F1 2010 raises 10 good questions
It was a strange year in Formula One, with ugly new cars, the usual political intrigue and an unexpected world champion who finished on the podium just twice in the last 10 races.
Meanwhile, McLaren and Ferrari, the usual F1 standard-bearers, won just three races combined and fought to claim a distant third place in the Constructors Championship.
Yet despite all the unrest and upheaval, F1 still remains the absolute king of motorsports everywhere in the world except the United States. So let's look back on the 2009 Formula One season and turn our attention to 2010 with a game of "10 Questions"
1. What's next for world champion Jenson Button?
Button truly looked like a world champion in the first part of 2009, winning six of the first seven races in the surprising Brawn-Mercedes. It's a lucky thing he established a massive championship lead, though, because the Briton set himself up for criticism by pretty much backing into the title with a winless, lackluster second half to the campaign in which he amassed only the sixth-best point total. Button expects to remain with Ross Brawn's team, but after accepting a pay cut for '09 in the wake of Honda's withdrawal, he's attempting to recoup his losses now that he possesses the coveted No. 1.
JB's fans are hoping he won't price himself out of a ride the way outgoing F1 titlist Nigel Mansell did back in 1992-93, and questions remain about his commitment and desire after the cruise-and-collect conclusion to his 2009 campaign.
2. Will Ferrari and McLaren bounce back to their usual positions as front-runners next year?
McLaren already showed signs of recovery, with Lewis Hamilton scoring a pair of quality victories in the latter part of the season and a dominant pole position in the Abu Dhabi finale that was squandered by brake problems in the race.
After a disappointing couple of seasons from No. 2 driver Heikki Kovalainen, McLaren looks set to return to its controversial policy of running a pair of co-No. 1s, although absolutely nobody believes that whoever steps into the second car will receive treatment equal to that given Hamilton, who has been groomed by the team for his current role since he was 14. Ferrari finally grabbed its lone 2009 victory at Spa, mainly thanks to the brilliance of Kimi Raikkonen, but the Finn usually was outdriven by less-feted Felipe Massa before Massa's season-ending accident in Hungary. The Ferrari F60 was a dog, and it certainly helped cement replacement pilot Giancarlo Fisichella's status as the most overrated driver in F1.
3. Will Raikkonen continue in F1?
Raikkonen's only chance to remain on the F1 grid appears to be with his old team, McLaren-Mercedes, but the taciturn Finn's apparent lack of effort and desire the past couple of years with Ferrari have McLaren and Mercedes-Benz leaders openly questioning his motivation, fitness and asking price.
Raikkonen's win at Spa proved he is still capable of running at the front, yet there have been too many times since his 2007 championship that Raikkonen appeared to throw in the towel because he knew his car wasn't the best one out there. One of F1's great mysteries, Raikkonen might be destined to quietly fade away into a fallback career in rallying.
4. Is Sebastian Vettel the next F1 megastar?
It certainly looks that way. The 22-year-old German was the top point scorer in the second half of 2009, exceeding Button's total by 22 points, and he was consistently quicker than his highly rated Red Bull Racing teammate, Mark Webber. Vettel's championship chances were blunted by a lack of mechanical reliability, mostly caused by designer Adrian Newey's radical, boundary-pushing chassis.
If the 2010 Red Bull-Renault is reliable from the start, Vettel will be the odds-on favorite to win next year's title -- and it could be the first of many for the youngster.
5. Team USF1: Fact or fiction?
Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson have done their best to persuade the detractors, but there is still a lingering undercurrent of doubt about the likelihood that Team USF1 will be represented on the 2010 F1 grid.
Until very recently, the reports coming out of Charlotte revealed a dire lack of activity. There will also be less actual American involvement in the team than the name suggests; although the proposed car will be designed and constructed in the USA, it will be powered by a British Cosworth engine, and it appears extremely unlikely there will be an American driver in the cockpit until at least 2011.
6. What effect will the refueling ban have on the racing?
The first race of 2010 will be between the designers because chassis will need to be substantially different to be able to carry enough fuel to last a full race distance instead of just 20-30 laps. Red Bull Racing starts that battle on pole position, courtesy of the enduring brilliance of Newey; the design offices at McLaren and Ferrari have undergone substantial changes in the past two to three years and, based on their 2009 contenders, serious doubts exist about their ability to adapt to new regulations, such as the aerodynamic changes introduced this year.
Cutting out refueling for the first time since 1994 will make pit stops much safer, but won't affect the racing as much as a ban on tire changes could. That would require drivers to be much more in charge of managing their races and conserving tires, something the likes of Alain Prost used to be so good at.
7. Does the transition of power from Max Mosley to Jean Todt affect F1?
If you think the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile has favored Ferrari in the past 20 years, imagine what it will be like now that the former Ferrari chief is in charge of the governing body. Todt claims that won't be the case, but he would say that, wouldn't he?
Actually, the FIA's role in terms of F1 racing should remain substantially the same, but the federation's reputation should improve now that Mosley, a man considered a henchman of F1 commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone and a seriously controversial figure in his own right (Can you say orgy scandal?) finally has relinquished the office after 18 years.
8. Will F1 continue to abandon traditional Grand Prix venues?
Sadly, it looks that way, although the return of the Canadian Grand Prix is a step in the right direction. For the past decade, European countries and even the USA have been dropped from the F1 schedule because their private promoters cannot compete with the money being offered by governments from emerging nations such as Bahrain, Singapore and United Arab Emirates.
The French Grand Prix is already history, and the British GP is on the chopping block. Although much of F1's revenue is generated by television rights, the core fan base remains in continental Europe, and it remains to be seen whether the sport can retain its popularity if those fans no longer can attend events within a reasonable distance.
9. Can Cosworth be successful in its F1 comeback?
Cosworth, which curtailed a legendary 40-year run in F1 at the end of 2006, will be represented on the grid again in 2010, powering as many as six teams, including Williams and Team USF1. Owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerald Forsythe have successfully lobbied the FIA into allowing updates to their existing 2.4-liter V-8, including some that are believed to give them an advantage over the carry-over powerplants from the likes of Ferrari, Renault, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz.
But with car count potentially dropping, the FIA felt the need to introduce a more cost-effective means for new and existing teams to join or remain in F1; with four new teams (USF1, Lotus, Manor and Campos, all to be Cosworth powered) set to compete in 2010, Cosworth has helped achieve that goal.
10. Will there be an American driver on the 2010 F1 grid?
It sure doesn't look that way, despite the rhetoric spouted by Australian-born Team USF1 principal Windsor. Most F1 insiders view the American open-wheel scene with ridicule, and there are not any U.S.-born drivers competing at the top levels of the European road racing ladder system.
The most likely candidates are Atlantic Championship runner-up Jonathan Summerton and Firestone Indy Lights titlist J.R. Hildebrand, both 21, but neither possesses an FIA Superlicence, which is a requirement for competing in F1. If Team USF1 makes it onto the grid in 2010 and survives the season, look for an American to be considered for a 2011 race seat. But that's a big if
John Oreovicz covers motorsports for ESPN.com.
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