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Formula 1’s World Cup kicks off

It’s not exactly the football World Cup, but but with the opening race of the 2010 season taking place in Bahrain this weekend this is as close as F1 is ever likely to get to national teams.

In the red, white and blue corner we have the British frontrunners McLaren, who can boast an all-British line-up comprising the current and previous world champions, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. For now, it is all smiles, with Button claiming:

“No, it’s all for show. It is what we have been told to do by the McLaren PR people.”

And Hamilton agrees for now, saying they are both practising for a potential future in acting. But with a car certain to be at the sharp end of the grid, how this fragile entente cordiale holds up once the racing starts will be one of the key subplots to the 2010 season. Certainly McLaren has a less than stellar history of handling intra-team conflicts going back to Senna/Prost, as Hamilton himself will testify from his rookie season alongside Spain’s Fernando Alonso.

In the black, red and gold corner, there is Mercedes (née Brawn), the German manufacturer responsible for bringing Michael Schumacher back to F1. Schumacher in 2010 is a mirror image of Lance Armstrong in 2009: a seven-time champion returning after a three-year absence to rejoin wheel-to-wheel battle with younger rivals. Schumacher is 41, and although Mercedes are not necessarily expected to be immediate front-runners, all eyes will be focussed on whether Schumi’s fire remains undimmed. Certainly, his new teammate Nico Rosberg who, at 24, is young enough to be Schumacher’s son, will provide a rapid benchmark.

The confrontation between McLaren and Mercedes is more than just Britain versus Germany, though. McLaren will still be running Mercedes engines, although they will now be just another customer rather than having everything designed with their car in mind. And, of course, there is the small matter of Button taking the championship he won with Brawn last year – and the right to carry the number 1 on his car – from Brackley to Woking.

And then there is Italy, in the shape of Ferrari. F1’s most famous and supported team endured a nightmarish 2009, winning just one race, finishing a distant fourth in the constructors’ championship and losing their lead driver, the Brazilian Felipe Massa, to a freak, near-fatal accident. However, two-time champion Alonso has now joined a recovered Massa at Maranello, and Ferrari started development on this year’s car earlier than their rivals (having effectively junked the 2009 car mid-season). Pre-season testing times have been impressive, so expect the Scuderia to put last year’s aberration behind them.

Finally, there is last year’s second-best team, the cosmopolitan melting pot that is Red Bull. Officially an Austrian team but based in Milton Keynes, with German (Sebastian Vettel) and Australian (Mark Webber) drivers and a French engine supplier (Renault), it will be intriguing to see if they can repeat last year’s breakthrough campaign. Vettel has been widely touted as the ‘new Schumacher’ – a tag he largely lived up to in 2009 with a string of spectacular drives –  while Webber’s season was compromised by recovery from an off-season broken leg and a run of truly appalling bad luck.

It is hard to look beyond these four teams, although I note with interest that Adrian Sutil – another German – topped the timesheets in today’s first practice session for a Force India team who ran at the front of the pack on merit at times last year, particularly in the latter half of the season.

The cars will, of course, be crucial to the outcome of the season, but with each of the top four teams boasting two strong drivers, much will also depend on how intra-team politics resolve themselves.

Of course, it wouldn’t be F1 without there also being a large degree of change. Sunday’s opening race in Bahrain will feature three new teams – HispaniaVirgin and Lotus – with the former bringing the hallowed Senna name back into the sport in the form of Ayrton’s nephew Bruno Senna. And there has been the usual raft of rule changes, the two most prominent being a new points system which will see points awarded to the top ten finishers (formerly eight) with the race winner earning 25 rather than 10 points, and the return to refuelling-free racing for the first time since 1993.

This last change will have the most significant change on race strategy this year. The effect of differing fuel loads in final qualifying has been removed, meaning we will know for sure that the man on pole genuinely is the fastest on the grid. And pit stops will certainly be much faster, but no one knows whether or not the change will improve the races overall. Even Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn – the architect behind Schumacher’s decade of domination and as sharp a strategist as there is on the pitwall – isn’t quite sure.

“The refuelling ban is going to be a fascinating new challenge this season and until the racing actually gets underway, none of us really knows if it will be for better or worse. The emphasis on pit stops will be quite different and present a big challenge for the teams with just three or four seconds to make the tyre changes which increases the potential for errors.”

It is shaping up to be a great season. Although Mercedes will probably take a while to hit their full potential, it is possible to put a convincing case for any of the McLaren, Ferrari or Red Bull drivers becoming 2010 world champion. My money, though, will be going on Fernando Alonso.

So, we have an English team versus a German one, with Italy’s team expected to do well, and with key Spanish and Brazilian participants present. It certainly feels like the World Cup to me …

Gentlemen, start your engines.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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