With the return of Michael Schumacher, no more refueling, 3 new teams and only 6 drivers staying with their 2009 rides, the 2010 Formula 1 season's been touted as the most anticipated in series history, a season that'll kick off tomorrow with the first two practice sessions.
With no clear favorite after pre-season testing, the title is wide open between the favorites of Mclaren, Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes GP. But do any of the other teams stand a chance of challenging for victories, points or even remote competitiveness? Here's the rundown of the 12 teams that'll be on the grid at Bahrain.
#1 - Jensen Button (GBR)
#2 - Lewis Hamilton (GBR)
Although there's less Mercedes at Mclaren-Mercedes thanks to the German automaker selling it's share in the ownership of the team to focus on it's own factory team, Mclaren is in the enviable position of having the last two F1 world champions in Hamilton and Button. It was a strange role reversal for the two drivers in 2009 as Hamilton suffered through Liegate, which he almost quit F1 over, and the awful performance of the MP4-24 in the first half of the year which ended his championship defense early. Meanwhile Jensen Button, who only had 1 good car in 9 seasons and had never met expectations, got a gift of a car thanks to the double diffuser controversy and made the most of it to win the championship. After Brawn GP became Mercedes GP, he left for the greener grass of Mclaren where he'll be hard pressed to match Hamilton who has always had the support of the team over his teammates. Nonetheless Button's a big improvement over Heikki Kovalainen who struggled in his time at Mclaren and the abandonment of development of the MP4-24 last year will give them a much better start than 2009.
#3 - Michael Schumacher (D)
#4 - Nico Rosberg (D)
From first-year champions as Brawn GP, the former Honda F1 team, to Mercedes GP and fielding Michael Schumacher... Just a further example of the strange world of Formula 1. When Honda left the sport after 2008 they left a hell of a car for Ross Brawn to use, and despite falling behind on development towards the end of the season compared to the big teams they had such an advantage thanks to the technical loophole that was the double diffuser they couldn't be overtaken. Now Mercedes GP has bought the team and while they'll be far less likely to have a similar car advantage this year they might strike lightning with the huge advantage of Michael Schumacher. He's 41 years old, 3 seasons removed from his last race in F1 and 5 removed from his 7th championship. But he was as good as ever in his final year and coulda shoulda won an 8th so expectations are high that the return of the Brawn/Schumacher combo will help Mercedes compete for wins and even the championship. A big help to that'll be Nico Rosberg who'd done an admirable job with an inconsistent Williams F1 in his first 4 seasons. He's coming off his best season in F1 to date and could get his first career F1 win.
Red Bull Racing
#5 - Sebastien Vettel (DEU)
#6 - Mark Webber (AUS)
Brawn GP wasn't the only surprise team in F1 in 2009 as RBR was runner-up to Brawn thanks to the young phenom Vettel and the veteran Webber. The team with the least amount of change coming into 2010, Vettel might be the closest thing to a favorite for the 2010 drivers championship. Vettel's rise to success has been quick and remarkable after becoming the youngest driver to score points at Indy in 2007, pulling off an incredible upset win from upset pole with Scuderia Toro Rosso in the wet at Monza in 2008, and then rattling off 4 wins and a runner-up finish in the points with RBR in 2009. For Webber it was a long time coming as the veteran of over 100 F1 races dropped the tag of "driver who does well with bad equipment" for "winning F1 driver", getting his first two victories in F1. Technical director Adrian Newey is an aerodynamic mastermind with over 80 GP wins to his credit and his 2009 RB5 machine was quick out the gate despite no double diffuser. The team has all the pieces to win the championship this season and Vettel could become the youngest champion in series history, the 3rd driver in the last 6 years to get the record if he does it.
#7 Felipe Massa (BRA)
#8 Fernando Alonso (ESP)
If it weren't for Michael Schumacher's return, Fernando Alonso would be the best F1 driver on the grid today. But Alonso'll get a great chance to put himself over as he replaces Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari for 2010 alongside Felipe Massa as the Prancing Horse should return to championship contention this season. Both Ferrari and Mclaren struggled for the first half of 2009 after the war for the 2008 championship cost them development time on their 2009 cars, opening the door for Brawn GP and Red Bull Racing. Massa's mid-season head injury from flying debris that put him out for the rest of the season didn't help matters either, but it did motivate Kimi enough to win at Spa and rattle off some podiums to salvage the season. With Kimi off in WRC, Ferrari now has a driver who is considered more capable of working with the team and developing the car, basically being a better team player. Except with teammates, as evidenced by the 2007 Mclaren fiasco, which could mean trouble for Felipe Massa. Mass had garnered the support of Ferrari during his time alongside Kimi and had developed into a championship caliber driver before his injury, so there's big question marks as to whether Massa can be 100% again and whether he can match Alonso regardless. But they're as good a driver pairing as there is in F1, and with Ferrari abandoning the F60 mid-season to focus on this year's car they'll be in the hunt all season.
