2012 Formula 1 Preview Part 2

The second part of my 2012 F1 season preview is a look at the likely top half of the order. A selection of these thoughts appeared in Sidepodcast’s Season Preview Megamix podcast which you can listen to here.

As always in F1 the teams can be divided into groups. These are broadly: title-contenders, ‘best of the rest’, midfielders, and backmarkers. This post looks at this year’s championship contenders and those I like to call the ‘best of the rest’. Ignoring the PR fluff, I’ll note a realistic objective for each team – if they don’t acheive it they’ll have had a poor season, if they exceed it they’ve had a good one!

This is post 2 of 2: Read about the Backmarkers here.

Frontrunners

Red Bull

Drivers: Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber;
Engine: Renault;

Undeniable favourites. Their car was so superior over the last two years it is hard to imagine it being different now – but every streak comes to an end, will it be this year? I don’t think they will have quite the advantage they had before, at least not over McLaren – Ferrari and the rest may be another story.

Vettel has to be favourite for the drivers’ title, he’s been driving superbly and will be tough to beat – unless the revisions to the tyres for 2012 upset his rhythym. Webber didn’t put up as much of a fight in 2011 as he did in 2010. Both he and the team need that to change in case McLaren have found something for them.

Objective: Win both championships. I think they’ll ‘only’ win one of the two, McLaren will get the other.

McLaren

Drivers: Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton;
Engine: Mercedes;

For me McLaren are still the team to take the fight to Red Bull and I think a lot of people will want them to win if only because they don’t have a stupid nose on their car! The only problem I see is the drivers taking points from one another.

Button and Hamilton will surely remain equally matched, depending on how the tyres play out and what changes Pirelli has made this year. Button had the edge last year because Hamilton was getting penalties making mistakes under pressure. If Lewis can step his game back up to where it used to be, lose the errors, this will be a fun inter-team battle to watch – particularly since they seem to get on really well. My prediction is that Button will again edge it, but it’ll be closer than last year.

Objective: Win both championships. As I said above, I think they’ll ‘only’ win one.. but I can’t call which.

Ferrari

Drivers: Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa;
Engine: Ferrari;

Ferrari don’t like it when they stop winning titles, will they revert to type and start chopping and changing management? Or will Pat Fry joining the team start them in the right direction again? From the mumblings coming 0ut of pre-season testing it sounds like the car isn’t anything to write home about. They key will be how they fix the problem.

Whatever happens I don’t think Alonso will stop trying, whatever speed the car has, he’ll find it. There is also the now annual question: Is this Massa’s last year? He keeps hanging in there doesn’t he. I don’t believe the suggestion that Webber could replace Felipe, but I can easily see Perez slotting in next season.

Objective: They’ll say their aim is the championship (or both). Realistically I think they’ll even struggle for race wins, but their aim should be at least one win if not two or three. If the car is as bad as feared their only objective will be to beat Mercedes, Lotus, etc.

Best of the Rest

Mercedes

Drivers: Michael Schumacher, Nico Rosberg;
Engine: Mercedes;

The same assessment I gave one year ago: this has to be Nico Rosberg’s breakout season. He had a decent season last year, we need to see a bit more though. Part of that relies on the car of course and it didn’t seem as competitive last year. They seem to have kept themselves quiet over the winter so it’s hard to get a read on them. Interesting choice to start testing later than the others, sometimes this strategy works but with so many teams opting for early track time you have to imagine that’s the optimum strategy under this year’s rules. Yet of all the teams in the upper midfield I still think this is the one to take the fight to the guys up front.

I don’t really have anything to say about Schumacher. As long he and Rosberg are fairly evenly matched, as they have been, there’s no real reason for Schumacher to leave other than boredom. MS has improved a lot since his comeback year, he’s not on his old form but he’s good enough.

Objective: They’ve got to go for 4th AND be an annoyance to the top three teams. Score frequent podiums. Stay clear of the main midfield.

