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F1 season 2008
Will Hamilton be champion? Can anyone really stop Ferrari? Will Alonso take Renault back to the top? Nigel Roebuck is your guide as he talks to Jackie Stewart about the season ahead, while Adam Cooper profiles the F1 teams and drivers

“Räikkönen and Massa are both very strong,” says Jackie Stewart, “and they, together with the back-up, the finance, the privileges, that Ferrari enjoy, adds up to a hell of a challenge for anybody else. At the moment McLaren seem to be the only team robustly structured enough to take that on, and their car is bound to be competitive, but – and I hope I’m wrong about this – problems within their infrastructure could well play a role in this not being their finest hour…”

It’s that time of the year again, when the first race of the new Grand Prix season beckons, and invariably a moment when I talk through prospects and possibilities with JYS. He may be 34 years retired as a driver, and eight as a team owner, but he remains closely involved in the world of Formula 1, and among its most astute observers. A year ago, when considering McLaren’s apparent ‘dream team’ of Alonso and Hamilton, Stewart had his concerns – and they were not to do with Lewis.

“In the post-Schumacher era,” he said, “I think Fernando is now the best driver in the world. However, he’s with a new team, and he’s got something to prove – he’s got to make his mark in the team, because he knows that the McLaren romance with Lewis is a very big one. Yes, he’s a double World Champion and Lewis is a rookie – but when it comes to McLaren it’s Fernando who’s the new boy, and after all those years with Renault, where he was the undisputed number one, he might find McLaren’s ‘equal treatment of both drivers’ policy hard to handle…”

Knowing what we know now, that sounds like no more than common sense, but at the time Jackie was unusual in sounding a cautionary note: many more anticipated another World Championship for Alonso, with Hamilton not far behind, but not quite in touch.

A year on, the signs are that once again Ferrari and McLaren will be the major forces, but there are significant differences from last season. At McLaren, there should be more stability with the drivers, for Heikki Kovalainen has come in as Hamilton’s team-mate, and the question of ego is therefore less on the line. Alonso, meantime, has returned to Renault – a matter of delight to Bernie Ecclestone, who always prefers to see the top drivers spread among as many teams as possible.

McLaren, it hardly need be said, has been through a traumatic time, what with the fallout from the ‘Spygate’ affair and dissent not only between the drivers, but also Alonso and the management. In recent months there has been unending speculation about Ron Dennis’s future role in the team, some suggesting that his motivation has been irreparably damaged by the events of the last year, that it is by no means certain that he will be present at all the Grands Prix in 2008.

Certainly, at the launch of the MP4-23 in Stuttgart he was little in evidence, and that was unprecedented. It felt like a Mercedes, rather than McLaren, occasion, and rumours persist that Dennis and Mansour Ojjeh have agreed to sell their shares to McLaren’s German partner. If this goes through, it is surmised that Dennis will withdraw, and that the team will be operated by Martin Whitmarsh.

From winter testing, it is evident that McLaren has built a very quick new car, but for all that Stewart is uneasy about the team’s coming year.

“I think this season could be an awkward one for McLaren,” he says. “Last year they should have ended up not only as constructors’ champions, but also with the World Champion driver. The last part of the season was a nightmare for everyone: it must have affected them all, and created the disruption which so obviously affected their mind-management, and their team decisions – think of China, when they couldn’t make a decision about when to bring Hamilton in for tyres. And as for whatever happened to him and his car in Brazil, maybe none of us will ever know. McLaren run like clockwork when they’re on form, so it was pretty glaring when that changed.

“Looking at the upset, and the damage that was caused in 2007, it makes me feel uneasy about the future, because I think there are still anomalies lurking around every corner that could cause further embarrassment and disarray. And it seems to me that’s almost… being provoked in some quarters, which I think is very unnecessary.

“At the moment there’s a lot of speculation about Ron Dennis, and whether or not he’ll remain in the position he’s always had. Will he still be a shareholder? He’s always had a controlling interest, after all.

“In all the really successful teams, there’s always been an identifiable leader – you can go right back to Colin Chapman and Ken Tyrrell. The real power of McLaren – and its continuous success – has come from Ron’s drive and single-mindedness. All right, he’s made a few enemies because of it, but the bottom line is that he has delivered. Now that has been seriously threatened – I might almost say ‘induced’ – and I think that’s a serious matter. All the top-level Mercedes management people have got day jobs – and day jobs don’t work with part-time participation to create success in Formula 1. It literally never happens.

“If Martin Whitmarsh is to be the man, he’s got to prove himself. All the great team principals have always been racers, it seems to me – people who eat, sleep and drink racing. Undoubtedly Ron is a racer, but I think in the last few years he’s been distracted by other things – the new factory, the road cars… His mind was certainly not as 100 per cent committed to the race team as it had been – it just wasn’t possible, because the business had become big, and had become diversified.”

Putting McLaren’s management matters to one side, the driver squad looks strong indeed. As Alonso goes from McLaren to Renault, so Kovalainen moves in the opposite direction. And just as Fernando is happier in the more laid back – some might say ‘less regimented’ – court of Flavio Briatore, so I have the impression that Heikki will thrive at McLaren, where he will be less left to his own devices. In only his second season, circumstance has put him into one of the top two teams, and I feel that on pace he will be much closer to Hamilton than many believe.

“Oh, you bet!” Stewart says. “Kovalainen has got everything to gain. He has big ambition, and he has all the skills to do very well. I’m expecting a lot from him.

