Pit Stop

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 March, 2011, 12:00am

It took a while, but at last the 2011 Formula One season is under way. The lights that go out on the grid on Sunday won't be in Bahrain, but in Melbourne. It's a shame that Bahrain had to be cancelled but as one reporter put it, there's no point having a F1 race when you can't even drive to the end of the road.

The Australian Grand Prix should finally answer some burning questions that have been occupying petrolheads all winter.

There are a couple of changes that could well turn the sport on its head. First, there's a new tyre supplier. Pirelli have been testing their rubber all winter to try in effect to make the tyres worse than last season. They have been under orders from the FIA to increase the amount of tyre degradation in a race. This should certainly make the races unpredictable as drivers try to preserve the rubber. Those drivers with the smoother style like Jenson Button will benefit. It will almost certainly mean more pit stops, which should add more excitement.

Perhaps the most radical new innovation is the movable rear wing. It may not sound that revolutionary, but trust me, it is. Whether it will work or cause chaos is another matter entirely. The idea is that drivers chasing another car can open up a gap in the rear wing, giving them less drag and more speed.

The use of it though will be tightly controlled. It can only be used if the chasing car is within a second of the one in front. It can only be used on one designated straight. Race control will decide whether it can be deployed, and if it can, a light will illuminate on the driver's steering wheel. It cannot be used in the first two laps of a race or for two laps after a safety car deployment.

There have, understandably, been critics of the plan. They claim it will be too complicated and possibly dangerous. Others feel it is too artificial and against the spirit of racing. Some drivers feel they are becoming less racers and more button-pushing passengers.

Perhaps we should give the experiment a go. It's no more artificial than the Kers boost system which makes a return this year. And at least somebody is trying to address the problem of a lack of overtaking. It may be that two closely matched cars just swap places every lap, but time will tell. The 600-metre overtaking zone in Melbourne is on the start/finish straight and it will be worth keeping an eye on it.

Among all the changes, some things have stayed the same. The driver line-ups for the leading teams have not changed. Sebastian Vettel will be supremely confident of defending his title in a Red Bull that has come through winter testing looking ominously good. His teammate, Mark Webber, will be hoping that last year was not his best shot at the title. At least his shoulder, broken for the last four races of 2010, is back in working order.

Ferrari looks to be the closest contender. The car is fast and Fernando Alonso looks increasingly comfortable with the Prancing Horse. Once again, McLaren are playing catch-up after a disappointing debut to their MP4-26. They look to be off the pace, which will be a considerable disappointment to their all-British line-up. Button and Hamilton have the talent and the hunger, but will the car be up to scratch early enough to give them a fighting chance?

Renault have been looking very good in pre-season but have been rocked by the rallying accident to Robert Kubica that has finished his season before it began and could still finish his career.

On a lighter note, try not to be confused by the two Lotus teams on the grid. Renault are now Lotus Renault GP, backed by the Lotus Group. Meanwhile, Tony Fernandes is heading to court to ensure he can continue to call his outfit Team Lotus.

Rookies to look out for include Sauber's Sergio Perez, who made a big impression during testing. At Williams, the cash of the Venezuelan driver Pastor Maldonado has elbowed out the talented Nico Hulkenberg. Maldonado is no mug either, and comes to the season as the GP2 champion.

It's a long season, including a new stop in India, and it stretches until the end of November. It promises to be every bit as enthralling as last year's epic, but if you're looking for a prediction to aid a flutter, you're looking at the wrong person. It's too tight to call.