Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Season Preview part 2

The Mercedes board is going all out; throw the kitchen sink and any old F1 drivers standing around looking for a job, at the problem. They’re robbed Williams of Toto Wolff, the man credited with giving the Didcot team some much needed direction and financial stability. They took Nicky Lauda off the street corner he was barking at the traffic on and put him on the board of directors. They tapped up the McLaren pit wall for Paddy Lowe. Then in the most audacious move so far, prized Hamilton away from the comfort of his childhood McLaren nest, with a whole shed load of cash. With all that money flying around and all that expectation pinned on one team, the first test didn’t start too well, First Nico then Lewis did a handful of laps before the car failed and left much egg on face, but after that it’s all gone like clockwork. They’ve put more miles on the car than any other team and the final test saw them top the leader board when it counted. The public talk from the team is all about the odd podium and just maybe a win if they’re lucky. Privately they must want to be up there giving Redbull a run for its money. The question is though, are there too many chiefs at the top when they have Ross Brawn already running the show?

10. Lewis Hamilton.
This is going to be a big year for the plucky Brit who has walked away from the team that paid for his motor sport education. They’ve been linked with him since he was peddling karts round the windswept airfields of England. But he got tired of being made to stand around studios telling the world to buy low interest finance from a Spanish Bank and spending far too much time keeping sponsors happy. So when Mercedes whispered in his ear that he would do more racing and less media face time, he jumped at the chance. And the Lewis walking the paddock these days is the relaxed, happy Lewis of old. He’s got an international girlfriend and Bernie has just given his pet dog a paddock pass for the season, Bernie knows the value of good PR more than most. He turned up to the top gear track and beat Vettel leader board time, then had an interview full of jokes and smiles. He’s talking an upbeat season at the moment with podiums and points, and seems to genuinely believe it’ll happen. If Lewis feels like the team is pulling for him he can achieve that, but if the Brawn/Lauda/Wolff/Lowe infighting starts, then it could all fall apart.

Chance of a top five: pretty good to begin with, as the season goes on, questionable

9. Nico Rosberg.
Anyone that thinks Nico is going to get blown away and fold up like some two bit rookie is a fool, Nico blew the 7 times world champion away for three season, he has the credentials. What he lacks is a season long focus. Too often he goes missing for a weekend, not really troubling the top ten or getting the team to focus on moving up the grid. When he drove for Williams there would be weekends where you had to really think if you’d seen him on the track at all.  He has got better at staying focused these last few seasons but after the win last year he didn’t really capitalise on it and the last third of the season seemed to be about testing bit for the 2013 car rather than hunting for points. I’ve always rated Nico, like his father back in the day he can be blindingly fast when he wants to be. I think he’ll give Lewis a good run for his money, and this is possible the strongest pair of team mates on the grid. But I think Lewis has that focus and mental determination to beat everyone that Nico lacks.

Chance of a top five: If Lewis falters he’ll be there, but Lewis will falter because Nico is right there.

So Lotus then, they have the potential to beat Redbull but they also have the ability to balls it up completely. Testing was about a fast car that lacked reliability. When it was on song it was easily a match for the Ferrari and Redbull. But stupid little problems like duff ECU and telemetry not working stopped them from pushing testing forward. They’d get going then have to stop and fix something else. They go to Australia lacking mileage on the car that is fast, will look after its tyres, but may pack up after 5 laps. Worryingly for Lotus too, the FIA is has drawn a line in the sand over engine mapping and will come down hard on any team using any sort of off throttle engine blowing. Interestingly when the FIA warned Lotus about its engines performance, they started have lots of electrical and telemetry problems. I'm sure the two are not linked in anyway.

8. Romain Grosjean.
This year, no wait the next three races, have to be text book no cock up racing for Romain. He can not afford to hit another car, hit the wall or screw it up in any way shape or form. If he does, then the FIA and Lotus are just going to throw the book at him. Lotus will do it because they don’t need any more bad PR from the grinning idiot and the FIA will do it because they don’t need another liability in the pack with Maldonado already there. There are enough talented French drivers out there to keep the ‘Total’ sponsors happy, so he had better keep his nose clean or he’ll be the first driver to feel the boot make contact with his backside.

Chance of a top five: if he makes it round the first lap, reasonable.

7. Kimi Raikkonen
 Has come back and proved he still has what it take to be the fastest driver out there. He still flicks the V at the media and does all his talking on the track, which is a cliché i know, but damn it it’s true. He’s never been one to analyse his race and understand why he’s fast at certain corners. He gets in the car and just thrashes it till she gives him what he wants. Don’t tell him what to do, he knows. And whilst you can never love the man for his rapier like wit and chummy interview style, you can fall in love with an inch perfect lines and yet another lap of total commitment.

Chance of a top five: If they fix the reliability, absolutely.

