Pit Stop

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2008, 12:00am

Here we are again, on the cusp of a new Formula One season, and the only real question to be answered is: can it possibly beat last year? Last year was the year of fines and feuds. It was certainly the most dramatic season for a long time and, however traumatic it might have been for McLaren, it was great for the profile of the sport.

But don't worry, this year is shaping up to be a belter too. As only Formula One can, the whole landscape of the sport seems to have changed over the winter. New teams, new tracks, and, as always, new rules.

The rules will be a significant factor in the race for the title. Traction control has disappeared with the introduction of a standard electronic control unit. Expect much wheel spinning from the grid and in the wet, and equally much moaning from certain drivers. Don't listen to them, this will add to the race-day fun whether they like it or not and there's nothing wrong with that.

This year sees the start of a five-year freeze on engine development. Gearboxes have to last four races, but there will be no penalty for changing an engine, apart from the last race.

There are two new tracks to savour in the 18 rounds that make up this year's championship. They are both street circuits, one in Valencia and the other in Singapore. It's the Asian race that catches the imagination; held at night around some of the iconic parts of the city-state. The thought of the Padang and other emblems of the colonial past standing sentinel as F1 cars flash by seems anachronistic in the extreme, but it is what will make the race.

Blessedly, there's no US Grand Prix, but the 18 races stretch the calendar into November. A season so long, and ending with four flyaway races will really stretch the teams and their resources.

Of course this season started for the teams before Christmas, with a busy testing schedule. No surprise to see Ferrari and McLaren making the running and it's hard to bet against these two teams dominating again this season. It's a lot closer between the best of the rest, and I rather fancy Red Bull to stand out. David Coulthard and Mark Webber have bags of experience and in the pits Adrian Newey and Geoff Willis will expect their input to start bearing fruit.

Don't rule out 'Team Willy' - Williams either. A team who seemed to be sliding into oblivion have turned themselves around and have looked good in testing. It helps that the finances are solid enough for Sir Frank Williams to turn down what he described as a 'majestic' offer for the services of Nico Rosberg from McLaren. Rosberg could well be one of the drivers of the season. His teammate Kazuki Nakajima could be fun too. He's lightning fast but a little accident-prone.

It will be fascinating to see how the new Force India team fare. You would imagine pretty well, although perhaps not in their first season. The latest incarnation of the Jordan/Midland/Spyker saga look to have serious ambition and money behind them, not to mention the aspirations of a whole country.

It may not be the best season for Japanese fans. Honda's latest effort is slow, bringing the spectre of another season like last before Ross Brawn's magic starts to rub off. Toyota's top brass are said to have given their F1 team two years to start winning races, and Super Aguri may struggle to even turn up at Melbourne this weekend.

Of course, most fans will be focusing on a fascinating battle between the young guns who established themselves last season. Lewis Hamilton says he always gets better in his second season. He's seen off Fernando Alonso as his teammate, and it will be interesting to see how he copes with being the undisputed top dog at McLaren.

It's not his teammate Heikki Kovalainen that will bother him as much as the new world champion Kimi Raikkonen over at Ferrari. It took him a while, but the Finn is in the groove with the Italian team, and has the thing perhaps missing over previous seasons - focus.

While these two look to have their own private battle, keep an out for Fernando Alonso, who is gently simmering in the pack of also-rans. You suspect he'll be biding his time waiting for Ferrari, but that's a story for next year.