Grand Prix 2003 Preview

2002 was not a vintage year for Formula One, at least not unless your name was Michael Schumacher. For everyone else, and especially for those watching, there was little interest to be had in Ferrari's high speed demonstration runs. Periodically, this happens in Grand Prix racing. A team builds a car so obviously superior to anything else on the grid that the outcome is almost never in question. Back in 1988, McLaren's MP 4/4 took 15 victories in 16 races. Then though, the impact on the sport wasn't so negative as at least the two McLaren drivers were allowed to race each other - indeed it is hard to imagine that either Senna or Prost would have countenanced giving way to the other. The result was a fascinating two-way battle for the championship up front. 1992 was closer in flavour to 2002. Then, Williams had built a car so clearly superior to anything else in the field, that the championship was bound to be a straight battle between its two drivers. There were no team orders that year, but Nigel Mansell's margin of superiority over team mate Patrese meant that the result was rarely in doubt. Indeed it was Mansell's record of 10 victories in one season that Schumacher finally broke last year.

Over the winter, the FIA came to the conclusion that something had to be done to recapture the interest of the viewing public lest the sport disappear entirely for lack of advertising revenues. The result is the one-lap qualifying format, to be done on the fuel load that the car starts the race with. While this may result in some strange looking grids, it is unlikely to fundamentally change the established order in the sport, and thankfully, unlike some of the daft proposals floating around involving driver-swapping and weight penalties, it does not break fundamentally with F1's competitive traditions by punishing success or rewarding failure. Whether it will have people retuning their TV sets on Sunday afternoons is unclear as yet - for that, I suspect there will need to be a degree of uncertainty as to the order in which the cars will finish on Sunday afternoon, and it remains to be seen whether this will be the case. In the end, the most important factor will be whether McLaren, Williams, or perhaps even Toyota or Renault, can break Ferrari's technical stranglehold on the sport. What follows is a team by team assessment of everyone's chances in 2003.

Team: Ferrari
Engine: Ferrari
Tyres: Bridgestone
Drivers: Michael Schumacher D, Rubens Barrichello BRZ

All the elements of the dream team remain in place. It has always been said that Senna's desire was to keep racing until he had equalled Juan Manuel Fangio's record of five world championships and then retire. Michael Schumacher equalled that record and shows few signs of slowing down, let alone hanging up his helmet at present. Rory Byrne has pronounced the F2003-GA a bigger step forward over the 2002 car than the 2002 car was over the 2001 machine. Now this might be gamesmanship on his part, an attempt perhaps to dishearten the opposition but the fact remains that the new car has set unofficial lap records wherever it has been tested. In Rubens Barrichello, the team have one of the most talented "Number 2s" there has ever been, and there can be little doubting that in the unlikely event that Schumacher doesn't get the job done, Barrichello will ensure that Ferrari honour is upheld. The question that remains to be answered is whether the team can repeat the kind of level of dominance they showed last year. Previous experience shows that they probably won't - no team has maintained that kind of dominance for more than a single season but also that they will probably still carry the drivers and constructors championships. While it might be good for the sport if this year's Ferrari is a dog, there seems little reason to believe it will be. What was historically one of the most unstable, chaotic race teams, has become one of the most finely honed winning machine of the last twenty years - ranking alongside the mighty McLaren squad of the late eighties and early nineties (which took 7 world drivers championships between 1984 and 1991).

Team: Williams
Engine: BMW
Tyres: Michelin
Drivers: Ralf Schumacher D, Juan Pablo Montoya COL

