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.
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?
Rubens Barrichello, Pastor Maldonado
Kamui Kobayashi, Sergio Perez
Force India VJM04
Adrian Sutil, Paul di Resta
Team Lotus T128
Jarno Trulli, Heikki Kovalainen
With the resource restriction agreement taking full effect this year, medium-sized teams such as Williams and Sauber should be entering an era in which they can compete on more level terms. But perhaps it's still a year early for that – again because of the resources deployed upon the top teams' 2011 cars, before the latest rounds of cuts had to be made.
Williams and Sauber are of a similar size, Force India somewhat smaller, Team Lotus smaller again but building. Williams had a less certain development path than Sauber last year, starting well in front, ending roughly on a par. The combination of the great facilities at Hinwil left behind by BMW and the recruitment of the very capable James Key as technical director saw Sauber make greater strides from the beginning of the season to the end than any other F1 team. It now has the underwriting of the giant Mexican Telmex group and a solid core to build upon.
In Kamui Kobayashi it has a try-hard charger but the Japanese sophomore is now the most experienced driver on the squad! Backed up by GP2 graduate Sergio Perez, it's not impossible the team could end up being taken down the wrong development path by its drivers.
By contrast, Rubens Barrichello, who holds the record for Formula 1 starts (303) underlined last year how the driver can still contribute greatly in this area. His convincing of the Cosworth engineers about the type of targets being chased in the wind tunnel – driveability more than peak power – brought about a notable turnaround in performance midseason. He stays on board and is hopeful that the FW33 is an aggressive leap forward. Just how aggressive we'll probably only see when the Red Bull RB7 shows its paces.
Force India has performed very respectably for the last two seasons. In fighting with Williams and Sauber last year, it was punching above its weight. But can such momentum be continued with the loss of several key engineering staff? In Paul di Resta, Formula 1 has its most exciting rookie since Vettel and Hamilton arrived. Adrian Sutil may need to step up his game, to get more consistent access to his considerable talent.
Some of those Force India defections have been to Team Lotus, emphasizing the way the “new team” is expanding. There are no budget worries here; it's more a question of growing the team organically. The easiest leap should be from the very basic car of last year – conceived just to ensure the team made the grid in time and finished races – and this. A Red Bull rear end – including Renault engine! – coupled with a basic car that in its first wind tunnel test was already delivering more downforce than the twin diffuser 2010 car suggests Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen should be in the mid-grid.
STRAGGLERS AND STRUGGLERS
Scuderia Toro Rosso STR6
Sebastien Buemi, Jaime Alguersuari
Virgin Racing MVR-02
Timo Glock, Jerome d'Ambrosio
Toro Rosso is a tiny team that was last year carried by the momentum of its Red Bull starting point. The further removed from that ancestry it's forced to go, the more difficult it's going to be. Technical director Giorgio Ascanelli is hugely capable but under no illusions. Results will be derived not from great raw pace but from smart operation and in this they are well equipped. In Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi it has two competent F1 drivers. But as Team Lotus and, probably, Virgin make strides from their initial attempts, the expectation would be for Toro Rosso to fall back even from the modest level of 2010. Anything better than that and Ascanelli will have overdelivered.
Virgin has plenty of scope to find a big competitiveness boost after a difficult first season. With the investment of Russian sports car manufacturer Marussia, it now has a slightly more stable financial underpinning – but still not to the extent of having access to a wind tunnel. The car has again been conceived all in CFD by Nick Wirth's company and though this may well be how all cars will be designed in time, the consensus is that the technology is still not powerful enough to match a wind tunnel, especially with such regulation changes as single diffusers and movable rear wing. Expect the new MVR-02 to be a lot closer to front running pace than the 105 percent of the 2010 car, but that may not be enough to move it up the grid.
HRT walked already wounded into F1 last year and did well to survive. Nothing fundamental has changed in the team's circumstances and it would be a surprise, therefore, if it doesn't fall further behind. Essentially the same chassis will be used, together with a Williams gearbox.
For spectators, the saving grace is that the car's acute lack of downforce will make Narain Karthikeyan's fine car control very visible.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the March 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.