F1 2012 Season Preview

So, it’s less than a week away now, and with all the talk from testing, the merry-go-round of the ‘Silly Season’, the rumours, the hearsay, the hard facts and the unspoken truths, we’ve arrived at a very inconclusive picture of the competitive order come Sunday and the start of the F1 season at Albert Park, Melbourne. So with that in mind, I’m going to give you all a preview of what to expect, who the runners and riders are, and where we’re going in this highly-anticipated season. We’ll start with the drivers;

There have been a few major shifts in the driver field for this season, with a big name returnee to the sport, a few old hands we’ve said goodbye to, and some ‘interesting’ decisions made on the part of the teams. Here are the 24 drivers who’ll be lining up on the grid on Sunday;

The start of the 2012 season is nearly upon us!

I’ve included twitter links for all the drivers (except the ones not on there, website links for those) and teams as well!

#1 Sebastian Vettel (DE) – Red Bull Racing

The reigning Double World Champion is many people’s favourite for the title again this year, and he is certainly looking to join Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher as the sport’s only 3-time consecutive Champion. Fernando Alonso was a point away from doing so in 2007, but given Vettel’s form over 2011 and the backing he has from the Red Bull team, it would be foolhardy to discount him being in the running for the title at any stage of the season. The loss of the Exhaust-blown diffusers is expected to harm his advantage somewhat given his driving style, but here is a naturally-talented driver with youth and massive focus on his side.

#2 Mark Webber (AUS) – Red Bull Racing

Mark is a man who is looking to put what was a disappointing season in 2011 behind him, and trying to regain the sort of parity he had with teammate Vettel in 2009 and ’10. This will be no mean feat given Vettel’s status in the sport now, but the technical tweaks have made the cars a bit more ‘traditional’ in the way drivers can use the throttle, and that can only be good for Webber. He has stated that he believes he has got his head around the Pirelli tyres now as well, something that left him in the shade of not just his teammate last year, but many of his rivals as well. Still a question mark over whether he has the full backing of his team, and whether he can string a whole season together for a title tilt, as his 2010 effort went out with a wimper due to very poor performances in Korea and Abu Dhabi.

#3 Jenson Button (GBR) – Vodafone McLaren Mercedes

The dark horse for the title. Jenson proved his mettle against teammate Lewis Hamilton last year, a man never beaten by a teammate in F1 before, not just through Lewis’ dip in form, but through his own elevation of both speed and consistency. The ‘Pirelli era’ is designed for a driver like Button, who understands the fuller picture of a race and what is need more than some of his rivals. His economy behind the wheel has always been there, but 2011 saw an added exploration of the car’s limits not seen on such a consistent basis from Jenson before. It helped that the McLaren car had a wider setup window, as he needs a car that is totally to his liking. Once it is, he is seemingly unstoppable. Red Bull have stated this is the man to watch for the title, and Jenson has said himself that the car is to his liking already, so it could be a case of Lewis holding on to that higher-numbered car for next year as well. What’s certain is that the two drivers will be fighting tooth and nail to best each other.

#4 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) – Vodafone McLaren Mercedes

If you can’t quite call a season where he scored 3 wins an annus horribilis, it was certainly a year to forget for Lewis Hamilton. Personal issues blurred with his professional life in a way that meant for very patchy form for someone so renowned for his natural ability behind the wheel and also his amicable personality. Multiple clashes with Felipe Massa, Pastor Maldonado and others meant for tense watching for Hamilton fans and neutrals alike, seeing a driver fall so low from his undeniably lofty peaks. When he was good, like at the Nurburgring, he was VERY good, but when he let whatever problems he was having behind the scenes cloud his judgement, penalties, clashes and harsh words were coming his way. His career needs refocussing, lest he become a Jacques Villeneuve-type figure, a driver who came into F1 with such a blaze of success, but wrong decisions meant that those successes were few and far between later on. However it would be typical of Lewis for him to come out this season and just drive supremely on his way to a 2nd title, he’s that good.

