A little while back, I wrote a fairly substantial piece on 5 things to watch out for during the 2011 season.  The intention was to let that stand as the meaty season preview and throw together a little series of predictions in the week before the first race.  Pre-season testing, however, has shown that predicting anything much about the 2011 season is a fool’s game.  It’s incredibly difficult to get any kind of solid read on the pecking order as we prepare for first practice in Melbourne, now only 4 days away, so anyone trying to pick a winner must be abandoning their timing sheets and employing some Olympic-standard guesswork.

With that in mind, I originally took the courageous decision to follow the example of this fine English hero:

Later, though, it dawned on me that here was a perfect opportunity to hand over the reins for a moment, letting someone else have a bash at claiming a gold medal for Great Britain in the long distance buggered-if-I-know event.  This was, in fact, a great chance to take some of my thoughts, my best judgements from a winter spent trying my hardest to decipher the results of every test session, and compare them with someone who watches Formula 1 regularly enough during the season but would manage quite happily if the sport didn’t exist.

For this exercise, I’ve been joined by my mother.  Sue started watching Formula 1 8 years after I did, for reasons I don’t recall.  They probably had something to do with there being nothing else to watch if it was Sunday and I was at home.  She was fond of Mika Hakkinen, rapidly became a fan of Johnny Herbert and had high hopes for Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who didn’t win a single Grand Prix from that point forward.  She has all the right credentials for this kind of work.

Questions are in bold, Sue’s answers are in red, while my thoughts will look the same as ever.  Onward!


Who will be the pick of this year’s rookies?  Maldonado, Perez, Di Resta or d’Ambrosio?

Maldonado.  I’ve got a feeling.

While I’m fairly sure this selection was made on the basis that she liked his name more than the others, it might not be a bad shout.  It’s a three-horse race, this one – d’Ambrosio doesn’t look like the next big thing and a Virgin is not the car in which to demonstrate otherwise.  Perez has been rapid in testing but his Sauber team have precedent for running a very light car, setting headline-grabbing times to attract the sponsors, while I’m not sure about the young Mexican’s focus over a long race.  Di Resta is the real deal, quick in occasional Friday practice runs last year and the reigning champion of the German DTM touring car series.  Working against him this season is a move to a Force India team who have lost key technical staff over the winter and have shown little pace so far.  No matter how attractive his sponsorship dollars made him to the Williams team, Maldonado is quick – he wins on the streets of Monaco an awful lot, which a merely average driver wouldn’t do – but his reputation for wildness has been around for so long that the corners have started to curl up.

I’m going to pick Paul Di Resta, but this is one I wouldn’t be at all surprised to lose.


Which of the midfield teams is most likely to spring a surprise this season?

Scuderia Toro Rosso.  Because of Albert Shuari.

She does that sometimes.  Albert Shuari is young Spanish driver Jaime Alguersuari, who rose to prominence partly through spending an afternoon annoying the life out of Michael Schumacher in Melbourne last year, but mainly through having a name that’s easy to mangle.

Sue has the same kind of hopes for Jaime that she had for Frentzen a decade ago.  His testing times on short runs, along with those of his team mate Sebastien Buemi, have been up among the front runners.  It’s a little difficult to believe that STR might have gone from occasional points finishes to genuine threats in the space of a few months, though.  I don’t doubt they’ve improved, much as I’m sure Sauber have made strides over the winter, but I’m not convinced those strides are enough to lift them into the top 10.

There’s no such thing as a completely unbiased sports writer.  The subject matter is far too emotive for that.  Organised sport is a way of compressing every possible human feeling into a couple of hours and, even at the most amateur of levels, we care passionately enough about the whole business that we want to share that passion with the world.  Against that backdrop, we’re bound to develop favourites along the way.  My favourites are going along very nicely, thank you very much, so I’ll stick with them – my ones to watch in the midfield battle are the chaps at Williams.


Will Michael Schumacher win again?

No.  I don’t think he’s good enough to win a race.

A divisive subject, this one.  Whatever your views on his racing ethics, Michael Schumacher’s first spell in F1 established him as one of the best drivers in history on pure, raw, unadulterated speed.  The first year of his comeback established him as just another racing driver.

Towards the end of the season there were encouraging signs, with a marked upturn in pace and results, but for much of the year Michael wasn’t quite on the pace of his team mate Nico Rosberg and appeared to have no way of making the Mercedes behave to his liking.  Initial signs from 2011 testing weren’t promising, with the MGP W02 looking to be well off the pace, but a major upgrade at the final test in Barcelona saw Schumacher set the fastest time of the winter by a huge margin.

