After a hiatus lasting just over four months, Formula One is back on our screens on 15th March as the teams and drivers gear up for the gruelling slog that is the 2013 FIA Formula One World Championship. 2012 came to a close in the most dramatic of scenarios as every possible permutation was played out around the damp and misty circuit high up in the hills of Sao Paulo.
Sebastian Vettel eventually triumphed for the third year in a row as he beat off the dogged and relentless attacks of Fernando Alonso, the 2005 and 2006 double World Champion refusing to admit defeat despite driving a car not considered the finest Ferrari had ever conceived.
This time round, it’s all change with new faces, missing faces and old faces in unfamiliar guise. However, one thing remains the same as ever; the season starts in Australia. Pre-season testing, for those who watched, revealed a complex web of stategy, bluff, double bluff and Russian roulette. To decipher it takes some mean mathematics, serious head-scratching and a bevy of willpower, energy drinks and time on your hands.
Who’s hot and who’s not…
As has been the case since 2009, Red Bull have looked particularly strong over the winter but have taken steps to mask their speed from their rivals. The RB9, Adrian Newey’s 7th Red Bull effort, bears a marked resemblance to its championship-winning predecessor and, as such, will be the benchmark for the Milton Keynes team’s rivals to aim at if they are to wrest title success from the grip of Red Bull. One team who has gone some way to achieving that is Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton’s new team setting lightning times in Barcelona and finishing the winter season on a high. That said, Hamilton has urged caution amongst his fans who widely believe the Englishman capable of winning the world championship this season based on what they witnessed in Spain over the last couple of weeks.
“The final touches don’t come until qualifying in Melbourne and everyone has their upgrades, because here we don’t know what fuel people are on, but I definitely feel we have work to do.” Lewis Hamilton
Meanwhile on the other side of the divide, World Champion Vettel seems to fear the prospect of a quick Silver Arrow when the racing begins:
“Nico had a great final day of testing in his Mercedes, which shows how dangerous he and Lewis will be in the future. But there are a lot of others to keep in mind as well.”Sebastian Vettel
By ‘others’, Vettel undoubtedly means the combined threats of Ferrari, Mclaren and Lotus who are fielding three former World Champions between them; Alonso, Vettel’s 2012 bugbear, Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 World Champion and Jenson Button, who remains the only man to have beaten Vettel in the World Championship since new regulations were introduced in 2009.
With a capable supporting cast of Felipe Massa, Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez, none of these former-title winning teams can afford to be dismissed by Vettel if he is to stand a chance of retaining his World Championship crown.
Ferrari have had an encouraging winter compared to their shambolic attempt to be ready for 2012, and have even claimed Alonso ‘does not need’ the fastest car to take the fight to Vettel. To compound this belief, they are targeting ‘…a podium in Australia’ rather than harbouring any ambitions of getting out of the blocks first. To some, such an approach would seem to place immense pressure and expectation on Alonso, the Spaniard appearing to be Ferrari’s ‘last hope’ in the fight against Red Bull. Whether this faith is justified remains to be seen.
McLaren do not need Lewis Hamilton to succeed. That statement has been in doubt over January and February as the Woking-based team seemed to struggle with their testing schedule. After Jenson Button appeared to blow away the rest of the field in Jerez, at Barcelona the MP4-28 destroyed its tyres, broke down and generally was not very quick. Unlike its rivals, the Ferrari F138, the RB9, the Mercedes F1W04 and the Lotus E21, the McLaren MP4-28 is not an evolution of the 2012 car. As has to be expected, it will take McLaren significantly longer to understand their new car and extract the maximum from it than their competitors who already have a year’s worth of relationship with their machinery to understand its foibles and technicalities.
Nevertheless, new recruit Perez, who joins McLaren from Sauber, remains positive ahead of Melbourne:
“It’s just a bit disappointing not to get everything, but it’s normal, you will not get everything done for the first race, the most important thing is taking every opportunity you have to maximise work with the team, and that’s what we’ve been doing. We have done an extremely good job in this pre-season.” Sergio Perez
At Lotus, expectations for 2013 are loftier than those set in 2012 following Kimi Raikkonen’s unexpected victory in last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Romain Grosjean, who showed great speed but little ability to avoid accidents, has been warned by team boss Eric Boullier to keep his nose clean this season in order to save his F1 career. Raikkonen for his part could prove a dark horse in the fight for the 2013 championship; the Finn scored points in all but one race last year and claimed 3rd in the overall standings ahead of Button, Webber and Hamilton by stealth rather than heroics. If the E21 is even narrowly better than its predecessor, we might be crowning Kimi come November, but testing has revealed more than a few reliability issues to be ironed out if that dream is to be realised.
For 2013 the FIA have decreed use of the DRS Drag Reduction System, a flap in the rear wing the driver can open on the straights to ‘stall’ his rear wing and increase top speed, will be limited during qualifying to the DRS ‘zones’ that also apply during the race.
For some on the grid, this could prove to be their final fling with Formula One. Mark Webber has secured a contract for 2013 with Red Bull but there is a real sense the Australian is living on borrowed time at the Vettel-oriented squad. After emphatically stating he will leave the sport once his days at Red Bull are over, this could well be his last curtain call. Likewise Felipe Massa who, despite a return to form in the latter half of 2012 that saved his career for 2013, could find himself shuffled out to make way for Jules Bianchi should the young French Ferrari protege prove his worth at Marussia this year.
