The greatest grid ever!*(*maybe)

A rare collection of talents, sporting and technical, has been assembled for the 2010 Formula 1 season. We explore whether this just might be the greatest grid in history
By Anthony Rowlinson

Briefly, let the stats do the talking: four World Champion drivers, with 11 titles between them. Six teams that have claimed constructors’ world titles; eight that have won Grands Prix (10 if we count for Sauber Robert Kubica’s Canada win in 2008 and include Jordan’s three for Force India – they’re still run from the same factory). Then a total of 162 GP wins scattered across 11 of the 24 drivers (correct at the time of writing), to leave only USF1, Campos and Virgin Racing without any claim on F1 victory.

The comeback of one Michael Schumacher has skewed the figures somewhat, dramatically increasing the total number of driver wins and titles won. But even had he not returned, and had Kimi Räikkönen stayed on amid the aces instead of going off to quaff vodka and wreck skidoos (bankrolled by 50 million Ferrari dollars), the 2010 line-up would still represent a truly mouth-watering prospect.

On paper, and in advance of full head-to-head pre-season testing, there are four teams – Mercedes, Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari – eminently capable of taking one or both titles, meaning eight drivers (if we’re generous to Merc newbie Nico Rosberg) are in with a shout.

Then there’s the visceral stuff: the – ahem – ‘greatest ever’ back up against the guy who beat him; the ‘most exciting driver since Senna’ with the reigning world champ now sharing his McLaren air; the ‘new Schumacher’ against a team-mate who comes back harder every time you kick him (or break his leg). Excited yet?

Not since 1985 have F1’s heavyweights looked so feisty, nor the title so open. That year Ayrton Senna and Elio de Angelis shared the gorgeous JPS Lotus-Renault 97T (three wins); Nigel Mansell and Keke Rosberg rubbed shoulders in the wild-but-mighty FW10-Honda (four wins); Niki Lauda finally ceded the McLaren mantle to Alain Prost at the wheel of the MP4-2B (six wins), while Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson upheld Ferrari honour with the 156/85 (two wins). Eight winners from four teams, with the top four constructors finishing McLaren 90; Ferrari 82; Williams 71; Lotus 71. Close. And that’s without mention of Nelson Piquet’s Pirelli-assisted domination of the French Grand Prix in the Brabham-BMW BT54.

Ligier, Renault, Arrows and Tyrrell all played cameos, to etch history that’s as evocative to recall as it was thrilling to witness.

But might even a season so epic (or, before it, 1982, ’76, ’67, ’58…) be eclipsed by what’s in store for 2010? This year’s big four look hugely strong, and perhaps uniquely there’s a sprinkling of magic dust from top to toe of the grid, with even a rookie called Senna at the tail end.

No one has conjured the formula to guarantee an electrifying F1 season, but with raw ingredients like these, can 2010 fail to excel?

Return of the King

The big news, of course, is that he is back. Fancy that. Double World Champion Fernando Alonso moves to Ferrari, the two most recent champions are paired at the same team and still Michael sweeps aside those headlines just by turning up again.

So what should we think? In prospect is a package that could, perhaps should, dominate: the mighty Michael, back in harness with the unassailable genius of Ross Brawn, Mercedes cash and power, a tech team that (Honda-funded) produced last year’s double-world-title-winning Brawn BGP001. Maybe even, cynically, a favourable eye from new FIA president Jean Todt, who has many times declared Schumacher among his closest friends.

Nico Rosberg, almost inevitably, will be expected to play wingman, whatever his protestations, and how can a team suddenly in the presence of the sport’s most successful driver (this isn’t the place to debate how that success was achieved…) not be expected to beat to his drum, by design or hypnosis?

Already the games have begun: Schumacher’s insistence on race number ‘3’ (closer to ‘1’, y’see), whether important or not, is nonetheless significant – Schumacher has declared it so, and so it must be. Part of Rosberg’s mental space will have been occupied in consideration of this detail, even if only to dismiss it as footling. Schumacher thus, by increments, becomes the planet around which Nico must orbit. And gravity is awfully hard to escape… unless, of course, you have enough speed.

There are matters of greater moment, too. Andy Shovlin, Schumacher’s race engineer, has fast had to adapt to the uniquely demanding demands of a seven-times champ, rather than working around his old mate Jense with whom he went through thick and thin at BAR, then Honda, then Brawn. Example: at Schumacher’s first seat fitting he questioned why the brake balance bar was inaccessibly low, by his left knee. It will be moved. He questioned, also, how often Jenson would change his rear differential settings each race weekend. “Once, probably, on a Saturday.” Michael’s response was to request a rear diff knob be fitted to the steering wheel to allow him to make adjustments at each corner.