Nobody knows how much fuel everyone ran through the winter, nor do we know which tyres were used on each run.  My suspicion is that Michael did a qualifying simulation with low fuel and super-soft tyres, while teams like Red Bull have probably ran a middling fuel level all through the winter (some reports say the RB7 has always had at least 80kg of fuel – every 10kg is worth around 0.3 seconds per lap, so by that logic Red Bull are 3 seconds a lap quicker than everyone else on a fuel-adjusted basis…).  I wouldn’t have Mercedes as the favourites for Australia, then, but I do believe they’re somewhere just behind the leading teams and I don’t think Schumacher has completely lost his touch.  Will he win in 2011?  Yes.


What about Felipe Massa?

Is he still at Ferrari?  He’ll always be in Fernando Alonso’s shadow.  He won’t win again.

I want to disagree with this.

Having been within 20 seconds of winning the 2008 world championship, Massa spent the first half of 2009 doing a mightily impressive job in a Ferrari that looked barely controllable at times.  Then, during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix, a spring from Rubens Barrichello’s rear suspension detached itself, bounced back along the racetrack and came within an ace of killing his fellow Brazilian.  Despite briefly leading the 2010 championship in the early stages, Massa is yet to look like the driver whose efforts in the two preceding seasons won him the respect and admiration of millions across the world.  In his one truly competitive post-comeback run, when he led for much of the way in Germany last year, “Fernando is faster than you.  Can you confirm you understand this message?”

I might want to disagree, but I can’t.  Throughout the build-up to this season, there’s been talk of the two Red Bull drivers, of Alonso and of the struggling pair at McLaren.  We’ve had the late rise of Mercedes and the sadly brief thought that Robert Kubica might be a real contender, but nothing on Massa.  Ferrari is now Alonso’s team, Massa is cast in the supporting role and in truth, he might not be capable of anything more.  Massa won’t be a serious contender in 2011.


Will Pirelli’s new tyres spice up the show?

The colours help.  They look pretty and people can go, “Oooh, so-and-so’s on those tyres.”  I’m not sure whether more tyre wear will help.  I don’t think that’ll add much – it’ll be the same as before but the colours will be nicer.


The colours will be nicer, yes, and as discussed previously, it should be easy to determine which drivers are running a particular type of tyre as we work through a race.  More importantly, though, Pirelli have kept to their brief of designing tyres with a very short working life.  The result is that you’re going to see cars sliding, drivers making mistakes and, in the early races at least, people trying different tyre strategies as they try to find the fastest way through a Grand Prix.

All of that should result in closer racing and more overtaking.  It worked in Canada last year, when Bridgestone’s rubber wasn’t designed to fall to pieces but did so anyway.  In 2005 and 2009, it even worked in Monaco, where every corner is barely more than a car wide, framed by metal barriers ready to catch the unwary.  It might not solve all of F1’s passing problems and the teams might wrap their heads around an optimum strategy after a few races, but for the early part of the year at least, the new tyres will definitely liven up the races. This might come at the expense of practice running, as teams try to save tyres for race day and do the bare minimum on Friday and Saturday, but the main event will certainly benefit.

The 107% rule is back.  You must qualify within 107% of the fastest time to be allowed to start the race.  Will anyone fall foul of the rule?

More than likely.  A new season, different setups and things…

I will confess that I’m not absolutely sure what Sue’s on about here.  She may have meant that the teams all have new cars and some of them are bound to struggle, especially those who haven’t yet done any running at all.

The team most likely to fall foul is HRT, whose F111 hasn’t turned a wheel yet.  Last year, they turned up for the first race in Bahrain with the same problem.  As qualifying started, they were still building the car Karun Chandhok would try to qualify.  Had the 107% rule been in force that day, Chandhok would have been off the pace by a reasonable margin but Bruno Senna would have missed out by just o.1 seconds.  By the next race in Australia, both men were setting times within 107% of pole position.

You might see teams, HRT in particular, struggling to make their car run for long enough to post a reasonable time and missing the race that way.  On pure pace, they should all just about make it.


Who will win the world title?

Red Bull.  Driver?  You’d have to say Vettel, though I’d prefer it if Webber won.

An awful lot of people would prefer it if Mark Webber won.  Mark is a very straightforward, honest and friendly chap who, in the autumn of his career, is driving very well for a team that very obviously favours the man in the other car.  His main problems are that he’s very, very, very slightly slower than the other guy, the other guy is the reigning world champion and it very much suits Red Bull to have a young, German-speaking driver acting as the leading billboard for their young, German-speaking drinks company.

Through the winter, the Red Bull RB7 has appeared to be quick, consistent and kind on tyres, so they’re a very solid pick for the constructors championship.  As far as the driver battle goes, I agree with Sue.  I’d be happier if Webbo pulled it off, but I expect Vettel to take the honours.


We’ll reconvene either in November or whenever one of these predictions goes horribly, horribly wrong, whichever arrives soonest…

  1. […] out.  Some of us were stupid enough to make some predictions anyway.  At least one of us thought asking his mother for some thoughts was a great idea which wouldn’t in any way come back to haunt […]

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