No one is quite sure what is going to happen in Australia for McLaren. The prodigal son has left, the dullest man now in F1 has joined whilst Button is talking about ending his career with McLaren. The car was fast at the start of testing, then faded and seems to be difficult to set up (yet again). They lost the championship that was theirs for the taking last year, they had a car that could do the job with ease and yet the once mighty McLaren machine, looked more like a clowns convention at times. Sticky wheel nuts, fuel pump failures, tyres left for their drivers to run over, no idea how to set the car up for race after race.  It was just embarrassing at times to watch this team trip over itself as they conspired to throw the championship away. At one stage it looked like a straight fight between Hamilton and Alonso, but it all just fell apart. They have to do better this year, for team moral and Ron’s blood pressure more than anything.

6. Sergio Perez.
This is going to be a big test for the dullest man in Formula one. This is the top line drive his people have claimed he needed to prove how amazing he really is. I’ll admit there were moments last year where he looked like an actual proper Formula One driver with talent and a bit of vim. Okay he was with Sauber who don’t like to make any sort of fuss. But if a driver really wants to go out there and win the championship he has to drive to win, not just look after the tyres and use fewer than anyone else. You don’t get extra points for handing back a set of soft slicks with a smug grin.  Once he signed the contract with McLaren he seemed to think, no actually he stopped thinking and took over from Grosjean as the driver most likely to return to the pits on foot. What had started out as a good year fell apart. With a spin in Japan, contact with Vettel and Senna in Brazil, not to mention the season long “here comes Maldonado, oh we’ve crashed” story line. I just don’t understand why people rate him? I can’t see the talent through the forest of wet dullness. He was linked with Ferrari for months last season, and in the end they stuck with Massa for yet another season. What does that tell you about him?

Chance of a top five: Unless the car turns out to be stunning. I really don’t think so.

5. Jenson Button.
Jenson lost the plot last year. It started so well with the win in Australia, wobbled in the wet in Malaysia, back on track in China, then for the next 6 races until Germany he was nowhere, he couldn’t get a set up he liked or any sort of balance with the car. Lewis was having problems too, but he was at least trying to make things better (well, until the whole “will he/won’t he move”, storm in a tea cup story) Button spent race after race complaining to the press and the team about how the car wasn’t how he liked it or the tyres didn’t work or the sky was too bright or the spectators too ugly. All the while his father gurned at the cameras and his underwear model girlfriend simpered around the back of the pits. Then he’d spend a weekend competing in some random iron man contest with other sweaty fools and the car didn’t get better and he’d be on the radio in qualifying complaining about a lack of grip and balance and the sky and the ugly people around him. God, you just wanted to smack him in the face and tell his to get on with it and shut up. He won in Spa and then spent the rest of the season around the top five before wining in Brazil when it didn’t matter anymore. In testing this year, he’s already started to complain about the tyres not lasting long enough and how difficult it is to find a balance. He’s supposed to be the older wiser team leader now, but I think he’s just counting down the days till he retires.

Chance of a top five: Well, if he qualifies well yes, but he won’t so let hope it’s a very fast race car.

They, or rather Alonso, took a terrible car to within one race of the title last year.  Ferrari was in the hunt for the title all year long, as first Hamilton, then Webber then Kimi and ultimately Vettel battled for the title. And Alonso was there on pure merit. Ferrari gave him a terrible car at the start but they stuck at the tasks and he worked is little Spanish socks off to reward all their effort. Whilst the likes of Button and Webber whinged about the car not feeling right and the balance being a bit tricky to read, Ferrari gave Alonso a car that looked like it wanted to kill him in Australia. When they realised the air tunnel was the problem they closed it down, moved the aero team to Germany and rented the old Toyota factory site whilst they rebuilt it. But in the end, it came down to two races where the luck ran out and Vettel sneaked his third title from under Ferraris nose. Testing so far has suggested a car that is fast if a little suspect on reliability, they had a random wheel bearing failure at the last test and a few “red car stopped on track” moments.

4. Felipe Massa.
Felipe had something of a road to Damascus year in 2102, he started as badly as he finished 2011, slow and fumbling around for points, getting in everyone’s way, unloved by the Italian press who once again wanted him out of the car after only 3 races. Then he went to see a sports physiologist who held his hand and rebuilt the likable Brazilians mind. Suddenly around mid season it was like a new Massa in the car. Suddenly he wasn’t getting in everyone’s way and the press stopped calling for his head, Perez was told he wasn’t wanted anymore and Vettel denied he had a contract with Ferrari anytime soon. Felipe got a solid second in Japan and an emotional third in Brazil and looked to all the world like a bona fide F1 racing driver again. If he can continue with this he could help to deliver Alonso the title and Ferrari its 17th constructor’s title.

Chance of a top five: if his heads there, ye he can do it.