Last year was supposed to be the season when Williams finally became regular winners again. It didn't quite work out that way. Michelin's tyres didn't help, and its fair to say that the drivers threw away a couple of races that they might otherwise have won, but fundamentally the problem lay with the Williams chassis. It consumed tyres at a prodigious rate and simply didn't generate enough downforce. BMW's horsepower and Juan Montoya's reflexes were enough to net the team seven pole positions, as the Colombian stakes his claim to be a kind of latter-day Ayrton Senna, but there was but one race win. The early signs are that this year might be no better. BMW, it can be presumed, will again deliver on the engine front, but the new Williams FW25 has not proved conspicuously fast in testing. The team have all but admitted that it is something of a disappointment, perhaps not even as quick as last year's FW24. Mechanically its fine, and this showed in its pace round the relatively tight and twisty Valencia circuit, but it appears to be seriously aerodynamically flawed, and this showed at the Barcelona tests. This will be bad news for the fractious driver pairing of Montoya and Schumacher Jr, who would really rather be fighting with McLaren and Ferrari than engaging over their own internecine feud for fifth place. Their battle will be particularly interesting to watch. Those who, like myself, reckon that Montoya is a bit special, will be interested to see if this time round, with 2 years F1 experience, he can finally bury his German team mate. If he is again run close by Schumacher Jr, then his claim to be the next Schumacher Sr. will start to look a little hollow. That said, if Williams sort out the aerodynamics over the next few weeks - or if it turns out there was a certain amount of sandbagging going on in Barcelona this winter, Williams should be able to improve on their tally of 1 win in 2002.

Team: McLaren
Engine: Mercedes
Tyres: Michelin
Drivers: David Coulthard GB, Kimi Raikkonen FIN

Michael Schumacher reckons his main threat this year will come from McLaren, rather than Williams. Last year, they had a good chassis, but the Mercedes horsepower simply wasn't there. Of course, at times, Michelin produced a tyre so awful that it didn't much matter how good the chassis was, but on occasion, such as in qualifying at Monaco, the fundamental qualities of the McLaren were able to shine through. They will be starting 2003 with an updated version of last year's car, which should pay dividends in terms of reliability, though it remains to be seen whether a car that was hardly the class of the field last year will be able to compete with this year's Ferrari or Williams. Nevertheless, it can be assumed that the delay in introducing the new car will enable them extra time to catch up with Ferrari in development terms and this just might pay dividends later in the year. Certainly Williams have been quick off the blocks with their new car, and it hasn't exactly set the world on fire. Driver wise, it is only to be expected that this year, Kimi Raikkonen will establish himself over old stager David Coulthard. The Finn looked to have greater raw speed than the Scot, and indeed his car control at Spa was awesome. What he lacked last year was the discipline and consistency of his older team mate, but providing that he develops on this front, he could yet prove to be the main threat to the boys in Red this year.

Team: Renault
Engine : Renault
Tyres: Michelin
Drivers: Jarno Trulli IT, Fernando Alonso ESP

At the end of 2001, Renault looked finally to be making progress, and indeed I remarked that if they kept that up, they should have been threatening McLaren and Williams by the end of the year. It didn't turn out that way, and the team slid back down the order as the season progressed. Renault are persisting with their wide angle V10 engine this year, despite having all but acknowledged that it is something of a developmental blind alley. In a curious reverse of the history of their 1980s Grand Prix team, Renault would now appear to have a great chassis married to a somewhat unimpressive engine. It is, I suppose possible, that this will be the year when the radical lowline engine finally pays dividends, but certainly Mercedes, BMW and Ferrari have seemed uninterested in exploring the wide angle concept. Jenson Button is gone, despite having generally outpaced Trulli during the races last year, and will be replaced with former Minardi pilot, and great white hope of Spain, Fernando Alonso. How good a move that will prove to be remains to be seen - Alonso certainly impressed in the Minardi in 2001, but his team mates, Tarso Marques and Alex Yoong, were not the most reliable yardsticks that have ever been known. Renault are also liable to lose out more than most from the banning of traction control. Their launch control system appeared to be a level above anyone else's last year, and often enabled them to leapfrog faster cars away from the grid. Ultimately, the team look too much like the late nineties Benetton team - consistently near the front, but never quite at the front. That might change in 2003, but to be honest, they are as likely to move backward as forward.

Team: Sauber
Engine: Ferrari (badged as a Petronas)
Tyres: Bridgestone
Drivers: Nick Heidfeld D, Heinz-Harald Frentzen D

For the last two years, Sauber have consistently punched above their weight in Grand Prix racing. Surviving on a fraction of the big budget works teams, they nonetheless succeeded in beating factory efforts from Jaguar and Toyota, and in running Renault very close on occasion. There seems no reason to expect things to change radically in 2003. Again, they will be using year-old Ferrari V10s, and the new car looks similar enough to the old one. The drivers were reportedly disappointed in testing that the new car is not much of a step up over the old one, though both have remarked that it is at least considerably easier to drive. The driver line up, like the technical package, is good, solid, reliable, and unlikely to trouble the real front runners - the same story as ever at Sauber really. Nick Heidfeld is competent and quick, though probably not possessing of that final 'something' that marks out potential champions. Much the same can be said of Frentzen, though as he is at the opposite end of his career, we can say this with a little more certainty. One of the most technically astute drivers in the sport, he may well prove an asset to the team in a way in which young chargers Raikkonen and Massa could not be. A good, well organised squad, who won't be frightening their engine supplier, but might well prick the egos of some of the less well run manufacturer backed teams once again.

