1999 F1 season preview - and Ron thought '98 was tough...

McLaren will have to be at its best all season if it's once more to fend off Ferrari's threat. Grand Prix editor Simon Taylor weighs the cases for each team and makes his predictions.

Ever since the chequered flag fell at Suzuka on Mika Hakkinen's World Championship victory on November 1 last year, every Formula One team has been withdrawn into frantic isolation designing, building and testing its new cars for 1999.

From most of them, over the intervening weeks, have come carefully leaked testing times, gung-ho prophesies of unprecedented success, protestations of new strategies, new structures, new dawns. But, in truth, no team can really gauge its own or its rivals' true 1999 potential until 10am Melbourne time on Friday March 5. That's the green light for the first official practice session for the first race of the year, and only then will we see at last the whole field circulating together, in the same conditions and to the same agenda.

Nevertheless, you don't have to be too highly qualified an F1 expert to guess at the pattern the new season is likely to follow. Rapid changes of form from season to season aren't unknown in modern F1, but they're rare.

Overtime, of course., team fortunes do wax and wane. When the McLaren domination of a decade ago was at its height the team won 25 Grands Prix in two seasons, remember you would not have believed that a few seasons later it would go for three long years without a single win. Ferrari, for so long the dominant force in F1, spent many years in the wilderness in the early 1990s before Todt, Brawn, Byrne and of course Schumacher began to drag it through its current renaissance.

And Benetton, ever since Schumacher left, has enjoyed but one victory (Berger's magnificent 1997 effort in Hockenheim), and has sunk from being constructors' champions with 11 victories in 1995 to a place outside the top four teams.

Actually, there's an argument to say that the traditional Top Four is no more — which Eddie Jordan won't like to hear, just when his team has risen to achieve fourth place in the Constructors' Championship. The perception of a Top Four emerged because, apart from Olivier Panis' lucky victory at Monaco in 1996, no Grand Prix for many years had been won by any team other than McLaren, Williams, Benetton or Ferrari until that tremendous Jordan 1-2 at Spa last August.

In fact, apart from those singleton victories for Prost and Jordan, no other team on the current grid has ever won a race.

So it's fair to say now that we have not a Top Four but a Top Two: and I don't see that changing in a hurry in 1999. I believe the straight one-to-one championship battle we enjoyed in 1998 between McLaren and Ferrari will continue.

Which will win? The statistics show that back-to-back championships for drivers are comparatively rare: Schumacher in 1995, Senna in 1991, Prost in 1986, and before that nothing since Brabham in 1960. But they also demonstrate that back-to-back tides for teams are the norm. Once a team is on top it's not easy to dislodge. The last time the World Champion's car wasn't the same for at least two years on the trot was 1987, when Piquet's Williams tide split a run of seven McLaren-mounted champions.

By that token McLaren should start the 1999 season as favourite, and certainly the multi-faceted package that won the honours in '98 is now beautifully honed: Adrian Newey's design brilliance (which, remember, played a vital role in Williams' five Constructors' Championships between 1992 and 1997), Ron Dennis' singleminded will to construct and maintain a winning organisation, Mercedes' technical and financial backup, and Mario Illien's brilliantly compact and powerful engines.

And Mika Hakkinen has come of age. He started last season as a man who had yet to be a Grand Prix winner, apart from a donated victory at the very end of 1997. Yet less than 12 months later, in what remains his greatest race so far, he vanquished Michael Schumacher at the Nurburgring in the closest straight battle of the season. He is driving brilliantly now, and if he still lacks Schumacher's experience in dominating a race, he's building that experience fast.

David Coulthard will be hungry in 1999. He is all too aware that most saw him and Hakkinen as equals a year ago. Then, as Hakkinen's confidence increased to match his innate speed, DC found himself slipping into the No.2 role. However, Mika still owes him one for Melbourne Iast year, so perhaps Hakkinen's words as they climbed from their cars in parc ferme in Suzuka are significant: "Next year it's your turn".

But McLaren is only too aware that it's always easier to pursue and attack than to defend. If Ferrari demonstrated anything in 1998, it was a prodigious ability to develop and improve on the hoof during the season in which a major ingredient is Michael Schumacher's relentless appetite for work, day in, day out, in a single-minded search for the extra fraction of a second, the extra smidgen of reliability. That said, his genius in the cockpit during a race - a unique cocktail of sheer speed, ruthless aggression and a sharp strategic mind - remains his greatest asset, helped by the very talented Eddie Irvine being apparently content to perform his (highly paid) role of helping Schumacher on his way.

We wait to see how fruitful will have been Ferrari's winter work, and McLaren's, and Ilmor's. There are stories from both Maranello and Brixworth (where Ilmor is based) of 275bhp per litre - an extraordinary output from a normally aspirated engine. Ferrari and McLaren were each thought to be nudging 800bhp by the end of last season.

A key change since last year, of course, is that Goodyear has gone, and everyone will have the same choice of Bridgestone rubber. Many will mourn the passing of the tyre wars, which played a cardinal role in the exciting battle last season between McLaren and Ferrari. But their absence will simplify, the contest and, lesser teams might argue, will make it fairer. In 1998 each tyre company, determined to shoe the championship winner, understandably threw all its efforts behind its top team. The Bridgestones were designed specifically to suit the McLaren which meant they didn't suit the Benettons at all, while Goodyear worked closely with Schumacher to provide the best possible tyre for the Ferrari, even if it might have been less appropriate for the Williams duo.

