Amid all the pre-season excitement of Schumacher's return and Lewis and Jenson being paired together at McLaren, one especially intriguing prospect seems to have been largely overlooked - that of Ferrari.
Will 2009's mediocrity be shown to be a mere blip in the team's outstanding performances since 1997, accountable purely to the ambiguity in the technical regulations at the F60's conception? A compromising external factor outside the team's control - much as was the case in 2005 with the late-notice banning of tyre changes? Or was it the beginning of the 'inevitable' downwards slide in the post-Brawn/Schuey era?
It's actually very rare for any one person at a senior level to directly replace another in any F1 team. The general role and responsibilities may be the same but the differing strengths and weaknesses of two different people mean that inevitably the roles evolve around the person. Kimi Raikkonen, for example, was never a direct replacement for Schumacher. He couldn't be; their differences were so profound. So some of what used to be part of Michael's role inevitably got re-allocated elsewhere when Kimi arrived. Similarly, Stefano Domenicali did not directly replace Jean Todt. The difference in their make-up is perhaps even greater than those between Schumacher and Raikkonen. So the nature of the team subtly evolves - and in ways far more widespread than can be accounted for than just these two key roles; the rest of the organisation will invariably have been shuffled too, creating new dynamics everywhere.
But the combination of those two key people in particular left a shortfall - in direction. Domenicali is less autocratic than Todt, Kimi was less inspirational than Michael. In the past couple of years the team has looked operationally less sure-footed. The cars were still super-fast, but moments of high tension tended to trigger dramas more readily than before. Then last year, the cars weren't even fast.
Domenicali - an open and genuine a man - has acknowledged the shortcomings in the dynamic. The answer has been to recruit Fernando Alonso, a driver with a reputation for moulding a team - much as Schumacher used to.
So we are left questioning whether the shortfall in the car performance - as opposed to the operation of the team at the track - is unrelated to the less surefooted direction of the team. Is the technical team just as much on the case as it's ever been, just caught out by a regulation change? Or has it all been part of the same malaise as the botched pitstops and poor strategy calls? This season is when we get to find out - assuming no-one has made the equivalent breakthrough of last year's double diffuser. The relative stability of the technical regs from last year to this should theoretically level the technical playing field, enabling a realistic call to be made on the design team's performance.
If there is a shortfall in the technical department in the post Brawn/Byrne era, then recruiting Alonso - any driver - won't make much difference. Alonso's value will become apparent only if the technical department is as good as ever. If what he'll push for is achievable - structuring the race team more effectively, putting right the simple stuff - his sheer force of will, personality and performance will pull everything together. And if that's the case, we then have the intriguing prospect of Felipe Massa, developing all the time and wondering why the team needed to hire Alonso to provide leadership.
So, on one hand we'll have a driver who's grown up there, who may have to fight his corner in order to transform himself from grateful kid to fully seasoned pro ready to fight his corner. On the other, we have Alonso, recruited as a double world champ. Sound familiar? Sounds like fireworks - so long as the car is fast.
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