“As for Lewis, I think the expectations of too many people are far too high. This is still a young man, who’s still short of experience – had he been more experienced, he would have made the decision to come in at Shanghai, instead of waiting for McLaren. I just could not believe, first, that Ron didn’t bring him in, and then that Lewis didn’t say, ‘I can’t drive this car – I’ve got to come in, and I am coming in!’ He lost the World Championship right there…

“Lewis had a truly astonishing first season, didn’t he? But, while I hope it doesn’t happen, I think he could easily fall into the ‘second season’ syndrome which is so common: after a great beginning, the second season falls short of expectations: I know all about it, because it happened to me.

“Things have changed in Lewis’s life, haven’t they? No longer is he living near the factory, no longer is he in every morning, with his mechanics and engineers, and so on. He’s in Geneva – and he’s becoming a non-resident, so therefore he’s only going to be allowed a small amount of time in the UK. Now, trust me, his life is going to have more distractions in Geneva than in Woking…

“I’m a big fan of Lewis, right? But you’ve got to say it how it is.”

In contrast to McLaren, Ferrari – although it was their man who started it – appears to have come through the ‘Spygate’ affair almost completely unscathed. The company hierarchy continues to amuse itself by missing no opportunity to take verbal potshots at McLaren, but undoubtedly the team’s winter has been a relatively settled one.

There is stability on the driver front, too, with World Champion Räikkönen again partnered by Massa. This season, of course, a variety of ‘driver aids’ (traction control, launch control and electronic engine braking) have been banned by the FIA, and while the move has been welcomed by all right-thinking enthusiasts, some of the drivers – the great majority of whom have never raced without these ‘gizmos’ – have been less enthusiastic. Massa was one of several to suggest that the removal of traction control would inevitably render racing less safe, particularly in the wet, and when pre-season testing began, there were suggestions that he was having difficulty in acclimatising.

If a single figure in the sport’s history may be considered pivotal in the drive to make it safer, it is Stewart, but he was never a proponent of driver aids. “I’m delighted they’re gone – I really didn’t like traction control, launch control, and all that rubbish. This is Grand Prix racing, and anyone in it should be able to cope without all that stuff. Seat of the pants…

“It should give better racing, and there should be more mistakes made – not to accident level, but errors costing time. If and when it rains, which it usually does at least once during a season, that will be even more apparent, because it will be more challenging. I know David Coulthard and others have said it might be dangerous, but I don’t quite understand that.

“That said, I’m sure the clever folks in F1 – as they always have – will find a substitute! It’s just a question of how long it’s going to take.”

Testing of the Ferrari F2008 has thus far suggested that it will be formidable from the outset, and many believe that the traction control ban will suit Räikkönen – the freestyle genius – to a tee. Stewart agrees, but still has his doubts about the consistency of both Ferrari drivers.

“Kimi can be absolutely brilliant, but I think there are still some days when he isn’t quite the man he can be. Felipe is extraordinary, I think when he’s really on it – but he just needs to even out some of the peaks and valleys. Having been there myself, I know that to produce a great performance occasionally is one thing, but to work continuously at that level is quite another.

“Overall, you’d have to say Ferrari were favourites at this stage; in the ‘Spygate’ thing, they seem not to have been hit by any dangerous shrapnel, and therefore they’re in a position to be better prepared than McLaren. As I said, McLaren have an immense challenge on their plate to regroup, to recalibrate their minds and spirits.”

One significant change at Ferrari is that Jean Todt has stood down, to be replaced as team principal by Stefano Domenicali. While Todt is by no means the most popular man around, those with whom he has worked will hear no word against him, and there’s no doubt that his effect on Ferrari, on its organisation, its working practices, has been profound.

“We don’t know how many races Todt will go to,” says Stewart, “but I think his absence is bound to have some influence. Leadership is a very big thing: I don’t think anybody could have taken up the reins of Ken Tyrrell, for example, if he had renewed his interest in the wood business, and missed a few Grands Prix because of it. You’ve just got to be there.”

In 2007 BMW made conspicuous progress, firmly asserting itself as ‘best of the rest’ after Ferrari and McLaren. Mario Theissen has said that this is the year when the team has to start winning a race or two, but if BMW is to maintain its position of last season, the feeling is that it will face strenuous opposition, not least from Renault, not least – perhaps – from Williams.

“The people at BMW,” Stewart says, “are all incredibly driven, and desperate to justify themselves – Theissen is almost too focused, in a very Germanic way. He’s got a soft side to him, but almost his only quest in life is to win a race – and a championship. It looks like a very solid operation, I must say. For example, I always think, when I walk down the pitlane, that BMW have the best-looking garage. Everything seems well done, without being overly done, if you know what I mean.

“Nick Heidfeld drives very well – in fact, that’s been a bit of a surprise to me, and I think the car must be bloody good. Everybody expected Robert Kubica to assert himself in the team last year, but Nick raised his game – I think he needed to do it, but he definitely did.”

In some ways, the biggest question mark – with the first race still six weeks away, at the time of writing – is against Renault, which won two World Championships with Alonso, then last year faded without almost trace in his absence. More than most, the team had difficulty in getting its car to work satisfactorily on the Bridgestone ‘spec’ tyres, but there was also a sense of deflation: Alonso had gone, and while Kovalainen was a promising rookie, Giancarlo Fisichella – a known quantity if ever there was one – was hardly a team leader to quicken the pulse.

