Although four former world champions will line up for the first Grand Prix of the F1 season in Bahrain Sunday morning (Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and, of course, Michael Schumacher), Canada's foremost expert on all things Formula One, Gerald Donaldson, thinks there will be a new one at season's end.
"I think Sebastien Vettel will win the championship," Donaldson said earlier this week in conversation before flying to Bahrain (where he recorded a podcast race preview with me Friday that can be heard now at wheels.ca).
"He won four races last year and would have won more if he hadn't made some mistakes," said the author of several dozen books on F1, including biographies of Juan Fangio and Gilles Villeneuve.
"But he's older now and more mature — although he's only 22."
Donaldson — whose F1 race weekend podcast previews will be available on wheels.ca by noon Fridays and be very much along the lines of the work he did for years on TSN — thinks that race fans are in for a tremendously exciting 2010 season.
"Rules changes, technical changes, new teams, exciting drivers — I don't think you're going to get anything better than that," he said, and I'm with him.
With that, Gerry helped me break down the categories:
RULES AND TECH CHANGES
"There will be no more refuelling during pits stops," Donaldson said, "which means drivers will be starting races in cars that will have three times the weight they've been used to. Instead of, say, 80 litres on board at the start, they'll have 250 litres and that's about 175 extra kilos.
"Because of the bigger fuel tanks required, the designers have had to extend the wheelbase of the cars and this will adversely affect handling — both at the start but also throughout the race because as the fuel is used up, the handling of the cars will change.
"This is really a major change. The old system was just a series of sprints between fuel stops and now they'll have to do more thinking. The hope is that this will encourage more overtaking on the track. Too many drivers in F1 had developed a mindset that they would pass during the pit stops, and race strategy was king. Now there will have to be passing on the circuit if a driver wants to move up.
"One last thing: they will still have to stop for tires — the rules stipulate the use of two compounds during each race — and those stops should be dramatic. The thinking was that four tires could be changed in about three seconds but Red Bull has done it in 1.8 seconds so it will be fascinating to watch the pit stops."
"Oh, by the way, all the pits crews are on fitness courses so they can perform at top speed."
Donaldson thinks Schumacher will still win races this season "but I wouldn't expect him to win the championship. It will take him awhile to get back in form — after all, he's had a three-year layoff!
"It will be great fun to watch him, though. He's always been able to wring the neck out a car, to get the best out of it, and we'll want to see if he can still do it.
"The three other champions — Alonso, Hamilton and Button are all top drivers but I really think you have to hand it to Button for deliberately putting himself up against Hamilton (at McLaren). I think he did this to prove himself to himself — and maybe to people like you and me who maybe don't think he's the best. So full marks to him for putting himself out on a limb.
"I really think, at the end of the day, that we'll see great racing out of those four guys. But let's not forget the others. (Mark) Webber came on in the Red Bull toward the end of last season and must be watched. (Robert) Kubica is a great driver and he's in a Renault, so we can't forget him. Hulkenberg (new Williams driver Nico) is a real charger.
"And Kobayashi (new BMW-Sauber driver Kamui) is my hero. He came in at the end of last season and nobody told him you're not supposed to pass people in F1 and he passed people. So look for him to make headlines."
THE NEW TEAMS
"Some say the inclusion of Virgin, Lotus (although it has nothing to do with the famous British racing team of years gone by) and HRT (formerly Campos) devalues Formula One," Donaldson said. "The fact that they have been two or three seconds off the pace in pre-season testing — maybe more — shows they are learning on the job.
"Formula One is now made up of two divisions within the established teams, and then the new ones. We've got McLaren, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull in the first group; Williams, Sauber, Renault, Toro Rosso and Force India in the second group and then the new teams.
"Last year, it was very competitive so far as times were concerned. At some races, less than a second covered the whole 20-car field in qualifying. These new teams can't be competitive right off.
"Felipe Massa says this will prove dangerous — which could be a factor at, say, Monaco during qualifying. And let's never forget that a fast car coming up on one travelling significantly slower is how Gilles Villeneuve was killed, so those new guys will have to watch their mirrors.
"Having said all this, we'll have to wait till we get to Bahrain to find out the true story. You can never really trust testing."
MONTREAL IS BACK
"The Canadian race in Montreal was sorely missed by everyone in the sport and, frankly, by fans around the world (the 2005 race was the most-watched GP that season and the third-most–watched sporting event in TV history, after Super Bowl XXXIX and the UEFA Champions League Final.)
"It's a wonderfully telegenic circuit — the city in the background looks great on TV and nobody knows that more than Bernie (F1 boss Ecclestone) …
"Interest in a race in the United States isn't as accute these days because so many manufacturers dropped out — and they were the ones who really wanted a race."POINTS
"There is a new points structure this year that will spice things up, I think. Winners get 25 points and then it drops to 18 for second and 15 for third and so-on right down to tenth place (12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 and 1). The powers-that-be want the drivers to try harder to win, and the points structure reflects this."
I agree with everything Gerald said in this interview. However:
1. Michael Schumacher will shock the world and win the championship for Mercedes. He's in the car and with the team that won both titles last year. He is a marvel of human engineering — a physical and mental superman who will crush his opponents, just as he did last time.
2. They can try everything they can think of, but overtaking is alien to the top F1 drivers and I don't think we'll see any more passing this year than we've seen in others.
Sure, drivers will still give way to faster cars (as they always have) but a real fight for a corner? Don't bet on it.
3. Jenson Button for 2010 world champion? Not a chance.
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