 3. Fernando Alonso.
Even those people who hate him, even those who think his career has been about his whinging and selfish attitude, couldn’t fail to be anything but impressed with what Alonso did in 2012. He took a really bad, really mis-designed Ferrari and was this close to taking the title away from Vettel. In a car that looked like it wanted to kill him at the start of the season. It was all over the show; understeer here, oversteer there next, snap four wheel drift, no grip, no speed no chance of points let alone a tilt at the title.  And in the end it wasn’t Alonso that failed or the car or even the team this time. Grosjean almost killed him at Spa and Kimi tried to nail the coffin shut in Japan, after which Vettel was able to get a championship run going and Alonso was always playing catch up. But even in Brazil where it all looked to be over, Vettel spun on the first lap and almost handed it back to the Ferrari driver. It was all so close and you have to admire the way Fernando just got on with it and didn’t lay into the team or any other driver or blame anyone. He brought the team together around him and made them work harder than they had in a long time. And in the same direction too, that was the special thing. They had a direction and a purpose and he gave them hope just like Michael did all those years ago. It was a thing of beauty to watch, it really was. 

Chance of a top five: Its a nailed on certainty

What is there left to say about Redbull? They have more money than anyone else, they have Adrian Newey designing the car and in Vettel a driver that can deliver the results when presented with the opportunity. Last year the team stuttered a bit at the start of the season as they pegged back the down force they’d lost from the banning of ‘off throttle engine blowing’ and double diffusers. Once Newey got his exhaust exits fixed and Renault got their engines to miss fire into and out of corners properly again, all was well and off they went. Did they deserve it all, well ... probably not, but it’s done and dusted now so what does it matter? It’s not like the FIA is going to go back and retrospectively say they were cheating outrageously yet again so Ferrari are the champions now is it. They deserve it because they did it. And I personally don’t think they’re much the other teams can do to stop them this year. With no major changes in engine or aero rules this year the cars are evolutions of last year’s car, and the Redbull finished a country mile ahead of the pack. Testing hasn’t been about speed and fastest laps, but they’ve always been up there just behind the car that have gone fastest that day. Most of the paddock thinks Redbull will once again be the team to beat in 2013

2. Mark Webber.
Technically, Webber and Vettel have joint number 1 status at Redbull, but everyone knows thats rubbish and Webber is there to make Vettel look good. Oh he likes to pretend he can race the German any time he wants to, But when he does he usually gets slapped back into place by Horner or Marko. Webber is there to test and evaluate the new bits each weekend before they get bolted onto Vettel number one machine. Now and again he’ll have a weekend where he is just too far ahead of Vettel for the team to call him back to heel, so he wins. Then gets told his place and is back behind Vettel at the next race. He’s on a one year contract and knows full well that there are any number of drivers out there that could replace him at the drop of a hat. He does the Job that Massa does at Ferrari and he hates it just as much. But he’s too feisty when he doesn’t need to be. The red mist descends and the next thing you know he’s driven into the side of someone in a wild over taking move or swerving around at the start to defend the line into the first corner and collecting Grosjean usually. It’s just what he does, He’s an exciting driver far more than Vettel will ever be, and by all accounts a really nice guy. But i think he’s part of that set of drivers that make brilliant number two team mates but are destined to never win the championship.

Chance of a top five: If he's allowed to, then yes.

1. Sebastian Vettel.  
And finally our current world champion who is going for his fourth title in a row, do you think anyone will stop him. I think the only person that can stop it happening is Adrian Newey. Only if he gets it wrong will the others stand a chance. Last year he didn’t quite have the perfect set up at the start of the season and Vettel struggled to begin with. Then Adrian hit the exhaust sweet spot and it was plan sailing once again.  
 Vettel threw his dummy out of the pram a few times last year, most notably in Abu Dhabi when he drove into Senna, after he’d “accidentally” run out of fuel in qualifying and had to start from the pit lane. He threw a hissy fit at Karthikeyan for getting in his way in Malaysia and generally acted like the smug German we’ve all come to love and admire. Or not as the case may be. I mean he goes out there and delivers the wins, which is what he’s paid to do and what he’s done with a certain amount of ease these past three years. He’s not the most adventurous drivers, preferring to sit back and wait for the pit stops to pass the cars on a par with the Redbull. He doesn’t tool around getting in the way and he has shown that he can race back through a field when Lady Luck rides shotgun for him.  It’s only mildly irritating when he shows just how fast the car will go with a fastest lap time at the end of the race which he has lead since the start. To be fair he sort of comes across as being a bit humble when he gets out of the car and he gives the team a lot of credit when he wins or loses. So there’s nothing to really dislike about his, well apart from when he waves that finger around at the end of the race, which is really annoying. So why do so many people dislike him and regard these past three titles as sort of devalued or unworthy.  If Alonso or Hamilton had been the winners would we point at those championships and sneer at them for being undeserved?  I don’t think so, yet that’s exactly how Vettel is treated by the vast majority of fans. Maybe, it’s because he reminds us of the last time a German had a team built around him and won title after title and bored everyone to turn off and walk away from the sport.  Schumacher won five championships on the bounce, can Vettel match that run?

Chance of winning the championship: odds on favourite for me.


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