“Renault’s engineering has been consistently good over the years,” says Stewart. “I think very highly of Pat Symonds – a very practical, level-headed man – but does he have as much enthusiasm and energy for it today as he did in years past? Perhaps he does, but it is a struggle to keep that kind of performance going. They had a setback last year, and maybe Alonso’s return will bring them back to life.

“I think Fernando lost his maturity last season – his mind-management was severely affected. Prior to that I was very impressed by his ability to be calm, but when there was pressure last year at McLaren, all his common sense disappeared – and that’s a flaw. Whether he can get rid of that, and come back, when he’s still got to beat Hamilton and Räikkönen and whoever else, we’ll have to wait and see.

“I’m expecting him to, I must say, because fundamentally he’s a quite brilliant racing driver – even in all the turmoil last season he was turning in great performances, and you had to admire that. Once Michael had retired, I thought he was the best.”

Certainly Alonso will savour the fact that, back in his old team, he is the unequivocal number one, his team-mate this year Nelson Piquet Jr, another rookie, but one not expected to present the problems he had with Hamilton.

Thus far, Stewart is not too impressed by what he has seen of Piquet Jr. “Listen, the boy’s obviously got talent, but I think daddy’s too rich, mummy’s too flattering… he’s spoiled, he gets anything he wants. Daddy flies a Citation 10 – and comes to see him in an F3 race! He expects everything to come his way, he’s got a short attention span… life’s been too easy.

“As for Flavio Briatore, he has his own style, and I’ve always admired the way he runs a team – I just hope he isn’t too distracted by his new-found interest in QPR…”

One man, it may be said, will assuredly not be distracted by anything outside F1. Going into his 39th season as a team owner, Frank Williams is as single-minded as ever, and testing has suggested that the Toyota-powered FW30 may be the most competitive car from Williams in a long time. Stewart, who works with the Royal Bank of Scotland, one of FW’s sponsors, is optimistic.

“I think Frank’s got more money for 2008 than he’s had for many years – maybe more than he’s ever had – and that buys people. In Frank’s case, it doesn’t buy cigars and cognac – he will spend it in order to try and bring back the Williams we’ve known in the past. Everyone would like to see that, and so far it’s looking promising.

“Nico Rosberg is very underrated – he’s an exceptionally good young driver, and also very confident, in an understated way. Mind you, I also think every driver needs a team-mate to beat, and as yet we don’t know if Kazuki Nakajima fits that bill. Frank will tell you that Nakajima’s lap times in Brazil last year were almost exactly the same as Rosberg’s – but how hard was Nico driving in Brazil? OK, I know he was racing for fourth position, and being hard pressed – but when that’s the case, sometimes you’re not driving at your absolute fastest.

“We all know that having a quick driver in the second car is terribly important. And for some reason we haven’t yet seen a Japanese driver able to do it at the top level. Nakajima is very promising, but we’ve got to see the boy deliver. I think Nico needs a competitor, and it would have been great if Williams could have got Sebastian Vettel, but I guess he was already signed elsewhere. I think he’s really got something special…”

And what of the under-achievers, the teams which have thrown money at F1, yet so far failed to produce much in the way of results?

“Red Bull,” says Stewart, “are clearly desperate to do well. Adrian Newey is no dummy, and neither is Geoff Willis – he’s very complimentary to Adrian. They’ve got Renault engines, and everything should be in place.

“David Coulthard has an incredible accumulation of knowledge. He’s not fazed by anyone pressuring him; he must be one of the most difficult men to pass – not because he keeps blocking people, but because he just knows which piece of road to use, which corners you must come out of cleanly in order to avoid being passed at the end of the next straight. If people get past him, they go rushing off – but they can’t get past! You don’t win 13 Grands Prix without being bloody good!

“I think Mark Webber has an incredible amount of skill. He’s a topline racing driver, but he does get emotionally disturbed by continual mechanical failures – he really doesn’t like it when things don’t go well. But he’s got the talent and he’s certainly got the fitness, and I’d love to see him win a Grand Prix.”

In many ways the biggest story of the winter was that Ross Brawn, after a sabbatical, was returning to F1, not with Ferrari, but Honda – and as team principal, no less.

No one needs to be reminded that the Honda team had a catastrophic season in 2007, with Button scoring only six points, and Barrichello – astonishingly – none at all. “Jenson says the car’s a dog,” I said to Rubens at one point.

“I disagree,” he said. “I like dogs…”

“I see similarities,” says Stewart, “between the two Japanese teams. Toyota, for example… I look at the team in the paddock and the pits, and everything seems clean and nice and tidy, and so on. But what also comes across is that it’s run by a large, multi-national corporation – and we know that doesn’t work in F1. The best example of that, God knows, was the Ford Motor Company, in the days of Jaguar Racing. It does not work when you have a bureaucratic maze.

“I worry about Toyota not coming out of that, because to do it they need a leader in the way that Honda needed Ross Brawn – they need someone who’s dynamic, who’s going to say, ‘Listen, I’m sorry Tokyo, I’m too busy to talk to you right now. I’m making a big decision here – and, by the way, I’ve made it…’”

Everyone expects that Brawn, who is believed to have pretty well carte blanche at Honda (in itself a fundamental shift in the company’s philosophy), will have a very significant effect on the way the team goes about the business of F1 racing, but Ross is making it clear that an overnight miracle should not be anticipated, that it will take time. When he signed his contract, for one thing, it was already too late for him to play any part in the ’08 car. For all that, Stewart believes Brawn’s presence will soon be felt.

