Red Bull honcho Christian Horner recently made some rough predictions about how the coming season might unfold. The emphasis here is on rough, as the Big Four teams (Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull and McLaren) have shown a tight cluster of performance levels thus far in testing this year.
“Our analysis is showing us that you have got three teams [Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari] that are very tight and it is about who gets it right on the day,” Horner told Autosport. “I think Mercedes look more variable. It is harder to read their true performance.”
Horner also qualified this, by saying, “But nobody has fully declared their hand yet,” which echoed what others were saying up and down pit lane during pre-season testing. With performance being very close to parity among the top four teams, and with fuel levels and testing programs varying within a wide range, it was next to impossible to get a close fix on who might emerge as the clear leading team at Bahrain this weekend. Conclusion: it will be a close fight.
Horner also speculated on how this year’s driver pairings might pan out. Under the new refueling ban, which will force drivers to look after their tires to a much greater degree than they’re used to, races will likely be one-stoppers (the required minimum of a single tire rotation, using both primary and option compounds, is still in effect) and if a driver cooks his tires with a mega-heavy fuel load in the opening laps, it will likely ruin his race. Horner believes that Red Bull pilot Sebastian Vettel would respond well to the challenge of finding the sweet spot between performance and tire management.
According to Horner, “Thinking drivers will come to the fore this year. Sebastian is a thinking driver…Sebastian was fantastic last year when he was given a challenge to save fuel. He was phenomenal at being able to sustain a very strong pace while also looking after the car.” Without saying it in so many words, he seemed to acknowledge the popular notion that Vettel is the favored driver in the team. But then, performance makes the favorite, and last year Vettel convincingly outperformed team mate Mark Webber, who is no slouch himself.
As for returning seven-time world champ, Michael Schumacher, Horner assumes he’ll be a force to be reckoned with, regardless of the relative merits of the Mercedes. “Michael looks on it,” Horner said. “He has definitely given nothing away from his time out.” No mention of Schumacher’s team mate, Nico Rosberg.
While Rosberg thought that this would be his year to shine (and it might), it’s the re-teaming of the famous Michael Schumacher/Ross Brawn duo that piqued everyone’s interest, as this is the most successful director/driver pairing in F1 history. Said Horner, “The Schumacher/Mercedes/Brawn combination is … a very potent one.”
Horner suspects that the most interesting driver pairings, at least in the context of intra-team politics, might be on display at Ferrari and McLaren. “It is going to be interesting to see what happens with Lewis and Jenson [at McLaren], and it will be down to the team how they manage that. They are both professional guys and it is going to be fascinating how the dynamics of that work.”
While McLaren has always prided itself on effective driver management, especially during the Ron Dennis era, this seems to be more a case of wishful thinking rather than reality. McLaren has been the center of the most provocative intra-team squabbles during the past 20 years. The ongoing battle royale between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, which resulted in title-deciding collisions in two consecutive years, was the stuff of legend. And the calamity of the 2007 campaign, which saw Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso continually at odds, gave both men a reputation for being prima donas.
As for the current McLaren line-up, it’s widely assumed that Hamilton has matured since the 2007 debacle, and if he engages in turf portection, he’ll likely do it with more finesse than before. As for Button, many have speculated that he’ll end up as a one-off champ who peaked late and finished his career playing second fiddle to Hamilton, with the official sanction of the team. Perhaps. But Horner reiterated the old adage that ultimately it’s a driver’s performance that wins team loyalty: “The bottom line is, if [Jenson] is quick the team will very quickly fall in love with him.” In other words, if Button could manage to gain the edge over Hamilton, the team’s inner dynamics would eventually swing in Button’s favor, never mind that Hamilton has been linked with the team since age 13.
And as for Ferrari, they have what is potentially the most volatile driver match-up on the grid. Horner speculated that the Fernando Alonso/Felipe Massa combination “is either going to make fantastic music or there will be fireworks. Massa has gone okay so it is going to be fascinating how he handles Alonso. Suddenly you have got a very different animal to deal with than Kimi Raikkonen with Fernando next to him. Fernando is a pretty ruthless operator and he won’t take any prisoners. You can see he is a very passionate guy. A fantastic driver and a combination of Ferrari and Alonso is going to be a strong one. But he doesn’t look the kind of guy that tolerates things not going how he wants them or his way.”
However the season pans out, the current grouping of drivers and teams promises to be one of the most exciting and competitive in many years. Ironically, as Sebastian Vettel recently pointed out, we’ll have a first-tier group of eight drivers, all of whom have the potential to snag this year’s top honor, and yet at least one of them is destined to end up eighth in the final standings.