#5 Fernando Alonso (ESP) – Scuderia Ferrari

For a man widely considered the most complete driver in Formula 1, Fernando Alonso has a bad habit of moving to a top team just when they’re hitting  a rough patch. Whilst he was competitive at McLaren, other circumstances and personalities meant his time there was blighted by controversy and disdain. Moving back to Renault was supposed to be a return to the ‘good old days’ of before, but a poorer set of cars, and internal turmoil once again sought to keep Alonso from fighting at the front (perhaps of his own doing also…). Signing for Ferrari (after the longest open secret of the decade) was signaled as a Schumacher-esque move, looking to build a team around a driver to create a period of sustained success, but… it hasn’t quite happened. Bar a title charge in 2010, Alonso’s valiant efforts have largely fallen short due to a car that has been firmly 3rd best overall, behind the McLaren and Red Bull. This years car was meant to be a step away from the conservative efforts of before, but has shown patchy form in testing and lots of furrowed brows back at Maranello. Already the talk is of firefighting to try and salvage something from the season, and that’s before it’s even started. But expect Alonso to drag everything he’s got from the F2012.

#6 Felipe Massa (BRA) – Scuderia Ferrari

There are many in F1 who are sure this is Massa’s last chance at the Scuderia. Even excusing for his near-fatal accident in Hungary in 2009, his form since coming back has been poor. Unable to work around two different tyre companies compounds, he followed an average campaign in 2010 with an even worse effort in 2011. Now, it is clear to all that Felipe’s role at Ferrari is to back up Alonso, be his wingman, his able companion, but so many times last season Alonso would be making a charge for the podium or a high points position, with Massa several places back trundling round not pushing the Ferrari in any way. If his job is to follow Alonso, surely he needs to be finishing just down the road from him? There are clear confidence issues with Felipe nowadays though, his steely demeanour picked up from his noble travails in 2008 replaced by a sour, sulking man who looks like he’d better off either at another team (straight swap with Sauber/Perez for 2013?) or packed off to GT’s like Fisichella et al. A big year ahead, but will he be able to live up to it?

#7 Michael Schumacher (DEU) – Mercedes AMG  Petronas

It’s the 3rd year of the great Schumacher comeback, and whilst there have been some encouraging signs, we’ve seen enough of Michael’s form to see that he’s not the force he once was. That’s not to say he’s out of his depth however, more that from being a Great F1 driver, he’s now ‘merely’ a very good F1 driver. Still needs to work on extracting maximum performance in qualifying, something his teammate Rosberg does a lot more regularly, but the points scored between doesn’t really reflect the total parity between the two Mercedes drivers. Schumacher comes alive in the races, and did so a lot more frequently in the latter half of the 2011 season than in his return so far. Canada was a prime example, with some supreme driving from the old master that thoroughly deserved a podium place he just missed out on. An improved Mercedes car and that year’s experience on the Pirelli’s should stand him in good stead for this season. Expect some fireworks in places, and if the pundits are right about Mercedes’ form, perhaps those trips to the podium we’ve all been waiting for.

#8 Nico Rosberg (DEU) – Mercedes AMG Petronas

I don’t think there are many who would suggest Nico Rosberg is not a top-line F1 driver. It has been clear for the last 2 seasons that Nico, given the machinery to do so, could win races with great aplomb. 2011 was actually a harder season than the one before for Keke’s son, as there was a much lower performance ceiling on the Mercedes W02, meaning that podiums were mostly out of reach, and being ‘best of the rest’ usually meant a 6th or 7th place. That’s not to say that Nico’s driving suffered for the performance deficit at all. He is still one of THE best drivers to watch onboard videos of, with such a nice driving that has similar economy of the wheel as Button, but with added hints of subtle flair now and then. It would be quite easy to envisage Rosberg’s career in place of Vettel’s had he joined Red Bull in 2009, but alas things don’t just happen like that to everyone. If Mercedes deliver the goods on the car as has been widely expected with this current car however, we may see a lot more of Nico Rosberg on the podium this year, and perhaps even the top step.

#9 Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) – Lotus F1 Team

He’s back. From his partly self-imposed exile to the World Rally Championship the last two years, Kimi had clearly had the racing bug burrowing into him all the time, pressing him to come back to a sport he might’ve felt he had some unfinished business in. Those NASCAR forays were just good fun for a man whose innate natural talent means he can turn his hand to anything with a degree of success. He might not have been able to command top dollar, or a top seat, anymore due to his time away, but the Lotus (neé Renault) team is one that is looking to make it’s own comeback of sorts, and looks to have produced a tidy car for their World Champion lead driver. Testing has shown Kimi has lost none of his blinding speed, pin-point accuracy, or even his polarising monotony. He does seem more relaxed than in his previous stint in F1, so perhaps the time off rallying has done some good for him. All he wants to do is drive, and for those interested in mind games and the psychology of F1 drivers, that fact is surely the most intimidating thought of all. Put Raikkonen in a decent car and watch sparks fly.

