A perfect recipe is now in place for a very unusual competitive F1 picture in 2009. The recently announced in-season testing ban is the final flourish to a set of rule changes that could make for a very topsy-turvy grid.
A totally new aerodynamic package that fundamentally alters the way the cars work, means the aggregated knowledge and data of the top teams are wiped clean. Last year, for example, Renault developed their car faster than either Ferrari or McLaren - but started the season over a second off the pace. Imagine those three respective development curves applied to a level playing field, such as the new aero regs provide. That's not to say Renault will be able to repeat such a performance gain; maybe their superior curve was only possible by starting so far behind. But it makes for an intriguing possibility.
Who's feeling most energetic?
Then there's the matter of how well each team has got to grips with the kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS). Introducing a totally new technology from scratch massively increases the likely variety in performances - with the previous top teams not necessarily being the ones making the best initial fist of it.
BMW seem to have got a handle on it very early after a few high-profile teething problems. Ferrari, by their own admission, are lagging badly behind at the moment. Given that their partner Magneti Marelli is also set to supply Red Bull, Toro Rosso and Renault with KERS technology, that could have further implications. Mercedes' Brixworth High Performance Engine facility is reportedly looking more like a KERS factory than an engine plant at the moment, and there seems to be a mood of quiet optimism that it has cracked the demands of the technology.
Ironically, just a couple of weeks before pulling out, Honda appeared to have made a flying start, Alex Wurz having tested the system extensively, with few apparent problems. Toyota, on the other hand, seem to think KERS will prove more bother than it is worth and probably won't be running it, in the early part of the season at least. There's the intrigue of how well the unique Williams flywheel KERS might work, using a totally different principle to all the others and developed at a fraction of the cost.
Will KERS be worth the weight?
A good KERS, even within the currently configured power and storage constraints, is reckoned to be worth around 0.3s per lap of performance - a not insignificant chunk in F1 terms. That's before even considering the tactical disadvantage that not having it might bring you in a race situation. But there is a proviso: the constraints it puts on varying the car's weight distribution could undo all of that benefit and more.
An F1 car is incredibly sensitive to how its weight and aero loads are balanced between front and rear. A one per cent shift in front/rear weight distribution can have a huge effect on performance; if the front tyres cannot be made to give good initial bite, the damage on lap time will be massive and that one per cent could be - and over the last few seasons frequently has been - the difference between switching the tyres, and not.
The problem facing designers of the KERS-equipped 2009 cars is that much of the ballast used for varying the weight distribution is now taken up by the KERS. So they are having to be much more precise in defining the ideal weight distribution because there is now very little room to vary it by way of moveable ballast.
That wouldn't be so bad, except that the combination of new aero rules and new slick tyres mean that calculating the ideal distribution is next to impossible before you've run the car. By which time it's too late.
If you've 'guessed' wrong - because altering the weight distribution without using ballast involves crucial things like wheelbase, and the positioning of major components such as engine, transmission, fuel tank and driver. It's more than a guess, of course; some complex and clever calculations will have been made in assessing the answer. But it's all theoretical until all the 2009-spec cars run.
Now add in a rule that prevents testing at all once the season has begun. It means that if you're in trouble you're going to stay in trouble for quite some time. The F1 tests in the next few weeks, as new cars are launched and taken to their limits for the first time, are probably going to be hugely more significant than at any other time in F1 history.
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