A foregone conclusion for Prost? - or will Schumacher spring a major surprise?

Has there ever been a season in which there has been so much uncertainty even before the racing begins?

Back in 1990, of course, Ayrton Senna was the bete noire of F1 after his outburst against FISA following the exclusion from victory in the Japanese GP that he always believed cost him that year's World Championship. FISA President Jean-Marie Balestre gave him a simple ultimatum: apologise, or get out. No apology, no superlicence. It was a simple enough standoff, but as is usually the way of things in F1, feathers were unruffled. Senna went to see Balestre at FISA's palatial Place de la Concorde headquarters. Their meeting was held in private, but parties in the building always maintained that they could hear most of the words that were exchanged. Few outsiders are really sure what transpired between them, but Balestre felt able to emerge saying that Senna had apologised; Senna felt able to claim that he had done no such thing. Whatever, he got his superlicence, honour of sorts was restored (even if the gilt had become tarnished) and life went on. Senna won that year's championship, but this time when he pushed Prost off the road in Suzuka there was nary a word from the governing body. Most of us are still trying to figure out why.

Be all that as it may, none of it can hold a candle to the politics now rampant in the upper echelon of the sport.

We won't labour the point here, because we deal with it in detail on pages 216-219 but suffice it to say that when these words were originally written the reigning World Champion constructor did not have an entry for the 1993 series, and nor did its lead driver, a former triple World Champion, yet have his superlicence. These matters were finally sorted out on February 12 (see Diary and Matters of Moment).

The backdrop, of course, is the argument about rampant technological development versus ever escalating costs in a time of depression. And, ironically, the two teams most likely to set the pace are the two who were locked in argument. On the one hand there is Canon Williams Renault, clear pacesetter in the technology stakes, on the other Camel Benetton Ford, blocking unanimous agreement to granting Williams a late entry.

Williams will continue to set the pace in the initial stages of 1993. Some observers at the first Estoril test session in February felt that the Benetton B193A's active ride handled the notorious bumps better than the Williams, but it is quite clear reading between the lines that Mr Prost has not been running absolutely this-is-a-qualifying-lap flat out. He himself admits it. And though the irrepressible Michael Schumacher was precious little slower, when the chips are down I believe that Prost and the Williams will retain the initial advantage.

The FW15 was the car that very nearly failed to race, for it should have been introduced midway through 1992. It is essentially an evolution of the successful Patrick Head/Adrian Newey FW14 and FW14B, with much neater installations for the electronic and hydraulic systems that govern its active suspension and semi-automatic transmission. Like everyone else, Williams has also had to modify its aerodynamics to cater for changes to the regulations.

Primarily, these encompass narrower tyres. 1993's Goodyears are three inches narrower, at 15 inches, than their 1992 counterparts. The fronts are likewise narrower, reducing front track. The effect of these changes has barely been noticeable on lap times for a combination of reasons, one of which is that the smaller cross-section has actually increased straightline speeds.

The tyre changes are linked hand-in-hand with others on the aerodynamic front. In 1992 the datum for measurements taken from the flat floor of a car was 25mm from the track. That is now 40mm. And where in 1992 everything ahead of the centreline of the front wheels had to be 40mm off the deck, in 1993 the area covered is measured forward from a line drawn across the rear edge of the front tyres, and the distance is likewise 40mm. This materially affects the amount of air generated beneath the car, and thus the shape of the diffusor at the rear, not only because the air is less compressed and thus flows a little slower, but also because the front wing endplates no longer channel air so effectively to the diffusor. The latter is one of the most significant aerodynamic aids, generating up to 70 per cent of a car's total downforce, according to Benetton's Frank Dernie. The rear wing is also mounted 5cm lower to reduce its efficiency.

