Sebastian Vettel The reigning world champion has dominated the last three years and while the RB9 is not as cutting edge as its predecessors the team is clearly reaching the point of very diminishing returns for their design philosophy. Even though he has won 26 Grand Prix and claimed 36 pole positions the triple champion is not as highly regarded as his rivals Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso. Hamilton is still probably quicker over a single lap and Alonso more consistent over a race but Vettel has showed that on the balance of a race weekend that he is more than their equal. Another championship will be a tall ask for Vettel but there is also little reason to doubt him or the machinery at his disposal.
Mark Webber Suffering from acute “number two syndrome” Webber is unfairly criticised by many for being unable to match Vettel but it is worth remembering that for the first half of 2012 he was the quicker Red Bull driver. The Australian is hugely talented and on the days when he is at his best, Monaco or Silverstone last year, he is unbeatable. He is also however inconsistent compared to his teammate. Webber is the perfect number two driver for Red Bull at the moment. He is a consistent points and podium scorer while not being able to consistently match his team leader. A season with three or four victories and a number of other podiums would be highly successful.
Fernando Alonso Dragged as much as possible out of the Ferrari last year but given how close the field is in 2013 Alonso’s title hopes will hinge on whether Ferrari has found enough speed over the winter. He was galvanised last by his status as an underdog and was superb throughout the season. You would have to imagine that if the Ferrari is in the ballpark that Alonso will be able to win the title but there are question marks hanging over Maranello. This is Alonso’s fourth season with Ferrari and he could easily have added two more titles to his haul were it not for Ferrari’s tentative tactical approach at various races.
Felipe Massa Two podiums in twenty races is not usually enough to retain a drive with championship contender but Massa showed enough promise in the last six races to indicate that he will be much more competitive this season. He won’t be in a position to win the title but he will play a much bigger part in Ferrari’s assault on the Constructors’ Championship than in recent years. Late last year Massa admitted that he was thinking too much about Alonso and had effectively out-psyched himself. He finished the season in a much more relaxed fashion and his performances were quite competitive. If he can do so again this year he could be in a position to win races.
Jenson Button The 2009 world champion knows that when the car is exactly to his liking that he can outfight, outwit and outrace any body on the grid. He will be buoyed by his status as McLaren’s de-facto championship contender but Button also has no place to hide in 2013. Whereas as teammate to Lewis Hamilton it was expected, and accepted, that Button would be slower in qualifying now the shoe is on the other foot and Button is expected to outpace Sergio Perez. If the McLaren is fast and the team delivers Button a car that he has confidence there is little reason to expect nothing less than another title challenge from Button.
Sergio Perez In his two years with Sauber Perez has been hugely impressive on multiple occasions and anonymous on others. His strong races all came when he was enjoying a tyre advantage but that is not to belittle his talent. Perez is one of the very best managers of tyre life on the grid and he instantly understood that single lap pace was not as important as developing the car over the weekend to ensure that a 300km race can be completed as fast as possible. He has so much potential that hopefully will be untapped at McLaren and if he spends the coming year learning from Button he will be very well placed for success at McLaren.
Kimi Raikkonen The Finn will be expecting to win multiple races this year and be a title contender. He instantly readapted to life in Formul1 last year and was a podium threat throughout the campaign while gradually improving his single lap speed to the point where at season’s end he was one of the most consistent performers on the grid. The new Lotus has been fast and consistent in testing and if Raikkonen can start 2013 as he finished last year there is no doubt that he will win races.
Romain Grosjean The former GP2 champion had a difficult rookie season last year. He was on numerous occasions hugely impressive but also was a magnet for controversy. His aggressive style meant that he was involved in multiple crashes, most notably Belgium, and it gave him a reputation as a danger to his competitors. Being forced to sit out the Italian Grand Prix showed that the FIA recognises that his driving was unacceptable but until Grosjean can put together a string of incident free races there is serious question marks about his future. He has the speed and thoroughly deserves his place on the grid but it is imperative now that he keeps his place by avoiding needless accidents.
Nico Rosberg Finally got the monkey off his back by winning last year’s Chinese Grand Prix but over the course of 2012 he was overshadowed and outpaced by Michael Schumacher on far too many occasions. It’s strange that a driver with 128 races under his belt still faces question marks about his ability but this year will really be the proof of just how good Rosberg is. Alongside Hamilton he has no place to hide but I’ve always been impressed by Nico and while he will do very well to beat Lewis on a regular basis the qualifying battle should be intense.