“Oh, he’s going to change it a lot, isn’t he? I think he’s going to bring an air of calm and confidence to a bunch of people who always had the potential to do it. Part of the problem was that Nick Fry didn’t have the knowledge and experience to be able to make the kind of decisions that Ross will make – people like him don’t grow on trees.

“Jenson, I think, is still one of the best technical racing drivers in the business: when you see cockpit footage of him, he’s not a busy boy – there are very few hand movements. Very similar to Alain Prost in that respect: hardly ever do you see the car being over-driven, and I like that. As for Rubens, on a good day he’s still a force to be reckoned with, but sometimes last year I don’t think his heart and soul were in it – mind you, I felt that the spirit in the team was like that. Ross will help that immensely.

“As for Toyota, it’s difficult to know what to say. They’ve certainly done the right thing in getting rid of Ralf Schumacher, but what else has changed? I’ve always rated Jarno Trulli highly as a pure driver, but again there are too many peaks and valleys. He’s only won one Grand Prix – and there are plenty of people who’ve done that, aren’t there?”

Well yes, I say, but wasn’t it amazing that Trulli’s should have come at Monaco, of all places, where in 2004 his Renault dominated both qualifying and race?

Stewart isn’t impressed. “Funnily enough, I don’t think Monaco’s that difficult to win – in fact, I think it’s probably the easiest Grand Prix to win.”

Except in terms of not making a mistake…

“No, OK, you can’t do that – but one of the requisites of being a topline racing driver is that you don’t make mistakes…”

Exacting standards, as always.

• For details of the 2008 calendar, turn to p151. Read on for team and driver profiles.

Ferrari

First season: 1950
Number of GPs: 758
Number of wins: 201
2007 position: 1st (201 points)
Based: Maranello, Italy
Team boss: Stefano Domenicali
Chassis: F2008
Engine: Ferrari Type 056
Number of Championships: 15
Test Drivers: Luca Badoer, Marc Gené

Ferrari’s last-gasp victories in both 2007 World Championships came as something of a surprise, even to such as Jean Todt. This year the team is out to prove that it really has emerged from the Schumacher/Brawn era in strong shape, and that the carefully laid succession plans have worked. Indeed, Brawn himself has admitted that he had expected the team to be struggling after his sabbatical, and since there was no ‘rescue’ job to be performed, there was little point in returning.

There are more changes this year as Todt has taken a step back and been replaced as team principal by his protégé Stefano Domenicali, who has developed through his previous roles of team manager and sporting director. For the first time since he joined in 1993 Todt won’t be at all the races. It will be fascinating to see how things develop under the energetic and persuasive Domenicali, who is a very different character. The technical side has also been reshuffled, with Aldo Costa gaining more responsibility as technical director.

The driver line-up remains as before, and that is the most interesting aspect of the team’s season. Will Felipe Massa be able to mount a more consistent challenge – and if so, how will the team balance the interests of its two talented drivers?

Despite both men being in the title hunt it never became an issue in 2007, although there were rumblings from the frustrated Brazilian after the drivers swapped the lead as part of the team strategy in France. Massa has enjoyed a cosy relationship with the management, but the dynamic has changed now that his mentor is no longer hands-on. Räikkönen has established his place in Ferrari folklore after winning in his first season, and it will be hard for Felipe to get back on top.

Kimi Räikkönen

Age: 28
Nationality: Finnish
Number of starts: 121
Wins: 15
Points: 456
Championships: 1
Pole positions: 14
Fastest laps: 25
Last year’s position: 1st

Last season most of the focus was on Hamilton and Alonso, but it was ex-McLaren man Räikkönen who quietly got on with the job to beat his successors. After five years at Woking where reliability issues cost him two potential titles, he went to Maranello a well-rounded package. He took a few races to settle in, but was then awesomely competitive. Usually new World Champions emerge stronger, their self-belief boosted; others lose focus and drift towards retirement. There are no signs that Kimi will fall into the latter category, and he’ll no doubt enjoy the challenge of the traction control-free era.

Felipe Massa

Age: 26
Nationality: Brazilian
Number of starts: 87
Wins: 5
Points: 201
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 9
Fastest laps: 8
Last year’s position: 4th

It was in 2006 that Massa really came of age, and proved that he could earn pole positions and race wins. He even gave team-mate Michael Schumacher a hard time. Last season bad luck and a few costly mistakes meant the title momentum swung towards his team-mate, and ultimately he had to play a supporting role. He is determined to become the team’s main challenger in 2008, and that means he has to get an early jump on Räikkönen and be a consistent pacesetter. Massa’s qualifying form has been impressive at Ferrari, but will this really be his year?

McLaren

First season: 1966
Number of GPs: 630
Number of wins: 156
2007 position: –
Based: Woking, UK
Team boss: Ron Dennis
Chassis: MP4-23
Engine: Mercedes-Benz F0 108V
Number of Championships: 8
Test Drivers: Pedro de la Rosa, Gary Paffett

It’s hard to believe that McLaren has not won a World Championship since 1999. This could be the year when the drought finally ends, as the world waits to see if Lewis Hamilton can get the job done.

After the extraordinary 2007 season all at Woking are hoping that this year the focus will be solely on the track. The spy scandal took an enormous toll on the management, and clearly took some of the edge off the title campaign. In theory, the saga is now consigned to history, although Ferrari folk will no doubt dredge it all up when the time is right.

Ron Dennis has long hinted at future retirement and at the team launch in January he preferred to take a back seat. Correspondingly Martin Whitmarsh’s profile has increased of late, and no doubt that process will continue this season.

