2012 Preview - Who is Hot?
The runners and riders

Here we go people, 2012 is upon us! Testing is over, the teams are on their way to Melbourne, and we await the start of another frantic season. Will Sebastian Vettel and the all-conquering Red Bull team make it three in a row? Can McLaren fight back?

Might Ferrari raise to the occasion, and give Fernando Alonso a car worthy of his talent, or could it be that Mercedes will actually get it right and give Michael Schumacher a shot at an eighth world title?

All of these are questions of merit, but let’s start with a different one: what about the much-heralded return of Kimi Raikkonen, with the Lotus team?

More than any F1 driver of recent years Raikkonen is, to me, an enigma. Truly gifted and unnervingly quick, the Finn did his job and won the title, then simply lost interest. That is, after all, the story often told. Eyebrows were raised when his return with Lotus was announced in the winter, with most commentators questioning his commitment. That he has shone – in no uncertain terms – in testing has impressed even the doubters.

Despite missing one week of testing thanks to a problem that was noticed on the first day at Barcelona the Lotus has been on the pace all week in the final test. We don’t know, of course, whether this was showboating by the Lotus team, an attempt to attract more sponsors, but observers suggest there is obvious pace in the car. Romain Grosjean, the second driver, was also bang on the pace.

Despite this apparent surprise package there is simply no suggestion that Raikkonen and Lotus are going to challenge for the championship.

Stranger things have happened, but it would be an unlikely scenario for a team to vault from the midfield to the front in such dramatic fashion.

No, the title will be fought for by three teams, or maybe even two.

Testing seemed to indicate that Red Bull, with Vettel on a roll and Mark Webber promising a stronger challenge, and the all-British pairing of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button at McLaren are the likely pace-setters come Melbourne. In fact, it could be that McLaren have the slight edge for there are murmurs of possible reliability issues at Red Bull. Things move quickly in F1, and the first race may be a lottery.

What of Ferrari, the most popular team of all? Clearly all is not well at Maranello, with both Alonso and Stefano Domenicali making noises about the car being complex and the need for making up ground. This is not a good sign in any team, and may mean the red cars are starting on the back foot.

Indeed, the mood at Mercedes is buoyant, with Ross Brawn insisting that a leap forward has been made. Both Schumacher and Nico Rosberg have expressed satisfaction with the new chassis, and while testing results have not been startling it is more about getting the car right for the first race than setting the tests alight.

There is a general feel of confidence at Mercedes this season, and it could be the surprise package in the opening races. Schumacher may have been matched – even out-done – by younger teammate Rosberg in the last two seasons, but give the man a winning car and that is what he will do.

So, there are your acknowledged top four runners – Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes. Who do we see joining Lotus in the midfield race?

Well, the first thing to say is that the field this year looks like being much closer than last, especially where the middle of the pack runners are concerned. If testing times are anything to go by Lotus should lead the way, but it will not be until Melbourne that we get a true feel. In fact, teams tend to remain reserved as to the pecking order until three or four races into the season, and rightly so.

Force India has been making noises about taking a step forward. Having shed Adrian Sutil for the highly rated Nico Hulkenberg, who will partner Paul di Resta in 2012, the team has shown well in testing. Whether they will be able to move out of the midfield and challenge for front running places remains to be seen, and is – in truth – unlikely. Lack of experience on the driving strength is also a potential worry, but we will see.

Sauber is a perennial midfield team this season
but one that has many fans. The plucky Swiss outfit often bucks the trend when it comes to car design, and this years machine is a neat and stylish effort, albeit one devoid of much in the way of sponsorship.

In Kamui Kobayashi, an exciting driver with a strong following among fans, and the impressive Sergio Perez the team fields both talent and continuity. Look to them to score regular points from the off, and also to try different tactics – the Sauber chassis are famously easy on tyres.

Williams is a name that has gone down in history as a legend in F1, but for too long this once grand team has been a poor shadow of its former self. The return to Renault engines is a positive and the car has shown flashes of pace in testing, but it’s the driver choice that raises concerns.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with either Pastor Maldonado or Bruno Senna, but there is nothing apparently special about either. Nothing, that is, bar the money they bring with them.

Williams had the choice of several drivers, and the fact that these two were picked is telling. Still, if the car is good they could spring the odd surprise. For the sake of the name, we hope they do.

Scuderia Toro Rosso went their own way with chassis innovation last year with a double floor concept, and it proved effective on many occasions in the hands of the clearly talented Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi.

The way those two drivers were unceremoniously ditched – along with comments from Red Bull bigwigs claiming neither is winning material – was ugly in the extreme. There is no doubt that Jean-Eric Vergne is a very talented youngster, and we have seen promise from Daniel Ricciardo too, but it is still difficult to understand why they needed two new drivers. This is a team that seems to want to remain in the midfield, and will do.

The biggest improvement of the year should come from Caterham (think Lotus from last year) where Heikki Kovalainen is joined by Russian Vitaly Petrov, Jarno Trulli having been told he was not needed after the first test this year. We – and the team – expect them to challenge the midfield runners rather than get mixed up with the backmarkers.

If Heikki Kovalainen performs as well this season as he did last he could be one of the stars of the season. He will also be off to pastures new for 2013, without a doubt. It’s easy to forget that Heikki is a former race winner – with McLaren – and he has rebuilt his reputation after the troubled time at that team.

So, we come to the final two teams – HRT and Marussia. The former have gone through a winter of great turmoil with management changes and money troubles, let alone a change of locations, but have finally rolled out a car. No running at the tests means drivers Narain Karthikeyan and Pedro de la Rosa have their work cut out.

One point of interest to note: at the launch of the car Tonio Liuzzi was present. The Italian drove for the team last year, and apparently has a contract with them. Don’t be surprised to see him in a race this year.

Marussia is a team in even more turmoil than HRT for, with under two weeks to go before the first race, the new car has yet to pass all the required crash tests. It is a race against time for Timo Glock, a driver who is far too talented to be wasting his career here, and newcomer Charles Pic.

So, there you have the runners and riders for 2012. It has just come to my notice that, as yet,
I have not mentioned Felipe Massa. This apparent oversight is telling, as the Brazilian has become nigh on invisible at Ferrari. He needs to get with the programme because his drive is on the line.

Take your pick of the top runners, but for the record, my money is on Jenson Button to use his experience and craft to pick up a second world title, with the wild card being Schumacher and the Mercedes.

Keep up with all the F1 news with UpdateF1!

Written by 3 on Tue, 06 Mar 2012 09:45:33

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