Mercedes MGP W02
Nico Rosberg, Michael Schumacher
These two teams can do a better job in the conception of their cars than last year. But enough to bridge the gap between merely being regulars in the Q3 (top 10) qualifiers, and becoming race winners? That's a huge question.
Last year's Renault was conceived in an old technology wind tunnel in 2009. That November, it was replaced by a state-of-the-art version which enables finer-honed measurements and a vastly faster throughput. Coupled with a Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) capability that was massively upgraded two years ago, the maturing of a stable aero group, it's no surprise that Renault's R31 is an intrinsically more aggressive design than the 2010 car.
Its standout feature is a radical exhaust system, which sees the pipes exit at the leading edge of the sidepods. The aim is to blow exhaust gases out as far forward on the car's floor as possible, so the blown-diffuser effect works on a greater portion of the underbody.
Should the concept work, Robert Kubica would probably have used the R31 to terrorize the big teams more consistently than in 2010. Maybe he still can? However, the dreadful injuries he suffered in a recent rally accident have thrown his immediate future into question. That, in turn, has dealt a major blow to Renault's potential competitiveness in 2011, even if the car proves to be a quantum leap, for Vitaly Petrov will be unable to provide the pace, technical feedback and direction of Kubica. Few can. Renault's progress this year, therefore, hinges on who substitutes for its Polish ace.
At Mercedes, the situation is clearer. Ross Brawn understands why 2010's MGP W01 was so average and is confident he now has a much better engineering core group, one that will go for more aggressive solutions. But, as at Renault, the new car was conceived with significantly fewer resources than that deployed by Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren. A team with a staff of 375 might be able to conceive a better car than a team of 500 or more. But better than all three of them?
As noted in our feature article in January's RACER, Nico Rosberg will accurately reflect the car's basic level but he has yet to display the sort of car-flattering acrobatics that Kubica can deliver. If the car is good enough to win races, Rosberg will win them. If it's almost-but-not-quite good enough on merit, he won't. Then there's the enigma that is Michael Schumacher v2.0. For the last few races of last year he was pretty much on a par with Rosberg. He'll never have the sort of influence over his circumstances as he had in his Ferrari days, and will therefore be unable to force the car to respond exactly as he wants in terms of handling. It'll be a question of adapting. First target is maintaining his competitiveness with Rosberg. But can he hope for more than that at the age of 42?