By Simon Taylor
Every Newspaper and Magazine I pick up seems to be telling me that 1998 is going to be the most completely new and different Grand Prix season anyone can remember. A fascinating and unpredictable prospect. A clean sheet of paper. A whole new ballgarne.
Well, they say that every year. To b,e fair, each season does bring new driver/team pairings, intriguing new car/engine combinations, new colours and sponsors, and inevitably new political arguments. And this year there is more, because the rules have changed.
The technical regulations now dictate that a Formula One car must be no wider than 180cm. That's 20cm narrower than before from roughly the width of a Jaguar XJ8 to that of a BMW 5-series. Four inches off each side may not seem like much; but, quite apart from any effect on the mechanical handling of the car, it effectively reduces the air-space between the wheels and the car by 30 per cent. You don't need me to tell you that airflow, and how it's used aerodynamically, is central to the performance of a modern Fl car.
And, along with the reduction in downforce that this inevitably brings, slick tyres are now banned. Or, to be more precise, dry-weather tyres must now carry grooves of a prescribed depth, three on the front treads, four on the rear.
The FIA took this tyre decision despite very strong representations from Goodyear, who have loyally supported F1 for so long even when they were the only supplier, and accordingly got little kudos for their walkover victories. As a result, Goodyear have decided that 1998 will be their last in F1. Thereafter they will leave the stage to the 1997 newcomers from Japan, Bridgestone (although already there are rumours that Goodyear may reconsider).
Of course, the FIA's justification for these changes is safety. In a straight line, modem Grand Prix cars rarely go faster than did the pre-war Mercedes and Auto-Unions. But, thanks to huge strides in the detail understanding of aerodynamics, cornering speeds, aided by phenomenal amounts of downforce, have gone on increasing by leaps and bounds. When an accident happens the forces involved are immeasurably higher than they would have been on the same corner 20, or even 10, years ago. So the FIA has decreed that speeds must be reduced. Narrower cars, with less downforce and less tyre contact area, will inevitably have to take corners at lower speeds.
In early testing, views on the new cars' behaviour depended on how outspoken each driver dared to be. Most of them, mindful of the FIA's dislike of criticism and its power to punish when incautious comments make it into the media, were bland and non-committal. But Jacques Villeneuve, who always speaks his mind, was angry and depressed. To him, cars to the new specification felt undriveable: slow, unresponsive, and - his chief complaint - easier to drive on the limit. This, he felt, would close the gap between the very talented driver and the merely competent one.
It's all relative. If you or I were lucky enough to find ourselves in the cockpit of a 1998 F1 car, I doubt if we'd describe it as slow, unresponsive or easy to drive. Nor, I suspect, would Ricardo Zonta, Juan Pablo Montoya or Pedro de la Rosa, three talented newcomers who are the test drivers for McLaren, Williams and Jordan and have been used to much less grip and power, in F3000.
By the end of the season the new norm will have been established, and in a couple of years, when you look at pictures of the old wide 1997 cars, they'll look old-fashioned and ungainly. And I'm not sure about Jacques' last point. Truly great drivers will always stand out, and it would take more than a few rule changes to mask the genius of a Schumacher or the courage of a Hakkinen. In fact, I'd hazard a guess that, in the first few qualifying sessions at least, the crashes may be happening at slightly lower speeds - but there'll be more of them. As for the lap times, history shows that rule changes to slow cars down always get overtaken by technology in the end. The 1995 change from 3.5 to 3-litre engines didn't make much difference for long. Further back in history, during the seven years of the 2.5-litre formula, racing car design changed almost out of recognition. Engines moved from front to back, and lap times came down by leaps and bounds.
At the start of the formula in 1954, on the old 8.8-mile Spa, Fangio's pole position lap for Maserati took him 4m22.1s. By the end of it, in 1960, Brabham's Cooper - with significantly less power - took pole at the same circuit in 3m50.0s. Inevitably there was widespread concern about ever-rising speeds, and the governing body's answer was a dramatic reduction in engine size, from 2.5-litres to 1.5-litres. This controversial move was condemned by the drivers, who said that the little 1500cc cars would be dull to watch and easy to drive.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? What actually happened, of course, was that the races continued to be close fought and exciting, and the genius of Clark and the talent of the likes of Surtees and Gurney continued to extract the maximum potential from whatever cars they were given to race. Within two years, lap records were being broken again.
