2012 Formula 1 Preview Part 1

The first part of my 2012 F1 season preview is a look at the likely bottom 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 midfielders and backmarkers. 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 1 of 2: Read about the Frontrunners here.

Midfielders

Sauber

Drivers: Sergio Perez, Kamui Kobayashi;
Engine: Ferrari;

Before BMW showed up, Sauber naturally sat about 6th or 7th in the Constructors Championship every year, they had the potential to move up if they ever got investment but you never got the impression they’d ever sink below it. I get the feeling now the split from BMW has fully taken effect they are back to their old level again. Funny how that happens! Not sure how losing a Tech. Director will affect them, maybe they’ve put in a McLaren-like structure where it doesn’t matter too much.

Perez is a talent and I think he’s going places. Whether it be Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull.. by 2014-2015 he’ll be at one of them. Kobayashi is in his 3rd year, people will now watch him like a hawk – is he really as good as he promised with his impressive debut? If Kamui regains his rookie season spirit (and Perez maintains his) this team will have two fighters in a car which doesn’t usually eat tyres – a real underdog team.

Objective: Beat Williams, STR, Caterham. Mix it with Mercedes and Force India regularly. 6th or better in WCC.

Toro Rosso

Drivers: Daniel Ricciardo, Jean-Eric Vergne;
Engine: Ferrari;

I expect the car will naturally fall at the approximate Williams/Sauber level again, the question is what two rookies will get out of it with no experienced hand to help them. This is why I think it took so long for Alguersuari and Buemi to bed in, and now STR have done it again. I think both drivers are better than those they replace, but it’ll take a little while to show it because both Jaime and Seb had improved so much over the last couple of years.

Riccardo does have the part-season with HRT last year as experience, and it being a dog of car can only help him when he’s presented with a half decent one here. Vergne is a talent though and I think he’s marginally better. After a few races where Dan will have the edge, this pairing should be very evenly matched.

Objective: Beat the other young drivers at Williams and Sauber. STR isn’t set up to worry about where they finish in the WCC, the aim is for the drivers to prove their worth.

Williams

Drivers: Pastor Maldonado, Bruno Senna;
Engine: Renault;

I’m tired of saying ‘they’ll potentially be much better this year’. I’ve been saying it since at least 2005. Another engine partner, another personnel reshuffle, another driver change. Like the others near the back I give them credit for admitting their failures and trying another solution. The bad thing is yet another ‘building year’ as they restructure. It is time to get out of this rut. I’m very excited for the potential of the Renault engines and I fully expect the team to jump back ahead of Toro Rosso and fend off Caterham. Losing an experienced driver may hurt.

Maldonado needs to keep ironing out the crashes. He’s got talent and is fast on his day, but basically is the new Sato. Senna only has part-seasons with HRT and Renault/Lotus. He’s not Ayrton and never will be, but he’s a solid driver who deserves his place in F1 – this is the ideal chance to prove it. The media will be unbearable at times with the Williams/Senna connections, I just hope he gets the space he needs.

It will be interesting to see if either emerge as natural team leader. I reckon it’ll be Senna.

Objective: Get back into points finishes, finish 8th or better in WCC.

Caterham

Drivers: Heikki Kovalainen, Vitaly Petrov;
Engine: Renault;

This team made impressive gains last year. Make the same jump again this year and you’ll be racing Williams, Toro Rosso and Sauber at every race, with the potential for the odd points score. Indeed I think they’ll do just that.

Kovalainen is on form and is the ideal guy to battle in the field to get a good finish, on the face of it he’s been driving well but his yardstick was a Trulli who may have been in ‘cruise and collect’ mode. Vitaly Petrov isn’t much better than Jarno but he’s more motivated, and has the potential to keep improving.

Objective: A handful of points finishes. Beat one or more of Toro Rosso, Sauber or Williams in the constructors standings.

Backmarkers

HRT F1

Drivers: Pedro de la Rosa, Narain Karthikeyan;
Engine: Cosworth;

A fresh start for HRT after throwing out Colin Kolles and his organisation. They are essentially starting all over as a new team again. New owners, new team personnel, a new operating base, and an apparent veil of secrecy over the whole thing. From the look of it the only thing not new is the car, which looks like the 2011 car modified to fit current rules. I’ll again be amazed if they qualify for every race, which they otherwise ought to have done this year with relative ease. Once again they’ll be battling the 107% rule and hoping stewards keep ignoring it. However, they’ve proven me wrong for two years now and beaten Virgin/Marussia, so best of luck to them!

The driver line-up is unspectacular, but DLR will help sort the car with his McLaren experience even if he isn’t quick. If they’d used an experienced driver earlier they might’ve progressed faster. Expect the 2nd seat to again go to anyone who can temporarily outbid Karthikeyan. Narain’s not great but is better than many think.