Now that Bridgestone has a monopoly, the idea is that they will provide the same specifications of tyre for everyone and meanwhile the FIA, in their constant quest to reduce cornering speeds, have insisted on a fourth groove this year. Their instruction to Bridgestone was to slow the cars by three seconds a lap. One suspects that they will have as little success with this as they did in slowing the cars down with the first three grooves last year - although if Bridgestone decides to impose harder compounds that could have rather more effect.

So, if the Top Two fight it out at the front, much of Formula One's fascination in 1999 will come from the battle to head the next group - let's call them the Next Four. Who will end up third in the 1999 Constructors' Championship?

Jordan, having lost designer Gary Anderson to Stewart and gained Mike Gascoyne from Tyrrell, seems to be in excellent shape. The Spa win, and several other excellent races in the second half of last year, have left Damon Hill in fighting form, while Heinz-Harald Frentzen is a better driver than his sojourn at Williams might lead you to think. If the latest manifestation of the Mugen-Honda engine is reliable and powerful and with Honda getting ready for its own arrival in Formula One in 2000, the whole might of that organisation is keen to make it so - Jordan should improve on its excellent 1998 season.

By contrast, in 1998 Williams had its worst year for a decade, recalling its Judd-powered season in 1988 when the Honda engine deal had ended and the Renault deal hadn't begun. In 1999 it'll use the Supertec engine, née Renault, for one last year before its new partnership with BMW produces its motive power for 2000. It's not clear what engine development has been done over the winter on the Supertec, which will also be used by Benetton and the new BAR team, but, for Williams, there is another unknown with which to contend: that surrounding its drivers.

Both are new to the team, and while Ralf Schumacher did a strong job for Jordan on his day last year, the environment at Williams is very different and he may take time to adapt. Alex Zanardi hasn't raced in F1 for four years, but his time in the USA has given him not only the Champcar title but also the reputation for being the bravest overtaker in the business. What is less well-known is that he is a highly intelligent test driver, and an excellent communicator to his team. Expect Ralf to be quicker initially, as Zanardi adapts to cars that are unrecognisably different from the Lotuses he raced in 1994; but, if Frank Williams' hunch is right, Zanardi could become a major star.

The question mark at Benetton surrounds not its drivers, who are Fisichella and Wurz once again, but its management. Benetton is now run by young Rocco Benetton, who took over at his father's behest on the departure of David Richards after DR failed to preside over the proposed marriage with Ford. Rocco's credentials in F1 remain unproven.

In one sense the new BAR team has no credentials at all, but in fact just about everyone there - ex-World Champion Jacques Villeneuve who leads the driving strength, engineers like Jock Clear from Williams, mechanics, truckies, and determined boss Craig Pollock - are familiar faces. Even their new recruit, No.2 driver Ricardo Zonta, has been F3000 champion and FIA GT Champion in successive years, and is clearly talented. And while Adrian Reynard and commercial director Rick Gorne, and the car's designer Malcolm Oastler, are new to F1, their successes elsewhere in motor racing speak loud.

An outsider hoping to make the Next Four into a Next Five is Stewart Grand Prix. Ford, unhappy with Stewart's results from its first two seasons, is putting a lot of power behind the team: they now own Cosworth, whose engine whizz Nick Hayes has produced a completely new and wonderfully light and compact V10. On the design front, as Gary Anderson has arrived Alan Jenkins has left, but with its new factory on stream and a new management structure Jackie Stewart is convinced that this year his team can deliver consistently strong performances. Certainly his driver lineup is the best it's been, for the loyal Rubens Barrichello, capable of great things if the car can stay with him, is joined by that hugely experienced campaigner Johnny Herbert.

Sauber continues with obsolete Ferrari engines although, as they'll be to Monza '98 spec, Jean Alesi and his new partner Pedro Diniz shouldn't be too short on power. Prost, after a year to forget in 1998, hopes its new alliance with designer John Barnard will bring a more effective home for Peugeot's engine, and for Panis and the under-rated Trulli.

Arrows is in the middle of a takeover which will see Tom Walkinshaw still running the team, but as a minority shareholder, with control held by a Nigerian prince and a merchant bank. In the longer term, a link-up with Toyota is still rumoured. On the driving strength Mika Salo will probably be joined by Spain's Pedro de la Rosa, but Arrows seem unlikely to be strong players in 1999. And Minardi, that cheerful little team at the far end of the pit lane, will be there as ever, with Esteban Tuero, Shinji Nakano and customer Ford power.

So, let me put my money where my mouth is. Here are Old Simon's predictions for 1999, so you can wave this article at me in eight months' time and show me how wrong I was.

1. Jacques Villeneuve to win a race for BAR during the year.

2. Eddie Irvine to win a race for Ferrari but only when Schumacher hits trouble.

3. The battle for third in the constructors' championship will be won by Williams.

4. Stewart to finish sixth in the Constructors' Championship.

5. A close battle for the championship between McLaren and Ferrari, resolved in the final round... in Schumacher's favour.