#10 Romain Grosjean (FRA) – Lotus F1 Team

The renaissance of French driving talent in F1 starts with this man. Sure, we’ve seen him before, and in 2009 he was quick but as Martin Brundle so aptly put it ‘he always wants to go back and see the corner he’s just gone through!’. This version of Grosjean is a bit different though, much more mature having gone back and won in both AutoGP and then taking the GP2 title he should’ve won a few years before. His career regained focus, and he comes into the Lotus team looking like a much more serious prospect. Testing showed him in great form, with lovely flamboyant driving (his use of induced-oversteer in chicanes was mesmeric) almost on the same level as his illustrious teammate. Romain knows that he’ll have to learn from Kimi as well before he can really best over him a season, so I’d expect some collaborative work this year, with some flair moments now and then. Australia could be one of those, and would certainly announce his return to F1 in a much better way than when he left it. Lotus have made a very bold choice in their driver lineup this year, but it looks like it might pay off handsomely.

#11 Paul Di Resta (GBR) – Sahara Force India

The 3rd Briton on the grid certainly himself worthy of his promotion to F1 from DTM last year. Almost immediately he displayed assured performances in qualifying and the races, adding new strings to his bow each time out. There were mistakes here and there as to be expected from a rookie, and more than a few new nosecones needed, but by the season’s end Paul Di Resta looked like he’d been racing in F1 for 50 races or more. His standout performance was at Singapore, where he executed his strategy to the tiniest detail with consistent speed, scoring a 6th place ahead of Rosberg in the Mercedes, Massa’s Ferrari and his own teammate Adrian Sutil. His new teammate Nico Hulkenberg is a driver touted as a future champion, so if Di Resta can prove he is on the same level as the German, then he’s on the way to the top. His smooth driving style and awareness during the race echo Jenson Button’s style, but Paul is also a mean qualifier who is very good at putting a hot lap together. Further progression and more points to be expected this season.

#12 Nico Hulkenberg (DEU) – Sahara Force India

Along with his teammate Di Resta, and Romain Grosjean at Lotus, Hulkenberg is one of those super-talents expected to move their way up to the top teams in due time. His 2010 season at Williams was a decent enough start, culminating in that glorious pole position at Brazil that reminded everyone what a bit of mixed weather does in proving the talent of the field, not just the cars. He may have had a year as a 3rd driver not racing, but his Free Practice outings stood him in good stead for his promotion to a race seat. There’s nothing peculiar about his style, he’s just plain fast, much in same mould as Sebastian Vettel or Kimi Raikkonen, and he will look to emulate these two drivers by serving an impressive ‘apprenticeship’ at Force India. The team is now a solid midfield runner, with bags of points up for grabs to their drivers. All they need to do is drive well, and you can certain that Hulkenberg will do that. He’s won everything below F1, scored a pole in F1, and he’s still only just building his career up. An exciting pairing at Force India.

#14 Kamui Kobayashi (JPN) – Sauber F1 Team

A cult hero amongst F1 fans for his daring style and overtaking prowess, Kamui’s 2011 season didn’t quite go as well as he or anyone would’ve hoped. The Sauber car’s development hit a peak early on, meaning that as the year went on it became harder for both drivers to score as many points as before. What’s so good about Kobayashi though is that his ‘banzai’ reputation doesn’t fully match up with his actual driving. He has shown great skill in following a strategy and executing it without any hinderences (using his passing skill in traffic etc.), and had a good grip on the tyres (no pun intended), using the C30’s innate kindness on it’s tyres to his advantage in races. Improvement needs to be shown in qualifying, something that was evident last year as his rookie teammate was beating him just a bit too often. Do that, and Kamui will recapture the eyes of the bosses at the bigger teams. He is becoming a fine Grand Prix driver though, and Sauber would like to hold on to him for as long as possible.

