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!

Not Simply Going Around In Circles

On Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron visited the McLaren Group in Woking to launch the new McLaren Production Centre, where the McLaren MP4-12C sportscar will be constructed. I’m not one for PR stunts and especially not political PR stunts, but this one is really worth looking at.

The speeches from both Cameron and Ron Dennis, whilst also filled with the usual political guff we can largely ignore for the purposes of a racing blog, served as a timely reminder that motorsport solutions developed within the normally insular world of racing can be developed into real world applications.

As always the excellent Joe Saward was on the case, driving over from France  especially for the event, and provides the transcripts of both the McLaren CEO and the follow-up speech from the PM. Also see this other post.

Do read the full text at Joe’s site if you have the time. Here are some interesting excerpts about these technologies which caught my eye, some of which we knew about before but are worth revisiting. There’s also a fair amount of crowing which I’m not really a fan of, but at least with stats like these it is justifiable.

“McLaren [..] has won 20 Formula 1 world championships and 175 Formula 1 races – a total which equates to one in every four races that we’ve contested since 1966. We’ve also won the famous Indianapolis 500 race three times and the iconic Le Mans 24 Hours race at our first attempt.”
Ron Dennis

That’s astonishing. I’ll reiterate that because it is amazing to me. A quarter of all F1 races they’ve entered since 1966, they’ve won.

“[In 2012] McLaren Electronic Systems will be in a unique position. Because every single car in the world’s three premier motor racing series – in other words every single car in Formula 1, every single car in the IndyCar series and every single car in the most popular and successful racing series in the United States, NASCAR – will all be using engine control units made here in Woking.”
Ron Dennis

I’d include the World Endurance Championship as a premier world motorsport series but I’ll let him off as that’s new, and 3 out of 4 ain’t bad. This is quite the acheivement.

“The British cyclist Mark Cavendish, who’s here today, became a world champion this year on a Specialized road bike that was developed by McLaren Applied Technologies.”
Ron Dennis

I find this to be very cool. This isn’t the first F1-developed racing bike because in the 90s Chris Boardman rode one developed by the original Team Lotus. It is nice to see others following on with that work.

We’re working with the British Olympic Association on a number of sports and a number of British Olympians will therefore benefit from McLaren Applied Technologies during London 2012.
Ron Dennis

We’re gonna win medals, don’t you forget it.

It’s engineering so groundbreaking that when space scientists are looking for ideas they come to the brains of Formula 1. You remember Beagle 2? It was cased in a lightweight plastic first developed for Formula 1 exhaust systems.
David Cameron

You heard that right: space engineers come to F1 for ideas. This blows my tiny little mind.

Great Ormond Street [Children’s Hospital] saw how efficiently car wheels were changed in the pits so they worked with Formula 1 experts to streamline the transfer of patients into intensive care.
David Cameron

This isn’t so much about technology as about processes, this is about medical personnel learning from pit crews, the way in the pits the mechanics are timed to tenths of a second just to get that pitstop right. Everyone has to be positioned in the right place at exactly the right time – much like they do in intensive care. Put the right person in the right place at the right time and lives can be saved.

There are plenty of other examples both in these speeches and by looking around the web, and if you want to read about apprenticeships and schemes to help young engineers do go and read the full speeches. I have a lot to things to be critical about with the current political administration (and I do mean a lot of things), but science and engineering funding is not one of them.

In closing, I never used to be a fan of McLaren as a Formula 1 team and to this day they do make it hard sometimes, however these days I like them enough to own a couple of bright red ‘Victory Shirts’.

When they start expanding into different areas like this and using their knowledge for the better good (making a nice profit along the way – and why not?), it is difficult not to admire them for it. And they’ve re-entered sportscar racing with their shiny new MP4-12C which looks the business in GT3 race trim – almost good as the Audi R8 LMS!
The same applies to teams – or ‘businesses’, as the word ‘teams’ is a hangover from simpler times – such as WilliamsF1 who are doing similar work on non-F1 projects.

People say McLaren are grey, faceless and boring. Do you still think that now? I certainly don’t.

So there you go, motor racing isn’t just about cars following each other around in circles for a few hours every other Sunday.

Mercedes Grand Prix

Yet more big changes among the F1 teams for 2010! Not only do we get get a raft of new teams, the departure of BMW (who may yet come back in a new form) and Toyota, now we also have Mercedes completely restructuring their involvement after a long unbroken run with McLaren.

McLaren
Mercedes presently own 40% of the McLaren F1 team (not the group as a whole though). The problem Mercedes faced is that while they are the largest single shareholder, the others hold an agreement by which they vote as a single block, thus having the power to veto Mercedes. There is also the new supercar which is the first McLaren-built road car in years not to feature a Mercedes engine.

