New rules, cars and drivers... but familiar rivalries set to dominate

Can Red Bull win again? Will Schumacher beat Rosberg? What odds for McLaren? David Tremayne predicts how the season will unfold
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The Independent Online

Q Who should we fancy to win the world championship?

A Based purely on pre-season testing performance, the title battle would be slogged out between Red Bull and Ferrari. Both have very fast and reliable cars, and they have the state-of-the-art aerodynamics which are the true secret to race- and title-winning performance. That, and the ability to keep developing the car as the season progresses.

Mercedes edged closer to the frame with a very successful upgrade which put the Silver Arrows right back into contention for a top-three placing.

McLaren got off to a disappointing start with reliability issues with their MP4-26, but changes to the exhaust seem to have transformed the car's prospects. The R31 Renault (or Group Lotus) team looked very fast early on in Robert Kubica's hands, but after the Pole's rallying accident the car, and team, appear to have lost some performance.

Q Can Michael Schumacher bounce back after a shocking 2010?

A Schumacher's much-trumpeted comeback in 2010 was a major disappointment, both to the legendary champion who won seven titles and 92 grands prix and to his legion of fans worldwide. He was blown away by Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg. But so far this year he has been much quicker. Armed with a Mercedes that handles the way he likes he seems much happier in 2011. In the second practice session in Melbourne he was fastest for a while and was throwing the car around with the abandon that he displayed at the height of his powers at Ferrari. One thing is for certain. This is Schumacher's last hurrah, his last chance to convince the board at Mercedes GP that he still has a role to play.

Q Are Lotus dark horses, and if not – who are?

A Neither of the Lotus teams looks likely to set the track alight just yet. First there is the Group Lotus team, Renault in disguise. Their cars are called Lotus Renaults thanks to sponsorship from the company that produces the road-going cars. Then there is Team Lotus. Their car is also powered by a Renault engine but is much better than last year's car. Indications are that they have a way to go yet to challenge in the midfield.

The true dark horses are likely to be Williams and Sauber. The former have a very aggressive new car that is proving fast straight out of the box and which may come closest to the championship-winning cars of yore, while Sauber have developed their car and turned two hard young chargers loose in it. Japanese star Kamui Kobayashi and rookie Sergio Perez have shown solid speed in the C30 thus far, and the car has been notably reliable in testing.

Q Who will be the first driver to fall out with his team-mate?

A I would be closely examining the status quo at Ferrari. We already know that Fernando Alonso took the upper hand in brutal fashion last year from 2008 title-contending Felipe Massa, with that team-orders controversy in Hockenheim when the Brazilian was obliged to surrender the lead to his supposedly faster team-mate. Massa's expressive face has already seemed glum this weekend when Alonso was going faster, so let's wait and see. The other option is fast rookie Paul di Resta getting right up Adrian Sutil's nose at Force India.

Q Which team/drivers will the rule changes favour most?

A The simple answer is those with the biggest budgets, which means Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren and Mercedes. Any serious changes to the rules inevitably means a significant hike in costs, as new technology has to be developed and the whole technical package has to be reoptimised around them as parameters and priorities change accordingly. Given the pace and intensity in Formula One, that never comes cheap, especially when it had to be developed in the usual hurry.

This year Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) are back; either you have to develop them yourself as do Mercedes, Ferrari, Williams and Renault, or you buy them in, as do Red Bull from Renault and McLaren from Mercedes.

Big spenders can cope with such things, together with developing their movable rear-wing drag-reduction technology. Others, such as Mercedes-engined Force India, had to dump Tonio Liuzzi's 2011 contract and take on Di Resta partly because of the prized KERS dowry he brings from supporter Mercedes.

Changes to aerodynamics also require exhaustive hours of redevelopment in the wind tunnels and/or via computational fluid dynamics, both of which research areas are labour-intensive and costly.

Q Can Hamilton or Button really win the title again?

A Last week, the answer would have been a cautiously worded "possibly". It would have been conditional upon McLaren doing something major to their hitherto disappointing new car. The problem centred on a very complex exhaust system, which kept breaking.

That exhaust was scrapped prior to Melbourne, and after modifying the cars, they proved surprisingly quick during the first two practice sessions yesterday. So suddenly the answer has to be much more positive. There is also a major upgrade coming for Malaysia in two weeks, so if that works as well, the two Britons could find themselves in a very much better position than they were not so long ago. Another title could beckon for either driver.

Q Will this year be about racing or politics?

A Both. Last year, 99 per cent of the season was all about racing. Next week the outcome of the fight over the Lotus name will be known as the case is being heard while the race is being run in Melbourne.

Already we have seen Bernie Ecclestone undermining the FIA president Jean Todt and trying to divide teams that have now long been united under the Formula One Teams Association. Why? He is seeking means of destabilising the teams at a time when the next Concorde Agreement is being negotiated. This time around the teams are seeking a far greater share of the revenue that Ecclestone's Formula One Management and CVC Capital Partners, who own the sport, have traditionally raked in.

And that's without any controversy on the track...