There wasn’t too much wrong with the technical package last year and sensibly the team has refined it, rather than make radical changes. Nevertheless, it is claimed to be better in all areas. Certainly the team has a lot more knowledge of Bridgestone rubber going into this year, not that it seemed to be a disadvantage last season.

Rivals claim that McLaren has an advantage through its experience with the standard ECU software, developed by its sister company, and it remains to be seen whether that is true.

Heikki Kovalainen was an inspired choice to fill the seat vacated by Fernando Alonso, and has already proved to be a breath of fresh air. All eyes will be on how he fares against Hamilton. It’s worth remembering just how competitive the team was last year, despite the pressures created by Alonso’s sometimes destructive behaviour. Without that self-inflicted handicap dragging it down, McLaren could prove hard to beat.

Lewis Hamilton

Age: 23
Nationality: British
Number of starts: 17
Wins: 4
Points: 109
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 6
Fastest laps: 2
Last year’s position: 2nd

No driver has ever experienced a rookie season like the one Hamilton enjoyed in 2007. He learned a great deal last year, on and off the track, and is surely now prepared for anything which might come his way. He knows the circuits, understands the rhythm of the busy racing season, and is aware of how to play the media game. That experience means he should be in a much stronger position. The big difference is that he starts the year as a title favourite rather than an underdog rookie. There is huge expectation on his shoulders, but that’s the sort of thing on which he thrives.

Heikki Kovalainen

Age: 26
Nationality: Finnish
Number of starts: 17
Wins: 0
Points: 30
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 0
Fastest laps: 0
Last year’s position: 7th

Heikki Kovalainen is another tough team-mate, but unlike Fernando Alonso, he won’t create waves off-track. His placid exterior disguises a steely determination, and like Lewis, he’ll put that rookie-year knowledge to use. After a shaky start at Renault he proved a quick learner. His drive onto the podium at a wet Fuji, under pressure from Räikkönen, was proof of his talent. But his face didn’t fit when Briatore juggled his prospective ’08 combinations around, and McLaren was quick to act. In some ways the pressure is all on his team-mate, as Heikki can only gain if he shows well against Lewis.

BMW Sauber

First season: 2006
Number of GPs: 35
Number of wins: 0
2007 position: 2nd (101 points)
Based: Munich, Germany
and Hinwil, Switzerland
Team boss: Mario Theissen
Chassis: F1.08
Engine: BMW
Number of Championships: 0
Test Drivers: Christian Klien, Marko Asmer

In only the team’s second season in its current guise BMW Sauber emerged as F1’s third force in 2007 and actually finished the championship in second place after McLaren was penalised.

The team will be hoping to repeat that result on merit this year, and the stated aim is to at least achieve a race win. Closing the gap and breaking the Ferrari/McLaren stranglehold will not be easy, and others may prove to be stronger than they were last season, notably Renault. Having said that, the building process is complete and all the pieces are now in place, so there is no reason why the team should not continue its upward momentum.

Last year BMW did better than most in making the transition from Michelin to Bridgestone tyres and the car was consistently competitive on all types of tracks, rarely dropping out of the top six in qualifying or the races. The team’s greatest strength is its aero department, thanks to arguably the best wind tunnel and CFD facilities in the sport. And aero is of course where the greatest gains are to be made, not just during the winter, but over the course of a season. Testing got off to a relatively modest start, but the team is confident that come Melbourne the F1.08 will be on the pace.

Unlike other big players the team is refreshingly free from any political element, and Mario Theissen has emerged as a talented and respected manager who is not afraid to take big decisions, especially when it comes to drivers. He perhaps acted a little prematurely last year by re-confirming the team’s line-up long before Alonso became available, but on the other hand putting a ‘difficult’ superstar in at this stage was presumably not part of the grand plan. BMW’s time will no doubt come.

Nick Heidfeld

Age: 30
Nationality: German
Number of starts: 132
Wins: 0
Points: 140
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 1
Fastest laps: 0
Last year’s position: 5th

He struggled in midfield cars for several seasons until coming to the fore at BMW-powered Williams in 2005, and when the engine supplier took over Sauber, Heidfeld moved across as well. Over the past two seasons the quiet German’s reputation has been enhanced by a series of solid performances, which included some podium finishes, and he has repaid the loyalty of Theissen in spades. He turned 30 last year, however, and time is no longer on his side. Other names are eyeing his seat and thus it’s crucial that he achieves some good results as the season unfolds.

Robert Kubica

Age: 23
Nationality: Polish
Number of starts: 22
Wins: 0
Points: 45
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 0
Fastest laps: 0
Last year’s position: 6th

Kubica burst onto the scene when he was called upon to take over from ex-champ Jacques Villeneuve in 2006, and he guaranteed himself a bright future by finishing third at Monza. Last season he endured a lot of misfortune, most notably when he crashed in Canada and missed the next race. He was often outshone by Heidfeld, but enjoyed some good runs into the points. The Pole knows he has to raise his game again, but there is no doubt he has the talent to be a top contender in the coming years. Kubica certainly keeps Heidfeld on his toes and the pair work well together.

Renault

First season: 1977
Number of GPs: 227
Number of wins: 33
2007 position: 3rd (51 points)
Based: Enstone, UK
Team boss: Flavio Briatore
Chassis: R28
Engine: Renault
Number of Championships: 2
Test Drivers: Romain Grosjean, Sakon Yamamoto

After winning two World Championships with Fernando Alonso in 2005 and ’06, the Renault team took a backward step last year, scoring just a single podium finish in the Fuji rain.