And so it will continue, with the relentless hunger for victory and perfection which were – and likely remain – the Schumacher trademark. A benchmark as exceptional as last year’s BGP001, with compromises such as an imperfect engine installation finessed away and further honed to satisfy Schumacher, is a heady technical proposition.

But Michael is, lest we forget, 41 and recovering from a displaced vertebra. In his early pomp he re-set the parameters of driver fitness. Now, extreme cardiovascular fortitude, lean limbs, big lungs and strong necks are the F1 driver’s minimum requirement, so he can no longer count being in top nick as an advantage. A bigger challenge, argues conditioning expert Bernie Shrosbree, who has battle-hardened the likes of Webber, Button and Trulli, lies in Schumacher’s head: “It will not be easy for him, just as it isn’t ever easy for any sportsman who tries to come back into an arena where they used to excel. There will be great psychological pressure to do well, to live up to his reputation, and there will be competitors like Vettel and Jenson who will be willing to take a risk that Michael might not now. The first serious challenge for track position will be a big moment for Michael.”

Simple physical readiness, reckons Shrosbree, will not be a problem, as Schumacher will have “done his homework”. But the day after a race? “He’ll be hurting, that’s for sure. A 40-year-old body doesn’t recover like a 20-year-old body. The global stresses of driving an F1 car will be painful and middle-aged muscles are less pliable. If he has an impact somewhere he’ll feel it in a way he never used to. And if the car turns out to be hard to drive, grunting it around will be very physically demanding for him. Still, he’s an extremely talented and intelligent man, so he’ll have considered all of this already.”

Beating Schumacher remains a daunting challenge and none will be feeling this more acutely than Rosberg, who last December 23 – announcement day of The Great Return – saw the lustre of his silver dream racer tarnish, just a little.

The jury’s still out on Rosberg. Over four seasons at Williams he has shown flashes of exceptional pace, aggression and rare intelligence, but team mutterings have hinted at a lack of application. One exchange related by Patrick Head told of Rosberg’s declaration that he would try harder when the team gave him a better car. Doesn’t go down too well at Williams, that kind of thing. A break is good for all concerned and Mercedes represents a career-defining opportunity for Nico, one he cannot squander.

The size of the opportunity is dwarfed only by the scale of the challenge his team-mate represents – a truth fully understood by the only driver on the grid who can say: “I beat him”…

All to prove

That man, of course, is Fernando Alonso, whose arrival at Ferrari seems as much the fulfilment of a destiny as a change of teams.

Alonso at Ferrari. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Right, somehow. After the mercurial flakiness of the on-again-off-again Räikkönen, could any team be more ready for the iron-fist-in-iron-glove that is Alonso?

“I’ve never been more motivated,” he stated recently, and for a man whose middle two names should be ‘relentless bastard’ that’s quite a claim. His task is simple: to return motor sport’s greatest team to the high plains that are its natural habitat. No, correct that, to lead Ferrari back to greatness. He must become for Ferrari what Schumacher once was and what he once was himself for Renault: the implacable baseline from which all else will be measured.

There is also, for Alonso, the small matter of defining an era. He was the first to beat Michael in a straight fight (2006), having vanquished Kimi the year before, but beyond the Renault cocoon, up against the most devastating rookie F1 has ever seen, he struggled, exploded then flounced. If his brilliant 2005-06 are not to be regarded as a mere Schumacher interregnum, the Alonso-Ferrari years demand titles.

So much, then, is to prove at Ferrari, be it the worthiness of those who followed Schumacher to fill his boots or the merit of those draped in the aegis of Todt-Brawn-Byrne. Felipe Massa, the 2008 champion for about 20 seconds, must show again the courage and conviction that forced doubters to believe as he believes in himself. Alonso… indisputable greatness beckons if he can achieve with the Scuderia what he did with la Régie.

