Category Archives: Team Previews
CHANGING OF THE TIMES
WILLIAMS head to the Australian Grand Prix having not given anyone a lot of indication of where they stand in the 2012 field. In testing, they have set some cracking lap times and solid race simulation runs and other times, the car has barely featured. However, it won’t be hard to improve on last year’s disaster of a campaign.
It was Williams worst season since they became Williams Engineering in 1978. They only got into Q3 on three occasions, finished in the points just three times with ninth for Rubens Barrichello in Monaco being the best result and scored a meek total of five points. Their decline was a sad and sorry tale in 2011 for a team that has won nine constructors titles, 113 races and seven drivers championships. Despite this, there has been no success of any kind since Juan Pablo Montoya’s win in the 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix and consequently, has led to loads of changes over the winter.
Technical director of almost a decade with the Grove team Sam Michael, has move onto a sporting role at McLaren. Although he will remain team principal, Sir Frank Williams has resigned from the board to spend more time with his family and promote commercial opportunities for the future and Patrick Head has left his role in the day-to-day involvement too. CEO Adam Parr and new technical director Mike Coughlan have a lot of responsibility and work to do to get them back to the glory days.
Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado keeps his seat for 2012 and although there are arguments about his high finance he brings, Maldonado did show some qualities last season, notably in Monaco. However, I don’t earmark him out as team leader and with just one point to his name in his debut campaign, must find more consistently and cut out some of the childish errors of judgement he made in 2011 such as driving into Lewis Hamilton in Q2 at Spa. Maldonado will be joined by Bruno Senna, who replaces the stalwart of Grand Prix racing, Rubens Barrichello. Not only that, but it brings the Senna name back to Williams, almost 18 years since his uncle Ayrton was killed driving for the team on that fateful weekend at Imola. Senna’s quality is unknown despite stints with Hispania and Renault in the last two years and maybe 2012 will show whether he is a future star or another Brazilian who is competing to bring up the numbers.
It is a new chapter for Williams and it has a fiery South American driver line-up. It is a long way back from the trials and tribulations of 2011 but we hope that they can rejoin the midfield party this season and on occasion, potentially cause upsets for the main powers of Formula One.
A STRUGGLE AWAITS
FERRARI struggled to meet expectations in 2011, only managing one victory. For a team with its heritage, history and success – it was simply not good enough. Sadly the Italian team seem to be in the doldrums and testing form indicates that 2012 could be even worse. Not since 1993 has Ferrari not won a Grand Prix in a season. This year, this stat could well be thrown up regularly if their struggle continues.
The sacking of technical director Aldo Costa after Fernando Alonso’s alarming lack of pace in last year’s Spanish Grand Prix highlighted the desperation in the Ferrari hierarchy. Generally they have struggled to recover from the strategical blunder that cost Alonso the championship in Abu Dhabi 2010. In testing, media conferences have been cancelled, Pat Fry and the drivers have admitted that the team is not in the best shape heading into the season and the car has looked slow, unreliable and at times, almost undriveable. Alonso and his team-mate Felipe Massa face a long season ahead on this evidence.
There is bound to be a lot of pressure on team principal Stefano Domenicalli, especially if they are found wanting in the early stages of the season. Domenicalli won the constructors championship in his first season as the main man at Maranello in 2008, but precious success has followed since. No one can doubt Alonso’s quality and by being a double world champion, he is certainly capable of anything. It has been six years now since his last title and the Spaniard will be desperate for Ferrari to give him a championship challenging car. It could be a frustrating season for a driver who deserves more success and drives his heart out every time he gets in the car.
Felipe Massa is also under pressure and he even has said so. His series of run-ins with Lewis Hamilton last season was petty to say the least and covered neither driver in any glory. Psychologically and mentally, the Brazilian looks damaged goods. On his day, he can still outperform Alonso as shown by outqualifying him four times in the last nine races and outracing him comprehensively in Malaysia and China last season. However he lacks the consistency required and with no podium since Korea 2010, the stats don’t lie. If he wants to prolong his career with Ferrari, he needs a massive improvement in 2012.
It is always very dangerous to write Ferrari off, but they simply don’t seem to have the car to deliver the results. I hope I’m wrong but heads will roll if it turns into a nightmare. Australia will answer a lot of potential questions about their true place in the current pecking order.
THE Lotus team have taken the Renault name and are aiming high for the upcoming Formula One season. A new line-up, new positivity and lessons aiming to be learned from development and design errors that hobbled their 2011 campaign.