Team: Jordan
Engine: Ford Cosworth
Tyres: Bridgestone
Drivers: Giancarlo Fisichella IT, Ralph Firman GB

Jordan's decline has been one of the sadder stories of the last few years. In 1999 they had an outside shot at the drivers championship, and by late 2002 they were without an engine supplier or a title sponsor. The engine supply side of things seems to have been sorted out. Last year's Cosworths (the one quality ingredient in the awful Jaguar recipe) are probably a better a bet than this year's Honda, unless there has been a sea-change in Tokyo over the winter. Unfortunately, they are going to cost the team something in the region of 20 million, where the Hondas were free. Given that the team were struggling financially last year, and that they had backing from DHL which has now vanished in the recessionary winds, Jordan's position looks somewhat precarious. They do have, in Fisichella, the most under-rated driver in the sport. Indeed, throughout much of last year I found myself wondering how differently Renault's season might have worked out had they sacked Button rather than Fisichella at the end of the previous year. Even he can only do so much with second rate equipment however, and it is clear enough that Jordan haven't really had the budget to develop a really first class car this year. For newcomer Ralph Firman, things could hardly be worse. the new one-lap qualifying format hardly welcomes inexperienced youngsters, his team mate has all but destroyed the careers of Wurz, Button and Sato and there is considerable doubts as to whether the team has the funds to go the whole season. Firman is something of an unknown quantity himself. He won the British F3 championship a few years back, but its generally accepted that this isn't the gold seal of approval that it was back when such as Senna and Hakkinen were winning it. Since then he has done relatively little in F3000 and then disappeared into the wilderness of Formula Nippon (whose last F1 export was, um, Alex Yoong) before emerging from nowhere to dominate that series for Team Nakajima. His selection probably owes more to financial considerations than innate talent. Fisichella was reasonably impressed with the new car in testing (though its relatively plain yellow colour scheme is reminiscent of the way the Prost ran its cars in plain blue for about a year before they went bankrupt. A make, or more likely, a break season for the Anglo-Irish team.

Team: Jaguar
Engine: Cosworth
Tyres: Michelin
Drivers: Mark Webber AUS, Antonio Pizzonia BRZ

First manufacturer out of the door ? Ford have never seemed able to decide whether they are really interested in F1. When they bought Stewart back at the end of 1999 it looked as though the American giant was finally about to get serious, but since then, things have been little better than farcical. The only big team without their own windtunnel, they have compounded this with a series of ridiculous decisions and a back-stabbing 'blame and sack' culture reminiscent of Ferrari in the doldrum years of the early nineties. A tendency to spend vast amounts of money on designers with a proven track record for building duff cars is only the half of it really. They have brought in a succession of men to turn the team around, only to fire them the moment it has begun to look like they were making progress. Absurdly, there was even talk of hiring Alain Prost to run the team, a man who has already got the team management game horribly wrong once. Its just possible that things might be different this year. It seems hard to believe that the new Jaguar R4 could possibly be as bad as the car it replaces (though we all thought that about the R3), and Cosworth continue to produce some of the best engines in the business. Mark Webber is a good solid midfield driver, and likely to get on better with the team than Irvine (although I remain unconvinced by those who see him as the 'next big thing'. He outpaced Alex Yoong. So what ?) Antonio Pizzonia is an interesting choice of second driver. He has a reputation for wildness, but has thousands of test miles under his belt for Williams - his selection could prove inspired, or just yet another bad decision in the catalogue of errors that has been the Jaguar F1 programme to date. This year, it really has to be different.