The end result has been to reduce downforce by a factor around 5 to 6 per cent according to Jordan designer Gary Anderson. That's an appreciable amount when you consider that at 150mph when set up for a circuit such as Silverstone, a modern F1 car can generate up to three times its 505kg in downforce. Nothing stands still in F1 though. Teams have not been content to trade off the reduction in grip with the enhanced straightline speed. Instead they've all been spending even more time in the wind tunnel, developing different avenues as they exploit existing concepts. Thus, while most of the cars will initially look similar to their immediate forebears, they will actually generate something closer to 20 per cent more downforce despite the changes. It's small wonder that technical rulemakers face such an awesome task when it comes to making changes that really will have an effect.

Overall, then, will it really make any difference to the spectacle? That's the debatable part. Grip levels are still reasonable, even with the narrower tyres. And traction control will play an even more significant role in keeping oversteer in check. What does remain to be seen is how many tyre stops will be necessary, particularly in the really hot races. Testing has already indicated the likely need for more stops, and so far the teams have yet to run in the sort of ambient temperatures they can expect to encounter in summer conditions.

Though Mansell is no longer part of the Williams equation, and by letting Riccardo Patrese go the team went against Head's golden rule of never changing both drivers at once, the Didcot outfit has retained continuity. Damon Hill has been testing FW14s for the past two years and knows the concept intimately, while Prost has been testing since last November and is now fully au fait with the technology. Certainly I'd expect the momentum to carry it forward on a winning streak, especially since anti-lock brakes are lurking close to the racing equation and Renault and Elf have not been resting on their well-won laurels.

Benetton, however, has not been resting either. While Flavio Briatore has been airing his sense of sportsmanship by trying to keep his main rival out of racing altogether, Tom Walkinshaw and the technical team headed by Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne has been steadfastly honing their active ride and semi-automatic transmission packages. In 1992 the Enstone team quite deliberately went for a no-nonsense, state-of-the-art non-tech car, but 1993 is different. They too have begun to embrace technology, also experimenting with anti-lock brakes, and the indications are that the B193A will run close to the FW15s. Moreover, a new chassis — the B193B — is on the way to carry all the hi-tech equipment more efficiently once the European season starts.

Driverwise, I expect Prost's blend of experience and speed — and he has always been quick, even though some find that easy to overlook — will enable him to keep just out of Schumacher's reach, but the young German is undoubtedly going to provide the fireworks in a season that has the added interest of Damon Hill's position with Williams. How quick is Damon? Can he withstand the pressure at the really sharp end? He thinks so, and so do I, but it's not going to be easy and initially at least I'd expect Schumacher to split the Williams more often than he doesn't. All of which puts Riccardo Patrese right on his mettle. So far the veteran Italian has been a major disappointment at Benetton, struggling with a manual gearbox and generally running way off Schumacher's pace. Another little fascination of the year is going to be monitoring how well he copes with another superstar team-mate.

Between Williams and Benetton in the entry list (and of course we knew all along that Frank's cars would eventually be allowed in) sits Tyrrell. Five years ago you wouldn't have got any odds on Uncle Ken surviving after the disaster of the 017, but survive he did and the 018 and 019s set him well back on the road to recovery. Nobody knows quite as much about keeping going on minimal budgets as he does, and in his 25th year as an F1 entrant he fields Yamaha-powered 020Cs and then 02Is for Andrea de Cesaris and Ukyo Katayama. The Italian is a known quantity, respected as a charger now that he has largely curbed his initial tendency to fly off the road or hit other cars. Today he is a valued member of the team (and for the first time isn't bringing Marlboro money to finance his seat). Katayama comes with a good budget from Cabin cigarettes and certainly pleases the Yamaha side of the Yamaha-Engine Developments alliance that has reworked John Judd's GV V10 to replace the awful V12 with which Jordan struggled in 1992. Katayama is a feisty little driver who could well surprise in what promises to be a well-balanced car, while the Judd engine (the chassis concept's fourth unit!) should allow Yamaha to save a lot of face. Some strong early results wouldn't be a shock to the system here.

