Modern Times

Predictability is the enemy of goodmotor racing. That's because it's meant to be a sport, not an art. If you go to an RSC production of Othello, you know the plot: the pleasure is in the interpretation of a familiar text. When the LSO performs Also Sprach Zarathustra, you don't want to be surprised by a note that wasn't in Richard Strauss' score. In a copy of The Waste Land, you would regard a word that T S Eliot hadn't written as a misprint.

But you wouldn't enjoy going to a football match whose result is a foregone conclusion. (Personally, I wouldn't enjoy a football match in any circumstances, but no doubt that's my problem.) Nor would you get worthwhile odds on the Grand National if the bookies knew precisely which nag was going to be first past the post.

Yet last season every grand prix was won by a Ferrari or a McLaren. And, while I gather every football match is won by one side or the other, I'm told the same two teams don't normally win for an entire season. So, sifting through the reams of brave press releases from the team launches and pondering the daily e-mails from the Spanish tests, my eamest hope is that Melbourne on 4 March will herald a new Fl season that is less predictable than the last. And I have a feeling it may indeed be just that. As usual, recent launches revealed evolutions rather than revolutions, which is the nature of modem motor racing. So complex and highly worked is the mix of technologies within an Fl car that radicalism is usually too great a risk, and real innovations are rare.

So the steady year-on-year reduction in lap times, thwarting the FIA's constant quest to increase them, comes from almost imperceptible aerodynamic changes, from relentless but largely invisible engine development, and from improvements in the trade-off between higher power outputs and mechanical reliability.

This year the FIA has come up with more rule changes, mainly centred around aerodynamics. The higher wings at the front and simpler wings at the rear are not just intended to reduce cornering speeds: with the front wing doing less work, so the argument goes, overtaking will be easier, because there will be less downforce for a following car to lose when it closes up on the car in front. Sounds to me like too little too late, but time will tell. And traction control is being allowed once more — for the tacit reason that its ban is too difficult to police, so some teams may have been using it anyway, subtly hidden. Now that it's legal again (from the fourth round onwards), there will be no need for subterfuge. So it'll be back to the inelegant and audible system of reducing power with a deliberate misfire when the car is about to lose traction, and once again we'll hear the unromantic sound of cars spluttering out of corners on nine, or seven, cylinders.

Despite these changes, my bet is that, by and large, the two top teams will remain on top, and the also-rans will also run. Three months of winter testing mean most teams get their new cars more or less shaken down, which further reduces the unpredictability of the opening race. Back when preparing for the new season meant trying to get the car finished in time for the first race, teething troubles for the favourites often threw up surprise winners. In 1977, Jody Scheckter made history by winning Wolf's debut race, while the 1979 season began with back-to-back victories for Ligier and Jacques Laffite, mainly because the new Ferrari T4 wasn't ready. More recently, David Coulthard broke McLaren's three-year drought in 1997 while the Williams-Renaults fell by the wayside.

As the season progressed, Williams romped away, and McLaren only managed fourth in the constructors' championship. This year, Ferrari and Schumacher M have to remain favourites. More significant than the launch of their new car — which incorporates developmental changes to transmission, lubrication and cooling, and an engine that is marginally lighter, more compact and less thirsty — is confirmation that the winning team of designer Rory Byrne, technical chief Ross Brawn and team manager Jean Todt have signed on for a further term. This should guarantee Michael sees out his Fl career at Maranello. He needs eight more victories to beat Alain Prost's record total of 51 and, on last year's form, could well achieve that this season: but to surpass Fangio's five world titles will take longer. Rubens Barrichello will continue as the obedient, but very capable, understudy.

History shows how hard back-toback titles are, though the four greatest drivers of the last 15 years achieved it — Hildcinen, Schumacher, Serma and Prost. However, received wisdom says it is hard to maintain the same motivational momentum over consecutive years, whereas the defeated McLaren's motivation to bounce back will be immense. No doubt Adrian Newey's 2001 offering will be as super-competitive as ever: but unlike Ferrari, McLaren don't put all their effort behind one driver's championship challenge.

As a matter of principle, they allow their drivers to race each other for most of the season. Will Hakkinen, now a family man, drive as brilliantly as he did at Spa last year? Or will he revert to his world-weary mid-season performance? Coulthard, meanwhile, was better in 1999 than in 1998, and he was better again last year. He'll need to leap further still to beat Schumacher — but if he didn't believe he could do that, he wouldn't be in the game. The conundrum this year will be whether the top two teams become a top three or even, as it used to be a few seasons back, a top four. Williams impressed everyone with their first BMW-powered year, and the German engine manufacturer concedes that in 2000 it cautiously put reliability before ultimate power. This year it wants to be braver, going for type power outputs even if it risks more blow-ups. The doldrums for Williams dates from their loss of Renault engines at the end of 1997, but there's never been much wrong with their cars, and Sir Frank's motivation to meet McLaren and Ferrari on equal terms is immense.

But I'm not sure how much better Ralf Schumacher is going to get The Schumi brothers seem to be the exception to the rule that younger brothers are quicker (Jimmy and Jackie Stewart, Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez, Wilson and Emerson Fittipaldi, Ian and Jody Scheckter). If Juan Pablo Montoya is the bombshell everyone expects him to be, Ralf will be under some pressure. But the wild card for Williams is tyres, for in the return of the tyre wars they've thrown in their lot with Michelin. Bridgestone have all the recent experience, of course, in particular in supplying tyres that work with Max Mosley's silly grooves. In retaining their relationship with Ferrari and McLaren, as well as Jordan and BAR, they will continue to do most of the winning in 2001. The word from the winter tests is that Michelin have already caught up in terms of grip, but not yet in terms of wear. In previous mixed-tyre seasons, one tyre maker would produce the best year-long compromise, but every so often there would be some unpredictable mix of track condition and weather that would give the other an unexpected advantage. Don't be surprised if there's a race when suddenly the Michelinshod cars are coping better with conditions, and that's when you could see a Williams victory.

Or a Benetton, because the team that Renault now own are Michelinshod too. Renault have come closest to real technical innovation this year with their wide-angle V10 engine, and Flavio Briatore expects Giancarlo Fisichella to drive better now he's got Jenson Button to hurry him up: but I think we'll have to wait until 2002, when these cars are painted yellow and Mike Gascoyne has been at the design helm for a full season, before they pose a solid threat to the top two.

Then there are the Honda rivals. Eddie Jordan has finally got proper works engines, and after a disastrous 2000 he desperately needs to rediscover his 1999 form. But for him the prime goal is to beat the other team with the same engines, BAR. Of Eddie's drivers, Heinz-Harald Frentzen was hobbled by his equipment in 2000, and Jamo Trulli is a huge talent who has not yet had the opportunity to fulfil his potential. BAR, meanwhile, have one of the three best drivers of all in Jacques Villeneuve, and he is joined by Olivier Panis, who spent 2000 testing for McLaren.

Jaguar will continue to plod up their steep hill with Eddie Irvine and Luciano Burti, but Neil Ressler and Bobby Rahal are under no illusions that they have a lot of catching up to do. The form of the rest, while not particularly predictable, promises few real surprises. Still, ever the optimist, I reckon Fl will indeed gain some stimulating unpredictability this season, and be all the better for it. What's the betting four different teams will taste the top step of the podium in 2001?