There were specific reasons for the sudden decline, notably a wind tunnel issue that contributed to the inconsistent behaviour of the R27, along with the difficult change from Michelin to Bridgestone tyres. And of course there was the absence of Alonso, who had been the impetus for much of the improvement in form after the desperate days that followed the Renault buyout.

It’s all change this year as Fernando returns to his spiritual home and Nelson Piquet Jr is promoted from testing to a race seat. There’s a big gap to close and a quick return to winning form is by no means guaranteed, but there is every reason to believe that the results will improve. Most of the people who steered the last title campaigns are still on board, and indeed the squad still includes key players from the Schumacher era. They are proven winners who have built up the team before and can do so again. The architect of the revival is of course engineering guru Pat Symonds, one of the few men in the pitlane who can really make a difference. He admits that the team learned a lot from its difficult 2007 season and fought as hard as when it was in contention for the title.

Love him or loathe him, Flavio Briatore remains an inspirational leader who has a canny knack of putting the right people in the right jobs, and who along with his pal Bernie Ecclestone is one of the most politically adept men in the paddock. It will be interesting to see how his relationship with Alonso has changed since the Spaniard was the new kid on the block.

Fernando Alonso

Age: 26
Nationality: Spanish
Number of starts: 104
Wins: 19
Points: 490
Championships: 2
Pole positions: 17
Fastest laps: 11
Last year’s position: 3rd

Alonso had an extraordinary season in 2007, getting himself involved in a messy situation with McLaren and ultimately leaving the team after just one year. There’s no question that his reputation took something of a battering, and not just because he was often outpaced by rookie Lewis. However, you can’t ignore the fact that he still won races and challenged for the title all the way to the final race. Now he’s back at Renault and hoping to put the past behind him. He’s probably a better driver now, but the big question is, can the old magic be recreated?

Nelson Piquet
Age: 22
Nationality: Brazilian
Number of starts: 0
Wins: 0
Points: 0
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 0
Fastest laps: 0
Last year’s position: –

Piquet started in South American F3 aged 15 and has not exactly had to fight to fund his career, but in GP2 he showed well against Rosberg, Hamilton and Kovalainen, and deserves his F1 chance. Piquet is a PR dream and more down-to-earth than he may first appear. Whether he can challenge Alonso remains to be seen. His selection was clearly approved by Fernando, who wasn’t too keen to take on Kovalainen. Presumably he’s convinced he will not come under any threat from the youngster. His biggest problem may be Nelson Sr, the archetypal ‘karting dad’…

Williams

First season: 1975
Number of GPs: 551
Number of wins: 113
2007 position: 4th (31 points)
Based: Grove, UK
Team boss: Frank Williams
Chassis: FW30
Engine: Toyota
Number of Championships: 9
Test Driver: Nico Hulkenberg

More than a decade has passed since Williams last won the World Championship, and it’s been five years since the team mounted a serious title bid. Nevertheless, it is still a highly professional outfit capable of challenging the manufacturers, despite the obvious budget limitations that any self-financed organisation faces.

At 65 Frank Williams is as enthusiastic as ever and he’ll be keen to do well on the 30th anniversary of his team’s rebirth as Williams Grand Prix Engineering. He has a supportive engine partner in Toyota, and unlike some customer deals, it appears to be a healthy and open relationship. Indeed, Williams frequently humbled the works team last year.

The design team lost its way towards the end of the BMW era, but latterly things have improved. The 2008 car was impressive in early testing, although there was a glitch when a wing problem caused a crash. A good qualifier, Nico Rosberg is one of the team’s biggest assets, and this should be the year when he comes of age. It’s very much a learning season for Toyota protégé Kazuki Nakajima.

Nico Rosberg

Age: 22
Nationality: German
Number of starts: 35
Wins: 0
Points: 24
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 0
Fastest laps: 0
Last year’s position: 9th

Rosberg made a splash at the start of his F1 career in 2006, but what really earned the respect of the paddock was a series of strong performances in ’07, especially in qualifying. That attracted the interest of McLaren, but the German extended his contract with Williams. With a novice team-mate alongside, the focus will be on Nico and that will give him a chance to prove whether he really has the potential to be a major star.

Kazuki Nakajima

Age: 23
Nationality: Japanese
Number of starts: 1
Wins: 0
Points: 0
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 0
Fastest laps: 0
Last year’s position: 22nd

Like both Rosberg and fellow rookie Nelson Piquet, Kazuki Nakajima is the son of a famous racer – as in the slightly less successful 1980s Lotus racer Satoru Nakajima. Toyota eased Kazuki’s move into a Williams test role last year, and he had the chance to race at Interlagos in place of Alex Wurz. Despite an accident in the pits, his pace impressed and he landed a race seat. He needs to be less erratic than he was in GP2.

Red Bull Racing

First season: 2005
Number of GPs: 53
Number of wins: 0
2007 position: 5th (24 points)
Based: Milton Keynes, UK
Team boss: Christian Horner
Chassis: RB4
Engine: Renault
Number of Championships: 0
Test Driver: Sebastian Buemi

Heading into its fourth season since the Jaguar takeover, Red Bull should be in a position to make good progress. At times last year the car was the fourth-best on the grid, vying with Williams and Renault, and that is a good platform on which to build.