All will hinge on the speed of the spidery-beautiful F10 and there’s no reason to doubt the efficacy of an Aldo Costa-Luca Marmorini-Stefano Domenicali chassis-engine-racing axis. It’s all as latin as Virgil and a long way removed from the crushing Noughties, when a Brit, a Frog, a South African, a German and other nationalities made Ferrari a winning automaton. In truth there’s no way (is there?) Ferrari 2010-spec can be as successful as what went before – can anything, ever? – but the nuanced question of greatness is a subtle thing. Schumacher-Irvine before Alonso-Massa (or Reutemann-Villeneuve, or Lauda-Regazzoni, for that matter)? Some might quibble…

With Fernando, Felipe and a distinctly tricolore flavour about the personnel, this is a team that will lack nothing for soul (or fireworks). And doubt not the intent. Alonso, like Schumacher, has been unequivocal: “It’s obvious we just have to win.” Ferrari lost the victory habit last year through a combination of blind-alley KERS, driving strength compromised by injury and apathy, and paradigm-shifting technical packages from Brawn and Red Bull.

But form, as the cliché has it, is temporary; class is permanent. Ferrari won’t lack for the latter.

Cool Britannia

The same might be said of McLaren, for so long the silver foil to Ferrari’s scarlet. Both titans endured difficult 2009 seasons, with parallel causes for their respective malaises: the curse of KERS, a sense of hangover from the torrid struggles of 2007-08 and a failure to interpret rigorously the opportunities offered by the extensively revised ’09 technical regulations (c.f. Red Bull), or to spot areas in which those regs might be deemed mutable (c.f. the double diffusers of Brawn, Williams and Toyota).

All that, says technical director Paddy Lowe, is past and he believes McLaren, along with several other teams, has made an extreme – though FIA-sanctioned – interpretation of the 2010 tech reg package. “We think the interpretation is very clear,” he said at the launch of the MP4-25, “and on certain aspects the FIA has given clear guidance.” What remains to be seen is whether McLaren has been able to find a ‘big idea’ of the kind Adrian Newey delivered for Red Bull last year, underlining once again his genius for reading the regulatory runes (see also his 1998 and 2005 McLarens). Indisputably McLaren made a pig fly in ’09, but will it this year start with a silk purse or sow’s ear?

So much for the technical sub-plot. The story every true racing fan wants to follow is Jenson vs Lewis.

Hats off to McLaren. What a truly great driver pairing. No team has ever before bagged both the most recent World Champions and Button must be applauded for taking on as hard a nut as Hamilton on what is very much ‘home turf’.

McLaren – detailed, meticulous McLaren – has done much already to make Jenson feel at home: the cake presentation when he visited the factory on his 30th birthday, the number one on his car – although that is his by right – the assurance of seven days of testing each. This will remain, however, Lewis’s team, at least until Jenson can establish parity of performance with a driver used to dominating his team-mates. No Motor Sport reader need be reminded of how Lewis scared Alonso back to Renault after a scintillating 2007, nor of the couldn’t-make-it-up ’08, then the brutal coming of age with ’09’s ‘lie-gate’ and two (should’ve been three without Abu Dhabi brake failure) brilliant wins. All of this has happened to Lewis at McLaren. For him, F1 is McLaren.

Button has had a career far more chequered, but that this five-years-separated pair have arrived at the same place says everything for their respective talents and characters. Both are big beasts, and if Jenson (MP4-25 permitting) can play cheetah to Lewis’s tiger, a titanic season-long struggle will be played out. If the car is a porker, Hamilton’s down-n-dirty gifts will give him the edge.

A vignette, possibly significant: at one point during the MP4-25 launch, Jenson and Lewis buddied up, each saying how great it was to work with the other, how much mutual respect they had. At the end of the exchange Jenson reached over to Lewis for a quick man-hug. Nothing exceptional in the gesture except that it came from Jenson. Hamilton is so utterly secure in this team; Button, at least for now, will be the one reaching out.

Red Bullish

On, then, to the rock ‘n’ rollers. If anyone doubted Red Bull Racing was an entirely serious team, 2009 shut them up. The combination of Sebastian Vettel plus RB5 was frequently devastating: has a car ever been driven harder than Vettel’s chassis four (aka “Kate’s Dirty Sister”) at Silverstone last year? Any fan who ever watched a Newey McLaren through Becketts might have predicted RBR would be quick at its home race and, my, how the team delivered.

