This time last year Formula 1 was gripped by a prospect of a new season beginning that would offer exciting racing following a tight championship battle that was accompanied with little on track racing. This year Formula 1 is hoping that the exciting racing from the previous season will be reflected by a close title fight following Sebastian Vettel’s domination last year.
The contrast between the last two years was huge. In 2010 the world was captivated by a title fight that saw four drivers enter the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi with a chance of claiming the title. By and large the season was devoid of wheel to wheel battles between the leading contenders but in the eyes of fans the title fight was far more important.
Last year Formula 1 finally found a balance that made on track battles common place and even though Sebastian Vettel would run out a very comfortable world champion the spectacle of racing was returned the elite level of motorsport.
Can we get the best of both worlds in 2012?
Can 2012 provide a combination of close racing and a close championship? All signs point to that being the case with the qualifying advantage of Red Bull will be curtailed and in race trim McLaren will once again be hot on the heels of the reigning world champions.
It was very interesting for much of last season that even though Red Bull possessed the fastest car throughout the season’s qualifying sessions on race day there was little to choose between McLaren and Red Bull.
The differences between the relative paces of both cars in qualifying pointed to Red Bull better utilising their Drag Reduction System. In qualifying the DRS could be used as often as the driver wished as opposed to during races when it could only be used during certain sections of the track.
Red Bull understood the importance of setting the pace on Sunday and optimised their package to utilise the performance gain of the DRS whereas McLaren’s approach centred on providing the best race day package.
On Sundays there was precious little to choose between the two teams for much of the year but during qualifying the advantage of Red Bull placed McLaren firmly on the back foot once the red lights went out.
For the coming year it looks as if both teams are searching for the middle ground of qualifying and race performance. In testing the Red Bull once again has looked faster but the difference between the two cars seems quite slender.
In recent years McLaren have traditionally struggled in testing and the early races before finding their feet once the development race got fully underway when the teams arrived inEurope.
Given their performances in testing and the positive comments emanating from the squad it will be very interesting to see if they can once again “out-develop” their rivals throughout the season given that they are starting the year with a much more competitive.
McLaren focussed on finding downforce in medium and high speed corners throughout the winter. It was in these corners last year that Red Bull was vastly superior. A good example of this superiority was shown inBarcelona, when Sebastian Vettel held off Lewis Hamilton’s much faster car due to the ability of the Red Bull to exit the final corner much faster than the McLaren.
McLaren are right to focus on this area but it remains to be seen as to whether the team has maintained their low speed corner traction that was so impressive for much of last year.
Ferrari, Mercedes and Lotus vie to be best of the rest
The battle at the front once again looks set to be waged by McLaren and Red Bull but behind the title favourites is an intriguing trio of teams.
Ferrari has been all at sea throughout testing with the Italian squad still searching for performance within the F2012. The new car has consistently appeared nervous for the drivers, especially on corner entry, and with Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso both banned from talking to the media at the final test little was done to give confidence to the tifosi that the team had found a solution to their problems.
Having focussed development work on the new car early last year it is very surprising to see the team struggling in testing. It is likely that they team will find the solution to their balance issues but the question now being asked of Ferraris is simply whether they can do it in time to salvage their season.
The Scuderia finds itself in a very similar position to McLaren last year. In winter testing the team struggled with a complicated exhaust configuration that ultimately would be changed for a conventional layout for the opening race of the year. Instantly the car was transformed and competitive. Ferrari has to be hoping to find a similar silver bullet that will transform the F2012 but there is little hope within the squad that they will.
Mercedes on the other hand were buoyed by a competitive performance at the final tests of the preseason.
The team has struggled to live up to their championship winning standards of 2009, when named Brawn GP, in the last two years but the coming season gives the squad plenty of reason to be exciting.
With Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher at the wheel the team will once again be expected to compete at the sharp end but whereas the last two years have seen them struggle the coming year looks much more positive.
The new car has looked stable and confidence inspiring in testing and with their driver line-up there can be no excuses if the team once again fails to challenge for podiums on a consistent basis.
Winning races is still probably too much to ask for of Mercedes but it seems that, finally, the Brackley based team has pulled away from the midfield mire and is ready to compete at the sharp end of the grid.
Last year Schumacher had a much more promising campaign and while he still out qualified by his teammate for much of the year his race pace was much improved in year two of his comeback.
The race craft which was clumsy in 2010 was much sharper last year with Schumacher proving particularly impressive on the opening laps of races when he consistently fought his way through the field.
He will be expected to maintain this improvement this year and also to challenge Rosberg in qualifying. The seven times world champion has finally started to show what he is capable of achieving once again and if the Mercedes is more competitive this year he is likely to wind back the clock with some impressive race performances.
Rosberg once again will race this year with the majority of the paddock still ultimately unsure of his ability. In his seventh season the German has never been judged against a truly known commodity; even with Schumacher no one really knows how competitive he is compared to in his pomp.
To banish doubts about him Rosberg will finally have to win win a race this year erase any doubts that have developed over his ultimate potential. Obviously to do so will be dependant on the car. Last year one of Rosberg’s great strengths was his ability to maximise the Pirelli tyres, particularly in qualifying. For the coming season he will need to once again maintain his ability if he is to finally challenge consistently.
This is a crucial year for Mercedes. Two years ago the team could decry a lack of development budget during the cars design period, at the time Brawn GP was focusing on winning the title and had a small development budget.
Last year the team used their compliance with the Resource Restriction Agreement and a smaller head count as their reason for an underperforming year. This season there can be no excuses. TheStuttgartboard needs to start seeing results for the money being pumped into the squad and a failure to show significant progress could lead to an overhaul of the team.
