How close will the F1 field be in 2009?

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None of the teams have dominated testing so far in 2009
None of the teams have dominated testing so far in 2009

The F1 rules get a radical shake-up this year. History tells us that when that happens, one team usually nails the new rules better than anyone else and dominates at least the early part of the season.

But F1 testing so far suggests that the top teams are actually quite close on performance, and the season might not be such a one-sided affair.

1998: The last big rules change

The last time F1 saw a rules change on anything like the scale we have this year was 1998. Grooved tyres replaced slicks, and the cars were made 200mm narrower.

At the last race of 1997 the top three qualifier set identical lap times to within one thousandth of a second of each other. But McLaren turned up at the first race of 1998 and wiped the floor with their rivals:

1998 Australian Grand Prix top five finishers

1. Mika H??kkinen, McLaren-Mercedes 1:31’45.996
2. David Coulthard, McLaren-Mercedes +0.702
3. Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Williams-Mecachrome -1 Lap
4. Eddie Irvine, Ferrari -1 Lap
5. Jacques Villeneuve, Williams-Mecachrome -1 Lap

Will we see this kind of domination at Melbourne in two weeks’ time?

Read more: Biggest change to the F1 rules since??

Testing hints at a close 2009

So far no one team has been consistently at the top of the testing times. There is a growing perception that BMW, Ferrari and Toyota have built the quickest cars, but no one team is vastly quicker than the others.

Red Bull captured headlines when Sebastian Vettel lapped Jerez 1.3s faster than anyone else on the first day of last weeks’ test at Jerez. But it emerged the time was set on a one-lap flier, when everyone else did long runs. The RB5, designed by Adrian Newey (who of course was also behind McLaren’s 1998 MP4-13), has some noticeably different design approaches to its rivals, but hasn’t shown a clear performance advantage at any time other than this one day.

The impression of a fairly close F1 pack in 2009 goes against some initial expectations. Vee8 last year argued KERS would ruin great racing – and he could yet be right – but so far it doesn’t seem to be the case.

The 2009 regulations have given the designers new areas to exploit. But they have also taken a lot away. Huge areas of the cars that used to be covered with downforce-producing or flow-conditioning winglets are now flat. There is less opportunity for designers to get things right or wrong. Purists may lament F1’s slow transformation into a spec series but as car design becomes more constrained car performance must inevitably become closer.

So perhaps 2009 won’t see a single team dominating as many of us expected. We could be in for a close season’s racing.

On the other hand, now I’ve written that, someone’s bound to stick their final aero spec on and go two seconds quicker than everyone else…

More on the F1 rules for 2009

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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31 comments on “How close will the F1 field be in 2009?”

  1. Let’s hope that no team dominates indeed.

    We need to see a fight between such good drivers as Alonso, Raikkonen, Vettel, Hamilton, Kubika.

    add to those rubens!

  2. I think it will be an awful lot closer, especially in the midfield. I submitted my predictions on another website the other day, where you had to predict the final championship order – my goodness was it difficult.

    Usually you at least have some kind of idea which teams are likely to be at the front (Mclaren/Ferrari), and which will be at the back (Force India, and I have to admit I thought Toro Rosso would be last year!) – but with BMW seeming to join them, and possibly Renault too, and then Toyota and Red Bull apparantly doing quite well, all it takes is an off patch from one of the top four teams and Toyota and Red Bull will be right in there. Plus who knows what that Brawn car is going to do – and I wouldnt have thought Williams and Toro Rosso will be lagging too far behind! Force India, whilst I did predict them as the last two places in the overall championship I wouldnt place money on it at all! Plus there will be at least one or two teams who do infinitely better than everyone thought (see Toro Rosso in 2008!)its just a case of waiting to see who it will be. (I’m thinking Toyota and Brawn, and I would love it to be Williams, but I’m not so sure about that one)

    I cannot wait for the new season, I think (and hope!) BMW will have the slight early advantage, especially if KERS does indeed give that extra boost, they do seem to have had theirs sorted before many of the others – and I think it will be Heidfeld that takes the early lead against Kubica in the team, – although over the whole year I think it will be pretty even. I am a little biased though, I do want BMW to take both titles!!!

