While some dropped the ball when designing their 2012 car, others managed to build a good car straight out of the box. The rate of development is brutal in F1 so the pecking order always does fluctuate a bit over the course of an entire season, but those who’ve had a decent and reliable car underneath them definitely have a step up on those chasing them. Let’s take a look at which teams surprised me the most in 2012.
1. Sauber: Ay Caramba!
It was a bit of a tossup between Sauber and Williams, but I would rank Sauber’s achievement just a little bit higher. They started off with a handy car last year (remember the double points finish in Oz brutally taken away due to a minor technical infringement) but then tailed off towards the end of the season, struggling to score points against the likes of Force India and Toro Rosso. The loss of technical director James Key just days before the first winter test in Jerez sent a slight shockwave through the paddock but the team seems to have taken this significant loss in its stride. Hell, they haven’t even replaced the man and they managed to develop the good baseline car they had in Jerez into a contender for the win in Malaysia. Had Perez not made his mistake (and had his engineer just shut his damned mouth – more on that later)the win would have been theirs. Of course the conditions played a part, but it is significant to note that the Sauber was quick both in the wet and when the track dried up in the end to be the fastest car on the track. With Perez stepping forward as a potential superstar for the future and a solid as well as exciting pair of hands with Kamui the team is looking fairly good for this year, however doubts remain whether they will manage to keep up with the development pace of the big teams they are now challenging. Despite the Mexican money, the team’s budget is still fairly limited compared to the others, so they cannot afford to lose time with upgrades that don’t work..they need to keep getting it spot on if this form is to continue throughout the year.
2.Williams : Hide the Xerox!
Having hit rock bottom last year the only way was up for Williams in 2012. They carried out a very significant restructuring by booting out Sam Michael and the controversial hiring of Mike Coughlan, but the gamble turned out to be worth it. From being threatened by the Caterhams at the end of 2011 the car leaped forward to be challenging Ferraris and Mercs for top 5 positions in 2012, a truly remarkable recovery. In real terms, Williams is definitely the team which made the most progress over the winter, and it came quite unexpected. First off there was backmarkers F1 very own Matt who proclaimed the end of Williams when they announced Bruno ‘Babyface’ Senna would be the one partnering Pastor ‘ the Hitman’ Maldonado. It sure did look like Williams just took the money and ran, treating this as a rebuilding year but now that it turns out they have quite a competitive car on their hands, they may start regretting this decision. Senna though delivered a stunning race from the back to sixth in Malaysia so there may be more to the man than we give him credit for, while Maldonado is showing flashes of talent which he alternates with utter brainfarts. Punting off Grosjean and crashing on the final lap in Oz to punting off Di Resta in Malaysia, and then the Spa quali story with Lewis last year, F1 has found a new crash kid and the nickname ‘hitman’; now no longer only relates to his face. The switch from Cosworth to Renault engines seems to have made a significant difference too as Cosworth now only supplies the 2 teams that can’t afford anything else. Williams have the infrastructure, a good technical team and money up the wazoo from their two drivers – though for the future they will need some more external sponsorship money – so there is every reason to think that Williams will remain competitive throughout the year and make 2011 a distant memory.
3. Mclaren: Up Yours, Adrian!
They have finally done it again. For the first time since 2008, Mclaren have started the season strongly with the best car in the field straight out of the box. While since 2009 Mclaren have forever been playing catchup to first the Brawns blown diffuser (and pretty much the rest of the field as well with a horrible car at season start) and then the Red Bulls Newey magic, they finally showed Newey is not the end all be all in F1 engineering and seem to have outwitted him on his own turf…the exhausts. It is no secret that Mclaren’s exhaust solution flirts with what’s permissible in the rulebook, and Red Bull is now struggling to copy it after their solution seems to have failed in the final Barcelona test. For the first time since 2008 Mclaren can now devote their renowned development pace to staying ahead instead of continually having to play catchup, and this must be a massive boost to the morale back in Woking. However the team has not fully capitalized on its car advantage yet with just 1 win and 2 third places to show for their dominance. Granted the race in Malaysia was a bit freaky so it’s too early to call them out on that. Being a bit out of character, Button took the win in Oz but then stupidly threw his Malaysian race away by crashing into Narain, while Lewis played mister consistent. They need to strike while their competitors are down and build that gap, because Red Bull will come strong once they find the sweet spot on their car, and even the Ferrari may be in the hunt in the later stages of the season.