It’s that time of the year again, Papa Wheelie is back with part I of his Formula 1 Season Preview!
After far too many Sundays of cleaning the house, shopping at the mall, or trying to finish up working on my upcoming electronic dance music album, the time has finally come for the F1 World Championship to start up again. Not that I’m counting the days or anything, but with 4 days 10 hours 43 minutes and 10 seconds from when I’m writing this to Practice 1 in Melbourne, I know I’m definitely ready to have grand prix action to watch on Sundays again.
The F1 off-season is a bit boring because drivers are mostly working on their tans and fitness, and engineers are creating the new machines for the next season. But there are some good stories that arise, especially surrounding teams that didn’t announce their drivers, or if teams have last minute changes/catastrophes to the lineups or cars. Being that the new season is less than a couple of weeks away, I think it’s time to catch up with the action and see where we stand after some of the official pre-season testing.
The post-season silly season (rumored driver moves, hirings and firings) for 2011 was relatively quiet, but the biggest story of the off-season had to be at Lotus Renault and their signing of 2007 world champion Kimi Räikkönen. After being forced to sit out of his last year at Ferrari to make room for Fernando Alonso, Kimi has been away from the sport since 2009, mainly competing in the World Rally Championship. Nicknamed “The Iceman”, Räikkönen is touted as one of the best at handling cars with ill-balance or deficiencies, as well as at being able to adapt to changing conditions very well. Plagued by bad luck in the past, Räikkönen seems to have an uphill climb on his hands if he wants to get back to his full potential, but his early testing form has already been pretty positive.
Other off-season driver changes of note had to be the axing of Adrian Sutil and Rubens Barrichello. Relative to their teammates, both drivers had better performances in 2011. But in this highly political F1 landscape where friends and money rule, both drivers lost their rides in favor of younger and better funded drivers. Scuderia Toro Rosso shocked everyone by dropping both drivers, despite their best seasons yet for STR. Other big driver changes such as Jarno Trulli being dropped in favor of Vitaly Petrov, and big Russian sponsorship just show how quickly ones career can evaporate in the world of F1.
Austin is on like Donkey Kong!
The Grand Prix of the United States was saved in some last minute negotiations with Formula One Management boss Bernie Ecclestone. In what appears to be a squabble over some money, Austin was forced to shut down construction on the track last year for a brief period until they were able to get the money sorted out for the grand prix race. Now that that is aside, workers have been working very hard to make sure the track is ready in time for this coming November. The championship is likely to be at a huge boil by the time F1 debuts in Austin, and I’m working really hard to try and attend that race too, so they better not mess this up or else they’ll have a bunch of angry American fans on their hands. For more detail on the American situation, check out my posting on why F1 needs America.
Regulation Changes and the “Nose”
Regulations have changed slightly for the aerodynamics of the cars this year. The most noticeable difference for this change has caused all of the cars, except the McLaren to have a very visible step at the top of the nose cone, right around the suspension. According to the rule, the cars need to be higher at that point for safety. While most of the teams have elected to keep the front of the nose down, and effectively make that step in the nose cone, McLaren has taken a more sleek (and elegant in my opinion) interpretation of the rules.
Spy photographers have been scrambling to get detailed shots of this section, as it’s rumored that Red Bull Racing and Mercedes have found a way to exploit this part of the car for their own gains. Another big rule change centers around the placement of the exhaust on the cars. Following the “blown diffuser” saga from last year, and in an effort to slow down the cars cornering speed, the exhaust must now exit through the top of the bodywork in a more upward angle. The teams are also not allowed to have what’s called off-throttle exhaust blowing either, which was rumored to have contributed to Red Bull Racing’s dominance last year. The cars have already been slowed a bit by these changes, but don’t expect that to last for long. Most of the teams are already looking at using the exhaust to passively blow parts of the rear suspension and rear wing for some extra downforce. In a sport where tenths of a second can mean winning and losing, the engineers will claw every little bit they can to gain that speed back.
Now that we have a sense of what happened over the winter months, lets take a quick look at where the top teams are in early 2012.
Red Bull Racing
Last season was a Tour de Force for Red Bull Racing. Sebastian Vettel was really the class of the field, never really looking flustered or doing anything that would have compromised his chances of winning the title last year. Mark Webber struggled a lot with the tire formula and is looking to bounce back this year, instead of fighting for second place. This could easily be Webber’s last year if he doesn’t challenge Vettel for team dominance and wins early on in the year. Having won both championships by scoring 11 wins and 15 poles, Red Bull Racing are likely the ones to beat again in 2012, but the new regulations and frantic development from the other teams could mean an even tighter battle at the top of the grid.
McLaren is looking close the gap between itself and Red Bull Racing, as their car could never really match the Red Bull in qualifying speed, even though they showed remarkable race pace. Lewis Hamilton is looking to put his best foot forward this year, as last year was a disaster for him. Lots of trouble followed him on and off the track, and really compromised his title campaign. Jenson Button had a decent season by contrast. Known for his smooth style and exceptional ability of mixed race conditions, Button also managed his car better in many situations on his way to three wins and nine podium finishes. McLaren is now in the midst of a driver war, as Button clearly out-shined Hamilton last year on his way to runner-up in the championship. Pre-season testing hasn’t shown much for McLaren, except that they have a different solution to the other teams. Both drivers seem pretty upbeat about their chances, but we’ll know for sure where they stand in Melbourne. Expect an intense 2012 for these guys.
Ferrari had a dismal time in 2011, suffering from a lack of qualifying speed and spending much of the time in the middle of the top ten on the grid. Fernando Alonso will be looking to really improve his form as a single victory in 2011 is not acceptable for him, or Ferrari. He’s still driving exceptionally well, making much more out of last year’s car than Felipe Massa, who failed to score a single podium. It looks like this will be Massa’s last year with Ferrari if he fails again to match up to Alonso’s performance. Alonso and Massa seem pretty positive about the new car, but the testing times have been pretty vague so far, and rumors in the paddock are that Ferrari is struggling. The new design is much more aggressive than in recent years, and along with some more key technical people to come on board, 2012 could be promising for Ferrari if they can pull their act together.
Mercedes had a lackluster 2011, and never really improved on their pace from 2010. Along with Ferrari, Mercedes really struggled for one-lap pace in qualifying and that really put a damper on the performances throughout the year. Michael Schumacher was able to score a season high fourth place for the squad in a mixed condition race in Canada, but Mercedes was never really considered a threat for wins or podiums. Both Schumacher and Nico Rosberg are looking for a competitive car, as both drivers are very capable of putting together a race win, or even a world championship. There have been lots of rumors surrounding the Mercedes W03 as it may have an innovation that will help them close the gap to the frontrunners a little more. As always, testing times have been vague and inconclusive. They could easily be the surprise of 2012 if everything goes right.
That’s how the top teams are looking going into the first race of the season. Next time we’ll take a closer look at where the midfield teams and new teams are going into the first race in Melbourne.
Featured image courtesy of: http://www.motorsport.com/
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