Vettel ready to embrace new era
After his world title triumph last year, Sebastian Vettel is the man to catch, says David Kennedy
A lbert Park in Melbourne, Australia is the Formula One 2011 season opener next weekend.
The Arab kingdom of Bahrain paid a premium to host the inaugural race of the season but it was cancelled due to the civil rights demonstrations in the capital Manama. Following the declaration of a three-month state of emergency, it is unlikely the race will be be re-scheduled.
Mark Webber probably put it best when he said: "When you hear of people losing their lives, this is a tragedy. It's probably not the best time to go there for a sporting event . . . they have bigger priorities."
And with the events unfolding in Japan, that Grand Prix could be in jeopardy too. The race isn't until October so that is the last thing Japan is thinking about right now. MotoGP has cancelled a race in Montegi scheduled for April.
Jenson Button, whose girlfriend is Japanese, has urged the F1 community to donate money to an action group called Peace Winds Japan, a charity providing shelter, blankets, food and water to help the tsunami victims. In Melbourne, Sauber drivers Kamui Kobayashi of Japan and Sergio Perez of Mexico, will carry a message in Japanese which translated says "may our prayers reach the people in Japan".
Last season ended with the cherub-faced Sebastian Vettel as the new champion after he finally shrugged off the impetuosity of youth and the leaden weight of expectation to deliver a title that was a certainty since the gobsmacking impudence of his debut win in a Toro Rosso at Monza in '08.
There has been a sea change in the regulations for 2011 with designers having had to factor in radical changes to the aerodynamics, as well as facilitating the reintroduction of the KERS energy recovery systems. New efforts to promote overtaking mean the drivers have cockpit adjustable rear wings, which will offer a straight-line speed advantage.
As a result, the top F1 gladiators will have to be Mensa members to cope with all the knobs and buttons in their vision. On any given lap a driver might be asked to adjust brake balance, differential settings, call on a power boost from KERS and operate the rear wing to help slipstream past the car in front. All the while chatting on the radio. Maybe it's a job better suited to the fairer sex given their propensity for multi-tasking. Some of the older drivers are grumbling about the distraction but the video-game generation will relish it and so too should the aficionados because it offers more opportunity for error and for the better drivers to separate themselves from the pack.
Add in the biggest new variable of all, the new tyres from Pirelli, and we have all the ingredients necessary to liven things up. As the sole tyre supplier, Pirelli has been asked to spice up the action by supplying covers that don't last as long as last year's Bridgestone tyres.
That ought to be anathema to a tyre company but Pirelli has bought into the idea that low durability means extra pit stops and bigger headaches for the hard-pressed drivers, and testing thus far indicates that team personnel from the cockpit to the pit wall are going to have their hands full. Theoretically, that should be good news for Fernando Alonso, renowned for being able to think on his wheels, and Ferrari appear to have the car closest to Red Bull on outright pace.
McLaren, though, are struggling, and not for the first time at the outset of a recent season. Lewis Hamilton's frustration has already spilled over into public criticism but with Simon Fuller as his new manager (creator of everything with the word 'Idol' at the end of it), perhaps it's all part of the act.
Vettel is well placed to hit the ground running in Melbourne and at 23, and with the title tucked nicely under his belt, he has inked a three-year contract extension with a team that retains enviable stability and talent.
Webber's future with the squad will hinge on peak performance unless he can offer a credible rivalry to Vettel without the confrontation that characterised his 2010 campaign. If he fails then Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz will be trawling his extensive talent school for a suitable replacement.
Webber's fellow countryman, Daniel Ricciardo, may be waiting a bit too closely in the wings for Webber's liking, as Red Bull's and Toro Rosso's test and reserve driver.
The 2009 British F3 champion tested for Red Bull at Yas Marina circuit last November, finishing up faster than Vettel's qualifying run, although a week separated their times.
What else is new for 2011? A major loss to the grid is undoubtedly the Lotus-Renault driver Robert Kubica, who sustained life-threatening injuries in a rally in Italy in February. The supremely talented Pole has just undergone a fourth operation to his elbow and there is no timeline for a return. Nick Heidfeld will be his stand-in at Lotus.
A new name in F1 is Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado, the reigning GP2 champion and GP2 Monaco winner, who has been selected by Williams to replace Nico Hulkenberg. The 26-year-old (let's face it, that's ancient in F1 terms), brings government funding to the team. It will be an interesting juxtaposition of the self-proclaimed socialist who is a close friend of anti-capitalist/anti-British monarchy President Hugo Chavez, and team boss Frank Williams who was knighted.
Force India has replaced Vitantonio Liuzzi with Scotland's Paul di Resta, cousin of Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti. Di Resta won the European F3 title in 2006, beating team-mate Sebastian Vettel following which he went on to race in the German Touring Car Championship (DTM) winning the title in his fourth season.
The paddock will see lots of new faces next weekend in Melbourne but on the top step of the podium on Sunday perhaps it will be familiar one of the dimple-grin of one Sebastian Vettel.
But not if last year's winner Fernando Alonso has anything to do with it. Massa and Hamilton completed the top three in 2010 while Vettel, Rosberg and Schumacher followed.
In fact, Vettel didn't win until the third race and he didn't repeat that win until the ninth. Who knows? He might even enjoy the honey-heavy dew of slumber before he gets all revved-up for 2011.
Sunday Indo Sport