2011 Formula 1 Season Preview

For Formula 1 fans worldwide, the 2011 Formula 1 season cannot underway quickly enough, and is creating the an even bigger buzz than last year’s fascinating championship.

Let’s look at what we’ve got: We have a record-equalling five World Champions competing on the grid. We have four new drivers making their debuts this season. We have a new circuit to expand the calendar to a 19 races this season, which would have been twenty had Bahrain not been cancelled. Pre-season testing hasn’t given any of us a clear form guide, and we’ve been given further rule changes aimed to spice things up on-track.

What’s not to look forward to?

Fundamentally, the basic shape and style of a Formula 1 car has remain unchanged from last year. Double-decker diffusers and ‘F-ducts’ have been banned, and most teams have ditched those truly ugly ‘shark-fin’ engine covers. On the surface, many things are similar: engine capacity and power, wing dimensions. Underneath, however, is where the interest lies. Some might call them technical innovations, while others will refer to them as gimmicks – but either way their aim is so spice up the on-track action and to introduce more variables into an already-complex sport.

The first major change is the switch from Bridgestone to Pirelli, The Japanese tyremaker has been faithfully involved in the sport since 1997, while Pirelli makes its return as the sport’s sole tyre supplier after a 21-year absence. The Italian company has aimed to follow its remit from the powers-that-be to create tyres that wear, placing the emphasis on tyre management, and potentially introducing more overtaking as drivers battle with a loss of grip.

There are those who will argue that Pirelli has gone to too much of an extreme in trying to fulfil this, and many have moaned that the drop-off in tyre performance has been considerable, even on the harder and more durable tyres. Figures are talking of anywhere between two and four pit stops per race, but ultimately this serves to support the ban on refuelling that was introduced last year, and to bring a greater emphasis on racecraft back to the forefront.

The return of KERS is another major change – it’s making its comeback after being missing in action last year – and the talking point will centre around who has managed to design it and integrate it the most effectively. In 2009, McLaren’s Mercedes-designed KERS was clearly superior, leading many to wonder if the competition gap will be closed, or widened, as a result of it. At least more of the teams are running it this year, although the three sophomore teams – Team Lotus, Virgin Racing and HRT F1 – have decided against it. How quickly will they reverse their decision?

Undoubtedly the most gimmicky of the lot is the new adjustable rear wing, or drag reduction system (DRS). While KERS can be deployed at any point on the circuit, the DRS is limited to a certain section of the track when the chasing car is within a certain time difference to the car in front. But it can be used anytime and anywhere in practice and qualifying, and the potential for mishaps and controversies – particularly given that its effectiveness can’t be adequately simulated in testing – is huge, especially in the early races.

And yet there are still more variables. The refuelling ban remains, and the constantly lighter car will be another factor in the outcomes of races. The number of engines available during the season remains restricted, and gearboxes now need to last even longer than before. Change either, and a grid penalty is your reward.

And how all of the teams contain all of this in a package weighing barely more than 600kg has given us some varied and interesting designs up and down the 2011 grid. There are variations in engine airbox shapes and configurations, L-shaped sidepods on the McLaren, a twin floor for Toro Rosso, and Renault’s much talked about forward-facing exhausts, which many teams have since tried to copy.

Pre-season testing hasn’t revealed too much, with a host of teams and drivers featuring at the pointy end of the timesheets during the four sessions in Spain during the Northern Hemisphere winter. Cards are kept close to everyone’s chests, and it’s impossible to tell who lies where in the pecking order as no one ever runs comparable strategies at the same time in the same conditions. We will only truly know in the first qualifying session at Albert Park.

Drivers who can remain cool in the heat of battle while juggling all of these complex variables will be the ones who succeed in 2011. Perhaps we will see more overtaking at the end of this? More unpredictability in the results? A change in the established order among the ‘big three’ teams? This championship could be extremely difficult to predict.

So who could potentially be the contenders? Let’s have a look at the 2011 grid…

A field of 24 cars remains for a second season, although ongoing speculation about HRT’s financial situation may see this reduced to 22 if the rumours are proven to be true. The same teams remain with the same owners, although we currently face the absurd prospect of a legal stoush between one team calling itself Team Lotus (running Renault engines) and the Group Lotus-sponsored Renault outfit.

