Friday, March 09, 2007
To kick off our extensive preview to the new Formula 1 season, ITV Sport commentator James Allen gives you his predictions on the likely protagonists in the battle for the 2007 crown.
As we head into the first year since 1991 without Michael Schumacher, F1 has a brand new look and an exciting feel to it, and James, just like the rest of us, can't wait to go racing.
I am beside myself with excitement about the new season of Formula 1, which is about to start.
We have so much to shout about:
- Two top class drivers - Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, going for the title
- Two rookies in potentially race winning cars - Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen,
- Four British drivers - Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, David Coulthard and Anthony Davidson
- Some very exciting new talent elsewhere in probably the most competent field of teams F1 has ever assembled, particularly Robert Kubica and Adrian Sutil.
The level of technical ability down the pit lane is tremendous nowadays.
I remember not so long ago, when I was spending a lot of time in the USA, thinking that teams like Newman/Haas and Penske could fit in as midfield runners in F1, but now they have been left miles behind by the sheer sophistication of F1 engineering.
There is no longer a team like Minardi running a four-year-old chassis, everyone has state-of-the-art equipment and top quality engines, the differences between them are very slight and in most cases are budget related.
Pre-season testing has gone well for both Ferrari and McLaren and I expect them to be the main protagonists this year.
A lot of people are shouting about BMW, others are saying ‘Don’t forget Renault’, but from my own experience of the testing and from speaking to colleagues who cover every test, Ferrari and McLaren are out front.
BMW have definitely moved forward, while Renault have slipped back a little.
Honda finished 2006 on a high and have disappointed so far, but I would still be surprised if they weren’t regulars on the podium later this year.
In the red corner
They have the advantage of the in-depth knowledge of Bridgestone and they appear to be using it well.
Also their definitive bodywork, which ran for the first time in Bahrain, looks very promising. It’s fairly clear that they have the fastest car out there both on a single lap and on long runs, so Raikkonen and Felipe Massa have the edge as we head for Melbourne, a track where Ferrari has won for five of the past eight years.
Raikkonen had a few problems settling in to the winter testing and he has been shaded on lap times by Massa, but this is because he has not wanted to show Massa how quick he is.
It’s only testing and race weekends are a totally different matter.
F1 is, above all, a head game and Raikkonen is stronger in the head than Massa, so I expect him to come out on top.
But the pint-sized Brazilian showed some real character last year and he is backed by the Todt family, which is uniquely valuable.
If you think back to last year, Ferrari went out of their way to make Massa look good last year and if I were Kimi I'd have a slight concern about that..
He had such a massive influence over their operations, his composure, wisdom and ruthlessness gave them so much confidence as a racing team.
I think he is harder to replace than Michael Schumacher.
Having a fast car is one thing, but making sure you use it to get the results is another and I’m not sure about Brawn’s understudies who have been promoted in his absence.
They may prove me wrong.
You’ll hear a lot of racing people say that the winning is done at the factory, but in my experience it’s also vital to be sharp when you are at the race track.
Make a few bad calls on tyre choice or pit strategy and the confidence can soon sap away.
They have adapted better than their Michelin rivals to the new Bridgestone tyres and their new car has been fast and fairly reliable in testing.
McLaren’s reliability record in the past few seasons has been poor and it is something Alonso was clearly concerned about. But he has looked very happy recently.
The car still occasionally breaks during tests, but they are nevertheless getting a big mileage done, so the signs are encouraging. I think one key factor on their side this year is the engine.
It’s been seven years since the Mercedes was the benchmark engine in F1, but they’ve definitely hit the jackpot with this motor.
McLaren’s record in improving and developing its cars is excellent, so I expect them to be right on Ferrari’s pace certainly by Barcelona and maybe sooner.
Then it will be a straight fight between Alonso and Raikkonen, which is what we all want to see.
There should be some big, big days in 2007. Alonso will have to play the percentage game in the early races, scoring podiums and hoping that Massa takes points off Raikkonen.
According to my opposite number at Spanish TV, who has known Fernando for years, whenever he won anything in karting he used to say, “Has Ron Dennis been on the phone?”
So he is where he has always wanted to be and you cannot underestimate the value of that. The same is true of course of Lewis Hamilton.
Lewis will carry a lot of expectation this season, but let me lower those expectations right now.
He is a 22 year old rookie. If you go back and look at Schumacher’s or Ayrton Senna’s first 17 GPs, you will see some brilliant performances of course, but also some high profile mistakes.
This was especially true with Senna, who took some time before he was ‘in control’. Hamilton will be no different.
He will bin it while in a promising position, he will make mistakes which will be painfully public, but the good thing about him is that he’s not afraid to make mistakes and he will never stop learning.
McLaren will not put pressure on him and he will be allowed to grow as a driver.
The target from his point of view, for 2007 is to learn what the sharp end of F1 looks like and, being able to measure himself directly with the best driver around, he will know exactly where he has to get to in order to win.
By the by
A couple of things to watch out for this year; with only four types of tyre available for the whole season and two of them having to be used at every race, there are bound to be races where the tyres aren’t well suited to the track.
On those days the difference between the good cars and the average cars will be bigger, so in other words I think you will see some weekends where everyone is quite close (because the tyres work for everyone) and others when Ferrari and maybe McLaren are miles in front.