Which brings us to Marlboro McLaren, formerly Honda Marlboro McLaren. Truly it will be fascinating to watch how this team manages without Honda's technical might at its call. On the surface Ron Dennis exudes an air of calm that prompts one to guess at what is really happening beneath the veneer. For a long time last year it seemed a foregone conclusion that he would use Ford power for the new MP4/8, but in November came fresh rumours of a late deal with Lamborghini after all. Since then it has become apparent that Ford it is, albeit with TAG Electronics' own management system rather than Ford's. And therein, say some, lies a rub. Inside sources hint at friction between TAG and Cosworth as each blames the other for initial smooth running problems on the Ford HBs. As usual, there is no concrete substance to these stories, but that's McLaren for you.

On the driver front the situation is barely less intriguing. What is certain as this is written is that Michael Andretti will occupy car number seven. More than likely, Mika Hakkinen will be in number eight, but the names of both Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell have been mentioned in connection with the second car. The reason why they've been connected with the second MP4/8 and not the first is that a team may nominate more drivers for their second car. Senna doesn't really want to race a Fordpowered McLaren all year, or so it is said, while Mansell obviously has full IndyCar commitments. But a combination of all three could be possible. Whether it will be is another matter. If Mansell does race, it's likely he would only do the last two races, while Senna might favour events such as Monaco. Our latest information was, however, that the triple World Champion was unlikely to be with McLaren after all, he and Dennis apparently unable (mutually unwilling?) to agree financial terms. Dennis has nominated him as a reserve, just in case.

If Ron is thus left with Andretti and Hakkinen McLaren faces an interesting problem. Without disrespect to either driver, this is a team well used to the best. Since 1974, for example, it has employed experienced pilots such as Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, Niki Lauda, John Watson, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. Pretty strong company to follow. Andretti lacks any F1 race experience, even though he is certainly as aggressive as Senna when dealing with traffic. On the IndyCar ovals, street courses or road circuits he stood head and shoulders above his peers in that department. Like his father, he's a charger. Hakkinen is also a charger, but though very quick he clearly has edges that need honing. Whether either is quite what Ron had hoped remains to be seen, but McLaren has rarely needed to be in the business of bringing on drivers. By the time they usually arrive at the Woking factory they are already close to their peak. Throw in the need to develop active suspension (and according to the departed Gerhard Berger the team still has a way to go to optimise its system) and the inescapable conclusion is that Dennis is going to need all his guile to stay ahead of the game in the most challenging year his team faces since 1983.

Teams such as McLaren have always expected to win and been expected to. Not so Footwork Mugen Honda on either count. One possibly apocryphal story has it that when Michele Alboreto stepped out of his FA13 after a particularly good test at Imola last year and said 'I think we can win this' he was met with glazed expressions. Whatever, Footwork's very senior management has always seemed a little too comfortable to me. That may change now that Derek Warwick is back. Already the massively popular Briton has spoken his mind about the FA13, to the chagrin of designer Alan Jenkins, but if the latter can work with the former real progress is likely. Where Alboreto was something of a diplomat, Warwick knows he can't afford any luxuries of sparing delicate feelings. His fresh F1 chance is overdue, but now he really has to capitalise on it. One of his greatest attributes is getting on with people and motivating them, and if he can meld Footwork and imbue it with fresh momentum, it could spring surprises.

Certainly, there is no lack of cash apparent within the Bletchley team's operation, and semi-automatic transmission and active suspension are on the Mugen-powered FA14 menu. If the cars are as reliable as they were in 1992, it bodes well for some reasonable results.

If Warwick brings fresh impetus, Aguri Suzuki needs it after a disappointing 1992 in which he was generally overshadowed by Alboreto.

Team Castrol Lotus was one of the success stories of 1992 as Peters Collins and Wright threw off the 1991 shackles of the aged 102Bs and stepped smartly forward with Chris Murphy's elegant 107s. Johnny Herbert and Mika Hakkinen frequently showed immense promise, but more often than not became the victims of mechanical unreliability. If Guy Edwards can find the extra finance to pay for more testing and all the other little factors that go into producing Benetton-type reliability, then Lotus will be a keen player in 1993.

