As we approach the end of pre-season testing, a picture of where the teams stand is beginning to emerge. We may be subjected to some horrific looking noses on this year’s cars, but it would appear we will see some more competition for the top step of the podium. So in order of last year’s constructors’ championship, let’s see where we stand going into the 2012 season.
1. Red Bull
The Milton Keynes based outfit had a superb 2011; a near stranglehold on pole-position, 12 wins, and both championships. As we come towards the end of the current aero rules period – which Red Bull have dominated – the ability to make gains becomes exponentially smaller, so the team will have to fight to keep their advantage, but they have all the elements in place to make that a reality. The team remains stable, with Adrian Newey happy to stay on board, and a pair of excellent drivers, however Mark Webber has to up his game from last year, otherwise he is on borrowed time. With a brace of new Red Bull Junior drivers at Toro Rosso and a few big name drivers out of contract at the end of the year, Webber needs to build on the momentum of winning the final race of the year to have a better campaign this year. Sebastian Vettel, on the other hand, comes into the season having won the 2011 title in a more dominant fashion than in 2010, he is the man to beat. Unfortunately for his competitors, the RB8 looks like the car to beat this year, with only a few teething problems in testing, the car looks as potent as its predecessor. With the ban on exhaust-blown diffusers, Red Bull has the most to lose, and the rake of the car is visibly reduced over last year’s model, however the RB8 appears as fast and as stable as the RB7, and with Vettel at the wheel, a third brace of titles is more than possible.
What a difference a year makes; pre-season testing of the MP4-26 and its “octopus” exhaust last year was a nightmare for McLaren, a rapid redesign by the time the team reached Melbourne saved their season, but there was too much ground to make up. This year though, the MP4-27 looks like it will be the closest competitor the RB8 has, and even if it doesn’t win a race, it will win the beauty prize. Gone are the L-shaped sidepods, to be replaced with a serious undercut interrupted only by a “blister” to contain the exhaust exits; an attempt to use the exhaust gasses to keep the rear-end planted, clearly. Jenson Button was incredibly impressive in 2011, driving even better than in his title-winning year, and will hope to ride the crest of the wave as de facto lead driver to another title. Hamilton’s travails last year are well documented, but he’s worked hard to clear his head and to come into the season with the right attitude, but if McLaren fail to provide him with a car capable of winning the title he may look to leave the team and another visit to Christian Horner’s office could happen. Pat Fry has defected to Ferrari, but McLaren have taken on board the highly-rated Sam Michael as sporting director, and freed from the stress of running the Williams technical department he will be a strong asset for the team. The team has a shout at their first constructors’ title since 1998, but they’ll need a near perfect season to beat Red Bull.
Oh dear. Fernando Alonso came within a poor tactical decision to winning the 2010 title in the F10, and surely he was hoping for something a bit more worthy of his talents than the 150º Italia Ferrari provided him with in 2011, and after three years of conservative and less than competitive cars Ferrari have decided to go radical. So far it’s not working, the F2012 is still lacking in aerodynamic grip compared to Red Bull and McLaren, and the team is struggling to get on top of it’s pull-rod front suspension design. Overall the car looks twitchy, which is less than inspiring for the drivers. If the car has even a modicum of speed, you can be sure that Alonso will extract it, but he wants more titles and he wants them to be with the Scuderia, but if they continue to provide him with poor tools, he may look to change his decision. For Felipe Massa, this is his last roll of the dice with Ferrari, they kept faith in him after his near-fatal accident at the Hungaroring in 2009, they bought out Räikkönen’s contract rather than his cheaper one to slot Alonso into the team, but the favour has not been repaid. His best finish in 2011 was fifth place (which he achieved six times) and he scored fewer than half the points that Alonso did, if his performance does not improve drastically this year, it will be his last with Ferrari. We’ll shortly find out if the technical reshuffle at Ferrari will bear fruit, but unless there’s a major upgrade before Australia, the first few races may be a less than enjoyable experience for the team in red.