These 4 teams will be the ones who'll contend for the drivers and constructors championship.
#9 - Rubens Barrichello (BRA)
#10 - Nico Hulkenberg (D)
Williams may have lost their star Nico Rosberg for 2010 but they replaced him and the struggling Kazuki Nakajimi with another talented German named Nico and veteran Rubens Barrichello. Whether they can contend for regular podiums and wins is unknown but they've got a great young driver in Nico Hulkenberg to hag their hat on for the next few seasons. After revitalizing his career at Brawn GP with his first wins in F1 since 2004, Barrichello will play both likely #1 at Williams and mentor to Nico Hulkenberg. But despite last season Rubens is closing in on the end of his career so the door's open for Nico to come out on top this year. Hulkenberg has won championships at every level he's raced at, most recently last season with a dominant GP2 championship, and comes in with the same resume as Lewis Hamilton. However Nico won't have close to the same great car as Lewis did when he moved up to Mclaren in 2007 so a win is unlikely but a few podiums could happen.
Renault F1 Team
#11 - Robert Kubica (POL)
#12 - Vitaly Petrov (RUS)
Although a lot less Renault than they used to be thanks to a change in ownership to keep the team going, they'll be returning to the old yellow-black colors of old and will field two new drivers for 2010: Robert Kubica and Russian rookie Vitaly Petrov. Kubica is one of the better drivers in F1 today, having gotten BMW Sauber it's first win in 2008 and contending for the championship in a team that was supposed to be best-of-the-rest behind Ferrari and Mclaren. But after BMW Sauber jumped the shark in 2009 and then BMW lef the sport, Kubica ended up replacing Fernando Alonso at Renault. The team struggled last season as well with Alonso only managing one podium with Nelson Piquet Jr. and rookie Romain Grosjean able to do nothing. More might be in store for 2010 as Kubica will be hard pressed for podiums while it'll be a learning process for Petrov, the first Russian born driver to ever compete in F1. Petrov was solid in GP2 last year winning a couple of feature races and finishing runner-up to Nico Hulkenberg so the potential's there. Fortunately Flavio Briatore, who was hard on rookies Kovalainen and Piquet Jr. in recent seasons, isn't with Renault anymore after Crashgate so Petrov could get a decent points haul for the season.
Force India F1 Team
#14 - Adrian Sutil (D)
#15 - Vitantonio Liuzzi (I)
With an upsurge in performance last year with their first pole and podium and the new teams in F1, Force India will find themselves farther from dead last than they've ever been as they continue to climb up towards the middle of the pack. Veteran Giancarlo Fisichella was the one to get their first pole and podium, at Spa, but left to sub in for Massa at Ferrari where he's now the test and reserve driver. Liuzzi, formerly of Red Bull and Scuderia Toro Rosso, replaced Fisi and stays in the ride for 2010. But the driver who Force India will be depending on to take them to even newer heights will be Adrian Sutil. Although he's made his mistakes in his first few season of F1 he's still considered to be a driver with a lot of potential and last season was his best to date, getting a career best finish of 4th at Monza. They finished 9th in the constructors standings last year and with teams leaving and new teams coming in 8th is probably their floor for this season. Sutil will get the majority of the points for Force India.
STR is one of only two teams, ironically enough both team backed by Red Bull, to return the same driver lineup they had in 2009. A less remarkable one than RBR, their sophomore drivers will be trying to prove they belong in F1 for the long term. Buemi was probably the ROTY in F1 last season, starting the year with some points then struggling through the middle before coming on strong at the end. It was a struggle altogether for Jaime who was the youngest driver to ever race in F1 when he replaced former Champ Car standout Sebastien Bourdais mid-season and looked it. Getting a chance to go through the pre-season testing will help Jaime a lot so this'll be a much better test of what they can do. Of the teams from last year they'll probably be the worst of the bunch unless Buemi can really stand out, so it'll be tough to score many points just like last season.
#18 - Jarno Trulli (I)
#19 - Heikki Kovalainen (FIN)
One of the 3 new teams for 2010, they sport easily the best lineup of the 3 with experienced race winners Trulli and Heikki and as such stand the best chance of being the best of the rookie teams. The team isn't actually affiliated with the former Team Lotus that raced in F1 but would consider any success to be a continuation of Lotus' legacy in F1. The team has struggled in testing just like Virgin Racing, the only other new team to get any pre-season testing in, but unlike the other teams they've got experienced drivers to help develop the car. Points are going to be extremely hard for any of the new teams but they stand the best just based on the driver advantage.