Financial shortcomings notwithstanding it is a team founded on belief in the ultimate goal, a belief that sustained shopfloor workers through hardship last year, and drove Collins and Wright to continue walking their tightrope. For that reason alone these racers deserve to succeed, and though such sentimentality does not pay the bills in racing, Lotus does also have a fantastic asset in Herbert. Strangely underrated by many last year, when he bore the brunt of Lotus' ill luck and mechanical misfortune, he is more than capable of doing the job. And since Hakkinen's defection Alessandro Zanardi has stepped aboard to provide the Briton with another worthy team-mate who will be guaranteed to keep him firmly on his toes.

"1992 brought a high level of stress - and a high level of distress," said Edmund Jordan recently, but though there are those who might question whether his ultimate enthusiasm is as strong as it was when he was struggling to get into F1, there is no doubting his extraordinary ability to bounce back. Perhaps, in retrospect, 1992 had to be a bad year. Jordan GP had bounced insouciantly into F1 in 1991 with Gary Anderson's superb Ford HB-powered 191, and stood many established teams on their ears. With free Yamaha V12s and Sasol money 1992 seemed a steal for Sasol Jordan, but things never worked out that way. The Japanese OX-99 was a huge disappointment, as was Stefano Modena, and the whole team's motivation vanished like a ghost.

Now, with Brian Hart's encouraging new 10.35 V10 powerplant pushing along Anderson's third generation 193 the spark is back. Taking the long-term view Jordan has gambled on F3000 graduate Rubens Barrichello, still only 20, and the inconsistent Ivan Capelli as his driver pairing. There are those who cannot fathom why he didn't snap up Martin Brundle when he had the chance, but Capelli can be quick when everything is right.

When things go wrong this most gentlemanly of F1 drivers lacks the sheer ability to drag things back from the depths of corporate despair. But perhaps things won't sink to that level in 1993 for Jordan. If the car and engine work from the start — in Estoril the 193 was as quick as the Williams on the straight and pretty good through the corners too — then Capelli could fly. And given decent momentum, could still prove his (mild) critics wrong.

Quite what happens ultimately to March F1 was beyond the ken of MOTOR SPORT'S crystal ball as this issue went to press. After a winter of silence February exploded with stories of acquisition by a wealthy Saudi prince or a Swiss consortium called Lysys Gmbh, or the latter on behalf of the former. The faithful workforce, which had already laid their homes and livelihoods on the line by staying so long, sat anxiously awaiting any sort of confirmation. Highly-rated French F3000 graduate JeanMarc Gounon and the vastly experienced Jan Lammers were waiting in the wings to see if they had cars to drive.

Meanwhile, at Larrousse, Gerard Larrousse and Robin Herd have been girding their loins yet again as they tested with last year's Lamborghini-engined LC92s and gazed dreamily at the big bag of gold the French government was contemplating shelling out if they promised not to wear any horrid tobacco logos on their cars. Erik Comas is now aboard, having fled the awful atmosphere created by the war in which he and 1991/'92 team-mate Thierry Boutsen had waged, while the versatile, and experienced, Philippe Alliot returns to F1 from a stint in Peugeot's sportscar team.

Lola, a former Larrousse associate, is back in Grand Prix racing too, replacing Dallara as chassis supplier to Scuderia Italia. As this was written the auguries were not good as financial problems had raised their head, but team owner Beppe Lucchini is very well connected in Italian industrial circles and though his budget is not all that it could be he soldiers on. Lola's technical expertise has been well demonstrated in IndyCar racing and though of late there has been little news on its F1 front we await developments here with interest, hopeful that we shall indeed see Michael Alboreto and 1992 F3000 find Luca Badoer running strongly in Ferrari-engined machinery.

At one stage it seemed that Lucchini's compatriot Giancarlo Minardi might become F1's late victim of recession, but his Faenza-based team survives with Gustav Brunner and Aldo Costa's workmanlike M193 chassis powered by the former TWR GpC sportscar Ford HB V8s. With principal backing from Beta Tools, which sponsored Vittorio Brambilla in the 1970s at March and Surtees, Minardi lives to fight on, pairing last year's best rookie Christian Fittipaldi with one-time AGS non-qualifier Fabrizio Barbazza.