For the past two years Mercedes have been stuck in limbo, firmly behind the big three but out of reach of the midfield, this year they’ll hope to break through to battle the big boys, and the board in Stuttgart will be demanding it. The development of the MGP W02 was hampered by the team throwing too many new components at it to try and claw back speed rather than attempting to understand its inherent weaknesses. The team waited until the second test to reveal the F1 W03 to make sure they had a handle on it before letting it lose on the track, and it appears to have worked. The car looks like a step forward, and we’ll soon see if it’s enough, although tyre degradation does appear to be a worry. Nico Rosberg is an undeniable talent, but he’s surely going to be getting frustrated, he’s entering his seventh season in F1, and is still without a win. He is certainly capable of winning races, but has been let down by poor machinery, if he feels like Mercedes aren’t capable of taking a top spot anytime soon, he’ll be questioning his decision to sign a new contract. Michael Schumacher begins the third season of his second career, and in Canada last year we saw that he definitely still has talent, but now the question is whether he’s taking a big seat away from a bigger, younger talent. On the team side of things Mercedes have recruited Bob Bell, Aldo Costa and Geoff Willis for a new look technical department, and Ross Brawn will hope that this will be the key to success rather than a case of too many cooks.
Well now the naming debacle has been settled, the former Renault factory team will hope to return to former glories. The E20 (named as such because it’s the twentieth car to emerge from the Enstone factory) appears to be a vast improvement over the R31, which started last season well but hit a developmental wall with its forward facing exhausts. The new car has looked reasonably quick out of the box, but the team has to maintain that speed throughout the season to prevent a drop off in performance that will leave them vulnerable to the advancing midfield teams. Kimi Räikkönen returns to F1 after two years in the WRC and experiments with NASCAR and sportscars. He’s come back to race, because that’s all he wants to do, and if there’s the sniff of a podium or even a win, he’ll chase it. Romain Grosjean came into F1 in 2009 in the worst possible circumstances; a self-destructing Renault team in the midst of the “crashgate” controversy, a poor car, and faced with one of the toughest teammates possible. He went away and improved his craft, and by winning the 2010 AutoGP and 2011 GP2 series he has proven that he deserves his second bite at the cherry. Eric Boullier has a talented pair with James Allison and Eric Permane dealing with the technical department and trackside operations respectively, but progress will be determined by the quality of the car.
6. Force India
The team are targeting 5th in the championship this year and they are certainly capable of climbing another rung on the ladder. The technical partnership with McLaren has been successful for the team and the VJM05 looks to be a good all-round package, and if the car can be developed as well as its predecessor, then it’ll be threatening the points paying positions all season long. Paul di Resta becomes team leader in his second season after an exemplary rookie year and will be hoping to put himself in the shop window for a seat with a bigger team. Adrian Sutil has been dropped in favour of Nico Hülkenberg, which, if his speed in testing is anything to go by, was very much the right decision. Hülkenberg didn’t appreciate having his career interrupted especially after having a great debut season capped with a pole in Brazil, now he has been rewarded for his great work in the reserve driver role last year with a race seat. That role is now taken by Ferrari junior driver Jules Bianchi, and he’ll want to use that position to try and get a race seat next year. The well sponsored team may not be swimming in money, but they should have enough to keep up a steady rate of progression; Vijay Mallya didn’t come into the sport to throw good money in after bad, so he’ll be itching to hit the team’s targets.
The Swiss team looked lost at moments last year, and what look in hindsight to have been guilty in glory-running in testing last year, they’l hope to be more consistent this season. The C31 has looked decent enough in testing so far for the squad, but the midfield fight is going to be extraordinarily tight this year, and the team does have the potential to slip back. Kamui Kobayashi burst into F1 by overtaking everyone in sight, and he quickly won over plenty of fans by doing so, but last season was difficult for him. The C30 wasn’t capable of allowing him to show of his talents, he’ll be desperate for a stronger car. Sergio Perez had a mixed season last year, although the negatives were all outside of his control. He looked to have won points on his F1 debut as well as finishing ahead of his teammate on the road, but an illegal wing led to an inevitable disqualification. His accident in qualifying at Monaco meant he couldn’t race again until Valencia, however his recovery took longer, but overall he performed well, and he’ll hope to score more this year. Unfortunately for the team, James Key left the squad after the completion of the C31, and this will probably have a detrimental impact on the team’s season.
