So the 2011 Formula 1 season is finally upon us so here are my predictions for what we may be able to expect in the upcoming season.
Red Bull starts the season as clear favourites and have set the pace in testing so far during the winter, and it is expected that they will carry that pace going into the season. Both drivers will put in a strong championship challenge, and I fully expect them and the team to have learnt from their mistakes in 2010.
On paper, Sebastian Vettel should have the edge over Mark Webber, but if Mark can start the season with a strong result and gain the upper hand over Sebastian early in the championship, then I think he will be in a stronger position to fight for the title.
Red Bull’s main challenge appears to come from Ferrari. The Scuderia seemed to be the closest to the Red Bull on laptimes during winter testing and the fight at the front of the grid appears to be between these two teams.
Fernando Alonso will no doubt put in a strong challenge and get the best out of the Ferrari as he did in 2010 and I expect him to be the big title threat against the Red Bulls.
Behind these two teams, there appears to be a close fight within the midfield. McLaren have struggled in testing with speed and reliability so it looks like a difficult season for the Woking based squad. The team faced a similar season in 2009, but a fast development rate allowed them to push for wins towards the end of that season.
This looks to be a similar season for McLaren, I do not believe they are quite strong enough to launch a championship challenge, but if they can start the season as ‘the best of the rest’ they have the resources to push their rate of development to try and catch the Red Bull and Ferrari.
Mercedes seem to be in a similar situation to McLaren, in that they have a lot of time to find. Their most recent upgrade package helped bridge some of the gap to the front, but they need to continue to push so they do not get left behind at the front. A championship challenge will require a lot of fortune for Mercedes, but I expect them to fight for podiums and victories as the season goes on.
McLaren and Mercedes appear to have been caught by Renault, their innovative Forward Exhaust Exit configuration, which has caught the eye of the other teams, shows how much they are trying to close the gap to the front. However, their pace is not just down to this, Renault have shown a very quick rate of development in the past couple of seasons, and if they can continue this, they have the potential to be on a par with McLaren and Mercedes as the season goes on.
Behind these teams, the other teams in midfield appear to have made big strides to catch these teams at the front. Williams appear to have made a big step and I think they could be the surprise package in 2011, and with some luck, we could see Rubens Barrichello making a return to the podium. Race wins are maybe too ambitious, but can never be discounted with luck and strategy.
Along with Williams, Toro Rosso and Sauber appear to have made a step forward and both these teams could be regular points finishers. It is possible that these teams will be close to McLaren, Mercedes and Renault on pace, but whether they can maintain that as the season goes on will depend on their rate of development and the resources at their disposal.
At the back end of the midfield, there looks to be an interesting fight between Team Lotus and Force India. Team Lotus have definitely made big improvements this season, and appear to have closed the gap to the midfield teams. They look to be able to start the season at a similar level to Force India, but both these teams could easily be able to race against the Sauber and Toro Rosso. I think we could see Team Lotus score their first points this season.
Lastly we have the Virgin and HRT teams. Virgin seem to have struggled on pace in testing, and I see them starting the season clearly behind Team Lotus and the established teams. As they understand their car and develop as the season goes on, they have the potential to close the gap to those in front. HRT look to be struggling in all areas, the go into the season without any mileage on their new car, so it looks to be a repeat of 2010. I honestly believe we may even see HRT fail to qualify within the 107% time and it would not surprise me if we do not see HRT complete the season.
The one thing that cannot be predicted in 2011 is what the racing will hold. With the switch to Pirelli this year, and all the teams struggling on these tyres, we will see a lot of unpredictability with strategy and pace as the race goes on. With the inclusion of KERS and the DRS system, it looks like we will see more overtaking.
Whether we will see close racing at the front depends on if any of the teams can close the gap on Red Bull and Ferrari. I believe we will see the best of the action in midfield. With any one of 10 teams being fairly evenly spread on pace, it will be a close battle for points. With the aforementioned changes with tyres, KERS and DRS, we could even see a few surprises during the course of the year.
As the 2011 season finally kicks off, it’s shaping up to be one of the closest and most unpredictable seasons ever.