Although the shadow of financial doom and gloom is cast over Formula One at the current time, I cannot help but feel relatively optimistic for the sport’s future. As with many things in life, motor sport will continue long after the current recession has passed, and already we can see signs of the sport looking healthy for 2009 and beyond. Despite sponsors reducing their funding and circuits complaining of financial woe, the heart of Formula One still beats strong.
For a start, Honda appear to be on their way to being saved, thanks to Richard Branson and his Virgin Group. The news that the entrepreneur is indeed talking with Honda and Bernie Ecclestone is encouraging and I’m sure I am not alone in hoping a deal can be put together in time for next month’s Australian Grand Prix.
Elsewhere in the sport, the Honda-owned Suzuka circuit have informed the media of their progress in making the upgrades necessitated by Ecclestone. According to the motor company’s CEO Takeo Fukui, the circuit should be reopening in April, well ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix in October. Honda also reiterated that just because their team wouldn’t be present, they are fully committed to the circuit and the events it hosts. And of course, as mentioned above, the team might still make it, albeit under a different name.
For me though, the most encouraging thing when looking at Formula One is the current crop of quality drivers. It was only a few years ago that there were less than a handful of top-class pilots lining up on the grids. The likes of Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso only being matched by Kimi Raikkonen in terms of outright pace.
But looking at the entrants for the 2009 championship, we can see an increased number of stars and stars in the making. Granted we no longer have the dominant Schumacher in his ultra-reliable Ferrari, but we do have some high quality talent who should be soaring ever further during the 2009 campaign.
The world champion is usually a good place to start when thinking about talented drivers, and there is little reason to doubt the abilities of Lewis Hamilton now that he has taken the crown. The McLaren driver may get a little flustered at times and make some bold moves when perhaps he should remain calm, but the skill of the young Briton is unquestionably great and Hamilton must be entering 2009 as the favourite for the title.
Kimi Raikkonen remains a great driver, even if his 2008 championship left many fans and pundits the world over scratching their heads. Despite his problems last time around, Raikkonen is still a naturally gifted racer and combined with a fast and reliable car that suits his style, there is little reason why the Finn cannot repeat the success of his 2007 season.
In the sister Ferrari is another talent, and although I still remain skeptical of his natural abilities, Felipe Massa has improved a lot in the last twelve to twenty-four months. The Brazilian may not be as consistent as his mentor was, but when it comes to winning from pole on a street circuit, you’d be wise not to bet against Felipe.
Fernando Alonso continues to impress, and his drives in Singapore and Japan showed the world that while the Renault was slow in development, the Spaniard could still win. Having lost little motivation after his soured stint at McLaren, Alonso put in some great performances in 2008, something which will hopefully be repeated this year.
Looking at BMW, many feel that their rising star is only a quick car away from emulating Raikkonen and Hamilton. Robert Kubica finally took to the top step of the podium last year and remained in the hunt for the title until the penultimate race. His abilities are unquestionably good and so many have tipped the Pole for greatness. It says a lot when his rivals believe they will be battling Kubica for titles in the years to come.
We also have the pleasure of witnessing the career of Sebastian Vettel, the young German who also took his maiden victory last year. While the win at Monza was helped by the poor weather, the fact remains that Vettel kept his car on the tarmac, made the correct decisions and drove an almost flawless race from lights to flag. All this in a car that really wasn’t all that great. Vettel is one of those drivers you know you will be seeing more of in the future.
There are also three other drivers who I feel deserve a special mention as well. These final three may not be on Raikkonen or Hamilton’s level, but they do deserve being classed as pretty good racing drivers. Nico Rosberg, Nick Heidfeld and Timo Glock. Officially they are all German, although Rosberg holds dual-nationality – born to a German mother and a Finnish father in Germany but raised in Monaco. Nico’s father, Keke, raced under Finnish colours back in early ’80s.
Nico deserves a mention following his two podiums last year in a car that really wasn’t good enough to finish much higher than the lower points positions at the best of times. Although Nico has been known to make some silly errors, he can also race pretty well when everything is right with the car. If only he hadn’t remained so loyal to Williams, the man would have likely been in the second McLaren by now.
Nick Heidfeld is a driver who is often under rated, and as Kimi Raikkonen was still included in the list of top drivers, I therefore felt it hard to not put Heidfeld in somewhere. Like his Finnish rival, Nick had a problematic season in 2008, but the man still drove his races reasonably well and scored a healthy tally of points.
And finally, I’ve chosen to put some faith in Timo Glock. While the Toyota driver is perhaps better known now as the man who almost upset Britain’s apple cart, many of the German’s drives last year left me feeling suitably impressed. This is Timo’s second stint in Formula One, but his foray in GP2 appears to have done him the power of good. Glock really highlighted to many the flaws in both Jarno Trulli and his predecessor, Ralf Schumacher, and providing he can handle the change in regulations, he should continue to make his team mate’s life that little bit harder.
So by my reckoning, we have five pretty handy drivers competing this year as well as a few who really aren’t all that shabby; a healthy increase from just a few years ago. The sport is returning to one if its great circuits and Honda’s Formula One team just might be on the verge of becoming a part of the Virgin empire. All things considered, Formula One really doesn’t look to be in bad shape.