New rules rev up the action in this year’s F1 race season

The 2011 F1 season kicks off today with round one in Albert Park, Melbourne, in the Australian Grand Prix. While Lewis Hamilton is still the hottest racer in the competition, his looks are not enough to keep me cheering for his team.

I am yet to decide who to place my bets on this season, since the odds are unpredictable.

The season promises many thrills and unpredictability. TV viewers will be glued to their screens and enthusiasts will rise at dawn to watch qualifying sessions and races.

Last year’s winning team was Red Bull-Renault, with nine race wins, while Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes were hot on their wheels, sporting five wins each.

This year they are still touted as the top three teams in the 2011 FIA Formula One World Championship.

The Australian GP will see 58 laps around the 5.3km track, with 16 turns.

None of the drivers had driven on the Melbourne track with Pirelli tyres until the practice and qualifying rounds; and the track itself needs good braking stability for some of the bumpy corners.

Red Bull took the lead in the second practice round on Friday, with Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel taking turns to make the fastest lap times: 1m 26.831s and 1m 27.158s, by 0.327s, before the qualifying rounds yesterday. Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso came third in both sessions.

McLaren’s Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton set the pace in the first practice session with the fastest lap times of 1 minute, 28.854 seconds with Button 0.132 seconds ahead of Hamilton.

The biggest change for the season is the use of Pirelli’s purposely marginal racing tyres, which have much higher wear rates than the Bridgestones used until last year.
 
Pirelli have suggested their hard tyre be used as the main tyre for races while the soft ones are optional. Lots of rain is predicted for this season, so there are also wet and intermediate tyre options available to the teams.

The tyre types and compounds will be differentiated with colour coding and the Pirelli and PZero logos on the side walls.

So while you are watching each race, you will be able to tell which tyres are being used: wet – orange; intermediate – light blue; supersoft – red; soft – yellow; medium – white; and hard – silver.

According to F1.com, the tyres lose their performance edge at a much faster rate so teams are predicting as many as four pit stops per race.

A fast pitstop like Fernando Alonso’s scored him extra time last year, when his fastest pit stop at the Italian GP was just 3.4 seconds.
 
Times of this kind will be vital for all teams, since they will be making double the amount of stops per race.

The greatest number of pit stops was 49 at Albert Park in 2004, but as many as 80 stops might be made today if the weather permits.

Alonso said the number of laps they could cover on the hard or soft compound tyres was impossible to predict.

These are the top six teams likely to repeat last year’s performance:

» Team: Red Bull
Car: Reb Bull-Renault RB7

Drivers: 1 Sebastian Vettel, 2 Mark Webber

Red Bull have climbed the ranks and improved their racing drastically over the past few years. Much of this is thanks to big boss Dietrich Mateschitz, who practically demanded a world championship win: and a win is what he got when Vettel claimed victory in the Abu Dhabi final.

Design guru Adrian Newey, with three winning cars to his name, has brought out his latest offering. The RB7 proved itself fast in qualifying races, but also very reliable. Webber and Vettel are determined to rake in more wins and hold onto the title.

» Team: McLaren
Car: McLaren-Mercedes MP4-26

Drivers: 3 Lewis Hamilton, 4 Jenson Button

McLaren’s new MP4-26 has L-shaped sidepod intakes and a trick rear end, but did not prove reliable in testing because of some technical issues. Judging by their practice sessions, the cars seem to have got rid of the gremlins, despite Button and Hamilton both lacking confidence in the car.

Race results were on a par with Ferrari last year, so the team will definitely be pushing harder this year.

»?Team: Ferrari
Car: Ferrari 150° Italia
Drivers: 5 Fernando Alonso, 6 Felipe Massa
The Italian team were devastated last year when they ruined their chance in the last race of the year. Usually owners Luca di Montezemolo and Stefano Domenicali would have replaced the team but have rethought their strategy and kept the same team.
Red Bull has a head-on competitor when it comes to winning looks. The Scuderia looks its title-winning best and is very intimidating for the rest of the teams. Alonso is fired up for this year’s title and is still one of the best drivers in the race.
Massa is another to look out for, as the Brazilian needs to deliver if he doesn’t want to lose his Ferrari seat.

» Team: Mercedes GP
Car: Mercedes MGP W02

Drivers: 7 Michael Schumacher, 8 Nico Rosberg

The German team have significantly upgraded their car after it caused a lot of disappointment last year.

Schumacher and Rosberg believe they have what it takes to improve their results from the last season. While Schumacher has disappointed many fans since his return to F1, he recently said he did not believe they could grab the title this year either, but knew they could take a few podium wins.

Rosberg is eager to show he can dominate his teammate once again.

» Team: Renault
Car: Renault R31

Drivers: 9 Nick Heidfeld, 10 Vitaly Petrov

Renault has two very different drivers. Petrov loves speed and is committed. He loves driving a car that enjoys being pushed.

Heidfeld, on the other hand, has more experience and is more restrained. He prefers an easier car to drive.

These dynamics might prove costly. The car’s exhaust system has also attracted a lot of attention and envy from other teams. If McLaren loses focus, Renault might take third or fourth place in the rankings.

» Team: Williams
Car: Williams-Cosworth FW33

Drivers: 11 Rubens Barrichello, 12 Pastor Maldonado

Williams have two very aggressive drivers in Barrichello and Maldonado to match their equally aggressive car – the Sam Michael’s FW33.

The car features one of the most tightly packaged rear ends seen in the F1. They’re keen to make a fresh start this year after some disappointments with BMW.

While Mercedes GP, Renault and Williams are the current underdogs, they are keen to make a few podiums this year – and with all these interesting dynamics, anything is possible.

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