Objective: Qualify for all of the races on merit (no exemptions), finish races reliably. Close some of the gap to the main pack. Ultimately start behaving like a professional F1 team.

Marussia

Drivers: Timo Glock, Charles Pic;
Engine: Cosworth;

I have no idea why a driver of the high calibre of Timo Glock is sticking around for a third season with this team. I suspect he joined with the intention of getting the result Heikki Kovalainen has at Caterham – a rejuvinated career with a team improving every year. That hasn’t happened. Marussia made progress with solving their dreadful reliability, but the speed still wasn’t there in 2011. If the team hasn’t improved by midseason I expect Glock to leave by year’s end. Again a lot changing though, including a team relocation, maybe they’ll do better after a restructure. Like HRT they have no real test mileage behind them, just a bit of shakedown work. I like this team’s fresh attitude and I have a lot of respect for John Booth, but they’re really going to have to step it up this year to be taken seriously.

Charles Pic is decent enough and he and d’Ambrosio are probably comparable, Pic may edge it, but why switch to another rookie without giving the first one the chance of a second season? The same happened a year ago to the unfortunate Lucas di Grassi.

Objective: Finish races and beat HRT on pace. Start closing the time gap to the main pack. Stop saying ‘Maroosha’ when it clearly says ‘Ma-Russia’.

Launch Season: Williams FW31

Williams-Toyota FW31

AT&T WilliamsF1 launched their new FW31-Toyota today in the pitlane at the Portimao circuit in Portugal in a somewhat underwhelming and understated ceremony. I guess the dull and dreary weather conditions didn’t help matters, yet compare it to the Renault one held just a few yards up the road very shortly afterwards, which saw more team personnel, more media, and much more colour – although when you see the colours chosen you may wonder if this is such a good thing.

To be honest though, the big glitzy launch never suited this down-to-earth team who much prefer to get on with the business of testing and racing. I like that. Full disclosure here: Williams are my favourite team and have been since I was a kid in the late ’80s, watching Nigel Mansell do his stuff. It hurts to see this former championship team near the back of the field simply because they fell out with BMW and couldn’t hook up with another manufacturer (except in a customer deal).

Still, the launch pics do look a little… well.. pathetic. It just doesn’t look professional. Sorry guys.

This car was launched in an interim test livery which is nearly identical to the one used this time last year, the only real differences being the names on the car. Despite losing some major Iceland-based backing after that economy tanked, as well as Lenovo (which most of us know as Hewlett Packard) and the Petrobras oil company of Brazil, the team insists it is on a solid financial footing for the next two years at least, and has secured increased support from Philips. The Dutch electronics giant previously used only its’ shavers section to sponsor the team, this has now increased to cover their whole ‘Consumer Lifestyle’ division. Williams now feature the Philips logo more prominently on the sidepods and rear wing. Other partners have stepped up their involvement too.

You can read the full announcement here.

I can’t find a shot of the FW31 taken from the same angle as the Ferrari, Toyota and McLaren photos I’ve posted, which is annoying because I was going for the ‘comparison’ thing. Thankfully F1Fanatic.co.uk has done a much better job of the side-by-side comparisons!

As a fan of Williams I am slightly concerned that on the face of it this looks like an enhanced 2008 car with new-style wings, whereas the likes of McLaren and Ferrari seem to be developing in a new direction with ultra-tightly packaged rear ends. This car isn’t so tightly packaged. It is much more so than their ’08 car, but not to the extent of the leading teams. I wonder if this is a result of Williams locking their ’08 car and switching to the ’09 car early on.

The one thing I believe Williams as as an advantage is its KERS system, as the team are believed to be the only one using a mechanically-based flywheel system. This is said to already be capable of exceeding the levels allowed in the regulations. Other teams are developing chemical systems which are more expensive, heavier and with a lower potential development limit. F1 teams are not chemists, after all. There is also the matter of disposing of the batteries and flying them around the world.

Williams say they may not run KERS until the aero and tyre development is more complete, as these are each worth seconds of lap time – KERS is only worth a few tenths of seconds. It is the pragmatic approach but I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to hit the ground running and have that few tenths anyway…

F1’s New Wings

Check out a photo released by the Williams team this week:

Jonathan Kennard performing a shakedown at Kemble airfield, Gloucestershire. Photo taken from www.williamsf1.com.

That rear wing is just awful. I actually like the lower front wing, although I don’t like how it extends in front of the wheels, that’s going to cause more debris and more nosecone changes.

Admittedly this is the 2008 FW30 running 2009 aero, the configuration most teams are expected to run in the group tests next week, but still ugly! I hope that the definitive ’09 cars will be more in proportion and more in line with Autosport magazine’s mock-ups of a couple of weeks ago.

What do you think? Reckon we’ll get used to it?

Note that as it was only a shakedown neither the slicks or the current grooved tyres were used.