Testing produced a mixed bag of results, with the team having to abandon the first Barcelona test, as their chassis couldn’t deal with some bumps in the circuit. The problem was solved for the second test, but the car was largely reliable and also, a regular frontrunner. They go to Melbourne as a potential pacesetter and although I wouldn’t expect the team to launch a sustained championship challenge, regular podiums are a distinct possibility.
This season brings a new driver line-up. Robert Kubica continues to recover from his rally accident he suffered in February 2011 and with the Pole out of contract, he is unlikely to return to this team now. Russian Vitaly Petrov was dropped and has since linked up with Caterham, whilst the team chose not to retain Bruno Senna. Coming into the line-up are Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean.
Raikkonen’s return to the sport makes it six world champions on the grid, the first time this has ever happened. The 2007 world champion seems confident and happy in his new environment, although his motivation will come into question should he not have the car capable to challenge. However, if one of the top teams has an off-weekend, Raikkonen is more than likely to severly punish them and take big points away. Grosjean raced seven times in 2009 and struggled badly with the Renault team as it was known. 13th place in Brazil was his best finish as the Frenchman looked lost at sea in a poor chassis during the final stages of the Briatore reign. Now, he is back as the defending GP2 champion and looks far more confident than he was in his previous F1 stint. It is a second chance for Romain and he has plenty of doubters who he will want to prove wrong.
Lotus have the ability to cause many headaches for the top teams this season. Can they follow up their strong testing form and realise their potential. I reckon that they certainly will mix the order up in 2012.
A FIERY COMBINATION
SILVERSTONE based team Force India had a brilliant ending to 2011 and will be hoping to take that momentum into the new season. If testing form is anything to go by, they look to be at the front of a very compact midfield group that includes Toro Rosso, Williams and maybe even Caterham.
Adrian Sutil is missing from the line-up for the first time since the team took over Spyker at the end of 2007. Sutil’s well-documentented issues off the track have cost the German his career for now, even though his old employers insisted that this didn’t play a part in the decision not to retain him. As one German goes out, another comes into the driving roster through Nico Hulkenberg.
Hulkenberg, who made his mark in junior formulae categories such as GP2 and A1GP for Team Germany had a wasted year last season. Despite a remarkable pole position in Brazil during his debut season in the sport for Williams, the Grove team replaced him with Pastor Maldonado. With no other options, Nico was forced into a third driver role with Force India. He showed strong pace and this has continued in winter testing. Ultimately, his patience has been rewarded with a return to the racing cockpit this season. Many feel he was desperately unlucky to not be competing last season, so now the pressure is on for him to prove again what a prominent talent he is.
Paul di Resta had a super rookie season and the Scot keeps his drive for 2012. He outqualified Sutil nine times last season and by the season’s end, was a regular points scorer. Sixth on the grid at Silverstone and sixth in the race in Singapore were the highlights. With Sutil gone, di Resta will be expected to lead the team. However, with both drivers having just one season each in the sport, this combination promises to be very competitive and fiery.
The aim for the team is to beat Lotus and break into the top five elite. They’ve done it before under the old Jordan guise in 1998 & 1999. If they achieve this in 2012, it will be a sensational achievement for a team that in recent seasons, has delivered very impressively against the odds.
THE DARK HORSES IN THE PACK
THIS season, German car manufacturer Mercedes GP begin their third season in Formula One, since they bought the Brawn GP team at the end of 2009. Currently, no pole positions, no wins and only three podiums to show for their efforts, with the last rostrum coming from Nico Rosberg at the 2010 British Grand Prix. It is time for the team to start threatening the frontrunners, or there could be severe drawbacks from the board in Stuttgart. In this generation of economic uncertainty, performance in Formula One is crucial or a manufacturer will walkaway. Just ask Honda, BMW and Toyota.
This year, Ross Brawn’s team look to be in a far better position than they ever have been. They delayed the launch of the 2012 car, which seemed a surprising move. However when the car turned up in Barcelona, they collected some excellent data with a model that looks consistent and reliable at worst. It looks like the issues that made heavy rear tyre wear a chronic issue last season have been dealt with. It is some team that Brawn now has, full of experience in technical and winning teams from the past. Nick Fry and Andrew Shovlin remain members of the team when Brawn GP was in existance, whilst Mark Slade was part of the Ferrari team behind Kimi Raikkonen’s 2007 championship success. Former Williams and Red Bull technical director Geoff Willis returns to the team he worked for in a former guise as BAR. Willis comes from two wasted years at Hispania. Bob Bell and Aldo Costa, formerly of Renault and Ferrari respectively complete a technical dream team.