Lotus

Drivers: Kimi Räikkönen, Romain Grosjean;
Engine: Renault;

It’s been weird seeing this team fall down the order, at times recently they’ve been much too far back in the pack in races. Regardless of the name above the door you just don’t expect the team at Enstone to be running outside the top ten. I expect that to change this year as they seem to have got themselves into order. If they aren’t back in business, racing Mercedes and worrying the frontrunners, I’ll be very surprised indeed.
Kimi is an interesting hire. When he was announced he was considered past it, and there’s an element which makes me wonder if he’ll have lost his edge. But unlike Schumacher when he returned, Kimi has been actively competing in other categories, indeed the precision of the WRC may even have sharpened his skills. He’ll lack recent race experience but as a champion I expect him to have knocked out the rust even before we reach Melbourne. Do not underestimate Romain Grosjean. He is not the driver who was plunged into the deep end in F1 in 2009, and the team’s changed too. He may not quite match Kimi but I don’t think he’ll be miles behind him. This is a strong line-up. The real questions arise over the car, and the team leadership.

Objective: They say their target is 4th and I think that’s a good target: beat Mercedes and Force India, both of which worried them recently. A realistic objective is 5th in WCC – but they are quite right to aim for 4th.

Force India

Drivers: Paul di Resta, Nico Hülkenberg;
Engine: Mercedes;

This is an exciting year for Force India, I think they have one of the best driver line-ups on the grid. Added to what seems to be an improving technical dept producing better cars and they could really fight Mercedes and Lotus hard this year. The car looks tidy too, it’ll be fast. The question mark here is about Vijay Mallya – if the Kingfisher empire hits the rocks, as it well might, what will become of the team? Surely that’s a distraction.

Di Resta waited far too long to get into F1 and now he’s proving why. To have a rookie season with results like that was just what he needed, though of course with as many DTM races as he had he wasn’t a total rookie (DTM cars almost being singleseaters with bodies). The Hulk really didn’t deserve to sit out for a season after his debut year, I really can’t wait to see what he does this year. This season is almost a head-to-head to see who takes any vacancy which may appear at Mercedes (or even McLaren) for 2013.

Objective: Mix it with Lotus and Mercedes. Score podiums. The drivers are solid, let’s see the team surprise people – they still have some of that old Jordan underdog fighting spirit, let’s see it!

Launch: Force India VJM02

Force India Mercedes VJM02

The new Force India had a soft-launch over the weekend, with pictures first appearing a day ahead of Sunday’s official release. Today these studios shots were joined by a whole host of Q&As from the FIF1 press office which you can find on the usual news sites, as well as pics from Jerez.

The big news is the switch from a Ferrari customer deal to an agreement with McLaren-Mercedes for the full powertrain – that is the engine, gearbox and KERS systems, as well as technical co-operation in other areas. Simon Roberts of McLaren is now the Chief Operating Officer at Force India as part of a personnel shake-up. Mike Gascoyne and others have left the company.

The basic theme running through all of the Q&As is that the new McLaren/Mercedes deal frees up FIF1 engineers to work on other aspects of the car, such as aero and internal packaging. It means that as other teams cut back, Force India don’t need to worry about that and can concentrate on the task at hand: working their way from the back of the field to regular points-scoring positions.

The first chassis was shaken down at Silverstone last week and Fisichella took it for a test at Jerez today. Liuzzi will shake down the second car during this week before the final big pre-season group test in Barcelona.

It’s a good looking car, quite aggressive with another high nose. The late launch means the car has spent longer in CFD and in the wind tunnel than their competitors, many of whom will need to do an (expensive) upgrade for the first race of the season.

I hope they are able to close up the remainder of the gap to make the midfield a close fight. They made some big gains in lap time last year even if that wasn’t represented in positions, in qualifying they used to be 3sec off the back and last year they were about 1 – 1.5 sec back. A long time in F1!