    1. Its really nice as well to not even be able to narrow it down to just two teams who I think will take the titles – I think its between any one of four teams, and about seven drivers!

  3. Prior to 1998, mclaren dominates the 1st half of the season mainly because of that bridgestone tyres performs better than goodyear.
    In my opinion, as long as there’s no tyre war in the championship, close and open battle is expected, so it’l be more fun i think!
    Go Kimi, Go Ferrari

  4. The field could be tighter but that doesn’t necessarily mean the race for the title will be wide open. I reckon it could be a fight between Ferrari and BMW this year.

    Last year the midfield was more competitive than any other year I can remember. With McLaren seemingly on their way backwards it maybe even more competitive. To add to this Brawn GP seem to have made a pretty good fist of it so they will be coming up from the rear. I reckon the field, front to back, could be very close.

  5. I suppose that only MARK WEBBER is suffering with his RED BULL.Vettel seems to be in the mix of front runners.MARK is not happy with his balance…

  6. The ’98 cars were 200mm narrower, from 2.0m to 1.8. I think we’ll see a mix where some races it’s very close, others one team will be ahead with a good margin. The differing interpretations of the rules will give different cars varying characteristics that are circuit dependant.

  7. Typo: 20cm/200mm, Keith!

    1. Ah, I see Gav has beaten me to it!

      Anyway I’m loving these new regulations – agianst all our fears things seem pretty close and the cars have such a wonderful degree of originality to them this year, it has definately made for one of the most exciting pre-seasons I’ve ever witnessed!

    2. Seedy – Yes I was caught in two minds between the two. Fixed now.

  8. Logic suggests that probably 2 teams will be up front most of the time. Those would have to be Ferrari and McLaren, but I’m not too sure about the latter. BMW and Toyota have been near Ferrari or faster than them in testing, though.

    The midfield will be a slaughter, with Renault, Red Bull, Williams, Brawn and Toro Rosso fighting for their spot in the top 8, while I suspect Force India will close the gap to that group.

    But all this might be wishful thinking…

  9. hamilton wc 09
    11th March 2009, 13:56

    Normally this close to the start of the season there is a rough pecking order formed which is fairly reliable. last year it was clear ferrari & mclaren were close with bmw behind a little then a gap to the rest.

    this year i dont even know who is the quickest, i think bmw, ferrari and toyota are very close, renault look fast and the red bull is looking promising. the 1 big question (as everyone has alluded to) is whether mclaren are hiding their pace from the rest of the teams or if they are really struggling. i cant decide either way, im hoping their hiding some pace but to be honest i dont think we’ll have any clear idea until qualifying at melbourne. not long to go now!

  10. In terms of performance anything could happen this season, the rule changes could really shake the established order up.

    In recent years although teams have designed a new car each season these have been more evolutions of the previous years design rather than revolutions, so apart from the odd exception (Renault 2007) there haven’t been many big changes in the order of things. This year every team are starting with a clean sheet so the order in the constructers championship could be quite different to last years, and as with previous big rule changes one team may find the significantly better solutions to the new regulations and so enjoy a big advantage at least at the start of the season.

    Having said all that, you still would expect the teams with most experience and resources to still be the ones at the front. So if I had to make a prediction on who has the quickest car at the start of the season I would say Ferrari then BMW and then possibly Red Bull, but I would honestly not be surprised if any team were challenging for podiums come the first few races (okay maybe Force India).
    McLaren seem to be the great unknowns so far and while I don’t think they will be 2-3 seconds off the pace come Melbourne I don’t believe they have the best car and are just sandbagging.

    The reliability of Formula One cars has improved greatly in recent years, and having a reliable car has been key in the championships, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a lot more mechanical failures this year with teams pushing the envelope too far and the in season testing ban meaning some new parts would not have been put through a race distance before they are used at a Grand Prix.