With the new car looking more competitive the coming year is filled with more promise than has traditionally been the case at the team in its various guises ranging from BAR to Honda and to its present incarnation as Mercedes.
Lotus also looks to have made marked progress in the last year. In winter testing last year the squad looked hugely impressive before their star driver, Robert Kubica, was badly injured in a rally crash. The Polish driver’s absence proved to be more than just a setback for the team it led to them being incredibly uncompetitive for much of the year.
The foundation of last year’s car was strong, as shown by podiums in the opening two races, but ultimately the year was a disaster and the team has been overhauled since the final race of the season to try and recapture the championship winning days of Fernando Alonso.
The least of the changes made for the squad involved being renamed from Renault to Lotus but the most significant change saw the team hire Kimi Raikkonen as their lead driver.
Clearly the lessons learned from their championships success with Schumacher and Alonso thought the team that they needed to have one world class driver with which to focus their attention upon. Kubica was that focal point before his injury but now the team will look to gravitate towards their former world champion.
Raikkonen’s return from a two year rallying exile is not without risks. Questions are sure to be raised as to whether the 2007 world champion still has the speed or desire to compete at the highest level.
Testing showed that the Finnish star has not lost a step since moving to rallying but it will only be over the course of the year that the questions about his motivation are answered. For what its worth Raikkonen has said all the right things throughout the winter but Lotus need to understand their driver before they can exploit his speed.
In the past Raikkonen was always a driver that would turn up for racing and testing and drive at the limit before leaving the circuit and returning to his life without thinking about racing.
Ferrari expected Raikkonen to be a Schumacher clone when they replaced the German with Kimi. They were to be disappointed as Raikkonen was never the type of driver to call his engineer in the middle of the night with questions about setup. Ferrari needed a driver to grab the team by the scruff of its neck and mould them towards his ideals.
Raikkonen on the other hand needs a team to understand that for him to be great he has to be given the freedom that he enjoyed at McLaren. There he was, by and large, left to his own devices as the team developed the car. If Lotus can understand this they will have an incredibly productive driver on their books and a very promising season.
Who will assert themselves in the midfield?
The likes of Force India, Williams, Sauber and Toro Rosso look set once again to be fighting for the crumbs from the leading teams table.
ForceIndia, with Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg behind the wheel, look to be the most competitive of these teams. The Silverstone based team has a strong driver line-up and seems to have developed a good car.
In testing the team has looked very competitive, especially on low fuel running, and seems to have a decent base with which to proceed throughout the year. By all accounts the new car is well balanced and should have decent development potential.
The main strength of ForceIndiarests with their drivers. Both di Resta and Hulkenberg will embark on their second seasons in Formula 1 and it seems that both are poised for strong seasons.
Last year di Resta impressed everyone with a strong campaign that saw him outpace Adrian Sutil for much of the year before the German found his form and provided much more competition for the second half of 2011.
Di Resta will look to recapture his stunning Silverstone form, when he qualified seventh, on a more consistent basis throughout the coming year but it is telling that already he is being linked with Mercedes should Schumacher retire after this year.
Hulkenberg spent last year on the sidelines as the team’s test driver and the German is clearly eager to get back racing. Having spent his rookie campaign with Williams it will be interesting to see how he has developed since 2010 when he took a stunning pole position in changeable conditions at Interlagos.
Williams looks to have taken a step towards competitiveness over the winter. The former world champions have struggled in recent years with last year the worst in the team’s history. A major overhaul was needed and with high profile departures such as Sam Michael and Rubens Barrichello leaving the squad it was clear that revolution was needed and not evolution.
Team founders Patrick Head and Frank Williams will also move further from the forefront of the squad as they look to transition to a new era. The new car struggled initially in testing but in Barcelona Bruno Senna and Pastor Maldonado both looked more competitive and much happier with the performance of the car.
Whether this was done to lower fuel loads is debatable but on longer runs the Williams looked consistent even if it didn’t showcase the speed of a Force India.
Their driver line-up was the focus of a lot of attention over the winter with Maldonado keeping his drive after a disappointing rookie season where his mistakes overshadowed some impressive qualifying performances.
His teammate Bruno Senna spent much of last year on the sidelines before making a stunning return to the cockpit at Spa for Renault. In his first outing for the team he outpaced Vitaly Petrov and looked very impressive.
For the rest of the season the Brazilian once again showed promise but made some mistakes as he adjusted to life in a more competitive car as opposed to the HRT with which he made his debut two years ago.
The stories of Senna in a Williams have obviously been the focus of media throughout the winter but from now on it will solely be his competitiveness in the car which will be focused upon.
Toro Rosso has an all new driver line-up with Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne but it seems that while the team made progress last year the coming season may be more of a struggle. The new car lacks rear downforce and does not give their drivers confidence in mid corner.
In the ultra competitive battle between these teams it is crucial to inspire confidence if a driver is to be competitive. Toro Rosso will have their work cut out to challenge for points as they did in 2011.
Sauber also look to be struggling. A major technical shake up and a lack of sponsorship is to blame for the Swiss team’s struggles but like Toro Rosso they lack rear downforce. The strength of Sauber however lies in their driver line-up with Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez two of the most promising young drivers on the grid.
Usual suspects bring up the rear
The rear of the field once more will be brought up by Caterham, HRT and Virgin. Caterham have made progress but the team still lack the speed to make the jump and compete with the midfield teams.
Virgin and HRT once again disappointed during the winter with neither car turning a wheel in anger during testing. Both squads were only capable of shaking their cars down following theBarcelonatest by using promotional filming days at reduced speeds as their sole winter running.