Such is the wide-ranging raft of changes to the regulations that it cannot be taken as read that a top team will retain their form. Remember Ferrari's 2005 season? One paltry race win and even that only when ranged against a field of four Minardis and Jordans at Indy? That disastrous blip in an otherwise brilliant sequence of seasons from 2000-08 came as a result of just one rule tweak - that which banned tyre changes during a race.
Going into 2009, we have vastly more regulation changes than that, as discussed here last week. As such, Ferrari - with probably fewer modelling tools than, say, McLaren or BMW - face the challenge with a certain amount of trepidation. This was evident in the recent comments of the team's chief track engineer, Luca Baldisseri, who went on to articulate some of the operational challenges the new rules present the teams.
The design challenges - guestimating the ideal baseline weight and aero distribution for new, untried tyres and aero, given that KERS prevents much room to manoeuvre - have already been widely discussed here. But the operational aspects are going to be every bit as difficult - something that Baldisseri is only too aware of.
"We've never seen such a revolution in F1," he said, referring to radically different aerodynamic regs, the introduction of KERS, new slick tyres with much bigger differences between compounds than before, and a ban on in-season testing.
He made the point that teams will now have to use the limited pre-season testing time for the whole year and not just the first few races. Furthermore, grand prix Fridays will have to be used for testing developments for future races, not just the one that will follow two days later.
"The drivers will be driving a different (spec) car during qualifying and race than they have driven on Friday," he maintains.
A lot of troublesome hot air
The second race of the season, in Malaysia, represents another good example of the operational complications. This event in Kuala Lumpur is invariably held in jungle humidity and heat, and represents the biggest cooling challenge for the cars all year. Traditionally, it's been common to see big slats cut into bodywork, losing aerodynamic performance just in order to keep the engines cool enough. That's likely now to be a thing of the past. The way the aero regs are configured doesn't allow for cooling slats on the upper bodywork; hot air from the radiators now has to exit at the back (to make for less turbulence in the car's wake, an effort to make overtaking easier).
There is therefore just as little wriggle room for the on-track engineers as there is for the designers. Get your cooling wrong for Malaysia and you might write off your whole weekend. On the other hand, go too conservative and you could
get blown into the weeds.
"When the regulations change radically it could be that it's always the same team winning," Baldisseri says. "The big teams have the resources to quickly find the best solutions when you have stable regulations but with a big change it
doesn't always happen like this. An original idea could be enough to give someone a dominant season."
As could, say, a superior tyre modelling programme. McLaren invested heavily in tyre modelling at the turn of the decade, something that paid off spectacularly for them when they made a seamless change from Michelin to the single-supply Bridgestones in 2007 - in sharp contrast to Renault, a team that had configured their car heavily around Michelins but didn't have the modelling tools to fully understand the demands of the Bridgestones.
This was a change Ferrari did not need to adapt to, having been on Bridgestones throughout. But now we are in a situation of an entirely new tyre, might Ferrari be in the position Renault found themselves in 2007? Couple this with the continuing question marks around the team's KERS programme, and the uncertainties seem to be mounting up.
At least Kimi's happy
But there is at least one positive: Kimi Raikkonen likes the feel of what he's tried so far. Seems the lower downforce in combination with the increased mechanical grip of the slicks has brought the car much more towards his preferred driving style than the 2008 machine.
Getting rid of the grooves increases the tyre's surface area by a greater percentage on the narrower fronts than the wider rears and ostensibly may have banished the understeer that Raikkonen so dislikes. Yet for all these worries, it's perfectly feasible that Ferrari will turn up in Melbourne and blitz the field, just like they always used to. The uncertainty of it all is quite tantalising.
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