The 2009 F1 grid is remarkably unchanged compared to how the drivers lined up in 2008.
Eight of the ten teams boast the same driver pairings as they did last year. How will those ten partnerships fare in 2008?
Mark Webber vs Sebastian Vettel
The first new driver pairing is at Red Bull. It was widely expected even before 2008 that Vettel would move from Toro Rosso to the Red Bull ‘first team’ for 2009, as Vettel had a long-term contract with the soft drinks giant.
The are many fascinating dimensions to this new alliance – starting with the fact that it was Vettel, in his sixth F1 start, who harpooned Webber out of the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix when Webber was in with a chance of winning. Since then, Vettel has chalked up his maiden win but Webber is yet to do likewise.
Webber is making a recovery after breaking his left leg early in the 2008/9 off season during his Pure Tasmania charity event. He has made light work of most of his team mates – except perhaps Nick Heidfeld – and Vettel could prove his toughest challenge to date.
Sebastien Bourdais vs Sebastien Buemi
Stepping in to take Vettel’s place is the only rookie on the 2009 F1 grid and the only graduate – so far – from last year’s GP2 championship.
Buemi had a decent first GP2 season with a pair of wins, including one brilliant victory scored from the back of the grid at Magny-Cours in the wet.
While Buemi is out to make a reputation for himself, Bourdais needs to salvage his after taking a bit of a kicking at the hands of Vettel last year. The French driver has said he expects to perform better on slick tyres in 2009 – he needs to deliver on that expectation, and quickly.
The status quo teams
The rest of the line-ups may be the same but there’s no shortage of intrigue. At Ferrari and BMW, for example, the drivers who scored the most points in 2008 had been beaten by their respective team mates in 2007. Will Felipe Massa keep Kimi Raikkonen behind – and will Robert Kubica do the same to Nick Heidfeld?
One of the happiest stories of the off-season has been the saving of Rubens Barrichello’s F1 career. Having already started more F1 races than anyone ever, it was widely assumed that last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix would be his last. That suspicion was reinforced when Honda put its F1 team up for sale. With the team now re-born as Brawn GP, Barrichello will keep his seat alongside Jenson Button. Better yet, the car looks a cracker – their lower-order battles from 2007 and 2008 could be played out at the sharp end of the track this year.
Heikki Kovalainen and Nelson Piquet Jnr both had moments of glory last year but both need to up their games to justify their place alongside two extremely capable team mates. (Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso respectively). Hamilton faces the prospect of having to defend his world championship in a car that so far doesn’t look to be up to the task – a fascinating prospect, though a frustrating one for his fans.
Finally, speculation during the off-season suggested McLaren were trying to get one of their drivers into a Mercedes-backed Force India – either Pedro de la Rosa (who tested for Vijay Mallya’s team) or DTM star Paul di Resta. If Giancarlo Fisichella or Adrian Sutil don’t come up with the goods, might we see one of them moved aside for a Mercedes driver?
Which drivers do you think will have a strong 2009? Will we see any changes in the balance of power in the teams? Have your say in the comments.