Late winter and early spring are "serious time" for racing enthusiasts. The "silly season" of last fall is over -- drivers are signed, sponsors are on board and the cars are built. Teams far and near are getting ready for the new season. The speculation and joking around Now all that's left is the racing.
This year is typical. NASCAR, as always, has seen its share of driver switches, with some staying, others going to new teams and a few still looking for rides. "Who's where" and "who's driving what" will be answered on Valentine's Day, when the Daytona 500 kicks off the season.
One of NASCAR's more fascinating rumors is that Richard Petty has teamed up with Ford to run cars for Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, AJ Allmendinger and Paul Menard in 2010. This is the firs time Petty will have run Fords since 1969. Back then, Petty, a Dodge/Plymouth loyalist, wanted a fast-back car like the 1969 Ford Torino and Chrysler refused, so he switched. "The King" went back the next season when Plymouth built the "Super Bird," their high-winged version of the Dodge Charger Daytona. Since then, Petty has campaigned General Motors and Dodge cars with varying success.
Ford is hoping its link with Petty will change their fortunes. Last season, it won the first two races in a row with Matt Kenseth for the Roush-Fenway team, then went winless for 31 races until Jamie McMurray finally came through for them at Talladega.
On the technical side, NASCAR has decided to give up on the rear wing of the current cars, replacing it with a new version of the old spoilers. That will throw yet another variable into the aerodynamic package the teams have to work with. The rules makers have also decided to ease off on enforcing the "bump drafting" rule, which forbids a following car from nudging the one in front. Close racing like this sometimes allows the following car's momentum to be transferred to the leader, making him faster for an instant. It also means that the two cars will draft more effectively, since they are almost one very long vehicle instead of two shorter ones.
In Europe, there are changes in store for the premier Formula One series. First, the series will be adding four new teams: Campos Mentos, Lotus, Virgin Racing, headed by the colorful Richard Branson and USF1, an American team based in Charlotte, North Carolina, with their European headquarters in Spain.
USF1 is a brand new team, headed by Ken Anderson (who has experience with the PacWest CART team), Peter Windsor (Williams team manager in 1990-1991 and more recently SPEED TV commentator) and YouTube founder, Chad Hurley. This will be the first time there has been an American team in Formula One since Roger Penske campaigned cars in the 1970s and early 80s; and the first American-based team since Vel's-Parnelli Jones ran select races for Mario Andretti in 1974-1976.
The new team has taken some interesting steps to cut cost. One is to do all their design work on computers, including Computational Fluid Dynamics or "CFD" testing instead of the traditional wind tunnel tests. They say the new car won't be tested in the tunnel until it is built full-scale, and then only to confirm what they've already calculated. Early pictures show a more or less conventional Formula One car, built of carbon-epoxy composite, with a high nose and a low-hanging wing.
USF1 also marks the return of legendary engine maker Cosworth back to Grand Prix racing, after several years' absence. Cosworth is also set to supply engines for the other three new teams. So far, they have signed one driver -- Jose Marie Lopez of Argentina. The new car is set for its first test at the Barber Motorsports Park track in Alabama in February. The team hopes to be on the grid for the first Grand Prix of the year in Abu Dhabi. We shall see what happens, but the team have high hopes. Good luck to them in their first year.
Where there are new things in Formula One, there are also some old ones coming back and a few under new names. Last year's World Champions, Brawn Grand Prix, have an alliance with Mercedes Benz and well be entered as "Mercedes" cars. The Sauber team have lost their BMW connection and will again be "Sauber" cars.
And seven-time World Driver's Champion Michael Schumacher will be back again, chasing his record eighth crown, signing a three-year contract to drive one of the Brawn-Mercedes cars. The 41 year old German returns to the fray after retiring at the end of the 2006 season, having driven for Eddie Jordan and winning championships with Benetton (twice) and Ferrari (five times in a row, from 2000 to 2004).
It's hard to say how the old pro will do this season, having not driven Formula One cars for the last three seasons. He has hardly been resting on his laurels, though, having competed in go-karts and the German Superbike motorcycling championships. There were rumors that he might have filled in for the injured Felipe Massa at Ferrari last year, but a motorcycling-related neck injury kept him out of the cockpit.
If history is any indication, however, Schumacher may have another championship in him. Austrian driver Nikki Lauda won two World Championships for Ferrari before abruptly retiring from the sport at the Canadian Grand Prix in 1979. He came back in 1982 with McLaren and won the World Championship in 1984, before retiring for good at the end of 1985.
NOTE: This column gets its information from a variety of sources. If you have questions, there is someone you would like acknowledged, or there is anything in motorsports, automobiles, technology or motorcycling you'd like to see addressed, please send me an e-mail to: John Lloyd at JLloydIII@MSN.Com and put "Examiner Racing" in the subject line.