New Formula One season is impossible to call as field gets ready for opening round in Bahrain. Can Renault and McLaren hold off a new Ferrari challenge?

GP battle set to begin

Renault, McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari should remain the teams to beat in the Formula One World Championship during the 2006 season, which begins on March 12 with the Bahrain Grand Prix.

The Sakhir circuit’s third year on the F1 calendar sees it kick off the 19-race schedule, which contains the same races as 2005, although the Belgian Grand Prix is in grave doubt after its promoter went bankrupt.

Bahrain is followed a week later by the Malaysian GP, with the Australian GP next up two weeks later. Then the series heads for Europe, where it will run, interrupted by its two-race American break, until September. The championship finishes off with races in Japan, China and finally Brazil. Many of the races have shifted from their usual dates, including the British GP, which will now take place at Silverstone on June 11.

Renault retains its 2005 driver line-up of Fernando Alonso — who is in his final year with the team before moving to McLaren in ’07 — and Giancarlo Fisichella. McLaren sticks with Kimi Räikkönen and Juan Pablo Montoya, but has been suffering unreliability problems with its Mercedes engines in testing. Ferrari’s new 248 (nomenclature returns to Ferrari tradition for this car, which features a 2.4-litre powerplant and eight cylinders for the new F1 engine regulations) could push the Prancing Horse back to the front, especially as Toyota and Williams have joined the Italian team on Bridgestone tyres. Further aiding the Bridgestone users is the axeing of the ban on tyre changes during races. This played heavily into the hands of the Michelin teams last year.

Toyota, represented by Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher, and Williams (Mark Webber and F1 rookie Nico Rosberg) have both shown great pace in testing, raising expectations for some surprise results.

The new Super Aguri team has received approval from the FIA, though drivers had yet to be confirmed as we went to press.

New teams for F1 in ’08

Roger Penske, Gerhard Berger and David Richards are among the top names in motorsport to have declared an interest in setting up Formula One teams for 2008.

Their revelations come in the wake of plans from FIA president Max Mosley to reduce annual budgets for competitive teams in F1 from £200 million to £75m. This would come through banning ‘breakthrough’ performance-enhancing technologies, along with the introduction of standard gearboxes and ECUs and an engine rev limit. Former F1 race winner Berger, whose most recent role was as a competitions chief of BMW, told our sister magazine Autosport: “If the costs are brought down it could be worth thinking about it. But this can only happen for 2008. In the case of lower costs it could become an issue.”

Penske was last involved in F1 when he ran a team from late 1974 to the end of ’76, though his team is still a top contender in Indycar and NASCAR racing in the States. Prodrive supremo Richards has acted in F1 as team principal of both Benetton and BAR.

The F1 line-up

Runners and riders for 2006

Renault Fernando Alonso, Giancarlo Fisichelia, Heikki Kovalainen (reserve)
McLaren-Mercedes Kimi Räikkönen, Juan Pablo Montoya, Pedro de la Rosa
Ferrari Michael Schumacher, Felipe Massa. Marc Gene
Toyota Jarno Trulli, Ralf Schumacher, Ricardo Zonta
Williams-Cosworth Mark Webber, Nico Rosberg, Alex Wurz
Honda Jenson Button, Rubens Barrichello, Anthony Davidson
Red Bull-Ferrari David Coulthard, Christian Klien, Robert Doornbos
Sauber-BMW Jacques Villeneuve, Nick Heidfeld. Robert Kubica
Midland-Toyota Tiago Monteiro, Christijan Albers, Markus Winkelhock
Toro Rosso-Cosworth Vitantonio Liuzzi, Scott Speed, Neel Jani
Super Aguri-Honda Takuma Sato, Yuji lde/Sakon Yamamoto