HRT F1 Team
#20 - Karun Chandhok (IND)
#21 - Bruno Senna (BRA)
AKA Hispania Racing F1 Team, they'll be fielding rookies Karun Chandhok and Bruno Senna. Chandhok is the Indian driver Bernie Eccelstone has wanted in F1 since Narain Karthikeyan bombed out while Bruno is the nephew of Ayrton Senna. The first practice on Friday will be the first time their car will have hit the track so this is a team that will be in big trouble out of the gate. Senna was solid in single-seaters despite starting out late in his career due to his uncle's death putting a hold on his racing while Chandhok was average; as teammates in 2008 Senna was 2nd with 2 wins while Karun was 10th in the GP2 championship with 1 win. This is going to be a very trying season for a team that barely made the grid in the first place.
BMW Sauber F1 Team
#22 - Pedro de la Rosa (ESP)
#23 - Kamui Kobayashi (J)
Technically the team has returned to being just Sauber F1 after BMW left F1 following the 2009 season but the name will stick for the season. Peter Sauber is back in charge after selling ownership of the team to BMW in 2006 and will field veteran test driver Pedro de la Rosa and rookie Kamui Kobayashi. PDLR was formerly a long-time test driver for Mclaren who also replaced Juan Pablo Montoya in the race seat for the 2nd half of 2006 and got a runner-up finish in a race. Recent testing rules have limited his time in the car but he's as capable a test driver as any to put in a race seat and he'll be valuable in developing the car. After Toytota pulled out following 2009 it left Kobayashi without a ride despite being very impressive in the last two races after replacing the injured Timo Glock. Kamui was very aggressive and wild but also effective, finishing 6th at Abu Dhabi ahead of teammate Jarno Trulli. Kobayashi will be fun to watch and will contend with Nico Hulkenberg for the non-existant ROTY award. The team turmoil will probably take a toll and they'll likely fight it out with STR to not be dead last among the established teams.
#24 - Timo Glock (DEU)
#25 - Luca di Grassi (BRA)
Formerly Manor until billionaire Richard Branson bought the team, Virgin Racing will field former Toyota driver Timo Glock and rookie Luca di Grassi. One of the two teams to get some pre-season testing in, they were slow as you'd expect. Interestingly enough they didn't use a wind tunnel to help design the car, instead relying solely on CFD (computational fluid dynamics, basically computer simulation) to design the car which has garnered some criticism from the established teams. It'll be interesting to see how the development of the car goes (well or awfully) as the season progresses using just CFD. Timo Glock will be their best hope for scoring point as Timo was solid in his time with Toyota and solidified his spot in the sport. di Grassi has been a mainstay in GP2 the last 4 seasons, collecting 5 wins and finishing 2nd in 2007 and 3rd the last 2 seasons. He's finally getting his shot at F1 but he'll have a very tough time with a brand new team compared to the likes of Hulkenberg, Petrov and Kobayashi at the established teams. But he's got a much better shot than the rookie tandem at HRT. They'll fight it out with Lotus for the honour of being the best of the new guys.
Red Bull Racing comes into 2010 with the least amount of changes which could mean that either they're sitting content while other teams improve or they're simply already good enough with what they have. I believe in the latter and that Sebastien Vettel will win the 2010 Formula 1 Championship. The usual suspects, Alonso, Massa and Hamilton, will contend as well.
The constructors will be another thing. Webber did a great job last year but I think Vettel's really going to stamp his mark as the top dog at RBR which could mean a downturn in performance for Webber as Ferrari and Mclaren will be competing for podium spots too. Mclaren have the last two champions but Button could be in for major disappointment joining what is essentially Hamilton's team and playing 2nd fiddle. Button's good but he's no Alonso who could hang with Hamilton in 2007 despite the favoritism. That opens the door for Ferrari to win the constructor's championship as I think Alonso and Massa will be the closest pair. It'll be like 2008 when Ferrari's 2nd driver, Kimi Raikkonen that season, was much better than Kovalainen at Mclaren which was the difference.
Michael Schumacher will get at least one win but will finish behind the RBR, Ferrari and Mclaren drivers in the standings while a Nico, Hulkenberg and/or Rosberg, are the likeliest first time winners. Rosberg might even give Schumi a run as I think people are overestimating how he'll do in his return and might also underestimate Rosberg.
The experience and talent of Lotus' drivers will give them the best-of-the-worst award as best of the new teams. HRT will be lucky to make it through the year, Senna's still a question mark and I have no faith in Chandhok's ability as a driver.
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