Formula 1: Against The Odds

2009 Not a Preview

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I’ve been trying to resist writing a preview or even looking at the markets for the forthcoming Formula One season for several reasons. Firstly my records would suggest that I am not a particularly good ante post punter. Secondly, with the scale of the rule changes this season, am I certain that my guesswork would be any better than that of the odds compilers? And finally, there is the temptation to read too much into testing when experience tells me that is extremely dangerous to do so.

But the Drivers’ Championship market caught my eye today and what looks like a patriotic overreaction has caused every other driver to drift to prices that simply weren’t contemplated just a few months ago. Perhaps there is some value available then?

Current best odds available from bookmakers:

Lewis Hamilton 9/2
Kimi Raikkonen 9/2
Fernando Alonso 11/2
Felipe Massa 11/2
Robert Kubica 8/1
Jenson Button 11/1
Sebastian Vettel 18/1
Nick Heidfeld 25/1
Rubens Barrichello 25/1
Heikki Kovalainen 40/1
Mark Webber 66/1
Bar 100/1

The obvious springers are the Brawn GP pair of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello. As I write this PaddyPower will lay you just 9/2 that Button is the next world champion. That is incredible (and theft).

Lewis Hamilton has traded as short as 6/4 over the winter. His drift is because of what? McLaren have admitted that they are behind schedule with their development. This is possibly the best-equipped team in the sport to deal with the technological challenges that everyone is facing. Are we certain that they are going to struggle technically this season? Even allowing for a slow start, it is worth remembering that Hamilton was nine points behind Raikkonen after four races last year. He finished the season twenty-three ahead of him.

What then of the Flying Finn? A make or break year for sure. If the Ferrari turns out to be the best car (as it has for so many of the previous seasons) and Raikkonen has rediscovered his focus, then 9/2 will look a very big price in just a few weeks. The danger is that last year was the first on a slippery slope. He has been relatively easy to back all winter and has not drifted to the same degree as Hamilton. I’m unsure. I know Tifosi eyes will light up at the odds though.

Then let us not forget his teammate. Within yards of winning the championship last year, Massa is now longer odds than Jenson Button with the flagship British bookmakers. Based almost purely on testing runs with unpublished aims, carrying unpublished weight.

Also available at 11/2 is Fernando Alonso. For me the outstanding driver in the field and the best equipped to take a championship over seventeen very different rounds. My problem is the car.

The R29 has performed strongly during the late winter in the eyes of the media and this has helped to keep Alonso’s price prohibitively short. However alarm bells were ringing for me in Singapore and Japan last year. Why was the Renault improving at that stage of the season? Where was their development focus? Was there any truth in the performance-related clauses in Alonso’s contract that would lead them to favour development at the end of the 2008 season over preparation for 2009?

Of course all of that is irrelevant if they have built a blinder straight out the box, as today’s testing times would appear to indicate [resisting light-fuel glory run in Spain cynicism]. As a fan I would love to see Fernando regain his crown, as a punter I can leave the 11/2 for now.

I’ve never warmed to either the BMW outfit or their two drivers. I’d like to propose some rationale to oppose them, but it would probably do no more than justify their price as fifth and eighth favourites. All I know is that I would be disappointed if one of these two was to be good enough to claim victory over a full seventeen rounds. My heart says they won’t get enough wins. My head says the current points structure might not prevent it.

Skipping over Button as I want to wrap up with him and the two B-drivers for McLaren and Brawn GP as they are not good enough, leaves us with Vettel and Webber for Red Bull. My first thought when I saw their respective prices was that there are not many drivers who get the better of Mark Webber in the same car over a season. This is mainly due to his qualifying and often their proximity has only been due to his luck. But gun-to-head, if a Red Bull driver is going to be World Drivers’ Champion then it is going to take something very special. These two are at different ends of their careers and in horseracing parlance Mark Webber would kindly be described as exposed.

In my eyes what Vettel did last year was special and if the new regulations really do level the playing field then he has to be in the mix. With that in mind 18/1 looks a fair price for an each-way punt, particularly with the Renault engine likely to be more competitive.

So that brings us to Jenson Button. Jenson is a very competent driver. He is quick, he is smooth and he drives with his head. All of which are attributes that he will need to be champion. Other drivers have been quicker than him in the past, but have lacked those other qualities and it has cost them the crown (it is a long time since I mentioned Kimi in this piece). In the Brawn BGP 001 he has the surprise package of the [not yet] fledgling season.

The question that you have to ask is whether Ross Brawn’s team will still have a car competitive enough to win a championship come the 1st November 2009? We’ve seen teams like Toyota bounce into a season full of promise only to flatter to deceive and they have always had a massive budget. Will Brawn still have the funds to develop right to the death?

Throw in the unknowns of pre-season testing and the general 6/1 – 7/1 on offer is appalling value for me. Boylesports are holding their 11/1 but this is more likely to be their traders sleeping than any firm position. The fact remains that I wouldn’t back Button at 11/1 at this stage anyway. Never say never, but never at the odds.

I’m conscious that I written a thousand words without hinting at a selection for this year’s World Champion. The fact remains that I’m in no way confident of predicting one. There are too many variables in too competitive a field. I expect things will become clearer as the season unfolds. The purpose of writing was to gather my thoughts as to whether I feel there is any value in the current market.

On that basis, there are just two bets that I like:

Back Lewis Hamilton at 9/2. Ok there is the danger that better will be available if he flops in Melbourne, but he’s nearly three times his pre-testing price on the basis of some Whitmartian© (the new Ron-speak) and some runs with the wrong wing. It stinks of a typical overreaction in an immature market.

Back Sebastian Vettel at 18/1 E/W. More hope than expectation, but as I said above: if the regulations really do turn out to be a leveler, then all the pointers from the global economy would be that manufacturer-backed teams are no longer the be-all-and-end-all. Back the talent and try to get lucky!


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