Friday, 9 March 2012

Pre-season thoughts on 2012

The winter may not have felt long for the teams who have been working hard on new cars since the 2011 season finished on the last weekend of November but for the fans it has been a long stretch since Mark Webber won in Brazil. The waiting is almost over and here's some of my thoughts ahead of the season opener in Melbourne...

Can anyone stop Vettel?: Having come from behind to seize the 2010 championship, Sebastian Vettel carried this momentum into 2011 and simply dominated the season. I haven't got too hung up on the times from pre-season testing because i've seen so many years go by where they have not painted a true picture of what to expect. With the rules remaining fairly stable don't expect too much of a shake up of the order from the end of last season. Red Bull and McLaren look to be in a good position whilst Ferrari have been a bit bolder in a bid to outdo their rivals. So far it seems they're finding it tough but there's also a feeling that the potential is there to be unlocked. Mercedes have some big names in their technical department now and seem to be trying a few innovations such as a front wing 'F-Duct' Whether these bring performance in reality and are deemed legal by the FIA remains to be seen. What can be taken for granted is the will to win from the Brackley based team. If the car is quick then it'll be up to both drivers to step their performance up to the next level. Michael Schumacher has done it in his 'first' career and Nico Rosberg has shown glimpses of star quality but a first win has still been elusive for the German. Even if the W03 is a race winner, i still have my doubts whether either driver could put a title winning campaign together

Lotus is an intriguing prospect for 2012. They have a more revised car than others due to the front exiting exhaust system being banned. They set some eye catching times during testing but also missed 3 days after a suspension issue. In Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean they have two drivers with the potential to produce great results but who have both not raced in the sport since 2009. I expect both to get in the groove but it will take them a few races to get on top of everything that is now involved in this era of Grand Prix racing. Whether the car is then still in the mix with the top teams by the European races remains to be seen. 2011 was a disaster in terms of car development but the Enstone factory has a good history of bringing performance to the car during a season. Think back to Fernando Alonso's late season victories in 2008 (even if one was due to Piquet crashing on purpose) and the introduction of a more effective F-Duct in 2010. Meanwhile at Force India i'm delighted to see Nico Hulkenberg back on the grid. A fascinating duel in prospect with Paul di Resta and i'm tipping the German to edge that one

At Sauber i can see Sergio Perez building on an impressive debut season and putting himself right in the frame for a Ferrari seat. The Mexican has the speed, age and nationality to fit the bill as a foil to Fernando Alonso but this will be a topic to be discussed later in the year. Toro Rosso is a difficult one with two new drivers. Daniel Ricciardo has the experience of 11 races at HRT but Jean-Eric Vergne looks the real deal to me, a determined and confident young man who eyes a future at the front of the grid. Williams have made many changes after a poor 2011 but their driver line-up looks weak compared to their midfield rivals. Caterham look set to make Q1 an interesting prospect for the first time since 2009 by getting into the midfield scrap. They need points somewhere down the 2012 line and it would be apt if Heikki Kovalainen was the man to get them having played a starring role in helping the team progress since 2010

With HRT and Marussia it looks set to be another painful year but at least things are being put in place for a brighter long term future. Spare a thought for Charles Pic who goes into this weekend with just 2 days of testing which weren't even in the 2012 car

DRS - The debate continues: It's only taken the confirmation of the location of the DRS zones for this weekend for talk to resume over whether the device, and the implementation of it, is good for Formula 1. My view is mixed. I do like how it creates a lot of close racing but it also make a lot of tense battles end rather too soon and make it too easy for the car behind. There have been many suggestions for how to make it fairer or better. Personally i think the best solution would be to reduce the size of the gap allowed in the rear wing when the DRS is activated. This would mean there would be less of a speed differential and less 'motorway' overtakes. Hopefully the data from 2011 will allow the FIA to place the zones in better ways. They do seem very keen to push the DRS concept and this shows with the decision to add a second zone for Melbourne. I don't think DRS is the ideal solution for overtaking but i'll take some action with it over a processional race where other cars just can't even get close to make a move

Rule changes minor for 2012: By F1 standards the regulations have remained fairly stable. The removal (or attempt to by the FIA) of exhaust blown diffusers should in theory help the teams with Ferrari and Cosworth engines as they were unable to exploit the full benefits of the system. Most cars now have a step in the nose to meet a safety regulation which has led to many ugly ducklings. Much has been made of McLaren running a smoother and lower nose and whether this is a good or bad idea but this issue has been over analysed as McLaren have ran a lower nose for a few seasons now. The difference between a step and no step is unlikely to be a defining factor in the season

Tyres are likely to be a big influence again. I really hope that Pirelli's new compounds which have been made softer will produce the sort of races we seen early last year. Unfortunately there have been a few signs that the tyre wear is less severe but we'll have to see how things unfold. Here's hoping Pirelli don't get afraid of producing tyres that degrade quickly. In terms of strategy the switch from options to primes is likely to happen sooner in races as the time difference between the compounds is much closer now and the warm up period less. This also means it will be easier for the top teams to get through Q1 and possibly Q2 on the harder tyre. There had been speculation about the pitlane speed limit being reduced to 60km/h for all races but this has been ruled out for now. Pirelli feel this would make the racing better as drivers would try to avoid making an extra pitstop if the time loss was greater and we would see longer stints and hence more laps of people struggling on less than ideal rubber. Whether this will come into play in the future remains to be seen

So lets hope 2012 is a great season. With six world champions, a field as competitive as ever and some great young talents bursting to make an impact, the ingredients are there for it to be a thriller

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