The 2008 Formula One season has just ended in what can only be called dramatic fashion. Lewis Hamilton rescued his championship by passing a slick shod Toyota in the rain in the last corner of the last lap of the season. It simply does not get any better or crazier than that.
We know that Hamilton has one the Driver’s Championship and Ferrari the Constructor’s Championship this year, but what about the 2009 season. Will it be more of the same or can we expect more changes such as the rise of BMW this year?
The answer is we can expect 2009 to be a very interesting year. Why? It comes down to a simple fact. To save money and make passing more plausible, the cars of the 2009 season will look nothing like those of the 2008 season. Many of the aero pieces used to create down force are going to be banned. The goal is to give drivers the ability to pass without being hurt by dirty air. Heck, we are even going back to slick tires.
This clean slate means the teams cannot just continue to develop the 2008 cars. They basically have to start from scratch and this raises some very interesting issues regarding who will be on pace next season and who will not.
My pick for the team to surprise is Renault. Fernando Alonso is many things good and bad, but he is undisputedly a great car developer. Look at how the 2008 Renault developed from a pathetic middle of the pack car to a race winner. Alonso looked particularly optimistic at the closing press conference for the Brazilian Grand Prix, which makes you think Renault could be a serious player again in 2009. BMW is also a team to watch, but their fall off at the end of 2008 cannot be dismissed without concern.
What team could be looking at a bit of a fall down the pecking order? The answer is McLaren. The team has gobs of money, but one has to look at the last five years to see the potential problem. Before Alonso arrived at McLaren for his one blustery year, the team was not competitive with Ferrari. In his one year, they became so and probably not because of the plans they allegedly stole from the company.
Now that Alonso is gone and a new car must be developed, can McLaren do it? The engineers are up to it, but the input of a quality driver is critical. Schumacher had his team at Ferrari. Alonso clearly has it at Renault. Lewis Hamilton can drive the wheels off a car, but the question now is can he develop one? If he can, he could go on a Schumacher like streak of winning. If he cannot, McLaren could fall back.
What about the other teams? The most interesting team is Honda. To say the team is a disaster would be an understatement. It is hard to imagine the powers that be at Honda will keep funding such an embarrassment for much longer. The golden ray of hope for the team is Ross Brawn, who did some magic at Ferrari. He has to have something to work with however, and the current Honda set up is just all wrong. Whether the company is willing to spend the money and time on two to four years of development is doubtful at best given the economic situation in the world. A betting man says Honda stays with it through 2009, but leaves F1 in 2010 unless a major breakthrough is made.
The distressing sign of the 2008 season will be the state of the Williams team. One of the great teams of Formula One, the fall has been long and hard over the last few years. The team simply cannot compete with the money being invested by manufacturers. With the economy going in the tank, it appears to be only a matter of time before Williams calls it a day. In fact, they team just lost a big sponsor in Royal Bank of Scotland, which has fallen in the banking crisis. Simply put, where is the Williams team going to get money? The day the great Frank Williams is out of Formula One will be a sad day indeed.
Indeed, Formula One stands at a key point in time. There have always been dominant teams and also rans, but the ability of the also rans to even form a team is now in question. The loss of Super Aguri this year was hardly a surprise, but more teams could be in trouble. While Force India will remain since it is the play thing of a billionaire, one of the Red Bull teams may be sold or liquidated. The ability of Williams to continue to take a financial beating is also very questionable.
If Formula One loses many of its privateers, the races will become a farce. A twelve car lineup of McLaren, Ferrari, Renault, BMW, Toyota and Honda would be a joke and it is doubtful many would tune in to watch the races. At the same time, F1 is all about technology, so standardizing the technology to save money seems a bit of a joke. Ferrari and other teams have already threatened to leave if a standardized engine is mandated. The issue of costs versus technology will continue to be a major issue over the next few years and one suspects F1 in 2011 will look nothing like it did in 2009.
So, what will 2009 ultimately produce? I’ll say Renault and BMW both give McLaren and Ferrari a run for their money. Alonso wins the Driver’s Championship, but a weak second driver for Renault results in Ferrari taking the Constructor’s title. Unfortunately, it will also be the last year for Williams in Formula One.