ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — After clinching one of the most unexpected championships in Formula One history this season, Jenson Button is predicting the traditional powers will be back to confront the new order next season.
Button believes Ferrari and McLaren, which both fell out of contention with dismal starts to 2009, will challenge his Brawn GP team and 2009 runner-up Red Bull in 2010.
It is a prospect that the British driver relishes, and a challenge he believes Brawn can withstand.
“Ferrari and McLaren will be competitive next season, they have the experience and resources,” Button said. “But I don’t think suddenly they are going to be faster than the Red Bulls or Brawns.
“Having four teams fighting out in front is something that has not happened before. Eight drivers fighting for wins is exciting.”
Button didn’t feature in championship calculations in the preseason, and wasn’t even sure he’d make it back to the grid. He was part of the Honda team that folded its F1 operations last December and then was taken over by former team principal Ross Brawn just weeks before the Australian GP.
Button took a pay cut to keep his job, then made the most of it by taking advantage of the Brawn car’s early dominance to build a huge lead in an extraordinary first half of the season.
He won six of the first seven races of the season and then was consistent enough the rest of the year to maintain a comfortable lead in the championship standings.
Ferrari and McLaren, meanwhile, paid the price this year for fighting out the 2008 title to the final race. Having put all their resources into marginal improvements in the 2008 car, development of a 2009 car was put on the back burner despite the need for a radical redesign to comply with new regulations.
Ferrari learned its lesson, and after the poor start to 2009, soon gave up on trying to improve the car, instead starting early on producing a 2010 challenger.
McLaren took a different approach. Even after a slow start, McLaren kept improving its 2009 car to the point where it was the fastest by season’s end. The team insists it has not ignored 2010 development, but argues the changes needed in this offseason are only incremental, compared with the drastic change of the previous year.
Will Brawn and Red Bull pay a similar price in 2010 for their season-long scrap for this year’s championship? Not according to driver Sebastian Vettel.
“The regulations don’t change too much,” the Red Bull driver said. “There is no refueling (next season), but other than that the cars will remain similar.”
Vettel won the season’s final race last weekend in Abu Dhabi to secure second place in the championship. Teammate Mark Webber clung onto second after an exciting last-lap dogfight with the pursuing Button, giving Red Bull its fourth one-two finish of the season.
Vettel believes Red Bull will make the requisite improvement next season to overcome Brawn and hold off a resurgent Ferrari and McLaren.
“I am very confident we can only get stronger,” Vettel said.
While Red Bull will have stability on its side in 2010, it is quite possibly the only team that will start next season with the same drivers as this year.
Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock are among those who will be looking for new teams next year after Toyota announced on Wednesday that it was withdrawing from all participation in Formula One, citing the need to cut costs. Its departure means the 2010 season will be first in eight years without a Japanese constructor on the grid.
Button will have a new teammate at Brawn, as veteran Brazilian Rubens Barrichello will move to Williams. It is expected that Nico Rosberg will be going in the opposite direction, though no announcement has been made and the German has also been linked to McLaren. The Williams team, which used Toyota engines this season, had already said it would be switching to Cosworth engines for 2010.
The other man in the picture for a McLaren move is Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn has said it is McLaren or bust. Should the move back to his old team fall through, Raikkonen has said he might switch to rally driving or take a year off.
Whether it’s Rosberg or Raikkonen who joins McLaren, the team’s balance is likely to be upset. Heikki Kovalainen, who is expected to depart, had been a willing No. 2 to Lewis Hamilton. It is hard to imagine the headstrong Rosberg or former world champion Raikkonen accepting a secondary role.
Raikkonen is making way for the arrival of two-time world champion Fernando Alonso at Ferrari. Alonso is generally regarded as the most talented driver in F1, but the chemistry of Ferrari may also be at risk.
Alonso left McLaren in a huff after a single season in 2007, upset that he was not made the clear No. 1 to teammate Hamilton. Now he arrives at a Ferrari team that will also welcome back Felipe Massa from injury. The Brazilian — who had come within one corner of the 2008 title and is a fixture at the team — is unlikely to react well should the new driver get moved above him in the pecking order.
Renault also will start next season vastly changed from 2009. The team will begin the campaign without Alonso, team principal Flavio Briatore and major sponsor ING.
Having signed Robert Kubica from BMW Sauber to be its No. 1 driver, it remains to be seen whether Renault can quickly rebound from a dire season on and off the track to become a contender again.
Formula One is expanding to 14 teams from 10, with Manor, Lotus, Campos and USF1 having been granted entries, although doubts remain as to whether all will make it. BMW had also announced it was ending its participation in Formula One, but Toyota’s departure paves the way for the remnant Sauber team to remain on the grid next season.