The wheel is about the only thing the FIA hasn't tinkered with

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 March, 2006, 12:00am


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A new season in any sport is always exciting, but let's face it, in Formula One there's that little bit more to get you worked up. Football fans will always spend hours pre-season talking about new signings for their team and the prospect of promotion.

But no matter what the new term brings, the goals will always be the same size and it's highly unlikely that the penalty spot will have been moved to the corner flag. Football's rules have remained largely unchanged for over a century. Not so F1.

A new season kicks off this weekend in Bahrain and the average petrol head will be coming to terms with the fact that the powers that be, the FIA, have been re-inventing the wheel.

Actually, the wheel is about the only thing that hasn't been tinkered with, but the tyres on them have gone through yet another rule change. Once again teams can change tyres during pit stops. The big winners are Bridgestone, who suffered under last year's regulations, and their biggest customers, Ferrari.

The cars themselves are different too, forced to use smaller engines. Why? It's hard to tell. It's a prime example of rule changes for no good reason that F1 is infuriatingly good at.

Then there's qualifying. The good news is the end of one-shot qualifying. Sadly the new one-hour format has been complicated with slower cars dropping out after 15 minutes and half an hour. Why couldn't the FIA just leave everyone in for the whole hour like the good old days? I better get off the subject of rule changes and the FIA before I get a nosebleed and get down to the nitty gritty of the racing. On the surface there's a lot that's changed. And yet at the front of the grid it could be Groundhog Day. The new McLaren has been lightning fast during testing ... when the engine wasn't blowing up. Sound familiar? Kimi Raikkonen certainly hasn't been happy and, if reports are correct, could be packing up his troubles in a (designer) kit bag and heading to Ferrari next year.

That may in part be due to the fact that world champion Fernando Alonso will be heading to McLaren in 2007. In the meantime Alonso is presiding over a Renault car that may not have the power of their rivals, but isn't likely to end up on a tow truck every race either. With Alonso they have every chance of holding on to their titles.

Who else might be in the mix? Only a fool would rule out Ferrari. Fans of the Prancing Horse will hope they can bounce back after a truly dreadful season in 2005. The big question mark is over Michael Schumacher. Despite retirement talk, if he still has the hunger, Ferrari will be a danger.

Keep an eye out for Toyota, too. With Mike Gascoigne pulling the strings they should continue their transformation from superannuated slowcoaches to genuine podium sitters. Further down the grid there will be no less interest. Williams may no longer have BMW to power them along, but, in Nico Rosberg, they have hired the son of one of their former world champions.

Jenson Button should make 2006 the year he finally wins a grand prix after over 100 attempts. Red Bull now has two teams in the championship after buying up the rubbish, but much loved Minardi, and renaming it Torro Rosso. 'Red-Bull-In Italian' is providing one of the best-named drivers in motorsport - Scott Speed. Expect cliched headlines around the world (but not in the pages of this august journal of course).

The most bizarre story I leave to last (which is exactly where they will be on the track). Newcomers Super Aguri only got the green light to enter F1 in January and are driving machines cobbled together from four-year-old Arrows remnants. They are three seconds a lap off the pace. Even if the cars don't grind to a halt, you can rely on driver Takuma Sato to put one into a gravel trap.

Like many things in F1, you couldn't make it up. But then, despite everything, that's why we love this sport.