We are but days away from the (delayed) start of the 2011 Formula One season and there's been plenty of buzz about who is hot, and even more about who is not.
2010 was vintage in the sense that one of 5 drivers could have taken the title until relatively late in the season, but a fierce on-track tit-for-tat battle it was not. In order to increase overtaking the FIA has introduced the new overtaking zone and movable rear wings - basically if you get within a second of the car in front inside the overtaking zone you are allowed to open the slot in the rear wing, thereby increasing your top speed by roughly 6-8mph and, theoretically at least, making it easier to pass.
Lets leave aside the fact that this is quite an artificial way to increase overtaking (I don't have many better ideas to be fair), will it make races more interesting? Probably, but that won't be the biggest factor. That award goes to Pirelli.
The new rubber has been causing quite a stir in winter testing, the tyres tend to have good performance up to a point, when they reach that point they are liable to fall of a cliff in performance terms. Tyre management will be crucial and the way this goes could define who wins the World Championship. If the tyres result in tail-happy cars sliding for fun, Lewis Hamilton will be to the fore, if they require careful lap-by-lap management, his team mate Jenson Button could be happier. Of course it has been pointed out that high-wear tyres will create a lot of 'marbles' on the circuits, making it unwise to go offline and thereby reducing the likelihood of overtaking - we shall see.
In actual fact neither of Hamilton or Button are likely to be on the front of the grid come Sunday morning, the problems at Mclaren are well documented. So who will be?
There are some things we can be sure of. The sun will come up tomorrow. Eddie Jordan will wear horrible trousers. Red Bull will be fast in 2011. Vettel is probably, with Hamilton, the fastest driver on the grid if not yet the best driver. Talk of a 1+ second advantage on the rest is probably wide of the mark, but don't be surprised to see an all Red Bull front row.
Fernando Alonso is the best driver in Formula One in my view, like him or loathe him, so it is with him that Ferrari's 2011 hopes rest unless the 2008-vintage Felipe Massa emerges once more. The 2011 car has been fast, if not Red Bull fast, and reliable in winter testing. It might just be me but the pace of their development seems to have been down in recent years, and they need to sort their struggles in qualifying. That said, they will be at the front through the season.
Don't read too much into their struggles in the winter, they might be shy of the front two's pace, but they won't be a million miles back - Whitmarsh claims to be hopeful that their new floor and exhaust is worth a second on their testing times. However with their resources it will be troubling them that for too many years they have been playing catch up from the first race. Button and Hamilton is probably, on paper, the strongest lineup on the grid. If not fighting for wins in Australia, they will be come mid-season for sure.
Losing Kubica was a blow of untold proportions, he is on a par with Vettel and Hamilton in terms of pure speed, and as a racer he's up there with Alonso. Heidfeld is a worthy replacement, but he and Petrov won't be able to match Kubica for pace and consistency. Renault's ability to develop a car in recent years is well documented so as the season progresses they could be challengers.
Seemingly nowhere in the winter until Schumacher blitzed around Catalunya with the fastest time of anyone at the last test. Make no mistake, he is still bloody fast and the cleverest (read: most ruthless) racer in the business. Nico Rosberg ain't half bad either. I can't see them winning early but as very outside bets for the title either driver is a good one.
Have they become everyone's second team? I'd certainly love to see them back at the front, even if they did err in dropping Nico Hulkenberg. Barrichello, in the twilight of his career will still be fast if not epic, but I've never personally rated Maldonado and I think he could be a weak link. Happy to be proved wrong, no one would begrudge the Grove boys a return to the top.
Strengthened no end by dropping the erratic Liuzzi and recruiting the promising Di Resta, they might still struggle. Seem to be unable to make that final jump into the top four teams, but are doing an admirable job trying. Sutil is a wildcard, put him on a greasy track and he'll own it, but otherwise is hit and miss, sometimes literally. My personal favourite colour scheme in F1.
Kamui "Cowboy Crashy" Kobayashi still hasn't quite shaken his unwelcome moniker but the feeling that he is lightning fast on a good day remains equally unshakeable. Hamilton aside he is peerless in the overtaking stakes and in the midfield he could be doing plenty. Points more often than not will be the aim. Not convinced by Perez yet.
There was talk of a significant leap forward in performance for Red Bull's second team, which would seem to me to be hogging things somewhat. However I don't think it quite materialised though scoring points at more races than last year (they managed 7) will be a legitimate aim. I personally rate Alguersuari very highly, and Buemi is no slow coach either.
The best of last season's new intake, though they didn't have a huge amount to compete with (the other two teams had 27 retirements between them), Lotus can count points in 2011 as a major achievement. They are confusingly running Renault engines while also being in dispute with the Renault team. Trulli should possibly have been put out to pasture and I've never been convinced by Kovalainen's raw speed in anything but the Race of Champions.
As unfortunate a three-letter abbreviated name as has ever been seen in F1, they were pretty anonymous last season and 2011 will herald more of the same. Zero mileage on their new motor so far will inspire little confidence from Karthikeyan and Liuzzi. It will take a sudden downpour and several accidents for them to score points, although the chances that Liuzzi will be in one of those accidents are overwhelming.
Ought really to be moving ahead of HRT decisively, or at least the Virgin with Timo Glock on board ought to. When your other driver's only title of note is the 2003 Belgian Formula Three championship, you have to expect a struggle. The recruitment of Jerome D'Ambrosio looks better in the bank balance than it will on the leaderboard.