Tech heads will tell you the RB5 was the car of the year. It was a truer product than the BGP001, despite finishing behind Brawn in the constructors’ stakes. It took fuller advantage of the regs than any other car, without initially resorting to the dubiously legal double diffuser, and it proved, over a season, to have a broader performance range than the heat-fussy Brawn. Four 1-2s and a points tally of 153.5 tell their own story, and more than any rival RBR is set to carry on where it left off. The team enjoys technical and driver continuity and a betting man might consider that once again there’s enough of a change in the rules to allow Newey to work some of the pioneering interpretative magic of which he alone seems capable in modern F1. 2010 brings no fuel stops, ergo tanks doubled in size to around 175kg, meaning a bigger frontal area and longer chassis. All this with narrower front Bridgestones. It’s likely to require a car that’s light on its toes and supremely aerodynamically efficient. Sound like a job for Newey?

His influence on and value to this team cannot be overestimated. On his watch and under Christian Horner’s increasingly measured leadership it has evolved from mid-grid party package to pukka title contender. Horner and Newey privately believed the RB5 would be a revelation, but perhaps the team wasn’t ready to win a title. This season a similar feeling of technical expectation pervades the Milton Keynes factory, while Vettel and Webber are both strengthened from a year running at the front.

Likewise for the race team, which has spent some of the winter sharpening itself for battle in a manner that would make the truckie-mechanic of old shudder. Red Bull’s pitcrews spent a week at the Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre that’s normally used to train elite athletes. There, they underwent a series of eye-hand co-ordination routines as well as physical training designed to assist with the particular rigours of humping hot wheels off the ground and onto a hub in ambient temperatures of 40-degrees-plus while dressed in a race suit.

RBR’s image may be a bit brash for traditional tastes, but look behind the logo and you’ll see team and drivers lean, hungry and every bit as serious as their longer-established rivals.

The secret simulator (the team has a dummy one to show to the press) is at least the equal of any other and RBR’s wind tunnel was built by the MoD to test missiles, so it’s good. And in Vettel, Red Bull has a champion in waiting.

The middle men

Not a bad top eight, you’ll agree, and there’s plenty more 2010 promise. Kubica’s massive talent parks up at Renault where, alongside Vitaly Petrov (F1’s first Russian), he’ll enjoy dark-horse status at a team that, even Symonds-bereft, retains much of the DNA that won the 2005-06 drivers’-constructors’ titles.

Williams, meanwhile, has 11-time GP winner Rubens Barrichello and hot young rookie Nico Hülkenberg. Lesser force though Willies may be these days it still boasts the knowledge and gravitas of Patrick Head, one of F1’s great technical minds of the past 40 years, so this is never a team that can be written off.

Elsewhere in the middle order, Sauber may spring a surprise without the weight of corporate expectation that so fatally flawed its 2009 campaign, and while BMW has gone, it has left behind one of the world’s biggest supercomputers, Albert 2, to crunch the CFD numbers. Sauber’s own $40 million wind tunnel will still, of course, be making the lights go dim in Hinwil every time it’s powered up.

Force India, Mercedes-powered and hotshoe-pedalled by Adrian Sutil (often Hamilton-quick in 2005 Euro F3) and Vitantonio Liuzzi, enjoys settled funding and a 300-strong workforce that takes it well beyond the minnow status sometimes pinned upon it.

That tag, more accurately, belongs to the likes of Scuderia Toro Rosso, which this year will build its own chassis. Even here though there is magic, or at least the recent memory of it: Monza 2008, Vettel in a Ferrari-powered STR3, a historic win. Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi are unlikely to rip up the form book, but waiting in the wings is Daniel Ricciardo, who so impressed Red Bull at the winter rookies’ test.

What, then, of the new teams? Lotus, thankfully, looks the most credible, and any Mike Gascoyne-led technical unit will at least build a straight car even if the budget’s tight. Jarno Trulli is likely to squeak it higher up the grid than it’s meant to go and fellow one-time winner Heikki Kovalainen won’t be far behind.

Virgin is making all the right noises (predictably loudly) but a CFD-only chassis is, well, bold.

USF1 remains a somewhat unknown quantity amid rumours it may be given a Ferrari chassis to run, while Campos, although still appearing cash-light, is banking on the magic of a Senna name (Bruno’s) to help the cause.

So much still unknown, so little time remaining, yet one thing is certain: Formula 1’s 2010 top table is of exquisite quality and right to the back there’s sparkle. Has F1 ever looked more enticing with days ’til that first, agonising grid line-up?

Can you wait for Schumacher vs Hamilton at Monaco? Or Vettel-Schumacher-Button-Hamilton-Alonso-Massa-Webber-Rosberg on the run down to Eau Rouge on a streaming Ardennes Sunday?

Let battle commence.