2006 Formula One Season Readies for Launch

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March 12th is two days away, and the Formula One season will kick off this year with the Bahrain Grand Prix. (The Commonwealth Games in Australia causing the opener to be held elsewhere this time) The 5.4 km 12 turn Bahrain circuit is one of the most challenging in F1 and should provide an exciting opening to the 2006 season. There have been a number of driver/team changes this year, and the next several are shaping up to be just as tumultuous. 

First and foremost, the changes at Honda: Takuma Sato is out. His weak performance in 2005 made him expendable to the Honda brain trust, but a huge fan backlash in Japan has caused the team to offer to support Sato with a ride should another sponsor step forward. Taking Sato’s seat is Rubens Barrichello of Ferrari. Tired of being Michael Schumacher’s whipping boy, Barrichello moves on to a team where a successful season could land him in the number one car. 2006 will be a decisive season for current Honda #1 Jenson Button. After a lackluster ’05 season with only a very few bright spots, Button will need to reward Honda’s faith with a stellar performance. His move to rival Williams was stopped at considerable cost by Honda, and it’s up to him to return the favor. The new V8 power plants are absolute marvels of engineering. The Honda version has achieved a previously considered impossible redline of nearly 20,000 RPMs. (and we thought 9k was special?!)

In an all out winter schedule, the Honda F1 Team put in 27,000 kms of testing at the Barcelona, Jerez and Valencia circuits in Spain. In February, the team spent four days at the Bahrain International Circuit getting the set-up right for the severe desert conditions they’d experience there this Sunday. So far, the Honda cars have proven very reliable and they’ve been among the fastest in testing. (a full second faster than the closest competition, McLaren-Mercedes, at Valencia.)

Reigning champion Fernando Alonso will be leaving Renault next year to join the McLaren-Mercedes team and one has to wonder if team boss Flavio Briatore will place his best efforts with the car of Alonso’s teammate Giancarlo Fisichella.

Coming off an up and down 2005 that featured brilliant driving mixed with mechanical disaster, Kimi Räikkönen enters the ’06 season as many pundit’s favorite to capture the crown. If the new Mercedes V8 proves reliable, (and the aero can be more effective in the “dirty air” of traffic), Kimi is clearly the man to beat this year, although with Kimi expected to jump ship soon, Juan Pablo Montoya has been getting about twice as much seat time as Kimi in Mercedes-McLaren winter testing. Expect JPM to also be a big factor in this year’s championship if he can have the discipline to keep his cars in one piece.

Replacing Barrichello as Schumacher’s “beeyatch” over at Ferrari will be Felipe Massa who is no-doubt grateful to finally be in a top tier car. The ’06 Ferrari appears to be much more competitive than last year’s version, and join Renault, McLaren-Mercedes, and Honda as the teams to beat. Michael Schumacher hopes to regain some of his past magic with the ’06 version of the Ferrari F1 car. MS is probably tired of answering questions about his speculated retirement, and I’m guessing that he’d like nothing better than one more championship to shut everyone up.

2006 marks the end of the Williams-BMW partnership as they go their separate ways. Whether the former great Williams team can ever regain its former glory remains to be seen, but the prospects are looking dimmer and dimmer for Frank. Several team budgets are expected to eclipse the half billion dollar mark this year, and it becomes ever more doubtful that a team without incredibly deep pockets can be competitive in such a free-spending environment. (Toyota HAS incredibly deep pockets, and they still can’t be competitive.) BMW has teamed with Sauber, but the partnership appears to be at least a few years from fruition.

The Red Bull team shows promise, but they would have to be considered a dark horse at best. The rest of the field are there to provide someone to pass on a regular basis. (Max heard that Americans love passing)

Max and Bernie have a challenge ahead of them. There was a lot that went wrong last season, and many wonder… can the end of F1 as we know it be near? The possibility of a manufacturer’s series still looms large on the horizon, but it appears such a series would have to at least start with no entry from the Ferrari team, as Principal Jean Todt remains fully committed to the FIA.

Bette Davis said it best: “Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

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