8. Toro Rosso
The former Minardi squad came so very close to taking 7th place from Sauber in the standings last season, and had their best season since Vettel left. The STR7 looks like a logical progression from the STR6, with an even tighter “coke bottle”than before. The car looks good enough to take the fight to the midfield all season long. The team is all change on the driver front, with Daniel Ricciardo having performed consistently with HRT in his half season with them last year, and Jean-Eric Vergne who ran Robert Wickens close in FRenault 3.5. This year Ricciardo has to run his car closer to the edge of its ability to show off his talents, and Vergne needs to get up to speed quickly if either wants to have a chance of taking Webber’s seat in the senior Red Bull squad. The team remains stable, but to keep Dietrich Mateschitz happy enough to keep funding them, they need to move forward, but the car does look good enough to at least take 7th spot off of Sauber this time round.
How the mighty have fallen. Williams suffered there worst ever season in 2011 with the FW33 struggling to perform well in any area and five measly points were their only reward. The FW34 has looked consistent in high-speed corners, but rather less so in the slower stuff, it does – at least – look like an improvement. Pastor Maldonado only scored one point last season and needs to show the form that won him the 2010 GP2 title or at least perform more consistently than he did in 2011, otherwise the money he brings in from PDVSA may not be enough for him to keep his seat and the team may question dropping Rubens Barrichello. Bruno Senna scored two points during his eight races with Renault last year, but looked impressive in qualifying, first lap incidents tended to hurt his potential though. If Senna can show his natural speed on a more frequent basis, he may be able to cement his place in F1. Williams has been the team to go through the most changes since last season: Frank Williams and Patrick Head have both stepped down from the board; Sam Michael left mid-season to McLaren; Mike Coughlan re-enters the sport after his role in the “spygate” scandal; but more importantly, the team has switched back to Renault engines. The Williams-Renault combination will not achieve the great results that they did in the 1990s, but this is a make or break year for the team, if they fail to improve greatly the future of the outfit will be in doubt.
The former Team Lotus comes into this season in their greatest state of preparedness than they’ve had before. The first team to launch a 2012 car, once again they will surely be the best of the “new” teams, but this year they are targeting points. The CT01 has shown some reasonable pace, and according to lead driver Heikki Kovalainen has greater grip than last year’s car. Kovalainen’s career seems to have been reinvigorated by moving down the grid and regularly exceeding the car’s natural speed, he’ll hope to have a car to showcase his abilities to get another chance at a front-running car. Jarno Trulli was dropped after the first test in Jerez, his narrow performance window and his struggles with a power steering system without enough feel led to two underwhelming seasons. The availability of a driver with a budget and experience was too much of an opportunity to miss, so Vitaly Petrov stays in F1 for a third season, but he’ll need to perform more consistently to retain that seat. The team has moved from Hingham to the old Arrows and Super Aguri factory in Leafield, they are determined that the move will not have an impact on performance but it is a distinct possibility.
Another preseason comes and goes without the Spanish team’s latest car turning a wheel in anger. The F112 failed it’s first attempt at the FIA crash tests (now required to be passed to test rather than just to race), these were passed last weekend but the revised car will not arrive in time from Germany (HRT not having completed their move to Valencia) for the final day’s testing Barcelona tomorrow. The team have the oldest driver line-up on the grid pairing the 41 year old Pedro de la Rosa (who signed a two year contract) with the 35 year old Narain Karthikeyan. It’s a line up that will bring the cars home on a regular basis, but is unlikely to extract the most from the F112. The team is not just contending with a move and an untested car, but the team principal position was stripped from Colin Kolles at the end of 2011, now Luis Perez-Sala, the former Minardi driver, is at the helm. The team will hope for progress, but will most likely continue to underwhelm.
Last for two years running, it appears that Richard Branson’s original passion for F1 couldn’t deal with that, so Virgin becomes Marussia. The MR01 has failed its crash tests so will not test prior to getting to Australia. It’s not the best start for the team as it attempts to reinvent itself. Pat Symonds – the team’s technical consultant – believed the MVR-02 had potential but was hampered by poor aerodynamics, so the team has abandoned its CFD-only approach and is finally conducting wind-tunnel testing. Timo Glock has the potential to be a top-line driver but the collapse of Toyota hampered his career, he must be getting fed up with a team that has failed to progress for two seasons, he’ll just hope for any improvement. Glock will be paired with three-time GP2 race winner Charles Pic, perhaps not the most deserving of a seat in F1, but the team has a habit of taking on drivers and discarding them quickly despite not giving them equipment to perform. Maybe Pic isn’t in an enviable position. All Marussia can really hope for is to beat HRT, but even that will be a struggle.