In France at present things are just cooling down after new Ligier owner Cyril de Rouvre, the beneficiary of French government, Elf and Gitanes backing bucked the system by employing a brace of rosbifs. Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell. The reason he gives is simple: they were the best drivers available. Behind that statement, however, lies the painful realisation that Ligier also desperately needs two men who can climb from their cockpits and remain civil to one another. The more you speak with Ligier personnel, the less you should underestimate the damage done last year when Boutsen and Comas fell out.

In any case, with Paul Crooks, Dr John Davies and Steve Clarke Ligier already has a fair smattering of Brits aboard, and with Murray Walker's Japanese nightmare pairing the Magny-Cours equipe has a strong foundation for recovery. The JS39 chassis is all-new, the Renault V10 is presently on par with Williams in RS5 guise (although the British team has a lien on development parts and priority), and there is the 1991 Williams semi-automatic transmission to complete what should be a basically reliable and competitive package. Should be, because Ligier's organisation has not always excelled in the past. If that can be sorted the funding is there to allow significant progress to be made.

That said, what about Ferrari, the best funded team of them all? It's now more than 28 months since it last won a GP courtesy of Prost in Spain back in 1990, and frankly it's barely looked like crossing the line first thereafter. As a believer in John Barnard I'm sure they'll get the chassis right in due course, and that JB will wield whatever size broom is necessary to get things sorted out on the production side. If he and Harvey Postlethwaite work well together, there's all manner of commonsense being input. But can the engine department work a similar oracle? At Estoril the interim F93A looked awful and was six seconds off the pace, but while its active software can be reprogrammed until it does its stuff, I'm beginning to have doubts about the V12. There was talk of a 100bhp deficit to Renault and Ford, and one wonders whether sections of the team haven't lost all direction. No wonder Barnard was said to be interested in Brian Hart's V10!

Attempting to be positive, in Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger Ferrari possesses a couple of old-fashioned racers who won't quit however bad the car is. Jean in particular is already well versed in that thanks to the offerings he's had to drive for the past two years. But however good the Barnard/Postlethwaite alliance proves, it's all going to take time, and as Luca di Montezemolo's unfortunate recent outburst against technology revealed, the pressure for solid results is already mounting.

Finally, with the aspirations of Brabham, Pacific and Bravo falling short, Sauber is the final team on the list. Peter Sauber has plentiful experience in sportscar racing which includes two World Championships, and though he is under no illusion about the F1 mountain he seeks to climb, serious support from Mercedes-Benz will certainly help smooth the passage. For a long time the German giant distanced itself from the high-funded project, but of late has come more boldly into the open and the black cars bear the logo 'Concept by Mercedes-Benz' on their engine covers. With exclusive use of an all-new Ilmor V10 and very neat C12s designed by Leo Ress and Steve Nichols (who has since left the team), Sauber is very well placed to emulate Jordan's graduation. JJ Lehto and Karl Wendlinger are a pair of strong, competitive young drivers with sufficient talent to make the grade, the former in particular finally finding a seat worthy of his ability.

So those are the runners and riders, assuming that somewhere along the line Mr Prost does not find his superlicence suspended on account of recent outspoken remarks in the French publication Auto Plus, and Ayrton Senna slipping quietly into his Williams seat. Fanciful? Shortly after a time when FISA was seriously suggesting a system wherein a non-safety pace car would be deployed if and whenever a leader amassed a cushion greater than 12s - supposedly to 'spice up' F1- it is not difficult to envisage a final odd quirk before the nonsense subsides and the real racing mercifully begins again.

If the politics can be kept subdued, it could be a really good year, with Schumacher challenging Prost, Hill pushing hard to defeat both of them, McLaren in a state of change with Andretti charging for all he's worth and Hakkinen fitting into fully established front-running team, and four other Brits - Brundle, Blundell, Warwick and Herbert - vying for Fleet Street ink with Hill.