Fresh challenges await F1 newcomers
London: Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone gave a one-word reply when asked how the new season would be for the three teams that made their debuts last year: "Difficult".
"Twelve teams is too many. Ten is enough," added the 80-year-old, who has seen plenty of teams come and go in his decades of running the sport with some struggling and others thriving.
Malaysian-owned Team Lotus (who competed as Lotus Racing last year), Hispania (HRT) and Virgin Racing were all way off the leaders` pace in 2010 and failed to score a point.
Of the three, Lotus fared the best and finished 10th overall, a key position that could be worth an extra $25 million in prize money if they do it again this year. Virgin were last.
All three are hoping to do a lot better this year but bold statements are easy to make at this point in the proceedings.
Lotus, with Italian Jarno Trulli, Finland`s Heikki Kovalainen and principal Tony Fernandes, have the best credentials going into the season, which opens on March 27.
Both drivers are previous race winners and Malaysian Fernandes, a successful entrepreneur with his AirAsia airline, has put money into the team.
Having ditched the Cosworth engine for the same Renault unit used by champions Red Bull, and taken on the latter`s gearbox, Lotus are now looking to challenge seriously for points.
"We always said that this year for us was all about moving into the midfield and that`s what we are very determined to do," said technical head Mike Gascoyne.
"It`s very clear. We absolutely have to be racing the second division of the established teams -- Toro Rosso, Sauber, Force India...and that`s a big ask after being in existence as a Formula One team for only 18 months."
"But one thing that would be great for Formula One is the message that you can do that, because it shows you can come in as a small team from scratch with a sensible budget," added Gascoyne, whose team will also be battling in court later this month against Malaysian-owned carmaker Lotus Group, now sponsoring Renault, over naming rights.
The new Lotus T128 has looked a lot quicker than last year`s car, although reliability may be an issue, and Kovalainen was ninth of the 14 drivers on track on the last dry day of testing in Barcelona last week.
He was faster than both Force Indias, a Williams and a McLaren and did 138 laps -- the second highest tally of the day.
"Formula One is about competition, it`s the peak of motorsport, you shouldn`t be there as a spare part," said Gascoyne. "You`ve got to be there competing and if you don`t raise your game to that level, don`t be there."
Ecclestone, who told Reuters at the end of last season that "one or two of them (the new teams) shouldn`t be there perhaps...it`s a bit rich for their blood", has little issue with Lotus.
"I`m very happy that they are back. They will get on their feet and then sponsors will be attracted to them and we`ll see them grow. Frank Williams was like that years ago," he said.
HRT`s road will be slower and harder, and there are some who question -- as they did last year -- whether they will last the distance.
The Spanish-owned team have a completely untested car, presented to the media last Friday but not driven after they explained that some key suspension parts had been held up in customs.
Despite that, team principal Colin Kolles said HRT should have a more competitive car with a Williams gearbox now meshed to the Cosworth engine and design overseen by ex-BAR technical director Geoff Willis.
"The data that we have is that the car is better than last year`s," said Kolles, whose team have India`s Tata Group as their main sponsor.
"I think it`s very obvious that it has a completely different aero concept and it`s completely aerodynamically modified."
British-based Virgin, who enjoy the support of entrepreneur Richard Branson, if not his billions, have Russian supercar maker Marussia as their title sponsor now and will race under a Russian licence.
Team president Graeme Lowdon said the bar had been raised and they hoped to lift their game accordingly in Melbourne.
"We`re no longer a new team now. We are going into our second season as a fully-fledged Formula One team and that`s our mentality and approach," he said.
Down-to-earth team principal John Booth will also be hoping for less stress than last year.
"This time last year we were naive," he recalled at the team`s car launch last month. "We thought F1 was achievable the way we were doing it, and we thought it was a wonderful thing. But you soon get the wake-up call, don`t you?"