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Formula One gets a new look

Cost cutting and changes to car design will give Formula One a new look this season.

February 05, 2009|Jim Peltz

Despite some cost-cutting at Formula One and changes in the design of its race cars, one constant remains in the international racing series for 2009: The teams to beat are McLaren Mercedes and Ferrari.

The two teams combined to win 14 of the 18 races last year and McLaren's driver Lewis Hamilton, at 23, edged Ferrari's Felipe Massa by a single point to become the series' youngest champion in history.

Hamilton did so by making a dramatic pass on the final turn of the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix. That enabled the Briton to finish fifth and earn the extra point needed to grasp the title from Massa, who won the race.

Formula One opens its season March 29 in Australia, where Hamilton won a year ago, but there are two major changes in its 2009 schedule. The series dropped its races in Canada and France and added one in Abu Dhabi, which will be the season finale Nov. 1.

Having already dropped the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis, the loss of the Canadian race means Formula One no longer competes in North America, even though the continent is one of the largest markets for the companies that sponsor the series and its teams.

And with sponsorship money becoming scarcer amid the weak global economy, Formula One officials are trying to aggressively lower the sport's operating costs. Those lofty costs, which can exceed $300 million per race team annually, prompted Japanese automaker Honda to leave the series after last season.

Formula One's teams and the series' governing body, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, agreed in December to a series of cost-cutting proposals for this season, including using engines for longer periods and reducing testing and wind-tunnel research.

The FIA estimated that the changes this year could save the teams about 30% of their budgets, and it said even more cost cuts were being contemplated. But any shift toward standardizing engines and chassis as a way to slash expenses is making some teams nervous, with Ferrari and Toyota saying they still want to see vibrant competition for technologically advanced race cars.

The FIA also ordered aerodynamic changes, in part to foster closer racing, and several of the teams recently introduced new cars for the 2009 season. They included Ferrari's F60, McLaren's MP4-24 and Renault's R29, which look noticeably different from last year's models.

Gone are many of the winglets and other exterior appendages, so the cars look somewhat sleeker and narrower. The series also will use slick tires, as opposed to grooved ones, for the first time since 1997.

All of which raises the question as to which Formula One drivers will be the fastest when the series begins in Australia.

"Who knows when we get to the first grand prix who's going to be quick," Hamilton told reporters during a visit to the United States in December. "Everyone's going to be in the same boat" in terms of adapting to the changes, he said.

Hamilton, when asked if the changes would make it harder to repeat as champion, replied: "I don't think it's going to make it easier."

And his team manager Ron Dennis said it would be "a very challenging period in the history of motor sports."

For most Formula One drivers, that's an additional burden to the overall challenge of catching Hamilton and Massa on any given day.

Their main pursuers include Massa teammate Kimi Raikkonen, the Finn who won the championship in 2007 and finished third in points last year with two victories, in Malaysia and Spain.

Robert Kubica, who stunned the sport with a victory in Canada last season -- the first win for him, for a Polish driver and for his BMW Sauber team -- is back after finishing fourth in points. His teammate Nick Heidfeld was sixth in the title chase.

Then there's two-time champion Fernando Alonso, who last year returned to Renault from McLaren. He finished the season strong with consecutive wins in Singapore and Japan to place fifth in the standings, but he still ended a distant 37 points behind Hamilton.

But Alonso is optimistic about this year.

"The rule changes are a big opportunity, if we do a good job, to fight for the championship," the Spaniard said in an interview in January. "Everybody is starting from zero and if we do a good job we can be up with them."

And with Honda having left the series, Toyota remains the only Japanese team in Formula One, with drivers Timo Glock and Jarno Trulli.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

THE FIVE TO WATCH IN 2009

Lewis Hamilton: The British driver made history last year as the youngest Formula One champion, at 23, and he still might be the most formidable driver in the sport. Hamilton had five victories last year for McLaren Mercedes and is the defending winner of this season's opener in Melbourne, Australia.

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