2000 F1 season preview

The arrival of Jaguar on the F1 grid is just one of many reasons to celebrate the start of the new Grand Prix season. Simon Taylor is your guide to the teams as he predicts winners and losers and, finally, the man who will claim the crown

Six drivers from four different teams won Formula One races last year. But in essence it still boiled down to a classic battle between two protagonists, the black and silver of Woking and the red of Maranello. This year looks like being the same, but different.

In 1999 Ferrari was expected to win its first World Drivers’ Championship for 20 years. Michael Schumacher’s leg-breaking shunt at Silverstone put paid to that. In 2000, provided the Ferrari isn’t a bad car, and he doesn’t break the other leg, surely it has to be Michael’s year. Surely the huge budgets and talents of Ferrari, the strategic thinking of Ross Brawn, the wiles of Jean Todt and the talent of Schumacher must coalesce at last into a title-winning recipe. If not this year, you’ll start to wonder if they’ll ever do it: if not this year, you’ll see St Michael cast his eye towards a McLaren-Mercedes drive.

One of the fascinations of F1 is you never know how much is car, how much is driver. So was the gap in lap times between Irvine and Schumacher down to Eddie being one of the best, but Michael being a genius? Or does it put Michael on a par with Hakkinen, and Eddie a real step behind? In 2000 we’ll have more basis for comparison, with the undoubtedly quick Rubens Barrichello as Ferrari’s new No 2.

Rubens may not have scored Stewart’s first victory, but he has often shown himself to be tremendously fast, as well as brave. But how will he cope in the same pit, the same motorhome, as Michael Schumacher? Irvine is a resilient, pragmatic individual with skin that is unusually thick by F1 standards. Rubens tends to flourish in a more caring relationship, and he’s unlikely to get it in the shadow of Schumacher.

McLaren’s reliability dramas in ’99 had their roots in the car’s late completion, which curtailed pre-season testing. I was at Jerez for a couple of days last month, and David Coulthard and test driver Olivier Panis were howling round from dawn till dusk, in a hybrid car that used last year’s monocoque but this year’s engine, gearbox and rear suspension. McLaren says the programme is right on schedule, and the whole team will be much more ready for Melbourne this time round.

Mika Hakkinen, of course, goes into the new season as back-to-back champion, a feat achieved by Schumacher (’94-’95), Senna (’90-’91), Prost (’85-’86), Brabham (’59-’60) and Ascari (’52-’53). But no-one except Fangio has managed three in a row: the great Argentinian won four of his five titles consecutively, between 1954 and 1957. So, statistically, a third title for Mika this year looks tough. But, if the new McLaren-Mercedes adds reliability to its speed and horsepower — and if Mika still has the gnawing hunger he has it in him to make history.

While at Jerez, I had a long talk with Coulthard. He exhibited an interesting mix of defensiveness, honesty and detemination. The defensiveness showed in response to all the criticism he had for 1999. David’s view is he made just one bad mistake (going off in the wet at the Nurburgring when leading): probably one fewer than Mika and certainly no more than Michael. The honesty was in his belief that as an F1 driver he is still developing: he knows he was a better driver in 1999 than in ’98, and he believes he’ll be another step better in 2000.

And the determination? He wants to beat Mika this season, in a straight fight, starting in Australia, and believes he can do it, as he did at Spa last year. He certainly has the hunger. Ron Dennis, as we’ve seen, is far less prone to resort to team orders than Ferrari, at least until late in the season; and David reckons if he’s got the points advantage going into the final rounds Mika will be asked to help him, as he helped Mika last year. A reborn Coulthard is an intriguing prospect.

Jordan and Heinz-Harald Frentzen were one of the stories of 1999, Eddie’s team richly deserving its third place in the constructors’ ranking. It’s hard to grasp that the confident and blindingly fast Frentzen we saw at Magny-C,ours, Monza and the Nurburgring last year was the same man who seemed to be foundering at Williams in ’98. But at Jordan HH has found an atmosphere in which he can give his best.

Eddie failed to get the works Honda engine — it went to the silver-tongued Craig Pollock for BAR — but if the Mugen-Honda engine has plenty of power again this year that may be no hardship. And I believe Eddie’s new Number Two, the young Italian Jarno Trulli, is a Top Four driver waiting to develop. He languished unhappily at Prost all last season, but remember him leading at the A1-Ring in ’97? In a competitive car he should do wonders, and I expect him to emerge as Italy’s top driver this year ahead of Fisichella.

But, while Jordan should continue as the team most likely to pick up the victories when McLaren and Ferrari falter, I’m not sure it’s ready to beat either in a straight fight yet. I’d love to be wrong about this, because EJ’s whole approach to F1 is as refreshing as a draught of Guinness among a horde of snooty, self-important wine-tasters.

Most hype this year, in the British media at least, is reserved for the Jaguar team. Already the clichés about British Racing Green and Leaping Cats have been trotted out in the tabloids, which is just what Ford’s marketing men wanted when they paid nine figures sterling to put one of their marque badges on the nose of a Stewart.