That car was the first to be fully overseen by Adrian Newey and was a major step forward technically. Obviously the team learned a lot and for the first time in its short history it is carrying over the same engine between seasons – and there is not much wrong with the Renault V8. Crucially, the key issue of reliability, which was a major weakness throughout 2007, has been addressed in large part by the presence of former Honda technical director Geoff Willis, who joined last summer. His job has been to get things right back at the factory, leaving Newey free to focus on what he does best – leading the design team.

The drivers have a ton of experience and are capable of taking any opportunities to grab points. All the pieces of the puzzle have been put in place and now it’s a question of whether Newey has got his sums right.

David Coulthard

Age: 36
Nationality: British
Number of starts: 228
Wins: 13
Points: 527
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 12
Fastest laps: 18
Last year’s position: 10th

The Scot’s career appeared to be over when he left McLaren at the end of 2004, but he has forged a strong relationship with Red Bull and has been a key player in building the team. DC turns 37 in March and is now the oldest driver in the field. But he has scored regular points over the past three seasons and continues to bat away talk of when he will retire.

Mark Webber

Age: 31
Nationality: Australian
Number of starts: 104
Wins: 0
Points: 79
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 0
Fastest laps: 0
Last year’s position: 12th

Mark Webber is acknowledged as one of the best qualifiers in F1 and was a regular top 10 man last year. The Aussie scored a great podium finish in the Nürburgring rain, but there are still question marks over his ultimate ability as an out and out racer. He has a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he may now finally have a chance to silence the critics.

Toyota

First season: 2002
Number of GPs: 104
Number of wins: 0
2007 position: 6th (13 points)
Based: Cologne, Germany
Team boss: Tadashi Yamashima
Chassis: TF108
Engine: Toyota RVX-08
Number of Championships: 0
Test Driver: Kamui Kobayashi

In 2005 Toyota was a regular podium finisher and it seemed that before long the team would be challenging for victories. Over the past two years the team has failed to build on that, however, and has often been a midfield runner at best. The decision to force Mike Gascoyne out may have been a little short-sighted, and it’s worth noting that unlike such as Honda and RBR, the team has not felt the need to recruit key players to bolster its technical squad.

The big change this year is that Ralf Schumacher has gone, to be replaced by highly motivated newcomer Timo Glock. The youngster’s arrival provides a welcome boost to what had become a tired-looking line-up, and he also brings useful knowledge from BMW.

Reliability was the prime concern two years ago, but in 2007 the package was simply not quick enough, although Jarno Trulli often scraped into the top 10 in qualifying. The team has made big changes to the car this winter in an attempt to close the gap and make its overall form more consistent, but early testing suggests there is still much to do.

Jarno Trulli
Age: 33
Nationality: Italian
Number of starts: 181
Wins: 1
Points: 183
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 3
Fastest laps: 0
Last year’s position: 13th

Still only 33, Trulli continues to be something of an enigma in the F1 world. There can be no doubting his qualifying speed and he can be relied upon to benchmark the ultimate pace of a racing car. However, on Sundays his form is often erratic, and he has never been comfortable over a race stint with a car that handles inconsistently. With Schumacher gone, he may benefit from being the senior man in the camp.

Timo Glock

Age: 25
Nationality: German
Number of starts: 4
Wins: 0
Points: 2
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 0
Fastest laps: 0
Last year’s position: –

Glock had a few outings with Jordan in 2004, but then faced a long exile in Champ Car and GP2 before a BMW test role made his dream of returning to F1 come closer. Success in last year’s GP2 series encouraged Toyota to steal him away, and he could prove to be an inspired choice. Quiet, hardworking and unpretentious, he now has the experience to go with the talent that he obviously always had.

Honda

First season: 1964
Number of GPs: 70
Number of wins: 3
2007 position: 8th (6 points)
Based: Brackley, UK
Team boss: Ross Brawn
Chassis: RA108
Engine: Honda RA808E
Number of Championships: 0
Test Driver: Alexander Wurz

Honda had a disastrous season in 2007, only rarely making the points and sometimes struggling to beat sister outfit Super Aguri. In fact there were fundamental design faults with the car that made it inherently unstable under braking and generally inconsistent.

The pressure to perform and get anywhere near the team’s excellent 2004 form is now enormous. Last summer team boss Nick Fry embarked on a recruitment drive that culminated in the hiring of Ross Brawn in November, a coup that has transformed the team’s prospects. There is no more room for excuses.

Although he carries the title of team principal, the ex-Ferrari man is in sole charge of technical matters. Things do not change overnight, however. The process of turning Honda into a title contender will be a long one, and it will take time to get the revamped design squad working in harmony. Having said that, there is no better man than Brawn to tackle such a task, for he has already performed similar roles at Benetton and Ferrari. The RA108 was disappointing in early testing, although the team insists that new parts will put the car on a respectable pace by Melbourne.

Jenson Button

Age: 28
Nationality: British
Number of starts: 135
Wins: 1
Points: 229
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 3
Fastest laps: 0
Last year’s position: 15th

Jenson Button is fully committed to the Honda team for the long term – something he may have regretted at times last year when he struggled near the back of the field. But his loyalty has been repaid by the arrival of Ross Brawn and he clearly still believes that things will get better in the future. Heading into his ninth season he has amassed a vast amount of experience and has developed into a great team player who inspires the troops.

Rubens Barrichello

Age: 35
Nationality: Brazilian
Number of starts: 250
Wins: 9
Points: 519
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 13
Fastest laps: 15
Last year’s position: 20th

He’s not quite the oldest driver, but Barrichello is now the most experienced man in the 2008 field, and this year he will overtake Riccardo Patrese’s record for the most Grand Prix starts.