#15 Sergio Perez (MEX) – Sauber F1 Team

Another fine rookie performance from a potential star of the future (and potential Ferrari driver?) Perez. Solid for the most part all year, with flashes of excellence that were executed with such ease it was scary to think what he could do in the future. Demonstrated alongside his teammate Kobayashi a decent grasp of how to use the tyres well, and how to execute a strategy well. Not as spectacular to watch as his teammate, but looks assured and confident as an F1 driver already. Another year of the same, with the expected progress and greater experience, should be what he’s aiming for, with the carrot of a Ferrari drive that may be up for grabs for 2013. Ferrari have already tested him and are very impressed, so it wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest for Sergio to become the next in a line of Sauber drivers to make the move to Maranello.

#16 Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) – Scuderia Toro Rosso

This affable young chap was so highly rated by his paymasters at Red Bull that they took the step of placing him at HRT midway through last year, rather than waiting until now to bring him into F1 straight with Toro Rosso as has been done before. He acquitted himself well in a team that was clearly not going to make any headway into the points, so the drive was all about learning about strategy, tyre management, and other things you have to nail down before you can really go racing side-by-side confidently. He demonstrated enough of a pace advantage (at times, overall it was fairly equal) over his more experienced teammates Liuzzi and Karthikeyan for Helmut Marko to decide that Toro Rosso it would be for the Aussie this year. As is always the case at the Red Bull ‘junior’ team, the brief will be to score as many points as are presented to you, so Daniel’s experience last year should hold him in good stead for this term. He’ll certainly be expecting a stern test from his teammate, both are very highly rated though.

#17 Jean-Eric Vergne (FRA) – Scuderia Toro Rosso

Gallic talent is back on the rise in F1, and Vergne is certainly the bolshy upstart of the 3 French drivers racing this year. He (in)famously said in the off-season that if he had been put in Mark Webber’s seat last season, he would’ve done as good if not better than the vastly experienced, 7-time Grand Prix winning Australian. There will definitely be an air of ‘go on then, prove it’ as he steps up to F1 from Formula Renault 3.5, where he couldn’t win the title, losing to Red Bull Junior reject Robert Wickens. He has much the same credentials as his stablemate Ricciardo, both being British F3 champions and frontrunners in FR3.5 before being promoted to F1, so on paper there isn’t much to choose between them. Ricciardo’s experience at HRT in 2011 should give him an early headstart, but Vergne seems to be just as highly rated by Red Bull, so with the ever-advancing years of Mark Webber at Red Bull Racing, there is the chance that these two are effectively auditioning for his seat.

#18 Pastor Maldonado (VEN) – Williams F1

The stigma of being a ‘pay-driver’ (I prefer the term ‘budgeted driver’) is one that is still associated with Maldonado, despite being a GP2 champion. The insinuation was that he spent far too long in that category to be considered a serious proposition in F1, much like Giorgio Pantano. Last year didn’t do him many favours. At times he was scruffy (a Maldonado trademark), sometimes downright dangerous (his reaction to Hamilton passing him in Spa qualifying, how that didn’t earn a race ban is beyond many people), but other times as quick, if not quicker than his veteran teammate Rubens Barrichello. This season needs to see him settle down into Grand Prix racing, cutting out the mistakes, improving his race pace and becoming a more rounded driver. There were too many occasions last season where he was battling with the Virgin’s, HRT’s and Lotus’ (Caterham) early on in a race because of either a mistake or just poor pace, and that wasn’t just the car’s fault. He seems much happier with the new Williams, so perhaps progress will be made. Having a teammate of similar experience is a chance for him to capitalise on his own experience and forge a new, more mature, path.

#19 Bruno Senna (BRA) – Williams F1

That’s right. Senna in a blue-and-white Williams-Renault. That helmet and the car’s colours cannot help but remind everyone of his late Uncle Ayrton, and what might’ve been if not for the events of May 1st, 1994. But Bruno is not here for some nostalgia trip, he’s here to cement his own place in F1, after two truncated spells that have been inconsistent and short of background work. His mid-season entry into the Renault showed that he’s still got a good turn of pace under him, but that racing a HRT in 2010 without testing, and not having had a full pre-season since 2008 had blurred his racecraft somewhat. Bruno still has a lot to learn to become a full-fledged F1 driver, but you don’t get interest from Ross Brawn amongst others by being a slouch. He will benefit from a full testing program and working full-time with his engineers, meaning a better preparation for the races ahead. He could be the one to take the reins and lead the Williams team back onto a decent direction, and points need to be scored. Senna looks to be the one to do that in this team.

