With a fair few changes in the regulations this year, making predictions for 2009 is quite tricky. Last season I think we all knew it was going to be a race between McLaren and Ferrari, and only BMW really stood a chance of being the cat among the pigeons. This time around though, we should see an improvement from Renault, hopefully a similar charge from BMW and the the now usual battle between Maranello and Woking. But who will come out on top, and who will be left behind?
McLaren will be hoping to add another world title to Lewis Hamilton’s already impressive CV, and the team will be desperate to claim the constructors trophy as well. McLaren last won the constructors in 1998 when Mika Hakkinen won his first of two drivers titles. Ever since then though, Ferrari and Renault have dominated the championships, even if McLaren weren’t ever too far away.
With Lewis Hamilton, McLaren have a proven winner and his chances of repeating his 2008 success must be pretty high. I predict Hamilton will outshine his team mate once again and I think he could actually achieve a second title. Although the young driver is often criticised for making impetuous moves, Hamilton is also credited with racing for wins rather than sitting back and collecting points. With a world championship already under his belt, I can see Hamilton becoming a little calmer in fraught situations. This, I feel, will actually make it easier for him to take a second crown.
Heikki Kovalainen didn’t experience a great first season with McLaren, but I feel a lot of this is down to the team and the circumstances. While I am certain that both drivers received equal equipment and opportunities in the first half of the year, Hamilton was already well adjusted to life at McLaren. Hamilton was also a race winner already. Kovalainen appeared to struggle against his team mate, but competing in his second stint at Woking, I can see the Finn improving. I cannot ignore his final half of 2007 when he comprehensively outraced the experienced Giancarlo Fisichella at Renault, and while I don’t think Heikki will be able to perform better than Hamilton, I feel he will have a much better season this year.
In terms of the car, little can be said at the moment. Despite not being able to compare testing lap times between the new cars yet, it should be noted that McLaren are testing an interim ’09 model, and only BMW and Williams have got as far as that. Also, McLaren’s KERS system is said to be on schedule, unlike Ferrari’s and many others.
And speaking of Ferrari… Kimi Raikkonen is another driver who didn’t have a great season last year, and talk of his motivation constantly swept through the paddock. Raikkonen appeared to lose his edge in 2008, but with such a shake-up in the cars this time around, Kimi should be able to capitalise on this. Nobody expected Felipe Massa to take the mantle at Ferrari in the way he did, and Raikkonen will be very wary of this. However, I feel Raikkonen will fair better with the new cars and reduction in downforce.
Having said that though, Massa did impress in 2008 and now has a better understanding of how a championship campaign is put together. Undoubtedly, Massa’s confidence will be on a high, despite not winning the title, and this will help Felipe in situations when he feels Raikkonen isn’t at his best. We all know how good Massa is when he starts on pole, but I think 2009 will see a slightly more aggressive Felipe when running behind his team mate. However, I don’t think it will be enough and that Ferrari will be playing second fiddle to McLaren.
In fact, I can see Ferrari really struggling in 2009. They will always be somewhere near the top and fighting for wins, but I’m getting the impression they have lost their edge. In the early ’00s you wouldn’t have heard of Ferrari being behind on a new development, having to state to the press that they may have to consider a contingency plan. But that is pretty much what they’re having to do right now with KERS. And if the car isn’t to Kimi’s liking, he could very easily struggle, as could Massa in the sister Ferrari. I think will be somewhere near the top, but I think BMW will snapping at their heels more.
If BMW can produce another good, solid car, then there is little reason why the Swiss-based team cannot repeat their success from 2008. Claiming a one-two finish was a real boost to the team that are following their plan of improvement to the letter. With a ban on in-season testing, the rate of development will be slower as well, meaning that a gradual reduction in pace will be less so. This will hopefully mean that if BMW can build a good car to begin with, they might be able to hang on to Ferrari and McLaren for longer.