If you’re lucky enough to be heading to a race this year, savour the sound while you can; introduced in 2006, the current V8 engines will be phased out at the end of 2013 to make way for a new 1.6 litre V6 turbocharged era, limited to just 15,000rpm.
Lewis Hamilton’s move to Mercedes has inevitably caught many of the headlines in the build up to the 2013 season, and with general media coverage not exactly lending impartiality to the equation, it’s easy to forget there are three other British drivers on the grid, the most since 2008.
Jenson Button now leads McLaren, having moulded the team around him since joining them in 2010 and harbours serious ambitions of adding a 2nd title to his 2009 success. F1′s ‘elder statesman’ has been competing longer than any other remaining driver in the sport and must capitalise on having McLaren’s vast resources at his disposal if he is to prove his critics wrong again.
Paul Di Resta has had an average couple of seasons with Force India. In Formula One, average often translates to a premature ejection from the sport. While he could be excused for being beaten by Adrian Sutil in his maiden season and faced a tough challenge when pitted against the talent of Nico Hulkenberg last year, this time round there will be no excuses for the Scot. Sutil is back as his team mate having sat out 2012 and Di Resta must take full advantage if he is to secure a long-term F1 future. He came close in Singapore last year, but anything less than a podium for the fitter and leaner Di Resta will count as failure for 2013.
Max Chilton, son of a wealthy multi-millionaire, is a pay driver, make no mistake about that. However, in recent years the term ‘pay driver’ has lost some of the negative and almost hateful connotations associated with it. Gone are the days when the likes of Taki Inoue, Gaston Mazzacane and Yuji Ide would blunder around at the back of the field, ten or more seconds off the pace and inadvertently affecting the outcome of the race when they failed to notice faster cars trying to overtake. Pastor Maladonado is a pay driver, and he won the Spanish Grand Prix last year. The fact is no driver makes it to Formula One without considerable financial support and, as such, all are pay drivers. Chilton has the misfortune to have a backer that sits so visibly in the public eye as Chairman of the AON insurance group. Fielded by the unfancied-Marussia team he will have little chance to feature in any noticeable racing but could help the Anglo-Russian squad beat arch-rivals Caterham in the battle for 10th in the constructors championship.
Sauber – A shadow of their 2012 selves. Bringing Nico Hulkenberg on board was a great coup for the Swiss squad based in Hinwil but even the dynamic leadership of F1′s first female team principal, Monisha Kaltenborn, might not be enough to replicate the four podiums achieved in 2012.
Williams – After getting back to winning ways in 2012, Williams are hoping the FW35 will be reliable enough to bring some consistency to their campaign as well as speed. After all, Maldonado scored points in just two races last season including his win in Spain and many more top-ten finishes will be needed if they are to overcome midfield rivals Sauber.
Toro Rosso – Looking very quick after pre-season testing, with some truly competitive times posted by Daniel Riccardo and Jean Eric Vergne at both Jerez and Barcelona. With the STR8 following the lead of the McLaren and coming fresh off the drafter’s board, 2013 could be a very important year for the Red Bull ‘B Team”.
Caterham – Charles Pic and Giedo Van Der Garde make up a very inexperienced team at Caterham, and with Tony Fernandes distracted by his dabblings with Queens Park Rangers in the UK, the team once hailed as the best of the newcomers seems weaker than ever. The CT02 is certainly a striking design, but looks are no guarantee of success in the brutal world of Formula One.
What to expect in Melbourne?
Red Bull have certainly been holding back and will be one of the pace-setters in Oz, of that there is little doubt. Mercedes have shown their hand early and look strong, whereas Ferrari and Mclaren are widely believed to have been keeping something in reserve for when the real racing gets underway. The question is, if Red Bull are on top, where do the others slot in behind?
Melbourne is a stop-start circuit with plenty of long, flowing straights and turns punctuated by slower, low-gear 90 degree turns that prove challenging for brakes and tyres. Taking into account the track, testing results and variations in tyre compound, temperature, weather and fuel loads, the predicted Melbourne grid will have Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes filling the front three rows, with Mclaren and Lotus squabbling over the rear-end of the leaders. Williams and Force India would appear to have a slight edge over Toro Rosso, who seem to have stolen a march on midfield rivals Sauber. With the demise of the HRT team, Caterham and Marussia will battle it out over the minor placings.
Where can I watch?
F1′s dedicated pay-to-view channel in the UK, Sky F1 HD, will be showing live coverage of all practice, qualifying and races during 2013, fronted by Simon Lazenby, David Croft and Martin Brundle with Natalie Pinkham and others presenting features and additional shows throughout the year.
Over on BBC, ten races will be live on BBC One, including the British, Canadian and Japanese Grand Prix’s, with Suzi Perry stepping into the shoes of the departed Jake Humphrey alongside David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan. In a bid to revive flagging loyalty to the ‘Beeb’, practice sessions for the ten live Grand Prix’s will be shown on BBC Two on Fridays and Saturdays.
Additionally, all races are live on BBC Radio 5 Live with James Allen and Allan McNish.
The season gets underway on 15th March in Melbourne, Australia, with the race taking place on Sunday 17th at 17:00 local time.