As the world prepares to step into 2011, Formula One is ready for some significant changes to its regulations - but will they help the small teams catch up or will they help the leaders race into the distance?
The 2010 season saw distinct separations in the field, with Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren battling it out at the front, Mercedes and Renault competing for fourth and occasionally mixing it at the front, while the rest of the established teams picked up the scraps and the new teams just spent the year trying to get used to life in F1.
Despite the resource restriction agreement, the top teams seemed to be relentless in their development and their continuous addition of new parts at almost every grand prix right to the end of the season showed the real gulf of difference between the haves and the have-nots.
The blown diffuser and f-duct innovations ended up being essential if a team wanted to race at the front, but developing those systems took up so many resources that the smaller teams were left with a choice of either pursuing those or putting funds into the standard updates such as wing packages - they could not do both.
Even though Renault was a 'second tier' team, they committed to push on throughout the season - almost catching Mercedes, who chose to end development early - and their rate of development included 10 front wing packages, 5 floors, 2 engine covers, 6 rear wing packages and 10 brake duct packages during the season.
The top teams developed at least on that level, and although the brave decision by Renault's management to gamble on heavy investment to create a desirable (and saleable) team worked, others did not have the necessary funds or commitment - and are unlikely to have any greater ability to do so in 2011.
There are several key changes for 2011, and while some could help the smaller teams to 'do a Brawn' next season, others are almost certain to crush their development potential.
The arrival of a new tyre manufacturer offers a great opportunity for the F1 order to change around - and the switch between Bridgestone and Pirelli could make a significant impact in 2011.
Unlike previous new manufacturer arrivals, which have occurred in a competitive situation, this year sees the whole field switch from one manufacturer to another, so everyone is in the same boat. All teams have already had a good chance to test on the new Pirelli rubber, in Abu Dhabi at the end of the season, and they all got plenty of laps in with little difference between the team that ran the most (Ferrari, on 199) and the one with least laps (Force India, on 123).
Feedback from the first test, however, suggested that the tyres will have significantly more bias towards front grip next year, and this balance change will alter the way teams plan weight distribution and aerodynamic balance - the fundamental elements of car set-up.
Whenever this happens, it opens the door for some teams to get it right and some to get it wrong - and no matter what budget you have to do your research and design development, there is always a chance you can 'luck-in' on the best solution.
ADJUSTABLE WINGS AND KERS
The FIA's new efforts to improve overtaking mainly centre on the re-introduction of KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) and the creation of a new adjustable rear wing.
The latter aims to replace the f-duct with a relatively standardised solution to reduce drag on the straights that is easier to develop (the f-duct was cheap but took significant engineering talent to perfect). The transparent method of its introduction should keep all teams on a relatively level playing field and simply provide a device that improves overtaking rather than altering the order.
KERS, on the other hand, is quite the opposite - and while the tyres could open up an opportunity for the smaller teams, this is likely to make it very difficult for them to make a breakthrough as although it is not compulsory, KERS will be an effective must-have (like the f-duct and the blown diffuser) if a team wants to race competitively.
The systems will essentially be the same as seen in 2009, with no increase in the maximum permitted power, but the entire development is expected to cost around £8m per team.
Brawn won the title without KERS in 2009, despite rivals McLaren and Ferrari both running the system, but that was because KERS came without a compensation for its weight. For 2011, the minimum weight has been increased by 20kg to give allowance for the addition of a KERS system and the weight distribution is fixed between 45.5% and 46.5% front to reduce the chances of a team that does not run KERS being more competitive.
This time, therefore, running with KERS is likely to be the only option to be competitive - yet given the cost of the system the backmarkers are unlikely to be able to take up the opportunity.
If teams can afford to run it, however, there is scope for innovation in packaging to gain advantage. When KERS was last in F1, fuel tanks were much smaller as refuelling was allowed. Now, without refuelling, the larger fuel tanks will demand clever solutions to accommodate battery packs and other elements that are used in the KERS system.
Given all these issues, it seems likely that we will see some order shuffling amongst the groups - but the only way a lower level team will jump up to the next level will be if they can afford to run KERS, can innovate with its packaging and also get an early handle on the way the new tyres work best. Not an easy task at all.