|The Seaon of all Seasons|
|by Julie Gates, England|
The sounds of the newly spruced engines ignite the otherwise silent race tracks in preparation for the 1999 FIA F1 World Championship. Teams dust down their trailers and drivers kick start their training regime back into shape. It is this time of the year again and as usual, it is full with more speculation than ever on who will become World Champion.
After a gruelling winter working non-stop on their '99 contenders, it is time the teams put their talk into action and show they can be as competitive as they are saying. Everyone can talk, that is the easy part, but Melbourne on March 7th will dictate the story. What exactly will the travelling circus have in store for the fans in 1999? Not even Mystic Meg could predict this, and the only real evaluation we can make is from the performances at the end of last season, the winter testing and the car's sex appeal. Well, even that doesn't really tell us much.
Smart money would be on McLaren and Ferrari fighting it out, as last year, but that may be just a little bit too predictable and F1 certainly isn't that. Yes, they both seem to have very good cars and even with first-test hiccups, they aim to be the best.
Then again, testing doesn't really give much indication to just how well the team will perform in race conditions with another 20 odd contenders by their sides. At testing sessions, teams can be on different fuel loads, testing different aspects of the car, using old and new bits and working on different tyres. Doesn't really give a lot to get excited about, does it? Lets face it, Minardi were fourth fastest at Barcelona this week.
Let's fast forward to the season opener in Australia: the obvious choice would be to say a McLaren and Ferrari on the front row and at least one of the above on the podium. The next step would be to say the other McLaren and Ferrari behind them. Saying that, the obvious (too often) rarely happens in F1. Sure, they will be the very top dogs of the season, and I dare say it'll be one of these two teams who end up champions come October 31st and Suzuka. However, even though it seems impossible, there will be some other top contenders out there. The Mugen-Honda Jordan 199 looks like a car that aims to do the biz; Benetton, Williams and BAR are all aiming for podium finishes. Whether or not their claims will be justified is yet to be discovered, but they are making a damn good job of promoting themselves.
Michael Schumacher is the odds-on fave to go the whole way in '99. In a Ferrari deemed unbeatable with an engine claimed to be Ferrari's best, why shouldn't he be? Well, McLaren, Jordan, Benetton, Williams and BAR are the reasons why. If, and only if, the above cars are up to scratch, all will be taking points away from each other. Instead of there just being one other driver to snatch the points away, there may be four or five. Two of these are definitely Coulthard and Irvine. They will be up the front, ready to inherit valuable points when plans go horribly wrong for Schumi or Mika Hakkinen.
I can't really see Coulthard or Irvive being title contenders. Irvine due to the obvious, but as for Coulthard, after last year, he has given himself a reputation by where he is too nice, can't ring his silver arrow's neck as much as his team mate and needs a car that is the very best to perform. If his MP4-13 had the slightest problem, he had difficulties in keeping on the pace. When Hakkinen had problems, fair play, he drove as hard as he could and still often out-performed many; something that does make a worthy World Champ.
Damon Hill could be an interesting part of this jigsaw puzzle. He knows how to win and he is hungrier than ever. He isn't becoming any younger and he may only have a season or two left in him. It is now or never.
The Jordan team, after their magnificent 1-2 in Belgium, are now seen as serious contenders. They have broken their bad luck spell, leap-frogged Benetton from the "big four" and are now aiming for the top three. A couple of wins for them is certainly achievable, as is finishing third in the constructors. They have two experienced drivers who know how to win, a much-improved car with a powerful and reliable engine and a team to back them all the way. Not to be bet against for succeeding in their ambition for 1999, but as for being champs, not this year guys.
Other guys willing to take the points away will be Ralf Schumacher, the Benetton boys, possibly Jaqcues Villeneuve and maybe Ricardo Zonta and Alex Zanardi. All good, very good drivers, in their own right and all capable of winning, at least in the right machinery.
Sauber too should be more competitive than in 1998. With last year's Ferrari engine in their C18, they certainly have a good and powerful engine behind them. Stewart and Prost are also jumping in at the deep end and saying they can win and be podium finishers, so this season really should be the best season we have seen for a long time.
Now it is crunchtime. 1999 World champion? Well, I am going to go with everyone else and say Schumacher. He is a genius behind the wheel and Ferrari will certainly be competitive from the off, so really it is there for the taking. Be warned though, it is not going to be the straight two-way battle it was last season, and it isn't going to be as predictable either.
Here's hoping, anyway.
|Julie Gates||© 1999 Atlas Formula One Journal.|
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