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!

Schumacher’s Return Isn’t So Bad

It became official this morning: Michael Schumacher has departed his advisory role with Ferrari to take a race seat at Mercedes GP, where he will be reunited with Ross Brawn.

I’m surprised at this news, in the beginning I thought it was a ploy by Mercedes to extract a better deal first from Jenson Button, and then Kimi Raikkonen. It looks like they were serious all along!

I am not a fan of Michael Schumacher. He has a known history of “bending the rules” (I’m being charitable, it is Christmas) at both Benetton and Ferrari and the FIA consistently let him off with weak penalties or none at all. He is the man who took Senna’s swerving and weaving to a new level, to the extent that all the young drivers in lower formulae starting doing it, thinking it was normal. Yet I find myself excited at his return. Why?

You have to say this wouldn’t have happened had Ross Brawn not been involved with the team. The two have enjoyed a lot of success together and I for one am not looking forward to the kind of dominance they so frequently displayed. Schumacher and Brawn’s unique combined skill was to do things with fuel strategy that no other driver/strategist combination could. Schumacher has the ability to drive the car to a target laptime, relentlessly. It was this ability that allowed Brawn’s to put into play fuel strategies that just wouldn’t have otherwise worked. The combination of the two was dominating.

The rules have changed now. There is no more in-race refuelling, so this advantage no longer applies. The most they can do is be creative with tyre strategies while managing the weight of the car. It will be very interesting to see how this pairing copes under the new rules, probably more so than anyone else.

We have a level playing field again and one in which the driver has more say – and we know Schumacher prefers an open track to wheel-to-wheel racing. Over a lap he is better than nobody but he doesn’t like the wheel-to-wheel, where he panics. This is where Alonso beat him before, and I believe will again – even better, he’ll be driving Michael’s red car! Then there’s Hamilton and we know he’s not scared of a fight either, with Button, Vettel and hopefully Massa making life interesting too.

2010 will feature one of the strongest grids in years among the ‘regular’ runners, then add in the new teams who will almost certainly be getting in the way for much of the year as an added distraction (and possible Safety Car enabler) and we have the recipe for an amazing season. It was shaping up to be so anyway, and now everybody will have just one man in their sights.

I am looking forward to Schumacher attempting to best this new generation of racers, many of whom have never raced him in F1 – and the ‘new Button’, the champion Button, could surprise him too.

I feel relieved for Rubens Barrichello who could easily have played the role of Schumi’s Lapdog once again, Williams may be a step down but he is team-leader at last and it’ll suit him well, and he can now play a role similar to that of his good friend Tony Kanaan.

I feel bad for Nico Rosberg who may have expected to be sitting alongside Nick Heidfeld next year and now faces the inevitibility of being No.2 in a team revolving around Schumacher, for it is clear even before it has been mentioned that MS will be the de facto Number One.

I even feel bad for Heidfeld who is probably going to be stuck with Sauber again, the Merc seat was probably his last shot at a race-winning drive.

In summary then, I fully expect Schumacher to play his old tricks again but the other aspects of his return outweigh that for the short term at least, and the sudden jump in media coverage and internet discussion is testament to ability to draw fans back to F1 – perhaps his return will see a rise in TV ratings and race attendances once more, after 2009’s dip.

The thing I’m really not looking forward to is dealing with the pro/anti MS arguments again, the bane of internet discussion for the bulk of this decade. Twitter is going to be a nightmare.

* *
I promised to update my entry list after every driver annoucement, here is the first update:

Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
McLaren Mercedes MP4-25
1. Jenson Button 2. Lewis Hamilton T: tbc
Mercedes GP Petronas
Mercedes Mercedes tbc
3. Michael Schumacher 4. Nico Rosberg T: tbc
Red Bull Racing
Red Bull Renault RB6
5. Sebastian Vettel 6. Mark Webber T: tbc
Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro
Ferrari Ferrari tbc
7. Felipe Massa 8. Fernando Alonso T: G.Fisichella
AT&T Williams
Williams Cosworth FW32
9. Rubens Barrichello 10. Nico Hülkenberg T: tbc
Renault F1 Team
Renault Renault R30
11. Robert Kubica 12. tbc T: tbc
Force India F1 Team
Force India Mercedes VJM03
14. Adrian Sutil 15. Vitantonio Liuzzi T: tbc
Scuderia Toro Rosso
STR Ferrari STR5
16. Sebastien Buemi 17. tbc T: tbc
Lotus F1 Racing
Lotus Cosworth tbc
18. Jarno Trulli 19. Heikki Kovalainen T: F.Fauzy
Campos Meta 1
Campos Dallara Cosworth tbc
20. tbc 21. Bruno Senna T: tbc
US F1 Team
US F1 Cosworth tbc
22. tbc 23. tbc T: tbc
Virgin Racing
Virgin Cosworth VR-01
24. Timo Glock 25. Lucas di Grassi T: A.Parente
T: L.Razia
Sauber
Sauber Ferrari C29
26. Kamui Kobayashi 27. tbc T: tbc

There is also the Stefan GP team waiting in the wings to get an entry either in 2010 or 2011, they say they have signed drivers already, the buzz says one of those drivers is likely to be Vitaly Petrov.

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.