So I'd take a small bet that, if this year's lap times are four seconds down on last year in testing, they'll only be 2.5 seconds down by mid-season, and within a second by next year.
And, with all the teams having to build fresh cars, will different teams be doing the winning? I doubt it. I don't think you'll be seeing Minardi on the podium much: nor Arrows, for that matter. History also shows that the effectiveness of great Grand Prix teams waxes and wanes over a long cycle, and that rule changes have little effect - much less, for example, than changes in personnel. Underlying it all is budget: the rich teams will always develop a car better, and more quickly, than the poorer ones, as well as being able to afford better drivers. Whatever the rules, the strong teams tend to get stronger.
So far the only public sight of the 1998 cars has been at the launch parties thrown for the media and fleetingly in testing. These days sponsors regard launches as an important start to the season, giving the first chance (in the case of some of the lesser teams, some would cynically say almost the only chance) for exposing their logos on TV and in the press.
It's not so long since the first sight of a car would come when a team owner would ring up a journalist or two and say: our new car's almost finished. Not painted yet, of course, but when can you come over and take a look? Now each launch is a major theatrical event, carefully co-ordinated to earn maximum exposure.
You get a clear taste of each team's culture from the tone of its launch. This year Benetton used a London TV studio for a straight-forward, no-nonsense showing of the new car and words from drivers Giancarlo Fisichella and Alexander Wurz and new boss Dave Richards. A straightforward, no-nonsense man, Richards earned extra column inches by keeping his surprise defection to Bridgestone a secret until the day.
Stewart got the media to travel across the Essex marshes to the hightech surroundings of Ford's impressive Engineering Centre at Dunton. This was a neat way of underlining Ford's renewed commitment to this team, along with bigger 'Blue Ovals' on the engine cover, a new V10 which they're confident won't go bang as often as last year's version, and the presence of Ford's new boss of motorsport, Dan Davis. He's a US-born hard man with global experience within Ford, and you get the message that he's not going to be happy with occasional finishers' points.
Then there was Jordan. Eddie, always the showman, hired the Royal Albert Hall, where the breathtaking Cirque du Soleil was in residence. The new Honda-powered car came down from the ceiling, there was lots of dry ice and clever lighting, and the Cirque provided acrobatics. Damon Hill's new two-year contract may be his last chance before retirement beckons to re-establish his career, and if he can bring the team their first Grand Prix win, the rejoicing will reverberate across the British Isles.
Ferrari's launch at the Maranello factory said that this year, they mean business. The wall of the marquee in which the car was being shown was lowered to show off their expensive new wind tunnel, another link in the technological chain which they believe will make them 1998 champions. Significant change there: until now Ferrari have tended to start each season a bit downbeat about their championship hopes, repeatedly saying that the title is at least a year off. They're not saying that any more.
Of course Williams can be expected to remain strong, complete with their World Champion driver (you have to pinch yourself to believe this will only be Jacques Villeneuve's third F1 season). It remains to be seen whether the transfer of their Renault engines to Mecachrome will slow down development. Questions also surround their loyalty to Goodyear, tyres which are rumoured to be less impressive in their new grooved form than the equivalent Bridgestones; and the loss of their brilliant aerodynamics guru Adrian Newey, who defected to McLaren during last year.
Yes, McLaren. In '98, with Newey's design, Bridgestone tyres, and an even more powerful Mercedes-badged Ilmor engine, the pendulum could be swinging back to them. My bet is still Michael Schumacher for champion; but Mika Hakkinen for the man of the season. David Coulthard for top Brit; and Williams and Villeneuve will still win races.
Thus, you can expect grid and podium in Melbourne on March 8th to have a familiar look. A few changes here and there, but I don't think this new season will be a completely clean sheet of paper. They may have changed the rules. But they haven't really moved the goalposts, and perhaps that's just as well.