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Technical revisions could be a huge factor in 2011 F1 season

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line London, England (Sports Network) - The 2011 Formula One season begins next week in Melbourne, Australia, but a lot of questions remain as to how regulatory changes in the sport will impact teams throughout the year.

With a new tire supplier, the return of KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) and moveable rear wings among the revisions, the next season in F1 could feature another seesaw battle for the world championship throughout the year.

Teams have had plenty of track time during the off-season, with testing in Barcelona, Jerez and Valencia, Spain during the past month and a half.

Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing enter this season as the favorites for the driver and constructors' championships. However, Ferrari, McLaren and quite possibly Mercedes GP will be Red Bull's fiercest competitors.

ANOTHER BULLISH YEAR?

In just its sixth season of F1 competition, Red Bull headlined the class of 12 teams in 2010. Vettel and teammate Mark Webber gave Red Bull a combined nine wins and 15 poles last year. The British team wrapped up the constructors' title in the penultimate round of the season in Brazil.

At age 23, Vettel became the youngest-ever world champion in the 61-year history of F1. The young German won the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to clinch the title by just four points over Fernando Alonso from Ferrari.

"Last year was a great success and a big relief for me," Vettel said. "Hopefully, it will make me a bit stronger. Nevertheless, it will be a long, hard and tough season."

Earlier this week, Vettel extended his contract with Red Bull until the end of the 2014 season.

At age 23, Sebastian Vettel became the youngest-ever world champion in the history of F1.
Vettel has been pleased with the team's development of its 2001 car, the RB7, throughout pre-season testing.

"The preparation has been good," he said. "Now we are just looking forward to Melbourne. If you ask me about performance, all I can say is I think we are there or thereabouts, and, as I keep saying, it's impossible to know until we get to Australia."

Last year, Webber had his best season since his F1 career began in 2002. The Australian notched four wins, including a victory in the Monaco Grand Prix. He finished the year third in points. Webber is eager to begin the new season, which begins in his home country.

"I feel I'm ready for the first race now," Webber said. "In terms of team preparation, it's the best we've ever had going into the first part of a season in terms of reliability. All the departments have done a sensational job in getting every aspect ready. Hopefully, we're not too far from our main rivals to start with, and we'll just go from there."

One potential obstacle for Red Bull this year could be the on-going rivalry between Vettel and Webber. There was a bit of friction between the two at times last season, with Webber feeling like he was the "second" driver with the team.

Vettel and Webber were among the quickest in last week's test at Barcelona.

NUMEROUS CHANGES TO THE CARS

Several technical revisions have been made to the cars this year, and that could work in favor for Ferrari and McLaren, which took a backseat to Red Bull this past season.

Following Bridgestone's withdrawal from F1 last year, Pirelli takes over as the sport's sole tire supplier. Bridgestone had been with F1 the last 13 years. Pirelli returns after a 20-year absence.

McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 F1 titleholder, has already become accustomed with the tire and has a favorable opinion of it.

"The new tires are easy to get a feel for," Hamilton said during the first F1 pre-season test last month in Valencia, Spain. "There's not as much grip on the Pirellis as we had last year. They drop off quite a bit, and they're a little bit harder to control over a longer stint. But it's the same for everybody."

KERS will be reintroduced this year, after teams mutually agreed to suspend the use of the device last season. The system provides drivers with additional horsepower, which helps speed up their lap times. KERS was introduced during the 2009 season, but not all teams utilized it.

In order for all teams to have a KERS-equipped car, F1 mandated a slight increase in the minimum weight of the cars.

Starting this year, drivers will be able to adjust the rear wing from the cockpit. The system's availability is electronically governed, and it can be used at any time in practice and qualifying. During a race, the rear wing can be adjusted only when a driver is less than one second behind another car at pre-determined points on the track. The moveable front wing was used last year, but has been dropped for this season.

F-ducts and double diffusers have also been banned this year.

WHO CAN KNOCK RED BULL OFF THE CHAMPIONSHIP PEDESTAL?

Ferrari and McLaren rebounded last year after both teams endured a disappointing season in 2009.

Alonso, in his first year with Ferrari, came up short of claiming his third F1 championship in 2010. Look for Alonso to once again be Vettel's biggest threat for the title this year.

"I feel confident just as I did last year going into the start of the season," Alonso said. "We are in good shape, even if we know we are not racing alone out there. We want to win, but that doesn't mean that if it did not happen, it would be a disaster."

