How can Formula 1 top 2010, a season that produced the most thrilling World Championship fight ever, and peaked with Sebastian Vettel's against-the-odds title victory in Abu Dhabi? It's going to take some doing, but there are plenty of reasons to expect 2011 to produce at least as much drama and – crucially – a lot more on-track action.
Why? The ingredients that made 2010 so competitive remain. The top five teams have unchanged driver rosters, preserving what three-time World Champion Jackie Stewart describes as “the best field ever.” Intense rivalries between Vettel, Mark Webber, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton will continue to simmer, we can be certain of that.
But it's not only about Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren. Lotus Cars has bought into Renault and, should its intriguing new exhaust system work, it may become a regular winner. Alas, the driver most likely to make that happen, Robert Kubica, will – at best – miss several races following his serious rally accident. Nick Heidfeld, if he is confirmed as Kubica's replacement, will lend experience - but will that be enough?
With Tony Fernandes' Team Lotus replacing Cosworth with Renault units, that gives us two sets of Lotus-Renaults to cheer on. Team Lotus has no affiliation with the car company, however, and is locked in a legal dispute over the use of the name. Confused? You're not the only one.
And then, of course, there's the intrigue surrounding Schumacher. Can he adapt to the new cars and tires and rein in the blossoming Nico Rosberg after having his butt kicked by his Mercedes-Benz teammate for most of 2010?
Whichever driver has the car under them to win the title, the best way to improve on last year is for the racing to be more thrilling. There are two very good reasons to expect that to be the case, and the first of these is the arrival of Pirelli as tire supplier and its promise to deliver two-stop races. Last year's Bridgestone rubber was simply too good, limiting the strategic variables, and it was no coincidence that the one two-stop race – the Canadian Grand Prix – was among the best races of 2010. With tire degradation expected to be far greater, it's going to be down to the drivers to look after their rubber and teams to work out the perfect strategy.
The second change is more fundamental. Every car will be equipped with a mechanism allowing the driver to switch the gap between the two elements of his rear wing from 15mm to 50mm. With a 50mm aperture, drag will be slashed and give the trimmed-out car a huge advantage on the straightaways.
The device will be usable throughout practice and qualifying, ensuring cars are geared for the best lap times when the gap is opened. But during the race, a driver can only open the slot once the FIA has deemed that, at two designated points on the track, his car is within one second of the car ahead. The pursuer will open his wing, boosting the speed differential over his quarry on the straightaways.
It will make overtaking far easier, so much so that the likes of Red Bull design genius Adrian Newey fear that it will be too easy. So don't expect a recurrence of the situation in last year's season finale when Fernando Alonso's Ferrari spent most of the race bottled up behind the Renault of Vitaly Petrov.
The adjustable wing effectively replaces the F-duct, pioneered by McLaren last year, which allowed the driver to stall the rear wing by covering a hole in the cockpit with his leg, altering the airflow. Banning this cuts into McLaren's advantage, as it optimized the system last year, but that is counterbalanced by the return of KERS as McLaren and Ferrari are the only teams to have won races using the hybrid system.
Outlawed last season by team agreement, the hybrid technology returns this year and all but a few of the smallest teams will run it. As in 2009, it offers an 80hp boost for 6.7sec per lap at the driver's request and creates major packaging difficulties – although the vast majority have chosen to locate their battery and motors below and behind the driver, cutting into the area where the fuel tank is located. All the frontrunners have KERS, so it's unlikely that it will have any major influence in passing.
Outside of the cars, Formula 1 visits another new country in 2011 with a new track outside capital city Delhi. India is big news in F1 right now as, although the popular Karun Chandhok, who raced for the Hispania team last season, won't be on the grid for the whole season (as RACER went to press he was still hoping for occasional race outings), compatriot Narain Karthikeyan will. He last appeared in 2005 for Jordan and will race for HRT.
With the top seats sewn up, the leading newcomers will be in the midfield this year. Sergio Perez becomes the first Mexican to race in F1 in almost 30 years after joining Sauber, bringing with him sponsorship from Telmex, while Venezuelan GP2 champion Pastor Maldonado joins Williams. Both owe their seats to cash, but both are good enough to earn a place on the F1 grid. Joining them in the unofficial fight for top rookie honors is Paul di Resta, who is promoted to a race seat with Force India after appearing in Friday practice occasionally last year. The fourth rookie is Belgian Jerome d'Ambrosio, a race winner in GP2, who will compete alongside Timo Glock at Virgin Racing.
So, if you thought last year was intriguing and exciting, you shouldn't be disappointed by the season ahead. As F1 fans, we retain one simple demand: that the on-track action is always the biggest talking point – and we honestly believe there's a strong chance of that in 2011.
COMING TOMORROW: Part 2 of our Formula 1 season preview, in which we pick the year's likely leaders and followers.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the March 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.