  11. I think that this year, rahter than having a very close field in all races, we will have cars that perform good in some tracks, and bad in others.

    Reliability will be a key factor, once again, so some cars may be very quick, but difficult to take to the checkered flag, so this yera, more than ohter years, I think that the fastest car will win less races.

    So I do think that the championshi will be a close battle, but the races maybe not as much.

    And people are talking about the teams and the cars and how fast they are, but to win races and championships the driver is the key factor, so for that reaosn I rull out Toyota for being a key player this year. But I do think that Ferrari, McLaren (serious concerns regading the possible problem), BMW and Alonso (not Renault because Piquet will not match Alonso’s pace for sure) will be the real contenders for race wins.
    And even in McLaren, not sure if Kovalainen can be a match to Hamilton, although I think he has the talent to do so…

  12. 1# Ferrari. They have the edge, and Raikkonen; if in form he is the quickest man out there.. But we’ll see.

    2# BMW.looks to be the second fastest, but does it hve the speed of the Ferrari?..

    3# Toyota.Also looks fast, but does it have that race winning potential..?

    4# BrawnGP.Setting very good testing times, best of the rest? With Button, a race win may be a hope!

    5# Renault. unsaure whether it could have a race winning car or not, but wiht Alonso at the helm, maybe it could.

    6# Red Bull. Yes we all saw the vettel lap, but that was a one lap special, there form has dropped in testin.

    7# Williams. Looking to start on a high ? but can it maintain its form..?

    #8 Mclaren. Looking very dodgy with the rear wing situation, i think there will be an upset if these start near the back, which atm is looking likely!

    #9 Torro Rosso. 1 new driver, but lacking pace, even with the near identical Red Bull chassis.

    10# Force India. And of course F1’s new minnows Force India, the switch from Ferrari to McLaren engine’s have done nothing. Still will be langushing at the back, but by not as much!

  13. Another item which leads me to think McLaren is struggling is that I just saw on f1today.nl that Hamilton crashed in turn three… while he also slipped quite hard even in turn one (or so they say).

  14. Well well. We are not the only one curious about what McLaren is doing. Take a look at this photo
    http://www.f1today.nl/foto/6070/
    Is that Schumacher taking a look at McLaren back end after Hamilton crashed ? I’m sure he wasn’t just “passing by” and stopped to see what happened.

  15. @ Ash
    Your prediction looks realistic, but on the other hand is quite bold. Brawn in 4th would be a surprise, as is McLaren in 8th.

    Also, I gather Red Bull would be disappointed with 6th. As probably would Toro Rosso with 9th. I mean, the DO have Ferrari power.

    My guess:
    1st group: Ferrari, BMW Sauber, McLaren, Toyota
    2nd group/midfield: Renault, Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Williams
    3rd group (although not quite as far back as previous seasons) Brawn, Force India

    1. Swap Brawn and McLaren and you’d have my prediction based on current testing lap times…

  16. Might go put some money on Button for World Drivers Champ this year.

  17. Well, if that BGP car is that good, Button can do it.
    He has shown us that in 2004, when he was very consistent and good.
    It would be awesome for a team that nearly didn’t start could be champs :)
    Can you imagine what a shock if they win in Melbourne :D
    Ok, let’s not get to excited about the times this week!

    It does look very close in testing, as I mentioned weeks ago after the first Bahrain test.
    Let’s hope no team is hidding their real pace (except for Mclaren’s bad pace) and we won’t see a dominant force!

  18. Ash, agree completely.

    But possibly at mid year we will see renault and mclaren getting closer to the top as they have experience in developing properly and toyota and brawn slipping down.

  19. mclaren will probably start the season off bad but will rise back near the top

    1. I feel a “well he would say that wouldn’t he?” coming on…

      But at this stage, whether McLaren sink or swim at Melbourne it’s going to be a story.

