The next twelve months will prove to be an interesting time for McLaren in Formula One, particularly in regards to their relationship with Mercedes. The German manufacturer is commencing the supply of engines to multiple Grand Prix teams in 2009 and may find the competition between them is fiercer than expected.

It is the first time that Mercedes have provided customer engines outside of their McLaren arrangement and will be supporting two additional outfits with very different agendas.

Force India are now a pseudo McLaren junior team and have gained Mercedes engines as part of their technical alliance with Woking. Vijay Mallya has said that his team is aiming to “be in the points on a regular basis” and that it is not totally unrealistic given the how much the regulation changes will shake up the field this year. McLaren have the best resources of any Formula One Team so it seems logical that Force India will move their way up the grid with those at their disposal. Mallya will probably see 2009 as a building year with McLaren to set his team up for the future.

Brawn GP have also negotiated a Mercedes deal for 2009 although this was secured out of necessity rather than choice. Ross Brawn was forced to arrange a new engine supplier at the last minute following Honda’s withdrawal, and apparently chose Mercedes because their units slotted quite snugly into the existing Honda chassis. The arrangement is being treated as an interim measure whilst Brawn GP finds its feet.

Both Mercedes customer teams will be hoping to become consistent midfield runners this year after a few seasons lurking in the doldrums.

In something of a surprise they might just be fighting for position with McLaren.

Martin Whitmarsh is now officially at the helm of McLaren’s Formula One operation and has already been forced to admit that his team is in a bit of trouble. Rather than hype up McLaren’s championship chances, the new boss is saying “a performance shortfall has been identified that we are now working hard to resolve”.

Throughout winter testing the MP4-24 has been fitted with 2008 specification aerodynamics because the new bodywork has been too problematic. It has been suggested the new rear wing stalls at high speed which, if true, is a major design flaw.

It could be 2004 all over again for the men in silver.

There are also suggestions the car is struggling with traction in the low speed corners. A lot of this might be hearsay but there is a video on YouTube that shows Heikki Kovalainen making a dreadful getaway form the start line. Kimi Raikkonen took the opportunity to drag race his countryman during testing at Barcelona last week, and whilst the footage of their efforts is rather deceptive, there was no doubting the Ferrari was dominant.

You would expect McLaren to have their problems sorted before flying out to Australia and they will be running an extra day of testing to help remedy whatever issues remain. They are arguably the best Formula One team in the business and have not won 20 world championships because they cannot solve problems. However, it seems that McLaren are already on the back foot and will be just a little bit behind everyone else in the rampant 2009 development race.

Their struggles might push them into the midfield, which is where they will probably bump into Mercedes other customers.

Brawn GP could embarrass McLaren in the same way that Toro Rosso embarrassed Red Bull last year.

Brawn has morphed out of Honda to become the 131st Formula One constructor, and on paper they barely have a chance. They’ve had a massively disrupted offseason with limited preparation. They’ve got no sponsors, have done little testing, and don’t have the cash to fully develop their new car.

With that in mind it is simply astonishing that Brawn GP’s 2009 challenger has dominated the winter timesheets. Although you can never read much into test results there is little doubt Ross Brawn’s men have built a brilliant Grand Prix machine. The fast laptimes are not the result of fuel loads because the car is consistently quick over long race distance runs. Whilst the team might be testing without ballast in an effort to woo sponsors, they seem more likely to be genuine contenders.

It might turn out the best bet of a Mercedes podium in Melbourne comes form Brawn and not from McLaren.

The battle between the Stuggart customers will be closer than anyone initially expected, and it will be interesting to note if Force India can also get in on the action.

McLaren’s input will be vital in seeing Force India improve. McLaren executive, Steve Roberts, moved over to Force India to become the new Chief Operating Officer which suggests the arrangement is more than just a little bit of help. Although it might take time for their input to be seen but you would expect help from McLaren to make a big difference.

Then again, given the problems that McLaren are facing at the moment, Force India might be better off without their help. Don’t take any of their rear wing designs guys!

Vijay Mallya sacked Colin Kolles and Mike Gascoyne at the end of last year in a move that left Force India without a Team Principal or Technical Officer. That would have been hugely disruptive for the team and forced them to integrate the Mercedes drivetrain into Gascoyne’s initial 2009 design without his assistance.

The new rules have leveled out the playing field and that has given Force India the chance to rise through the field. Perhaps the biggest thing holding them back this year will end up being their driving line up.

Adrian Sutil is a great driver, but simply makes way too many mistakes. On top of that, he was unable to outpace Giancarlo Fisichella in 2008 which is a bit of a worry because the Italian veteran is likely past his best. Sutil will have to turn the tables on his teammate this year and avoid the regular silly errors if he wants to remain in Formula One for much longer. Pedro De La Rosa and Gary Paffet are ready to step into his seat at a moment’s notice.

The teams reserve driver, Tonio Liuzzi, would have been a better bet.

Force India’s winter testing times have not set the world alight but they haven’t been too shabby either. The field looks incredibly close this year so the sports perennial tailenders have a genuine opportunity to break into the midfield.

That would place them alongside McLaren and Brawn GP.

I wonder what Norbert Haug would make of that.

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