But if the Jaguar element is mainly in the packaging, no-one can deny this is actually, for the first time, a genuine Ford F1 car. Ford owns Stewart and Cosworth, and Ford’s head motorsports honcho from Detroit, Neil Ressler, is chairman of both. In these days of big car manufacturers becoming major forces in F1 — Fiat, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Honda, Toyota — Ford is there for one reason: to beat them all.

Jackie Stewart always said it would take his new team four years to win a Grand Prix, and five to fight for the World Championship. He was overjoyed that the first win came at the Nurburgring last September, late in Year Three, but he admits it was a lucky victory. Now, supported by the full might of Ford, I think the team he and son Paul began has a chance of sticking to the schedule: they could score the odd win this year and rather more than that next year.

But, on the whole, expect podia rather than victories in 2000. Johnny Herbert still drives well, as we saw last year once the Stewart’s rear end was sorted and he’d renewed his confidence in the car. Eddie Irvine comes as Championship runner-up, and one of the canniest thinkers on the grid: but, as I’ve said, nobody’s yet sure quite how quick he really is. Eddie, always one who speaks as he finds, says he may not be able to beat Schumacher and Hakkinen, but Coulthard and Barrichello should be no problem — which says plenty about his view of the other drivers but little about himself.

Williams is living proof of how the pendulum can swing in F1. In 1997 came its fifth Constructors’ title in six years: in 1998 it scraped into third place, and in 1999 it was pushed down to fifth, its first time out of the top four in a decade. Now, after a frustrating spell with a customer engine, it has forged a new deal with BMW. On the face of it, this should herald a new era for Williams. But in the unforgiving world of modem F1 a new engine is rarely right straight out of the box. As an F1 engine veteran said to me the other day, you can build it to give 700bhp and it’ll finish ninth all day. Or you can build it to give 800 and it’ll be right on the pace for a lap or so, and then it’ll go pop. Take your choice. There are stories of seven engine failures in early testing with the new Williams-BMW (or, as we’re meant to call it, BMW-Williams). But they’ll get that right, sooner or or later. BMW engines have won Grands Prix and championships before, and there is the wherewithal at Munich to do it again: it’s just a matter of time. (More worrying is the long-term health of BMW as a whole, dogged by the problems at Rover. It is vulnerable to purchase by one of the biggest companies, perhaps General Motors, perhaps VW. Or maybe Ford. It would be an odd situation if Ford owned BMW while Williams and Jaguar spent millions fighting each other on the track.)

On this subject, Eddie Jordan has always sounded a still small voice of warning: it’s fine when big manufacturers buy up a team, and commit themselves to F1. But in big business, things change: companies get sold, managing directors get replaced, policies and strategies get superseded. And it was Eddie Jordan who decided not to accept Honda’s offer of huge numbers of millions to buy his team.

The lead Williams driver remains the hugely talented Ralf Schumacher. There are those who think his potential could eventually exceed that of his elder brother, and certainly he overcame the 1999 Williams-Supertec’s shortcomings brilliantly: it was cruel that he did not score his first F1 victory at the Niirburgring, because he certainly drove well enough to do so. The new BMW-powered car may take time to give him what he needs to be a major contender, but he has the talent to extract the most from it at any stage of its development. I have expounded elsewhere in this issue about Frank’s surprising choice of Number Two in Jenson Button, but we all hope he’ll have the tools to show what he is undoubtedly capable of.

Eddie Jordan’s decision to rebuff Honda’s overtures was BAR’s good fortune. Honda wanted a team that would not just take its engines but would also let it be involved in chassis development and the strategy for the whole programme. After a disastrous first season in 1999, BAR was more than happy to have so a powerful an ally. From the day their new car turned a wheel — the first 2000 car to make it into testing — this has seemed a different BAR, short on hype and empty promises and, going by their testing results, long on the reliability they desperately need if they are to retain credibility and the sympathy of their sponsors. Jacques Villeneuve remains a driver of huge talent and, as we learned from his stoic refusal to stop driving his socks off during BAR’s ghastly first season, a man of great strength of character. I watched Ricardo Zonta win titles in F3000 and Sports Cars, and he’s in the Trulli category: given the car, he’ll be a star.

It is hard to see how Benetton, a team lacking both a good engine and experienced management, can avoid sliding further down the grid in 2000. Both Giancarlo Fisichella and Alex Wurz deserve better. Prost is combining experience and youthful enthusiasm in its driver line-up of Jean Alesi and Nick Heidfeld, but much will depend on Peugeot’s commitment in their last year in F1. Sauber have last year’s Ferrari engines, and Mika Salo showed during his brief sojourn at Ferrari that he was capable of beating Irvine on fast circuits at least. As for Arrows and Minardi, they seem condemned in 2000 to continue to occupy their regular positions at the tail of the grid.

This time last year I said Schumacher would be world champion, and that BAR would win a race. So it seems you don’t need to take my prophesies very seriously. Nevertheless I predict that Jaguar will win a Grand Prix in 2000; that BAR will finish ahead of Benetton in the constructors’ championship; that Coulthard will beat Hakkinen on more than one occasion; and that Schumacher will, finally, be champion for Ferrari. Let’s see how wrong I am…