Team: B.A.R.
Engine: Honda
Tyres: Bridgestone
Drivers: Jacques Villeneuve CAN, Jenson Button GB

It scarcely seems credible that Honda were once the most successful engine builders in F1 - together with McLaren they dominated the sport for five or so years, and ever since their official comeback in 2000, they have achieved a sum total of nothing. BAR too, were a team of which much was expected when they emerged in a blaze of publicity and a shower of BAT money at the end of the 1990s. Since then, their main purpose seems to have been to destroy Villeneuve's career while shovelling vast quantities of cash in his direction. The new car is, as probably much of the grid will be, a Ferrari F2002 copy, at least externally. Whether it will be up to much on the track remains to be seen - initial signs are not particularly promising - there has been no banzai 1 min 15 lap of Barcelona, but perhaps thats indicative of the team carrying out a sensible test and development programme over the winter, while others look for headlines. On the driver front, the team clearly wanted rid of Villeneuve, but the Canadian, realising there wasn't really anywhere else to go, insisted on holding the team to his original contract. If, as seems likely, the BAR 005 is another mediocre car, Villeneuve will probably spend much of the season asleep and end up getting trounced by newcomer Jenson Button. If, on the other hand, the car is right, then it will probably be Button who is trampled over. The youngster probably has enthusiasm on his side - and is certainly the preferred man of new team boss Dave Richards, but ultimately Villeneuve is the faster driver. In the end, much will hang on Honda, and on them, the jury is still out.

Team: Toyota
Engine: Toyota
Tyres: Michelin
Drivers: Olivier Panis (FR), Cristiano Da Matta (BRZ)

After last year's half hearted effort with two number two drivers, Toyota look like they could be about to make the great leap forward this year. The driver pairing looks solid - Panis impressed as a McLaren test driver and frequently gave Villeneuve something to think about at BAR last year. Cristiano Da Matta is seen as an odd choice by some - a man chosen perhaps more for his marketing value than his talent, but this strikes me as unfair. He won the Champ Car title last year, and while some ex-Champ Car drivers, such as Michael Andretti and Alex Zanardi, have been lost in F1, others, such as Montoya and Villeneuve have impressed greatly. Whatever one makes of Champ Cars, it is probably the highest quality single seater series outside of F1, and Da Matta has looked more than up to the job in testing. The new car looks up to the job too. I remarked last year that it was surprising what a bad job Brunner had done with the TF102, but having had time to bed into the team's set up, it looks as though he has done a much better job with this year's car. Certainly it has proved very quick at Barcelona, usually a good measure of a car's aerodynamic efficiency, and while this could have been achieved by running the car underweight, the team has less need than most of the publicity. Add in engines which were amongst the best in F1 right from the team's first appearance at Australia and this looks a most promising team indeed - perhaps the wild card that just might break the Ferrari/McLaren/Williams stranglehold on the top six. How good they will be remains to be seen, but what I do guarantee, is that they will be much better than they were last year.

Team: Minardi
Engine: Cosworth
Tyres: Michelin
Drivers: Jos Verstappen NED, Justin Wilson GB

The perennial survivors are back again, with what looks on paper at least, to be their strongest package in some time. The Cosworth V10s will be a considerably improvement on the three year-old Peugeots masquerading as Asiatechs that the team ran last year. On top of that, for the first time in several years, the team is fielding two proper drivers. Jos Verstappen may not be the most gifted man ever to sit in an F1 car, but he is deserving of an F1 drive in a way that, say, Alex Yoong or Gaston Mazzacane is not. Justin Wilson has been kept out of F1 so far by a lanky frame and a face that doesn't seem to fit. In F3000 he was comfortably quicker than such as Tomas Enge and Mark Webber and Paul Stoddart has never made any secret of the fact that he believes the Yorkshireman to be a bit special. Scratch the surface though, and all is not so rosy at Minardi. This year's car is really just an update of the previous year's design, reworked to accommodate the Cosworth engine - the cash simply wasn't there to build a completely new car. The team spent much of its testing time running around on Avon F3000 tyres because talks with Bridgestone broke down over the fact that Minardi couldn't afford what Bridgestone wanted to charge. The Cosworth powered car has only run for the first time this week, and rumours persist that the team don't have the money to pay the engine bills. It's a shame that the money problems should come to a head now, because after two years of simply making up the number, the team finally have a package with which they should be able to do a proper job. Sadly, it looks as though they may be this year's Arrows - assuming, of course, that they even make it to the grid in Australia in the first place.
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