The downside here could be the decision not to run KERS until very much later than everyone else. Some reports suggest they won’t run it until May – that could prove to be a mistake. Still, at least they’ll be ahead of whatever Honda becomes..

Photo credits: http://www.forceindiaf1.com/

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Tomorrow Williams will launch their Formula 2 car powered by Audi, I’m not sure if I’ll be around but I’ll put a short post up about that some time this week as well as something on the Le Mans entry list.

Catching up on some news

Check out Pressdog, MyNameIsIRL and other bloggers (as well as Sarah Fisher) on Trackside with Kevin & Cavin which is a weekly IndyCar radio show in the Indianapolis area and online. Proviso: I haven’t listened to it yet. I’m currently listening to Live Fast Racing podcast 18 which I know is a few weeks old now but also features Bill and Jeff and is really very good indeed.
Lots of chat about IRL, a little about F1, all good.

A busy week in the world F1 in this first week of the off-season. I’d intended to do smaller updates during the week but my accounts studies got in the way so I hope this works as a summary.

Force India
A big reshuffle in progress at the team formerly known as Jordan, with Colin Kolles (the dentist) and Mike Gascoyne (the rottweiler) both leaving at the behest of Vijay Mallya, a guy who makes Flavio Briatore look modest, but I like him. You gotta like a guy who owns a beer company and an airline. Force India will announce a new management structure on Monday.

Probably bigger news is that they have parted ways with Ferrari. Unannounced but expected is a switch to Mercedes engines and gearbox. Some sites suggest they’ll also take McLaren customer chassis. I don’t buy that because this team has been against customer cars for years regardless of what name was above the door.

Driver Update
Toro Rosso will be testing Takuma Sato again this month and it could be that he is being lined up to replace Sebastian Vettel.
Bruno Senna and Lucas di Grassi will both test for Honda which may lead to Barrichello losing his drive. This has led to suggestions of Rubens Barrichello moving to Toro Rosso. Sebastien Bourdais’ place isn’t necessarily fixed so they could take Sato AND Barrichello.
Nobody seems to be rumouring anything about Sutil’s seat at Force India which I’m sure is still available. I’m pretty sure Fisichella is locked in. Up and coming team (since 1991!) so it’s a seat that may just prove useful to someone.

TMR Rocks
So I rule all and that’s official. I mean what did I say the other day?
Check it out:

I propose a Superlicence for race stewards. I want these people to have had experience officiating F1 Grands Prix, or have performed a similar role in another top line or feeder championship for at least a year. I want there to be a permanent steward who attends every GP and chairs the stewards’ meetings, as Tony Scott-Andrews did.

Aaand what did the FIA announce this week?

The FIA also announced that trainee stewards – nominated by their nation’s governing body and selected by the FIA – will attend five grands prix next season in an observation role. Any national stewards officiating on a Formula One race for the first time must have observed at least one grand prix in this way to obtain their stewards’ super licence. A short CV of all trainee stewards will also be posted on the FIA website. The FIA also confirmed that ex-racers are eligible to obtain their national stewarding licence and graduate to the super licence.

So yeah, listen to me, I’m a pompous F1 fan who knows it all! Yeah. Or…not.

New Deputy
The FIA has appointed Nick Craw as Deputy President for Sport, replacing Marco Piccinini. Craw is the president of ACCUS, the American national sporting representative at the FIA (on behalf of NASCAR, IRL, ALMS, etc). This is a good thing for me because Piccinini is ex-Ferrari so to my mind that removes a layer of perceived bias. And there is again an American that has something to do with F1!

Yet Another Schedule
The FIA has released yet another version of the F1 calendar for ’09. I can’t remember the last time they’ve released so many of them. This time they’ve shunted China to April to fall between Malaysia and Bahrain. Everything at the end of the year moves up 2 weeks to fill in the gap.
There is no news regarding Canada, the last I heard a deal could still be done if the money can be found.

EDIT
I was playing around with Feedburner last night after I posted this. Let me know if it causes any problems as I’m not sure what I’m doing..