Alonso was the quickest in one of the three days of testing in Valencia.

Ferrari finished third in last year's constructors' points. McLaren took the second spot.

So far, McLaren has had a lot of success in the preparation of its new MP4-26. The team heads to Australia with driver Jenson Button winning the last two grand prix there.

"We're all pulling together, and we've got some interesting developments in the pipeline," Button said.

Despite a somewhat dismal season last year, Mercedes GP figures to be a much improved team. Michael Schumacher returned to F1 last season, but the seven- time F1 champion finished no better than fourth. Schumacher topped the time charts in the fourth day of testing at Barcelona. His teammate and German compatriot Nico Rosberg led the way in a rain-shortened session there the following day.

"We had a very productive test in Barcelona, working on the final specification of the MGP W02 [car] for the first race of the season in Australia," Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn said. "Our upgrade package has performed as we expected. However, Formula One continually moves forward, and as always, we will keep looking for more performance."

In 2009, Brawn resurrected the former Honda team and turned his squad into a powerhouse, with drivers Button and Rubens Barrichello.

OTHER NOTEWORTHY DRIVERS

Nick Heidfeld returns to the driver lineup in F1, serving as the substitute for the injured Robert Kubica at Renault. Heidfeld made a strong statement in being Kubica's replacement when he posted the quickest time in day three of testing at Jerez last month.

"I have a good feeling for the car, which is quite innovative," Heidfeld said. "I'm extremely motivated and can't wait for the season to begin."

Kubica continues to recover in a Pietra Ligure, Italy hospital following his accident during an Italian rally race on February 6. It's not known when or if Kubica will compete again.

Heidfeld will pair up with Russian Vitaly Petrov, who is looking to improve from his rookie season.

Newcomers to F1 this year include: Williams' Pastor Maldonado, who won last year's GP2 Series championship, Paul di Resta from Force India, Sauber's Sergio Perez, the 2010 GP2 Series runner-up, and Jerome d'Ambrosio from Virgin.

Narain Karthikeyan is back in F1 with HRT after running a limited schedule in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series last year.

19 ROUNDS INSTEAD OF 20

A record 20 grand prix had originally been scheduled for this year's F1 season. However, the Bahrain Grand Prix, slated for March 13, was called off due to continuing anti-government protests in that Middle Eastern country. The Australian Grand Prix will now kick off the season on March 27.

"It was the better choice not to go," Vettel said. "The start of the season is a little bit delayed, but you can never have enough preparation to make the car ready. It's a new situation we have to deal with, but it gives us a little bit more time on the track to prepare the car."

Last week, Formula One's governing body, the FIA, revealed that the possible rescheduling of this year's Bahrain GP will be postponed until May 1.

In October, the circuit will compete in New Delhi, India for the first time. The season concludes on Thanksgiving weekend with the Brazilian Grand Prix.

The full 2011 F1 entry list of constructors and drivers is as follows:

Red Bull Racing

1 Sebastian Vettel (Germany) 2 Mark Webber (Australia)

Vodafone McLaren Mercedes

3 Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain) 4 Jenson Button (Great Britain)

Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro

5 Fernando Alonso (Spain) 6 Felipe Massa (Brazil)

Mercedes GP Petronas F1

7 Michael Schumacher (Germany) 8 Nico Rosberg (Germany)

Renault F1 Team

9 Nick Heidfeld (Germany) 10 Vitaly Petrov (Russia)

AT&T Williams

11 Rubens Barrichello (Brazil) 12 Pastor Maldonado (Venezuela)

Force India F1 Team

14 Adrian Sutil (Germany) 15 Paul di Resta (Great Britain)

Sauber F1 Team

16 Kamui Kobayashi (Japan) 17 Sergio Perez (Mexico)

Scuderia Toro Rosso

18 Sebastien Buemi (Switzerland) 19 Jaime Alguersuari (Spain)

Team Lotus

20 Jarno Trulli (Italy) 21 Heikki Kovalainen (Finland)

HRT F1 Team

22 Narain Karthikeyan (India) 23 Vitantonio Liuzzi (Italy)

Marussia Virgin Racing

24 Timo Glock (Germany) 25 Jerome d'Ambrosio (Belgium)

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

Follow Chris Symeon on Twitter and Facebook.

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