Formula 1 2011 – bad science fiction or great motorsport?

“The rules for Formula 1 2011 might have been conjured up by a bad science fiction writer, but the season ahead looks exciting. And I get to wear my Ferrari dressing gown…”

At last, it’s that time of year again, and isn’t it exciting?!

No, I don’t mean the fact that the sun is shining, or the clocks are going forward at the weekend, giving us much more daylight in which to enjoy a beer at the end of the day.

Nor am I talking about the fact that I go on holiday next week, although that is quite exciting for me…

Instead, I’m talking about it being the first Formula 1 Grand Prix of the season, and it seems like it’s been an incredibly long wait for it to come round.

Clearly, some of that wait was caused by the postponement of the Bahrain Grand Prix due to the troubles there, but while I wish the people of Bahrain well, did we really miss the race itself?

Apart from the season not starting quite as early as it should have, the Bahrain Grand Prix is not exactly renowned for giving us exciting starts to the season.

Indeed, last year the red top headlines heralded the 2010 inaugural race as Bore-ain.

Fears that the rest of the year would prove to be a Sunday afternoon snooze fest were quickly allayed at the Australian Grand Prix when the sport actually kicked in to gear and gave us one of the best seasons ever.

So with Australia now hosting the opening race of the season, what do I think we can expect from F1 2011?

The first is that it’s going to be more complicated for the average Sunday “viewer” to understand, as new rules introduced for this year aim to make the racing more exciting, but appear to have been written by somebody who just watched Death Race.

Simply put, KERS is back for 2011 – a “green” aid to help boost overtaking or defend a position, KERS is operated by the driver when he feels he needs it, receiving an extra 80.5bhp … but only for a total of 6.67 seconds per lap. After that, they’re on their own.

This year also sees the introduction of moveable rear wings.  Last year’s F-Duct system, which was operated by the driver to block air to the rear wing and therefore ‘stall’ it to provide extra speed down the straights, has been banned for 2011 and replaced with the new, electronic system. The rear wing, as with the KERS system, can be adjusted by the driver to help gain an advantage on track.

However, this is where the rules become particularly complex: the system is constantly available to drivers during all practice and qualifying sessions, but in the race itself it cannot be activated until two full laps have been completed. After that, access to the system will be electronically controlled by the FIA Race Control; it will also automatically deactivate under braking, and cannot be used for two laps after any Safety Car period.  On Formula 1’s own website, the rules are described as thus:

The driver may only activate the adjustable bodywork in the race when he has been notified via the control electronics that it is enabled. It will only be enabled if the driver is less than one second behind another at any of the pre-determined positions around each circuit.

This basically means that at each circuit, access to the system will be available at different points, meaning armchair viewers will never quite be sure when the driver is allowed to change their rear wing, and when they aren’t. There will be lines painted on the track at each circuit to try to make this function clearer, but I can’t help thinking that the BBC’s new HD broadcast of Formula 1 is going to see the TV screen littered with graphics explaining who’s got their wing in what position, KERS on/off and a myriad other bits of information that are probably too mind-boggling to understand.

The other big change to Formula 1 for 2011 is the introduction of Pirelli as the sole tyre manufacturer, after Bridgestone ended their long association with the sport at the end of 2010. Various compounds will be available to the driver and, to make them easier for television viewers to spot, the name of the tyre will be painted a different colour for each compound, which – according to Formula1.com – will be coloured as such:

There is new system for visually differentiating tyre types, using various colours for the sidewall lettering: wet – orange; intermediate – light blue; super soft – red; soft – yellow; medium – white; hard – silver.

Expect to see a veritable Willy Wonka kaleidoscope of colours on the track, especially early in the season, as drivers and teams try to establish the best tyre for their car, and at nearly 200mph will you really be able to tell the difference between white and silver?

Finally, a reintroduction of the 107% qualifying rule for 2011 means that any car not setting a qualifying pace within 107% of the Pole sitter’s car will not be able to take part in the race. Back marker teams, beware… the opportunity for your sponsors to get TV coverage could be very thin!

Other than that, it’s pretty much business as usual. So, which driver or team do I think is going to be the one to beat this season?

It’s always difficult to gauge from pre-season testing, as the form book changes so frequently, but the sad absence of Robert Kubica will be felt terribly by Lotus-Renault, even though I’m sure Nick Heidfeld will do a sterling job of replacing the injured Pole.

Expect the Red Bull boys to be very strong, especially reigning Champion Vettel, who will be sublime now that he has the championship duck off his back.  Webber will be keen to prove he’s not over the hill yet, and the Red Bull car will surely be one to beat.

The McLarens of Hamilton and Button look to have fared poorly during pre-season testing, and neither driver has seemed to jump up and down with enthusiasm about the car. McLaren are usually quick to develop though, so if they’re not strong at the start of the season expect them to make a huge leap forward quicker than the other teams. (I started writing this blog yesterday, before the practice sessions had taken place, and have chosen to leave that comment in despite the fact that in second practice earlier the McLaren duo were fastest, with Button just pipping Hamilton…)

The Mercedes duo of Rosberg and Schumacher could be the dark horses of the season, and it would be great to see Michael come to form and prove his critics wrong. Who knows – podiums are very possible for both drivers, and race wins might also come on the odd lucky day when it all goes wrong for their rivals.

I’m expecting Williams, Force India, Sauber and Torro Rosso to be strong mid-fielders, ready to pounce and make advantage of any errors from the big boys in front, and Team Lotus (or whatever their name might become as the season moves on!) to make huge strides forward in to the mid pack.

HRT and Virgin will undoubtedly continue to be the back marker crowd, and the most likely to fall victim to the new 107% qualifying rules on a Saturday if they’re not quick enough.

But the team I think will ultimately be the one to put the smart money on this year is going to be Ferrari … and that, unfortunately for his Brazilian team mate, means that Fernando Alonso will be the driver to beat in 2011.

2011 then. It’s going to be exciting. Even more importantly, this year it will finally justify my owning a High Definition telly. The only trouble is, now I want a bigger one!

And there’s one other thing: this weekend doesn’t just bring sun and Ferrari Dressing Gown logo...motorsport and the end of Britain’s winter. It also means I can hang up my winter dressing gown and put on my bright red Ferrari one until the end of the season.

Roll on seven o clock Sunday morning. (But remember to change your clocks … It’ll still be 06:00 to us!)

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