

It looks like BMW Sauber may well have made the right decision here, despite Robert Kubica being unhappy that BMW didn’t focus more on his 2008 title challenge. Since BMW took over Sauber back in 2006, they have made a big step every year since then. They look set to take another big step forward for the fourth year running, which is deeply impressive. They are set to be championship contenders this season. The team have often sandbagged in the past in testing, so there is a chance they are even quicker than they're letting on.

Overall, out of these three leading teams, I would estimate that Ferrari has a tiny edge in terms of race pace. When it comes to qualifying trim, BMW and Toyota are probably ahead. Toyota won’t be using the KERs system until later in the season. We will see whether this proves to be an advantage or a disadvantage to them. It could swing either way.

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