#20 Heikki Kovalainen (FIN) – Caterham F1 Team

The backmarker superstar. There aren’t many drivers in F1 who so routinely reached their peak performance like Heikki did in 2011. He was almost always the quickest of the ‘new teams’ and often fought with the tail of the midfield runners in the races. Hampered by a lack of KERS that left him unable to defend places gained, Heikki still got the most out of his car, and showed that he might be a different prospect to the McLaren driver who didn’t seem to be able to cut the mustard at a top team. Kovalainen has said progress needs to be made quickly at Caterham, previously Team Lotus, and he’s effectively putting himself in the shop window should they not make the progression expected by both the team themselves and the wider F1 community. If there are points to be grabbed at any time this year, Kovalainen will be there to take them.

#21 Vitaly Petrov (RUS) – Caterham F1 Team

As with fellow budgeted-driver Maldonado, there is still a question mark over the long-term prospects for the ‘Vyborg Rocket’. He is capable of both single-lap speed, and consistent race pace, as shown by his 5th in Hungary in 2010, his 3rd in Australia last year, and his 5th at the classic Canada race. However, there are too many broken wings, trips through the gravel (and air!) and carbon shards in tyre walls for many people’s liking. Of course there is the commercial attraction of a Russian in the sport, and Petrov is indeed an able driver who is both useful to F1 and deserving of a place in it currently, but he needs to prove that he’s viable for the long-term, and that will come with more consistency, less repair bills, and attempting to overcome the driver he’s next to in the garage. He paled in comparison to Kubica (he was a rookie though), so let’s see how he does alongside another Grand Prix winner.

#22 Pedro de la Rosa (ESP) – HRT F1 Team

Bloody hell, is he still around!?! 13 years, and only 87 races, after his debut in F1, Pedro makes another comeback to a race seat, this time with the small but new-staffed HRT team. Hired presumably for his knowledge acquired putting in the miles all those years for McLaren as their prime tester, de la Rosa is somewhat underrated slightly, having raced well at Sauber in 2010 (and in his cameo at Canada last year). His outright pace may not be the best, but HRT needs experience to build with, and there’s no doubting Pedro has that. He’ll get the car to the finish and have lots of feedback to give alongside the data as well. Perfect for what the team needs to do to help cement a place in F1.

#23 Narain Karthikeyan (IND) – HRT F1 Team

Narain makes no bones about why he has a seat in F1. Tata support his racing to the tune of $10million a year, and that’s enough for HRT to have him. Don’t consider him a slouch though, as he showed both last year and in his first stint in F1 in 2005 that he has a mean turn of pace, just not consistently enough to be seriously impressive. It has to rain for that to happen, and if we get any wet races this year, watch for Karthikeyan as he will fly. He’s clearly enjoying his time in F1, and his budget, experience and speed are enough for HRT.

#24 Timo Glock (DEU) – Marussia F1

Timo’s career has stagnated. Heavily. At Toyota he was seen as perhaps one of the ‘next big things’, being an able backup to Jarno Trulli and forging his own path on many occasions, with some impressive podiums along the way. Moving to Virgin (now Marussia)  was seen as move that enabled him to become a team leader, patiently waiting for competitiveness to arrive. So far it hasn’t appeared, and in the team’s troubles Glock’s driving has gone amiss also. Compared to Kovalainen, who has revelled in the chance to work on his driving and improve, Glock has used the time driving at the back to merely stagnate, actually looking worse off as a driver than in 2010 when he first joined the team. He will need to make big strides to stop the rot and become the impressive F1 driver he once was.

#25 Charles Pic (FRA) – Marussia F1

For the third time in three years, Marussia neé Virgin have dropped their budgeted rookie 2nd driver for another budgeted rookie 2nd driver. This year’s edition is the tousle-haired Charles Pic, a driver who has been good in GP2, but not quite in the leagues of Perez, Grosjean, Maldonado, Senna and Hulkenberg. An erratic driver who has a great qualifying pace, but so-so race form, he has a big ask in moving up to F1 with no meaningful testing at a backmarker team. Both his predecessors have fared badly (well, D’Ambrosio not so much, 3rd driver at Lotus) after leaving the team, so is this a poisoned chalice he’s taking. We’ll see…

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