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SPORTS STORY

For the first time

Will young gun Sebastian Vettel be able to make history, much to Ed Hawkins’ chagrin, and clinch back-to-back F1 world titles in 2011? Here’s Gambling’s preview of the most likely winners this season

For the first time, a Formula One season will be broadcast in high definition. Although the pictures will be perfect, punters hoping to see clearly the best betting options should probably not hold their breath. The 2011 campaign, the biggest ever at 20 races with India hosting a Grand Prix, promises to be just as confusing.

But that is why F1 is much loved. If we are not fretting over the row over budget cuts, or the rights and wrongs of team orders, then we are trying to decipher the impact cutting the height of the diffuser from 175mm to 125mm, the banning of the F-duct systems or the number of wheel tethers. Make sure your engineering degree arrives in the post before having a wager.

Pure petrol heads love such minutiae, of course, but one gets the feeling that the layman, a bit like a boy racer in a souped-up Vauxhall Nova, just wants to put his foot down. Does anyone really care about the new mandatory weight distribution, a ratio of 46:54? No. Just tell us which car is going to be the most powerful.

The bookmakers believe it will again be Red Bull, who steered Sebastian Vettel to the drivers’ championship last year. At 23, he was the youngest ever winner – an outcome that we should have spotted considering he had pretty much copyrighted the tag: youngest ever driver, to score points, to lead, to secure pole, race winner.

Vettel is priced at 3/1 to be the ‘youngest ever’ winner of back-to-back titles. That hasn’t happened since Fernando Alonso’s double in 2006 but otherwise there has been a strong trend for success following success. Michael Schumacher’s five dominant seasons aside, between 1990 and 1999 Ayrton Senna, Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen won back-to-back titles.

What puts us off backing Vettel is his price. This is as it should be. It’s just too skinny about a guy who we cannot be totally sure of just yet. To put on our harsh hat for a moment, Vettel was fortunate that his teammate, Mark Webber, suffered a collapse, throwing away an 11-point lead with four races to go. It was not a mental implosion, however. Webber fell off a mountain bike before the Japanese Grand Prix and broke a shoulder, keeping the injury secret and needing cortisone injections before each of those last few races.

Fernando Alonso, in the Ferrari, is second-favourite in a tight betting heat at 10/3. Lewis Hamilton is not far behind at 15/4. Those odds reflect the view that with the raft of new rules and regulations, the drivers’ championship battle is an open one. The constructors’ is not much different. Last year’s champs Red Bull are 15/8 with McLaren 5/2 and Ferrari 45/17.

There is much to like about last year’s runner-up Alonso, one of five world champions on the track. For a start, Ferrari do not need to improve that much. The Spaniard was only six points behind Vettel and although one can tire of the ‘big brother’ attitude of Ferrari, the camp seems confident.

The nuts and bolts of it, and forgive me for going under the bonnet for a bit, is that the switch from Bridgestone tyres to Pirelli should make them more robust while the appointment of boffin Pat Fry, who has joined from McLaren to oversee design, development and race track development, should help solve their biggest conundrum. How to retain the Ferrari’s power without losing the aerodynamics battle to Red Bull?

Another reason for siding with Alonso is the relaxation of the ban on team orders. Ferrari, who caused controversy when forcing Felipe Massa to cede victory to Alonso in the German Grand Prix, will now be pretty much free to ride roughshod over the sport’s integrity. That is good news for Alonso backers if Massa is once more told to make way.

Alonso claims that Schumacher will be his greatest threat this season, which is slightly galling for this magazine considering we were hot for the massive-chinned one in his return last year. Schumacher is 14/1 and although this year he will have the massive benefit of having his Mercedes built for him, there is so much button pressing and other technical mumbo jumbo going on in the car that F1, more than ever, is not about the best driver.

“He had a difficult season,” said Alonso, “but he is still a champion. He is still super class and if the car is right he will be a contender.”

British F1 fans will argue that Hamilton is the best driver in the world and an army of them will probably back him for glory. Not us, though. The McLaren was not ready for early-season testing putting Hamilton, and teammate Jenson Button, a 16/1 chance, at a disadvantage to Red Bull and Ferrari who both had their new models up to speed.

Besides, Hamilton didn’t just blot his copybook with potential backers but spilt his dinner on it when claiming that he was distracted by ‘personal problems’ in 2010. “The way things have gone have not been as smooth and as happy as they could have been in the past and to do what I do is a combination of many, many things that are surrounding you,” he said.

Whether that was the split from his father Anthony Hamilton as manager or the stress of dating Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger we do not know but the last type of character punters want to be spending their money on is someone who is suspect at keeping his mind on the job.

So Alonso would be a our top-rated bet while there is potential each-way value in Webber, providing he stays away from mountain bikes, at 14/1 and Nico Rosberg, Schumacher’s teammate, at 16/1. Rosberg outdrove his compatriot last term and has been labelled the best of the new generation of drivers by Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo.

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