The Brazilian has found the going tough since leaving Ferrari two years ago and struggled more than his team-mate did with the disappointing RA107, failing to score a point. Nevertheless, he maintains that he is as motivated as ever.

Toro Rosso

First season: 2006
Number of GPs: 35
Number of wins: 0
2007 position: 7th (8 points)
Based: Faenza, Italy
Team boss: Franz Tost
Chassis: STR02
Engine: Ferrari
Number of Championships: 0
Test Driver: –

The former Minardi team made huge strides in its second season under Red Bull ownership in 2007. Using a development of the sister RBR team’s car, but with Ferrari rather than Renault power, STR got off to a shaky start. The car was ready late, reliability problems proved costly and an impatient management fell out with the drivers. But good progress was made towards the end of the season and the arrival of Sebastian Vettel was a major boost. The team starts 2008 with an upgrade of the old car, but that might work in its favour in that it is a proven package.

Sebastian Vettel

Age: 20
Nationality: German
Number of starts: 8
Wins: 0
Points: 6
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 0
Fastest laps: 0
Last year’s position: 14th

Vettel enjoyed support from Red Bull and BMW as he was fast-tracked through the junior ranks. A timely chance to replace Kubica at Indy last year indicated he was ready to move up, and Red Bull won the battle for his services. His pre-crash form at a wet Japan and the way he bounced back in China showed he is made of the right stuff. There’s no doubt he has the talent to become a major star.

Sébastien Bourdais

Age: 29
Nationality: French
Number of starts: 0
Wins: 0
Points: 0
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 0
Fastest laps: 0
Last year’s position: –

This quadruple Champ Car title winner is only the latest in a long line of stars to make the move from North American racing to F1. Whether he does it with the form of a Zanardi or a Montoya remains to be seen, but he does have a strong pedigree dating back to F3 and F3000. Bourdais was overlooked by Renault first time around, so now it’s up to him to prove that Flavio Briatore’s team got it wrong.

Super Aguri

First season: 2006
Number of GPs: 35
Number of wins: 0
2007 position: 9th (4 points)
Based: Leafield, UK
Team boss: Aguri Suzuki
Chassis: SA 08
Engine: Honda
Number of Championships: 0
Test Driver: James Rossiter

At the time of writing Super Aguri’s 2008 plans remained unclear, and discussions with potential investors had yet to bear fruit. There’s no doubt that new funding is sorely needed and it’s clear that an impatient Honda does not want to have to divert extra resources to the team. After its difficult first season the team had use of a reworked Honda RA106 design last year, and to its great credit made huge progress. Indeed, on more than one occasion a Super Aguri humbled a works Honda. However, the team has not had the budget with which to move forward over the winter.

Anthony Davidson

Age: 28
Nationality: British
Number of starts: 20
Wins: 0
Points: 0
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 0
Fastest laps: 0
Last year’s position: 23rd

Davidson’s place remains in doubt and it seems he could yet be usurped by a paying driver, which would be a great shame. His Honda connections finally landed him a full-time drive with Aguri last year and he quietly impressed all with his speed – especially during qualifying in the latter half of the year, when he often outpaced Sato. Luck was rarely on his side, and he should have scored points in Canada.

Takuma Sato

Age: 32
Nationality: Japanese
Number of starts: 89
Wins: 0
Points: 44
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 0
Fastest laps: 0
Last year’s position: 17th

Takuma Sato is of course the major reason why Super Aguri exists, for Honda had to react quickly to public pressure after the Japanese was dropped by the works team at the end of 2005. A feisty racer who is always worth watching on the first lap, he has done a solid job with the underdog team, scoring points in Spain and Canada last year. However, there are signs that he is a little frustrated.

Force India

First season: 2008
Number of GPs: 0
Number of wins: 0
2007 position: –
Based: Silverstone, UK
Team boss: Colin Kolles
Chassis: VJM01
Engine: Ferrari
Number of Championships: 0
Test Driver: Vitantonio Liuzzi

The Midland, MF1 Racing and Spyker names have been and gone, and the team we once knew as Jordan is now Force India. New owner Vijay Mallya is aiming to turn his new acquisition into a serious contender, and taking on an established GP winner in Giancarlo Fisichella is a clear sign he means business. It’s worth noting that technical chiefs Mike Gascoyne, James Key and Mark Smith were all around when Jordan was winning races in 1998-99 and, with the budget restrictions of recent years lifted, they have a chance to move things forward.

Adrian Sutil

Age: 25
Nationality: German
Number of starts: 17
Wins: 0
Points: 1
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 0
Fastest laps: 0
Last year’s position: 19th

Sutil had an impressive rookie season with the Spyker team last year, but jumping straight from Japanese F3 left him with a lot to learn and he made mistakes. The potential was apparent, however, notably at Fuji where he earned the team its only point of the year. He has a much tougher team-mate than last year, and the team is hoping he will raise his game. If he’s smart he can learn a lot from Fisichella.

Giancarlo Fisichella

Age: 35
Nationality: Italian
Number of starts: 194
Wins: 3
Points: 267
Championships: 0
Pole positions: 3
Fastest laps: 2
Last year’s position: 8th

It’s quite a big change for Fisi, as the Italian moves from a double World Championship-winning team to one at the bottom of the 2007 list, albeit one he drove for twice in its original incarnation. Thus far he seems to be enjoying the challenge of being part of the revival process and he may thrive away from the sometimes oppressive environment that is generated by Renault team boss Briatore.

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