At this preseason stage, we can only loosely estimate the competitive order based on what we have seen over the last couple of seasons. We can't yet be certain whether specific design features are technical breakthroughs or blind alleys. One or more teams may have made surprise progress, while others may have unexpectedly dropped the ball…
Red Bull Racing RB7
Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber
Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa
Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button
We can say that the most deeply resourced three teams last year fielded the only cars that won races, so we expect Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren to continue that into 2011, barring someone from one of the lesser-funded teams sneaking a major advantage, as Brawn did a couple of years ago. But 2009 saw perhaps F1's most radically changed technical regulations of all time, and that threw open fresh opportunity. Budget and technical momentum were no longer the key differentiators. Now, arguably, they are once more.
This year is when the resource restriction agreement really bites, when even McLaren and Ferrari have to make significant staff cuts. Most of the other teams were last year already down to the numbers now required. But the 2011 cars have been conceived with 2010 levels of resource, meaning the new Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren will have been created using greater resources than any of the others. Only if they've missed a technical trick spotted by a lesser team or – as McLaren did in '09 – badly misconceived their basic car, will they not be up front.
As for the order between them? A key factor might well be how the new single-diffuser regulations impact upon the ideal rear-end layout. Might there be more advantage to be had from pullrod rear suspension, which Red Bull has run for the previous two seasons, than was the case with the double diffusers? McLaren's U-shaped sidepods, conceived to feed as much clean air as possible to the lower rear wing, show how much effort and thought is going in to clawing back downforce lost by the banning of double diffusers.
Much may also depend upon McLaren and Ferrari having understood exactly how last year's Red Bull RB6 was able to (a) run such a low ride height in qualifying despite having to allow for 150kg [331lbs] of fuel being added without any setup changes permitted and (b) run its nose so low to the ground when on track without scraping its floor along the ground. It could be that the further tightening of the floor rigidity tests have made this impossible, but don't bet on it. From midseason last year, Ferrari showed signs of being able to partly replicate the Red Bull's nose-down stance, but the McLaren's stall-prone diffuser made it unfeasible for the MP4-25. Might all this have a secondary effect?
Based on no more than the trends, therefore, Red Bull must begin as favorites to create the fastest car. That said, Ferrari's Aldo Costa has admitted his team's technical grasp was not aggressive enough last year, implying it will be stretching itself further with this car. McLaren has had a hit/miss record over the last few years but this will be its first car conceived with the knowledge of Jenson Button's preferences – a driver the team technicians tend to look to for direction more than Lewis Hamilton who simply drives faster than any man on earth, sometimes disguising shortfalls in the car. This is probably the strongest driver lineup of any team, but might that turn out to be the reason the Alonso-centric Ferrari team can outpoint them? Red Bull still has the feisty Vettel/Webber personal dynamic to calm and there's nothing to suggest they won't continue to take points off one another. Even if Red Bull remains fastest, will it be by enough to overcome that very basic fact? A lot may depend upon Felipe Massa giving Alonso a harder time than last year, but that's a fairly fragile hope for the others to depend upon.