All teams have retained the same engines for 2011, with the exception of Team Lotus, which dropped its Cosworth motors after one year and took on customer Renault V8s along with a deal to use Red Bull’s transmission.

On the circuit front, Bahrain’s cancellation gave me an extra two weeks to get this preview article together, and saved many fans from a quick cure for insomnia. And while the number of races remains at nineteen, the Indian Grand Prix – another Tilkedrome to join the swelling ranks – makes its debut in October. Silverstone’s Arena Layout will get another run, although this time the pit complex has been moved to the other side of the track. And there are also concerns about the ongoing future of several events that have either run up big losses and/or continue to struggle to attract decent crowds. Step forward Australia, Turkey and Valencia…

Driver line-ups remained generally static, with the top-five teams (plus Team Lotus and Toro Rosso) retaining their complete driver pairings, although that went out the window when Robert Kubica was horrifically injured in his rally accident in February. While we won’t debate the merits of drawbacks of teams allowing their drivers to engage in risk-taking when not in the F1 cockpit (as if that isn’t enough of a potential risk already), the Pole’s accident left a gaping hole in the team. We wish Robert a safe and speedy recovery as he begins the long road of rehabilitation.

Nick Heidfeld was brought back in from the wilderness to fill Kubica’s seat, and this opportunity finally represents the German’s chance to compete at the front and perhaps challenge for that maiden F1 win after almost 180 races behind him. An interesting fact is that his last race win came in F3000 in 1999…

Further down the field, the midfield outfits felt the pinch of sponsorship proving harder to come by, and several driver changes were made that had the flow-on benefit of more sponsorship income or cheaper technical supply deals. Nico Hülkenberg found himself dumped by Williams mere weeks after he’d taken the team’s first pole position since 2005, and he is now treading water at Force India on the reserve bench, while the well-backed Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado brings his government backing to the vacant seat alongside Rubens Barrichello.

Force India severed its ties with Vitantonio Liuzzi and promoted Mercedes-Benz protege, the newly-crowned DTM champion and the team’s faithful reserve driver, Paul di Resta.

Liuzzi was confirmed at the eleventh-hour at Hispania Racing, which got rid of its entire line-up to bring in Narain Karthikeyan, back form the wilderness after a single – and unspectacular – season with Jordan in 2005. HRT’s 2010 line-up of Bruno Senna (Renault), Karun Chandhok (Lotus) and Sakon Yamamoto (Virgin Racing) all went on to reserve driver roles, while Christian Klien has joined the Le Mans Series.

Mexican money helped to bankroll GP2 runner-up Sergio Pérez – the first F1 driver from his homeland in 30 years – into the second seat at Sauber, where he will partner the sport’s very own banzai overtaker, Kamui Kobayashi.

And further down the grid, the maligned Lucas di Grassi was cast off into the wilderness by Virgin Racing, who plumped for GP2 veteran Jérôme D’Ambrosio.

Sergio Perez Pestor Maldonado Paul di Resta Jerome D'Ambrosio
The grid welcomes four rookie drivers (L-R): Sergio Pérez, Pastor Maldonado, Paul di Resta, Jérôme D’Ambrosio

There’s such a wonderful air of uncertainty on the eve of the season-opening race in Melbourne, and there are so many factors and side-stories that could be pushed out of the limelight.

Can the Red Bull drivers patch things up after a troubled and bitter 2010 season? Will Felipe Massa rediscover his form? Will Michael Schumacher’s second season of his comeback be any better? Will the real Lotus please stand up? Can Renault perform without Robert Kubica? Will Kamui Kobayashi continue to excite us? Can any of the new outfits break into the midfield? Will the new rules work? Will the Indian Grand Prix be another Commonwealth Games fiasco?

These are too many questions to even attempt to answer here, but we’ve given quite a few a serious crack in our pre-season Team and Driver Profiles.

In any respect, let’s get the show on the road!

Keep up-to-date with the latest news and results from the 2011 F1 season using our special launch page, which you can find here. Make sure you bookmark it!

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.