  20. halifaxf1fan
    12th March 2009, 0:43

    Australia will show the true pace of the McLaren however it looks more and more like there is trouble. One of the things that confirms this for me is the silence of Lewis Hamilton. A guy who loves the media now avoids comment. The other thing is Ron Dennis making a statement for the team. Why? Shouldn’t Whitmarsh as team principal be doing this? It seems to me that Ron felt he needed to make a statement to try and calm the team. Whitmarsh must be struggling.

  21. Martin Whitmarsh was quoted about being under a lot more pressure with his new assignment. As experienced as he is, I still believe there would be a bit of a trasition period, its natural for everyone to go through that. He may be under the cosh just now, but I’m sure he will pick up the pieces sooner rather than later.

    Ron might be just lending a hand to take the pressure off him slightly, the last thing anybody in Martin’s situation needs is the press breathing down his neck. I’m not a Mac fan by a long shot, and I hate Ron Dennis, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Martin Whitmarsh, he’s always made very reasonable comments.

    I really hope Mac has a **** car for the start of the season. I really want Hamilton to show that he can wrestle a truck round a circuit and make the car go better over the course of the season and win races. This would quash any doubters and prove that he is of the class of Senna, Schumacher and Alonso. I am not a Hamilton fan mind you.

  22. I think McLaren are having problems. Despite what many thought, I didn’t think the McLaren had the fastest car last year, its true pace was what Heiki’s was getteing out of it. In short no matter what the initial package will be like, and I dont think it will that bad, we must never rule out the Lewis factor.

  23. Well I’ve said it elsewhere, so may as well provide more rope here, but believe from initial testing and hearsay that Kubica, Kimi and Alonso will be the contenders.

    BMW look strong in testing and the comfortable silence from that corner of the paddock speaks volumes I believe. Further, and this is really pushing my neck out, given Kubica’s raw pace around Melbourne last year, prior to his rather uncomfortable belly flop, I suspect the Pole to erm, well take pole – sorry.

    Ferrari have shown some good consistant pace, but not exactly stood head and shoulders above the rest, but rumours abound of a re-focused Raikonnen. Fingers crossed on that one. Massa is a nice guy, but tales of his chief race engineer having to explain to the driver that he can go faster in certain corners does not instill confidence that he is the ‘complete package’. Expecting/Hoping Kimi to regain his rightful place as top dog there then.

    The Fernando question then. Is he worth an extra six tenths in dev pace? Maybe. Will the car then suit someone with a different driving style? Probably not. So the Renault fell through the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. Doesn’t seems to have slowed it down though. More of the same from last season I suspect in terms of drivers, but with the Renault a clear third placed team, but closely chasing the red and blue scrap ahead.

    McLaren have a dud on their hands I suspect. Ron Dennis, not a sleepless Martin Whitmarsh you’ll note, put in a bullish performance for the press today. He cited ‘delays’ and muttered about being in the ‘fight for the championship’. Sounds like they ain’t got a working car right now then. Lot’s of folks around the boards seem to be looking forwards to Lewis having a tough year and ‘proving’ himself. Personally think he already answered all the doubters in 2007 and 2008. Guess vilifying achievers isn’t an exclusively British trait after all.

    Brawn GP appear to be entering the F1 arena in better shape than most fledgling indy teams we have seen previously. Yes, they may have been Honda lat year, but look how bad they were. No, suspect their talismanic new owner, Ross Brawn, has more than a little to do with what appears to be a phoenix like resurgence for the Brackley bunch. There may well be an element of inverted sandbagging going on, to attract backers keen to paste their logo on the shiny white fast machine, but word on at least one of the websites indicated that Massa thought today, that even on quali fuel, he couldn’t have caught Rubens.

    Strange days indeed then.

    How close? Not very – suspect bigger gaps between front and back than last year, but, not (I hope) Simtek to Williams style 5 second gaps per lap.

    A deciding factor will quite probably prove to be the dreaded KERS this year. Suspect by the end of the season it will be a boon, if an unreliable one. But if I was a gambling man, I’d go with Ross and forget it for now.

    Salty.

  24. Hopefully we’ll have another 2003-type season, with lots of different race winners and several drivers in contention for the title going into the final rounds.

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