Lewis Hamilton Leaving McLaren for Mercedes was a backwards step for 2013 but with new engine regulations on the horizon the decision makes a lot of sense. McLaren have won one Drivers’ title, Hamilton in 2008, in the last 13 years so while the Mercedes will not be a rival to the McLaren the future is bright with a lot of talent on the Mercedes engineering and design departments. The new car looked impressive at the last test but it still will lag behind the leading teams. Hamilton will drag a couple of victories out of the car but he will not be a championship contender.
Nico Hulkenberg The Hulk moves from Force India to Sauber and he will enjoy the stability of the Swiss outfit in comparison to his previous team. Sauber improved in leaps and bounds last year with Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi impressing on regular occasions. Hulkenberg has also shown moments of tremendous promise and last year he consistently outperformed his teammate Paul di Resta. Sauber’s strength in recent years has been that their cars are exceptionally kind to their tyres and on the occasions that this offers the biggest advantage Hulkenberg will spring surprise results. Given that Perez could easily have won races last year Hulkenberg can aim high for 2013.
Esteban Gutierrez A solid GP2 season and a Mexican passport got Gutierrez the Sauber drive but he has shown on numerous occasions on the way to Formula 1 that he has the talent to back up his assent to the top tier of the sport. With Hulkenberg as his teammate Gutierrez has a very good measuring stick. If he can get close to the German he will have had a successful rookie season.
Paul di Resta Last year was a disappointment for di Resta. He showed as a rookie, in 2011, that he has a lot of talent but for whatever reason he struggled for much of last year. Once Hulkenberg gained the ascendancy at Force India it seemed that di Resta struggled to handle that and he seemed more and more pressured. His driving was affected and he no longer seemed as natural with the car. He needs to relax this season and let his talent flow. He showed in 2011 that he was as good as Adrian Sutil so with more experience he should be the Force India team leader.
Adrian Sutil Back on the grid following his year of inactivity last season Sutil is a solid and dependable driver who should be able to claim points finishes throughout the season but given just how competitive the midfield is at present it will be a very difficult season for Sutil. Having gotten the nod from the team at the last minute he will face an uphill struggle in the early races and it would a major surprise if he can compete with di Resta.
Pastor Maldonado Like Grosjean at Lotus Maldonado needs to avoid being at the centre of post race attention for causing accidents but the Venezuelan showed last year that he has a remarkable turn of speed. His Barcelona victory last year was far from lucky. He dominated the race and showed an incredibly cool head to hold off Alonso for his maiden victory. For much of the rest of the season however he struggled for consistency but when he was in a position to contend, such as at Singapore, he was fantastic.
Valtteri Bottas The highly rated Finn makes the move into Formula 1 after taking a year off from racing to concentrate on his role as test and reserve driver with Williams. The former GP3 champion has been impressive in his Friday practice outings for Williams but, as with any rookie, it will only be once the season starts that we see just how good Bottas is. Having replaced Bruno Senna the expectation on Bottas will be that he is a points scorer and Q3 qualifier.
Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso drivers know that they have a limited timeframe in which to impress and Vergne, entering his second season, will have huge expectations placed on him by Red Bull. Finding a way to consistently make it out of Q1 has to be the main objective for Vergne given his failure to so regularly in 2012. His race pace was quite impressive last year in a Toro Rosso that wasn’t on a par with the Williams, Force India and Sauber drivers.
Daniel Ricciardo Like Vergne it is crucial for Ricciardo to make a step forward but quite a lot of that will depend on how much of an improvement the team has made over the winter. Ricciardo, a former Red Bull reserve driver, showed maturity last year in dealing with a difficult situation. Ricciardo is well aware that if he wants to join the numerous other drivers that have been thrown on the Red Bull scrap heap he has to dominate Vergne in 2013.
Charles Pic Making the switch from Marussia to Caterham will hurt Pic for most of the coming season with Marussia likely to be more competitive. However the investment in moving to a new factory, building their own simulator and various technical hirings will mean that in the long run Caterham should be in a much stronger position. As a rookie Pic was a match for Timo Glock on numerous occasions but with a back of the grid car it is often difficult to impress. Pic should be a dominant team leader for Caterham.
Giedo van der Garde The Dutchman will partner Pic after bringing a substantial budget to the table. There is minimal expectation on van der Garde and if he can match Pic he will have acquitted himself very well in his rookie campaign.
Jules Bianchi The Frenchman was in contention for the second Force India drive throughout the winter before being overlooked in favour of Sutil. Bianchi, a product of the Ferrari Academy, is a fast driver and he will be able to gain valuable experience at the back of the grid before looking to move on to a bigger team.
Max Chilton The Englishman won races in GP2 but given the lavish budgets that he has brought to the table throughout the junior formulae it has to have been disappointing that he has not claimed any titles. He’ll have nowhere to hide in Formula 1 and it will be very interesting to see how he compares to Bianchi.