Plan: The 40% shareholding will be reduced gradually over the next 18 months or so and for the 2010 season (and beyond??) the team will still be called Vodafone McLaren Mercedes. The engine supply agreement remains and, for now, so does the colour scheme.

BrawnGP
After Honda departed F1 the team has had to cut back somewhat in personnel, and it still seemed to suffer the same problem as it always had under every incarnation, that of not being able to attract long-term sponsors. With benefactors like BAT and Honda it was never necessary only desired, indeed Honda effectively bankrolled the 2009 season. It was anyone’s guess what would happen in 2010 and beyond. Yet amazingly the came from nowhere to dominate the first half of the season, and while it went south after that they managed to battle on to secure both championships.

Plan: Mercedes have bought 75.1% of the team in an agreement with a Middle Eastern investment company. The team will henceforth be known as Mercedes GP and the cars branded as ‘Silver Arrows’, harking back to the famous cars of the 1930s and 1950s. Ross Brawn remains in charge but will liaise with Norbert Haug.

Drivers:
Rubens Barrichello left Brawn last month and had already signed for Williams to replace Nico Rosberg, who was looking to leave that team. Nico had therefore been linked with the vacant Brawn seat in a straight swap and now Mercedes have a greater involvement the deal appears as good as done.

The big question is over the future of Jenson Button. There are strong reports placing him at McLaren with a pay rise, doing nothing to quell his reputation as a money-chaser. At least this time he’s earned it. I am not sure what placing himself in what is Lewis Hamilton’s personal team is going to acheive for Button other than damaging his career, he must be confident in his ablility to beat him. It will be interesting to see him try!
At this stage it could still be an elaborate bluff and Kimi Raikkonen could still get that seat, though you have to say that possibility is shrinking daily. In fact just this evening Kimi’s manager has stated any chance with McLaren has now disappeared.

That leaves a space at MercGP. Will Kimi end up there? Are the Heidfeld rumours a ploy by the Kimi or Jenson to get more money (either take us for mega $$ or end up with Nick), and is that how he gets himself hired? What is the fate of Heikki Kovalainen?

Lots of questions still need answering. One thing’s for sure, this is a much bigger deal for the ex-Brawn team than the Virgin deal suggested a while back and perhaps that’s why Virgin are now hooking up with Manor.

One final point I saw mentioned:
Among entrants this makes BrawnGP the most successful team in history, in terms of strike rate.
Years entered: 1
Drivers titles: 1
Constructors titles: 1
Maximum score.

Launch Season: McLaren MP4-24

McLaren-Mercedes MP4-24
The 2009 McLaren was unveiled at the Woking factory earlier today, along with the announcement that Ron Dennis was moving out of his F1 role to concentrate on McLaren’s ever growing portfolio in other areas.

The McLaren group of companies is active in electronics, engineering and is currently designing and building it’s own road car, as well as many other things which I’m not quite sure about…

Martin Whitmarsh, Ron’s long-time Lieutenant, will take over the day-to-day running of the race team as well as being the Top Dog at the racetrack. Dennis will remain as Chief Exec and will still oversee the general running of the F1 operation.
This has been coming for a while and was maybe due a 12-18 months ago, but the whole Stepneygate affair seemed to galvanise Ron into staying longer than maybe he’d originally planned. Still, it wasn’t expected that he’d announce it at the ’09 car launch.

The car itself looks absolutely gorgeous, save for the stupid-ass rear wing. On the other hand, now that we’re seeing true designs the front wings are growing on me, and they are sure to become further refined before we reach Melbourne. The rear wings definitely do need more work. The MP4-24 overall though looks absolutely fantastic in this colour-scheme without all of the aerodynamic and cooling devices on the main bodywork. This is the third car which looks better than the ’08 cars, discounting the main wings, so I’m very quickly becoming a fan of this particular new regulation!

By the way, is anyone else absolutely loving the return of slick tyres? They look brilliant on these cars. Racing cars should always run on slick tyres except when it is raining.

Here’s a pic from McLaren.com:

This chassis is actually the second ’24 constructed, the first car is already at the Algarve circuit in Portimao for a shakedown on Saturday, where McLaren have booked an exclusive test day. Other teams will join McLaren at the same venue next week. Check the news sites for on-track photos!


Previous launches (now with photos):

Toyota
Ferrari

I will return on Sunday. I’m thinking of doing something on British coverage of motorsport now that some announcements are coming through, although I may hold it for a while. In the meantime it looks like A1GP is falling to pieces so that could be an interesting talking point. The Furious Wedge is keeping tabs on things and I tend to agree with his assessments when it comes to A1GP.
(I’m developing a habit of ending my blog posts on a tangent, maybe I should reign that in a bit..)