With a stonking start to the 2012 season, F1 has for once delivered on a promising winter, where most of the excitement we had and the high hopes for an interesting season turned out to be valid. Face it, after two years of Red Bull domination F1 needed a change of pace, some fresher faces at the front. A few exciting new and not so new guys came into the midpack with Vergne, Ricciardo and Hulkenberg while we got rid of some pretty boring ones with Buemi, Alguersuari, Sutil and above all, Trulli. Sadly though, Kubica has still not made his comeback and what I’ve feared from the beginning seems to be coming through..Kubica will not race in F1 anymore.
The Mercs are gnawing at the heels of the top and fighting for poles even if not quite yet for podiums. The Lotus/Renault is back in the mix now that they drastically changed driver line ups and exhaust systems, the Sauber is hawt, Red Bull is not dominant at all and the Ferrari is aggressive but still kinda sucks – even though Alonso manages to win in it, Force India and Toro Rosso have super exciting teammate wars raging…
It seems the only things that have remained the same since last year is that Felipe Massa has no right to still be driving an F1 car, let alone a Ferrari, Caterham still hasn’t made it to the midfield and Marussia and HRT continue to make a mockery of F1. So where does that leave us?
The first two back to back races threw us headlong into the new season, but now we are cruelly forced to wait another 3 weeks for the next grand prix in China. While much is expected in terms of upgrades for the Mugello tests which will start the European leg of the season, you can bet your bottom dollar teams have not stood still these past weeks to iron out some growing pains in their cars. Mclaren clearly started the year on top, locking out the front row on both occasions, however they have failed to fully capitalize on their car advantage, two thirds for Lewis and a win and non-points finish for Jenson is simply not good enough when your car is that good. Granted, had Malaysia been a dry race we could have well been speaking of a Mclaren 1-2 and super dominant start to the season so the team is definitely still in the driver’s seat.
Things are a bit amiss at Red Bull as the harsh reality of them not having the fastest car for the first time since mid 2009 is starting to set in. You can see clearly that the car is just not as planted on the road as in previous years, and it seems the blown diffuser ban has really hurt Vettel in particular, having been beating fair and square by Webber in qualifying on both occasions. His luck seems to be running out as well, even though he still got quite lucky in Oz with the safety car to nab second from Hamilton (and profited from Schumi’s and Grosjean’s misfortunes), but a silly encounter with Khartikeyan late in the Malaysian race saw him lose 4th place..and his cool. It’s too early to say Red Bull won’t make it, but they are struggling to find the sweet spot on this car. As long as they keep their head down and don’t panic, or in Vettel’s case, start acting like a spoilt brat (hum hum Hamilton) they will still be fighting for wins and the championship. I just love how a not so great car shows us how relative Vettel’s wunderkind status really is.. had the Red Bull been at this level for the past 2 years, would we still have hailed him as this uber driver? Vettel is making mistakes in the car and on his beloved quali runs, showing middle fingers to backmarkers and acting snotty in interviews, he still is a great driver, but it is in these times that he will really get tested and has a golden opportunity to show us he is a true champion and prove the few doubters who remain wrong once and for all.
To date only a guy like Alonso has shown that no matter what car he has, he will outdrive it, he will consistently lift the car up onto places it shouldn’t belong, and he’s the only driver currently on the grid who’s done this time and again. (Don’t get me started again on Vettel in Monza..Bourdais of all people qualified 4th in that same car……) Ferrari for once delivered on its promise to have gone aggressive in their design of the new car, but it seems to me they just threw everything and the kitchen sink at it and pray it all comes good. Pull rod front suspension, one of the most dramatic nose steps, sidepods, exhaust shenanigans they can’t seem to get worked out as they’d like. Especially the front pull rod system seems to be something they did just because it was different and aggressive, not because it was going to give them some gains. All the technical pundits seem to agree that while giving slight aero and center of gravity benefits, its drawbacks outweigh the usefulness of using pull rod at the front. Still, there is pace somewhere in that Ferrari, and Fernando manages to unlock it. While their qualifying pace is abysmal, with even Alonso struggling to make Q3, in race trim the Ferrari looks more handy, throw in some changeable weather like Malaysia and suddenly it was a race winning car. Fernando is awesome, but what contrast with Felipe Massa… I truly no longer know what to say about him except: get him out of that seat! The rise of Sauber and Perez make Massa’s situation even more untenable, especially seeing he probably l already has held on to this seat since 2011 merely as a result of a lack of suitable replacements due to Kubica’s injury and the fact Ferrari had no one else lined up and ready to go. Bianchi was struggling in GP2, and Perez was too green last year, but come 2013 I can’t see anyone else but Perez alongside Alonso.
Mercedes is a bit of a mystery this year, with their ‘W-Duct’ being the talk of the F1 paddock (and the cheese with the whine of Christian Horner), they are extremely competitive in qualifying, with Schumi missing out on his firt pole since 2066 by a mere 2 tenths in Malaysia as he eventually lined up third. In a complete reversal compared to last year, Rosberg seems to be struggling with this car as neither in race nor quali has he been able to really challenge Schumi. Schumi on the other hand seems to finally be getting his mojo back. How wonderful Saturdays are for Merc, how abysmal become their Sundays: from pole contenders in both races they ended up with just 1 point after the season openers. The car is still shredding its tyres, much like last year, and they cannot extract as much benefit from their W-Duct in the race when DRS use is much more restricted compared to quali. It was a real shame Schumi got punted off by Grosjean in Malaysia, as the conditions could have allowed him to overcome his car’s lack of race pace and nab that coveted comeback podium. Still, a podium for Schumi is bound to happen sometime this year, if they can qualify like this in place like Monaco or Hungary where even with DRS its very hard to pass, I reckon we’ll see some sparks from the old man. Once Rosberg gets his head around the new car he is also in line for that first win, although that seems less likely.
Lotus have produced a very nimble car and has two capable drivers at the wheel, yet they don’t have much to show for it yet. A 7th and a 5th for Raikkonen and 2 DNFs for Grosjean is not what the team had hoped for come the start of the year. One can only imagine where the team would have been had their reactive suspension system not been banned so shortly before winter testing, they might well have been the fastest car on the grid as the gaps are very small this year. Raikkonen is driving as if he never left F1 although a miscommunication saw him drop out of Q1 in Oz, he proved he lost none of his racecraft storming from 17th to 7th, and he drove a solid yet slightly anonymous race to fifth in Malaysia. Grosjean, while strong in qualifying needs some racing laps under his belt. While in Oz the blame was placed squarely on Maldonado, in Malaysia he first punted off Schumi and then spun it into retirement so he desperately needs a solid finish in China. Still, the Lotus is a good car, and there is truth to the team saying they just need some more luck on the race weekends and they’ll be right in the hunt.
I guess having scored the first non ‘top’ team podium in three seasons, I guess this next team can go up alongside the big dogs in this pos. Sauber’s ex-technical director James Key has left the team with a really good car, and with two talented drivers behind the wheel what is there not to like about this eternal underdog team. I just hope they manage to keep up in the development race this year. Perez was already my rookie of last year (despite the overblown Di Resta lovin’ in the British media) , and he’s really is proving to be something special. It only makes me a little bit sad because he is seriously starting to outshine my main man Kamui Kobayashi, however this is maybe exactly what Kamui needs, to be pushed hard by a teammate so they can lift each other to higher levels. Anyway, Kobayashi has been doing fairly well too this year so he might still come out on top of this teammate battle with some clever drives and signature banzai moves.