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Saturday, March 8, 2008

F1 2008: Where they stand

Can the 2008 season possibly be as close-fought and competitive as last year? Will anyone step up to challenge Ferrari and McLaren at the front of the field?

To kick off our new season preview features, expert analyst Mark Hughes looks at how the field is shaping up for the 2008 championship ahead of next weekend's season-opener in Australia.

We've only got pre-season testing to guide us, and because that cannot reveal the full picture there are sure to be surprises in store.

But as a generalisation we can say the season seems set to be something of a re-run of 2007 in terms of who the main players are.

The title contenders

Ferrari and McLaren have been very closely matched through the winter and appear to have a significant performance margin over a very tightly bunched upper midfield pack.

Ferrari has perhaps just shaded McLaren during the winter months but in the final tests at Barcelona the silver car was, if anything, even quicker than the red one over a single timed lap. But over a race stint simulation the Ferrari appeared still to have a small edge.

Ferrari, then, begin the season as the logical title favourites.

They have had a more serene preparation to the year than McLaren as a hangover from the espionage case, and Kimi Raikkonen now has the full benefits of continuity he didn't have last year – when he still managed to win it.

He's fully adapted now to the Bridgestone tyres, to the Ferrari systems and to his relationship with race engineer Chris Dyer. He appears happy and relaxed in the environment Ferrari provides and all the ingredients appear to be there for a devastating Kimi season.

He will again face competition from team-mate Felipe Massa but somehow I doubt it will be as strong a challenge as in '07 – not because Felipe will be less effective, but because I see Kimi as taking his superbly strong second half of '07 as the starting point for '08.

A hierarchy is beginning to form there and Kimi is at the top of it.

It says much for the strength of resource and character of McLaren-Mercedes that they appear to have retained much of their competitiveness despite their turbulent off-track background.

Lewis Hamilton may not have been giving the team as clear and focused a technical direction as Fernando Alonso did last year, which may yet prove to be a problem.

But as things stand on the eve of the season, the McLaren is nip-and-tuck as fast as the Ferrari, which makes the prospect of the dynamic Hamilton going up against the Maranello cars especially thrilling.

Heikki Kovalainen has been every bit as fast as Lewis during the winter and will undoubtedly emerge as a major star this year.

Now he has the pressure of being in a front-running car with a devastatingly fast team-mate, we'll get a better idea of his ultimate level.

Asking him to shade Hamilton, especially in his first season with the team, is not impossible, but very unlikely.

Who is best of the rest?

There is no clear best of the rest. BMW, which occupied this spot throughout '07, is maybe marginally still the fastest of this sub-group.

But doubts remain over the new F1.08's effectiveness over a race stint. Both Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld have reported the car to feel twitchy and inconsistent.

This has lessened recently and over a single-lap I'd fancy Kubica to be leading the challenge after Ferrari/McLaren.

But over a sequence of them? It's quite easy to see him coming under huge pressure – in particular from Fernando Alonso's Renault and Nico Rosberg's Williams.

Heidfeld seems to be struggling more with the car's nervy nature than Kubica and we may well see the Pole fully convert his dazzling talent to F1 on a regular basis this year. If so, Nick's got a very tough job ahead of him.

Williams have been gaining headlines as the most-improved team but they must be particularly concerned about what Alonso and Renault might have up their sleeves.

Williams is an improving team and now looks very solid. Renault is a recent title-winning team and operationally maybe still the best in the pit lane.

The R28 is no world-beater as yet but within this group Renault have the best driver on side. Alonso will not only be his usual relentless self over a race distance but he brings a focus and energy to the team that should see it progress fast.

This is the sort of role Rosberg now needs to assume at Williams and it's a much bigger challenge than just establishing yourself as a fast young driver – which is all that he's done so far.

But he's intelligent, and that counts for an awful lot. This is a crucial season for him.

Neither Nelson Piquet nor Kazuki Nakajima will be consistent thorns in the sides of their respective team-mates, but both will have their moments. Expect Piquet in particular to come on ever stronger as the season progresses.

On the cusp

Red Bull is within this group at the moment, but not at the head of it. Which must come as a disappointment, given that this is Adrian Newey's second car for the team.

The RB4 looks remarkably similar to last year's machine, though the underbody and weight distribution are actually substantially different. Maybe the team have yet to unlock hidden potential in there, but if not then they're in for a big battle at each race just to get into the points.

Expect Mark Webber to be the cutting edge of the team most weekends, but time is running out on his career if he's ever to prove he's as good as he believes.

David Coulthard, with 13 grand prix wins, has nothing to prove and is still operating at the level he was when at McLaren all those years ago.

Red Bull may come to thank their lucky stars they have Webber's dynamic qualifying pace to rely on to keep them from being embarrassed by their junior team Toro Rosso.

Using last year's car at least until the beginning of the European season, they have benefited greatly by their familiarity with a known product, giving a great base for the ever-improving Sebastian Vettel.

So far he has outshone Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais, who has a tough motivational task ahead of him after years of relentless success in America.

Toyota are probably good enough at present to be vying with the two Red Bull teams. They are confident the TF108 has great potential and certainly Jarno Trulli's time on the final day of testing raised a lot of eyebrows.

But it was a suspicious time in that it came only 10 minutes after the car had been lapping 2s slower. If it was representative, the Toyota would be comfortably best of the rest after Ferrari/McLaren. More likely it was a no-ballast morale-booster, but let's wait and see.

Timo Glock has adapted well so far but once the clock's ticking for real, he may find Trulli's one-lap pace difficult to deal with.

The rest

Force India definitely look to be faster than Honda. The former Spyker team has made genuine progress with the Mike Gascoyne-led update of last year's car and now looks to be on a secure footing at last and imbued with ambition rather than treading water.

Giancarlo Fisichella has a knack of getting a lot from a slower car, even though it seems not to translate when he gets the opportunity in a front-rank one. He's made a DC-like late career move here, but I'd expect some great Indian summer days from him.

Adrian Sutil, gifted though he is, has a proper F1 driver as a team-mate for the first time. How he responds to that challenge will determine his future. If he disappoints, tester Tonio Liuzzi is waiting in the wings.

Honda seems somehow to have come up with a less competitive car than last year's woeful RA107. It's difficult even to imagine how frustrating this must be for both drivers, but especially Jenson Button.

Rubens Barrichello at least has a very successful career behind him. Button's going into his ninth year of F1 still with only a single victory to his name. That is as drastic an under-representation of a driver's level as F1 has seen since the days of Chris Amon.

In a competitive car, he's world title material. Even with Ross Brawn on board, the clock is ticking way too fast for Button.

Super Aguri might not even make it to Melbourne, which would be a great shame for a tight little team that has won many admirers for its pluck.

But given that customer cars are ultimately not going to be allowed, it's difficult to see a long-term future for the team even if they survive the current crisis.

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