What a difference a winter makes! This time last year, Red Bull were expected to dominate – as they did the previous season – and they duly delivered. This year? Nobody knew what to expect, and this mystery translated into anticipation, and in turn, excitement.
With the first race done and dusted and the fog of war clearing, pundits are beginning to take a stab at predictions for the season – and it’s no different here. So here’s a run through each team’s performance over the race weekend and a few predictions of my own.
In my last blog I had my reservations on their decision to stick with their front nose design. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. Hamilton and Button locked out the front row in qualifying and were unlucky to cap it off with a one-two finish. As it transpired, mistakes made with the fuelling of the cars meant Hamilton Button spent the majority of the race in extreme fuel-saving mode. Taking this into account, their performance in Melbourne is even more convincing, and would suggest that the team that historically improves throughout the season is set to dominate in some style. In my opinion, if there hadn’t been a fuel issue for the team, Hamilton would have been able to get more pace out of the MP4-27 which would cancel out the fact that Button is easier on his tyres. For this reason, my bet’s on him to edge out his team mate and take the title.
Red Bull will be displeased to have not started 2012 like as they finished 2011. The team had a strong weekend but will be concerned with a poor qualifying result. Thnakfully for Red Bull, a strong performance from Sebastian Vettel and a long-awaited decent result from Mark Webber saved their blushes. Speculation regarding the slot in the nose of the RB8 car continues, although no massive advantages seem to have derived from the unusual design. Uncharacteristically, Vettel made a mistake during the race, going off at turn one. Expect Red Bull to put a lot of man hours into ironing out the creases, and mistakes from the reigning world champion to be shortlived.
Rumours are circulating that Stefano Domenicalli is on the verge of scrapping the F2012 chassis altogether. It won’t happen of course, but the existence of such a rumour is justifiable – Ferrari had a dreadful start to the season. Alonso managed to save the team some face but a team of such pedigree shouldn’t (and won’t, I’m sure) be settling for ‘saving face’. Drastic action needs to be taken to address a poor qualifying performance and dismal tyre durability over race distances. For me, Felipe Massa justified why Ferrari will be replacing him at the end of the season, if not before.
An excellent first race weekend and a sign of intent from the Swiss team who’ll hope to dominate the midfield battle this season. With two exciting drivers and a little luck, podiums aren’t out of the question this season. Kamui Kobayashi looks comfortable enough in the C31 to deliver some of the overtaking brilliance he showed in his debut season. Sergio Perez continues to work magic with his tyres and should secure plenty of points with his tortoise vs. the hare driving style; although such a strategy limits his chances of earning himself a podium.
Like Sauber, Lotus look like serious contenders and will definitely breathing down the necks of the high-flyers. Kimi Raikkonnen had a solid return to the sport after a two-year hiatus in the WRC. Romain Grosjean too, who achieved an excellent 3rd place in qualifying, would have undoubtedly gone on to finish in the points had it not been for a collision with a Williams. The Swiss-born Frenchman (who I’d written off as merely Kimi’s #2 – sorry Romain) isn’t looking like dwelling on his 2009 stint in F1 and should be make up 50% of an excting inter-team battle this season.
Toro Rosso look set to remain in the midfield battle this season, with a decent first race weekend. Daniel Ricciardo will be pleased with his first points finish just as much as Jean-Eric Vergne will be disappointed to have missed out on a points finish on his debut. Inexperience may have cost the team in Melbourne, and so Toro Rosso will be hoping to settle their young drivers down as soon as possible.
If inexperience cost Toro Rosso points, it was the experience of Paul di Resta that salvaged Force India’s race weekend; di Resta showed real class saving some KERS until the final corner to steal 10th place from Vergne. Nico Hulkenberg will be disappointed to have crashed out on the first lap, but getting into Q3 shows the German hasn’t lost his edge during his time spent as the team’s test driver throughout 2011. Vijay Mallya’s team should have the experience to recover and take points finishes in Malaysia, taking the fight to Toro Rosso and Sauber in the midfield.
Mercedes were pegged as title contenders this season after a promising winter’s testing. Their qualifying efforts justified the hype, but their race pace didn’t – Nico Rosberg’s fastest lap was half a second off that of some of the midfield’s. Their F-Duct-esque device at the rear of W03 seems to provide superior pace over extended periods of use during qualifying, but limitations on its use during the race seems to reveal some shortcomings. Expect Mercedes to address their race pace issues soon and be challenging for the ‘best of the rest’ places with Lotus.
Williams surprised me in Melbourne. After opting for youth instead of experience in their driver choice, I expected a slow start to their season. However, Pastor Maldonado and Bruno Senna showed promise with a solid car underneath them. Senna was taken out of the race by a stubborn Massa and Maldonado came agonisingly close to his best ever finish, only to crash due to apparent complacency on the last lap. Once written off, Williams look set to return to the fight in midfield and will be hoping to show their worth.
Nothing exciting from the renamed Russian team but a commendable performance getting both cars home at the first time of asking. Their car is well off the pace after missing most of winter testing due to a failed crash test, but their apparent reliability should give them an edge over their rivals and some precious time to improve.
Tipped to break into the midfield this year, Caterham disappointed in Melbourne. Their car is way off the pace – albeit, faster than that of the other back-markers – and worse still, both Heikki Kovalainen and Vitaly Petrov retired after little more than half distance. If they can resolve reliability issues, Caterham should easily beat the surrounding ‘new’ teams, but don’t expect them to be threatening Toro Rosso or Force India any time soon.
Another team that missed pre-season testing, HRT have it all to do to even be competitive with Caterham and Marussia. The self-styled Spanish national team failed to qualify due to the 107% rule and with another fast-paced race on the menu at Sepang, the pressure isn’t going to let up on HRT any time soon. The team muddled through the 2011 season to pip Marussia (then Virgin) but have a mountain to climb if they hope to do the same this season.
And there you have it. The 2012 season promised excitment, and with just one second covering the top seven teams, the close racing looks set to continue.
My predictions for Round 2?
Pole – Michael Schumacher – A long shot but Sepang should suit the W03’s great top speed
1st – Lewis Hamilton – Hamilton will be determined to make up for missing out in Oz.
2nd – Jenson Button – Button will round off the first of many 2012 McLaren 1-2’s.
3rd – Kimi Raikkonnen – If qualifying goes smoothly, the Finn has the talent to hold off the Red Bulls.