It’s worth pointing out that BMW were the first to test a 2009-spec. car in late 2008, and the team are really pushing forward with KERS. It was mentioned at the recent test in Spain that BMW were actually evaluating strategies with the system, strongly implying that their KERS is pretty much ready. Compared to Ferrari, who have admitted to being behind on this, BMW look good. Combined with the in-season testing ban, this could put BMW at a significant advantage over Ferrari.
Nick Heidfeld will not be happy that team mate Robert Kubica took the team’s first win, but the experienced German driver is mature and calculated, and some of Nick’s performances in 2008 were stunning. Although Heidfeld struggled in qualifying, he often found a way into the points that other drivers would not have. The team may have been looking around for a replacement mid-’08, but by sticking with Heidfeld they have maintained stability and ensured themselves of a steady points and podium finisher.
Robert Kubica isn’t as content with BMW though, and the young Polish race winner has been verbally thrashing the team for much of the latter half of 2008. When the development slowed on the F1.08, Kubica made his feelings known, and despite winning a race, he appears to have developed an impetuous streak, similar to Hamilton’s. However, Kubica is a very fast and capable driver, and BMW will do very well to get his name on a long-term contract. And it is because of his pace that I feel once again that Kubica will out score Heidfeld. However, I feel that both drivers could win a race in 2009, perhaps even two or three for Robert. If there is any hint of a struggle from the Ferrari camp, BMW will be right behind, ready to pounce.
Renault are another team that should see some improvement for 2009, especially coming off the back of Fernando Alonso’s two fine victories in late 2008. The Spaniard has injected the team with some life again, and I think the development we saw in last year is indicative of how they will fair in 2009. Hopefully the Enstone-based team can hit the ground running, and if they aren’t quite there to begin with they will almost certainly be by mid-season. I’m expecting some good tussles from Alonso this year, hopefully battling it out with the BMWs, Ferraris and McLarens.
Alonso has this ability to wring every ounce of pace from a car, and his two titles in 2005 and 2006 showed this skill perfectly. The Renault wasn’t always the fastest car on the track, but in the hands of Fernando it often won races when perhaps it shouldn’t have. With a rumoured Ferrari contract in his back pocket, the future looks to be very bright for Alonso, but he will want to prove himself once again in a Renault. I don’t think he will manage it in 2009, but I think the Spaniard can lift the team back up.
Partnering Alonso will once again fall on the shoulders of Nelson Piquet Jr. The son of a former world champion, Piquet Jr had a lot of pressures last year, and the start of his campaign was miserable to say the best. However, the Brazilian improved steadily throughout the course of the season, doing his best to quell the rampant speculation that he would be dropped. Renault chiefs applied pressure to Flavio Briatore, but in the end Piquet Jr kept his job for another year. He will absolutely need to drive well in 2009 though, otherwise his Formula One career could be finished.
Toyota were a bit of a surprise in 2008. They ditched Ralf Schumacher in favour of the younger and less experienced Timo Glock, but what a difference it made. Combined with a reasonable chassis, the Cologne-based team improved over their 2007 form and exceeded my expectations. But improving two years in a row is something that has always proved too difficult for Toyota, and I cannot allow my imagination to get too carried away.
Timo Glock made the headlines a few times last year and put in some sterling drives. Toyota did well to hire the young German, and they have done even better by retaining him. In the next garage though is a driver who is starting to age and while still quick, Jarno Trulli could be facing an uphill struggle in 2009.
There were rumours late last year that Toyota were going to replace Trulli, but when it came down to it, the team decided to keep the line-up unchanged. Trulli is a master at qualifying and can drive well. His focus doesn’t seem to last too long though and it is something that has plagued Trulli throughout his entire Formula One career.
Predicting Toyota’s form is tricky as they seem to flow from pretty fast to downright dreadful in the course of only a few months. If they build a decent car, then they might be able to tow Renault, but in all honesty, I can see Red Bull moving ahead of them in the tables.