The 2011 Formula One season starts with a slew of new rules, new drivers, and a new tire manufacturer. Bridgestone, who has been providing Formula One tires since 1996 and was the sole tire manufacturer since 2006, decided to pull out of F1 at the end of the 2010 season; allowing Pirelli to fill their spot for the 2011 season. Additionally, a number of new rules have been imposed this year in hopes of improving the spectacle and removing any sort of aerodynamic advantages that were gained through loopholes in the 2010 seasonís rules.
The 2010 season saw cars with moveable front wings in an attempt to increase passing. This year, the F1 cars will no longer have moveable front wings, but rather the upper plane on the rear wing will be adjustable. However, there will be limitations on when the wing can be adjusted. Adjustment is allowed any time in practice and qualifying but during the race, the wing can only be adjusted when a car is one second behind another in a predetermined zone. If it were to rain or a car is on wet weather tires, the car is not allowed to adjust the rear wing.
The days of drivers speeding down a straight with one had on the wheel and one hand on the F-duct are over. The ingenious wing-stalling mechanism has been banned, which is a good thing because the driver has a few more things to do on the steering wheel this season. Subsequently, changes to the rules that dictate the rear of the floor means that double diffusers are banned and stricter regulation of the rear crash structure and the starter hole means that blown diffusers are out as well. There are a few teams running the exhaust gases through the starter hole (Ferrari) or around the diffuser (Red Bull Racing), but even cleverer is Lotus Renault's solution, which moves the exhaust pipes forward through the sidepods and dumps the exhaust gas underneath the car to the rear diffuser, achieving a blown effect.
Other changes include bringing back KERS and, with an increased minimum weight, teams have less to worry about when deciding if they will be running KERS or not. Pirelli is the new tire manufacturer and they have promised more tire wear which should somehow increase the race excitement. In 2010 we saw the back runners getting lapped not once but twice and even three times per race. This year, qualifying times must be within 107% of pole in order for a driver to qualify for the race. This is good for us and the front runners, bad for the teams that designed a terrible car. Sorry, HRT, Virgin, and Team Lotus.
It's extremely difficult to say who will set the pace in this coming Sunday, despite seeing Red Bull top first practice and McLaren, who had no pace through to the end of testing, top the second practice. We saw a five-way battle for the championship at the end of the 2010 season between the two Red Bull drivers, the two McLaren drivers, and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso. Red Bull Racing took the constructor's championship and Sebastian Vettel took the driver's championship.
It seems that Red Bull has much the same pace as last year, but we shouldn't rule out Ferrari and Fernando Alonso. Alonso's consistency and speed definitely makes him a force on the track. Although both Red Bulls were able to set the fastest laps in P1 with Alonso in third, Alonso set a faster lap than the Red Bull's in P2 and maintained a third position behind the two McLarens. So how fast is the Ferrari? That's hard to say because Alonso is known to outperform the capabilities of the car and with Felipe trailing in 11th in P1 and in 7th in P2, the Ferrari doesn't seem as quick as Alonso makes it.
We can't rule out the pace of McLaren or Mercedes, who were at the top of the time sheets. Mercedes was very happy with the development of the car through the testing period and it looks like they will be a contender for the title. McLaren didn't have such success in testing, but they're quick second practice. So it looks like this season will be a battle between Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren, and Mercedes.
The three wild card teams to look out for are Williams, Lotus Renault who has one of the most radical designs on the grid along with McLaren, and Sauber. Both Sauber and Williams have recruited new drivers from the top of the GP2 standings. Williams' Pastor Maldonado took 1st place in GP2 last year and is backed by PDVSA, the Venezuelan state oil company, and he replaces Nico Hulkenberg. Sauber's Sergio Perez coincidentally took 2nd place in GP2 last year and brought his Telmex sponsorship to Sauber. Renault returns this season as Lotus Renault, backed by the actual Lotus, with the classic black and gold livery. Unfortunately, Renault driver Robert Kubica suffered an accident during pre-season testing that has disallowed him from participating this season. His seat is taken by his former BMW Sauber team mate Nick Heidfeld. All three have shown a relatively quick pace and it's very likely that we might see someone from each of these teams on the podium in future races.
Who will take pole tonight? I'm going to go out on a limb and say Sebastian Vettel will be on pole followed by Weber and hopefully Alonso.
Who will win the race? Who knows, given the chance of rain and the effect adjustable wings and increased tire wear have on a race. You'll have to watch and see.