The drivers remain unchanged, with Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher remaining together for the third sucessive season. Rosberg has performed exceptionally well, considering the equipment he has had at his disposal in the past two seasons. Often best of the rest in 2011, Nico is about to enter his seventh season in F1, hoping to break his elusive duck and win a Grand Prix. Since his sensational comeback, Schumacher has largely failed to deliver, especially in qualifying. However, he began to become a stronger match for Rosberg in the closing stages of last season, still with the racecraft, starts and strategy that made him such a legend. Form is temporary but class is permanent and Canada last year was an example that Schumacher still has that in abundance. After all, you don’t win seven world championships by accident.
Mercedes GP look like the dark horses in 2012. Few know their true pace heading to Melbourne, but they must be in a position to challenge for podiums on a regular basis and if possible, return to the winners circle after a lengthy drought. The glory days of Brawn in 2009 seem like a century ago.
THE TEAM TO BEAT
HAVING been seen as a laughing stock in its early days, people forget how far Red Bull Racing really has come. The dark days of Jaguar seem a long time ago now. Double champions for the past two seasons, the Milton Keynes based squad are aiming for a hat-trick of drivers and constructors titles. Once again, they look the team to beat despite some uncharacteristic chinks in the armour in winter testing.
Last season had echoes of dominating seasons put on by McLaren in 1988 and Ferrari in 2002. 12 wins from 19 starts, starting from pole position in all but one race. With a car that was the class of the field and incredible pitwork from the team, Red Bull Racing showed everyone the way in 2011. This year, the team has all the main key personnel in place for another tremendous season. Adrian Newey’s new car, the RB8 has hidden its one lap potential so far, but looks incredibly consistent over a race simulation distance. However, reliability issues which wrecked the final day of pre-season testing in Barcelona means they head to Melbourne having not severely tested the new car with the additional front wing and rear exhaust they brought to the closing stages of the Spain test.
You will be hard pressed to find big odds on someone other than Sebastian Vettel as championship favourite. The German looked right in the zone last season and has the opportunity to join a real elite group. Only Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher have achieved three successive world championships. Vettel has a great chance to match the feat in 2012 and has the all-round package. As long as the car is reliable enough, it is difficult to see anyone past him again as champion. However, I would be very surprised if he dominantes as much as he did in 2011.
By his standards, Mark Webber’s year was woeful. He was horribly outpaced by Vettel all season, only beating his team-mate all weekend once. The irony of that was Vettel’s home race at the Nurburgring. However, his daring overtake on Fernando Alonso through Eau Rouge at Spa last season and finishing the year with victory in Brazil will have given the Aussie some much needed confidence going into the winter break. If Webber can get a grip of qualifying and the Pirelli tyres again, he has what it takes to give the rest a fright, as we saw throughout 2010. If not, he will be under pressure, especially with two hungry, young Toro Rosso drivers after his seat for the future.
Once again, Red Bull Racing look like the team to beat. Who has the capabilities to beat them over a season? If someone does, it will be a mighty effort.
MOVING INTO THE MIDFIELD
WHILST fellow former deubtants, HRT and Marussia have had a very difficult pre-season, Caterham looked well-equipped to break into the midfield in their third season in the sport. Team principal and Malaysian owner of Queens Park Rangers, Tony Fernandes has complete belief in making this operation work and despite more reliability glitches than most in winter testing, there were signs of good pace, especially on a single lap.
The team, put together under the Lotus name made its debut in Bahrain 2010. Currently, Heikki Kovalainen has made it into Q2 on six separate occasions, which considering the might they were up against is a notable achievement. The best finish for the team is 12th at the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix, again achieved by Kovalainen. Having been the best of the new teams in the last two seasons, Lotus finished tenth in the constructors championship so consequently qualify for bigger prize money for their achievements so far. This season, the team has been renamed Caterham, after a very messy legal battle over naming rights which has dragged on for 18 months.
Currently based in Norfolk, the team has plans to move into the ex-Arrows and Super Aguri factory in Leafield during the season and has also made a change in its driver line-up. Despite competing in the first pre-season test, Jarno Trulli was dropped and replaced by Russian Vitaly Petrov. Petrov has two seasons at Renault, where he has achieved flashes of speed, but general inconsistency has cost him in the past. However, he sounds refreshed and hopes that this team can bring the best out of him. Team leader Kovalainen remains for a third year, hoping to end a barren pointless run that stretches back to Singapore 2009. Heikki has produced miracles in the last two seasons, so hopefully he will get more reward in the form of points this season. Expect heavily financially backed Petrov though to give Kovalainen more problems in setting the standard than Trulli ever did.
