Months of anticipation and speculation finally come to a close on Sunday as the 2010 Formula One season gets under way at the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Most eyes will be on Michael Schumacher, coming out of three years of retirement, but Swiss fans will also be cheering Toro Rosso driver Sébastien Buemi, now in his second season, not to mention the return of team boss Peter Sauber.
Schumacher comes into perhaps Formula One’s most competitive starting grid after deciding to race for the newly formed Mercedes GP, which bought out last year’s constructors’ champion Brawn GP.
The 41-year-old seven-time champion said he felt like “a child at Christmas” coming to Bahrain, where he’ll line up against 23 other drivers, including defending champion Jenson Button, two-time champion Fernando Alonso and 2008 winner Lewis Hamilton.
Schumacher’s experience could pay dividends as refuelling is now banned, meaning the 12 teams will only pit to change tyres. Also, the top-ten qualifiers on Saturday won’t be able to swap tyres before the start, while the rest of the field can.
After Bahrain, the Formula One circus will pitch its tents in 18 more cities around the world, ending in Abu Dhabi on November 14. None of these will be in Switzerland, where motor racing is still banned following the death of 80 people at the 1955 Le Mans race.
Two-time Bahrain champion Alonso and Ferrari are the pre-season favourites. Williams, Force India and BMW Sauber are also expected to be in the points and have even been tipped to surprise at a track that has been changed to 49 laps instead of the usual 57.
The desert track features a new, longer configuration with eight additional corners making it the second-longest race on the 19-track circuit after Spa in Belgium.
Three new teams will feature, as Malaysian-backed Lotus returns for the first time since 1994, while Virgin Racing and Hispania Racing Team mark their debuts.
Sébastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari both return for Toro Rosso, with the 21-year-old Swiss aiming to improve on the 16th place and six points he achieved in his rookie season.
“This year we expect to finish often in the top ten – that would be really respectable for Toro Rosso and for me,” Buemi said.
“Our aim is to improve and be one of the seven best teams. At the moment I think we’re in the second half, but we’re competitive. It’s up to us now to work hard before the first race. The engineers are still making improvements.”
Buemi will start in 15th place on Sunday, three places ahead of teammate Alguersuari. Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel will start in pole position, with Michael Schumacher qualifying in seventh position.
In 2009 Buemi generally outperformed his more experienced team mate Sébastien Bourdais, who was dropped mid-season, leaving Buemi to lead Red Bull’s Austro-Italian sister team.
Did this add to the pressure? “Pressure is what I put on myself,” he said. “The aim is to do better than last year. We’ll see to what level the car is competitive and what is possible after Bahrain. That is when we can set realistic targets.”
An unrealistic target is winning the world championship. One British bookmaker is offering odds of 500-1 that Buemi will cross the finishing line in November with the most points.
Nevertheless, Buemi is looking forward to the season – and especially racing against Michael Schumacher.
“I’m delighted! His return is a real plus for Formula One, and he’s shown he’s lost none of his class. On the track however he’s just another opponent. I respect him enormously, but I don’t have any hang-ups about taking him on.”
Peter Sauber, the 66-year-old head of BMW Sauber, has taken a much more circuitous route to the 2010 pit lane.
In July 2009 German car manufacturer BMW announced it was pulling out of Formula One at the end of the season, four years after taking over Swiss team Sauber.
Sauber, a 20 per cent shareholder, was stunned, fearing for the future of the chassis design centre and wind tunnel in Hinwil, canton Zurich.
Instead of handing its stake of the team back to its founder, BMW put it on the market for SFr100 million ($93 million), a price out of Sauber’s league.
For several months it was unclear who would take control of the team. An original deal with Qadbak Investments, an opaque outfit based in the British Virgin Islands and reportedly backed by a group of Middle Eastern families, proved troublesome, especially because it came too late for the team to be guaranteed a place on the 2010 grid, the final slot having been handed to Lotus.
However, the post-season decision by Toyota to quit Formula One handed Sauber a lifeline – and its hopes were further boosted when Peter Sauber came out of retirement and took over the team following the eventual collapse of the Qadbak deal.
BMW eventually sold the team back to Peter Sauber, who said he planned to head it for just one season and then find a successor.
Buemi was born on October 31, 1988 in Aigle, canton Vaud.
After graduating from kart racing, he spent 2004 and 2005 in German Formula BMW, finishing third and second in the championship respectively. He was also runner up in the 2005 FBMW World Final.
Buemi joined the Formula Three Euroseries in 2006, finishing 12th in the championship. He remained in the series for 2007, and finished second overall.
He competed in the GP2 Series in 2007 and 2008, winning two races last year and finishing sixth in the final standings.
In 2009 he finished 16th with six points at the end of his first F1 season (Australian GP: 7th/2 points; Chinese GP: 8th/1 point; Brazilian GP: 7th/2 points; Abu Dhabi: 8th/ 1 point).
Teams signing up for the optional cap must limit their spending to £40 million (SFr64 million) a year (£10 million higher than originally proposed) in exchange for greater technical freedom. This will not include driver salaries or, for 2010 only, engine costs.
Because of the ban on refuelling, tank capacity has been boosted from 130 litres to 200 litres. The cars will be around 20cm longer. The front tyres are 30mm smaller.
Point distribution for finishers one through ten: 25, 20, 15, 10, 8, 6, 5, 3, 2, 1.
The KERS energy recovery system will be abolished.
The weight of the new cars is 620kg.
By the end of 2012, teams must have cut the number of their employees to no more than 250 (excluding marketing and administration).
From 2010 on, only 45 people per team will be allowed in the pits.