With former Jordan & Force India technical director Mark Smith and Mike Gascoyne in their design background, the team is well placed to give the established like Williams, Sauber and Toro Rosso some major headaches in 2012. The structure is in place, so no more excuses can be thought of. It is time for Caterham to step into the midfield and remain a permanent fixture.
ANOTHER SEASON OF STRUGGLE
SPANISH team Hispania Racing enter their third season in Formula One, having had very little to show for its first two years. Although the team is believed to be in a slightly more secure financial position than it ever has been, another season of struggle is widely predicted.
HRT has needed the money to financially compete in recent years. It started off in 2010 with Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok driving the car. Since then, it has been like a revolving door, with the likes of Sakon Yamamoto, Christian Klien and Vitantonio Liuzzi all trying their luck with no result. This season, it will be interesting to see how the team cope without the services of technical director Geoff Willis, who has joined the Mercedes GP technical dream team. However, they have plans to become an all-Spanish unit, with talks underway for a new factory headquarters near the Valencia Street Circuit.
40-year old Pedro de la Rosa will lead the team this season. The veteran Spaniard, who has raced for Jaguar and Sauber in the past, announced his decision to return to racing back in November. It was something of a surprise, considering the constant struggle for midfield drivers to earn spots on the 2012 grid. However, what de la Rosa will bring to the team is a wealth of technical feedback and car knowledge from his many days as a reliable test driver for McLaren. Plus, he has brief experience of being in a backmarker team from his debut season with Arrows way back in 1999. He is definitely a safe pair of hands.
de la Rosa’s partner will be the Indian, Narain Karthikeyan. Karthikeyan has probably earnt his drive through a wealth of sponsorship backing over talent. He raced for the team last year, only to lose his seat to Daniel Ricciardo after last year’s European Grand Prix. He returned for the inagural Indian Grand Prix and raced well. Although Karthikeyan’s wild 2005 days with Jordan were tamed easily last season, he struggled badly and made little impression on a Sunday afternoon. He will do well to achieve much in 2012 too; more likely to upset top drivers with his lack of attention to use of mirrors than quick lap times.
You have to admire HRT’s desire to continue and they have achieved creditable reliability in their first two seasons, but it is difficult to see anything else again in 2012, other than another battle for survival.
RADICAL MOVEMENT REQUIRED
VIRGIN Racing is no more and realistically, the team has faced a losing battle in its first two Grand Prix seasons. From the moment former technical director, Nick Wirth admitted in Australia 2010 that the team didn’t have a big enough fuel tank to finish races, any momentum that might have been built up vanished. Since then, it has been a real struggle for the team, as they haven’t troubled the points scorers, continued to fall away from Lotus (now Caterham) and almost be outpaced by the Hispania team on more than a sporadic basis.
Due to better race results from HRT, Virgin, managed by former Manor motorsport boss John Booth, has finished bottom of the constructors championship. This year, Marussia is the name they will be known as – the Russians involved in their second year of involvement having come onboard in 2011. Former Renault technical director Pat Symonds has been acting as a consultant, whilst serving a ban for his part in the 2009 race-fixing scandal. It will be interesting to see if his impact will have any movement in the team’s progress.
At times, former Toyota driver Timo Glock has produced absolute miracles and other occasions, frustration has led to the German not producing what is required of him. Considering he has finished in podium positions in the past, the project has been a failure in his career and frankly, a waste of his talent. Nevertheless, Timo has stayed on for a third successive year, which indicates he does has some faith in the operation. He has another new team-mate this year, as Frenchman Charles Pic moves into the no.2 seat. Pic finished fourth in last year’s GP2 series, winning a couple of races although the rest of his quantity is unknown. He replaces Jerome d’Ambrosio.
Many predict that Marussia will face another season of struggle. This year is make or break to see if they can make radical movements or be left trailing again at the back of the pack.
MAKING THE NEXT STEP
THIS will be the third year without works support for Sauber, since BMW withdrew from the sport at the end of 2009. Resources have always been limited for the Swiss team as an independant, but Peter Sauber will never give up. The question is, can they make a significant jump up the grid in 2012.
The recent departure of technical director, James Key has to been seen as a blow to the team’s hopes. Although he would have had significant input on the new car, there is a worry that a lack of progress could see the team stagnate or even slip towards the back of the midfield. Despite finishing fourth in the 2001 championship on a shoestring budget, Sauber have a habit of starting a season strongly, then falling backwards as the year progresses – even during the BMW years. Development is something they keep getting outraced by and therefore, it must be frustrating for the drivers, knowing that despite their hard efforts, it might lead to very little.
At least the drivers remain for 2012 and it is a talented line-up. Kamui Kobayashi is spectacular to watch and defintely, Japan’s greatest racing driver in Formula One. Kobayashi went off the radar in the middle part of 2011 and probably didn’t establish himself as a natural team leader. However, his tenth place in Abu Dhabi and ninth place in Brazil was crucial to Sauber staying ahead of Toro Rosso in last year’s constructors championship. Kobayashi has a tendency to either be breathtaking or lacklustre. He needs to make a breakthrough this season and become a more consistent driver for the whole season.
Once again, he will be partnered by the Mexican, Sergio Perez. Perez’s form was one of the highlights of 2011. In his rookie season, he often put Kobayashi in the shade and many fans, including myself had him down as rookie of the year, despite Paul di Resta’s natural consistency at Force India. He was tough to pass, solid in qualifying and despite making some basic errors in judgement regarding the rules, showed a lot of potential which has him earmarked as a future Ferrari driver. Sadly, Sergio’s 2011 season will probably be remembered more for the horrifying accident he had in qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix. However, he has his place on the grid on merit, not just through being wealthily backed by Telemex, one of Sauber’s key sponsors.
For me, Sauber need some form of investment, even if it isn’t from a manufacturing background. The team is good and will probably challenge for lower points finishes on a regular basis, but they only seem to do that and not threaten for serious points results. It will be upto Kobayashi and Perez to deliver and if they really do have lengthy careers in the sport, outdrive the car’s capabilities on a regular basis. We’ve seen what’s happened to the likes of Jaime Alguersuari, Vitaly Petrov and Adrian Sutil – if you don’t look like a future winner, you are more likely to miss out on a drive. I’m afraid Key’s abrupt departure will probably mean another season of mediocrity for a popular outfit.
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW
2012 will be a very interesting season for Scuderia Toro Rosso. Their decision, controversial to some, to sack Sebastian Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari before Christmas was very interesting. Buemi and Alguersuari both put in many notable and solid drives in 2011, so there was a degree of surprise that both drivers got the axe from team principal Franz Tost.
Tost, who has fired Scott Speed and Sebastian Bourdais unceremonisuly in the past said that both drivers simply didn’t have the capabilities to win races and move the team up the grid. Although Buemi had been with the outfit since 2009, Alguersuari was considered unlucky, especially as he raised his game in the second half of the season and still only 22, was proving a solid, if unspectacular driver at Grand Prix level. He has been left in limbo by the axing, whilst Buemi at least did become Red Bull’s reserve driver. Despite this, the Swiss has been recently signed up by Toyota for their Le Mans programme, so a career in endurance racing beckons.
Consequently, it is a case of out with the old and in with the new at the Italian team. Two youngsters will spearhead their attack, in the form of Australian Daniel Riccardo and Frenchman, Jean-Eric Vergne. Vergne, 21, is the 2010 British F3 champion and is one of the hottest properties from French motorsport since Jean Alesi burst onto the F1 scene back in 1989. Last year, he was runner-up in the Formula Renault series, so although naturally groomed as part of the Red Bull Young Drivers programme, his lack of GP2 or GP3 experience could be seen as a worry. Vergne did star in the Abu Dhabi Young Drivers Test last November and looked quick in practice sessions in Abu Dhabi and Brazil at the back end of last season for Toro Rosso. However, it is a gamble to throw him straight into Grand Prix racing and I hope it will pay off for his career.
Riccardo has been prominent for a while and already has a taste of Grand Prix experience. He made his debut for the Hispania Racing team at the British Grand Prix last season. Having outpaced the experienced Vitantonio Liuzzi on a regular basis, the Australian’s promotion into the Toro Rosso is seen as a natural progression. Perhaps he is the solution that Red Bull are looking at, when Mark Webber eventually decides to stop competing in F1. However, he has only taken part in 11 races himself, so it will be a huge test for Riccardo, as he will be expected to be team leader and show Vergne the way.
Early testing signs show plenty of promise, but pressure will be on the drivers. Tost will expect Toro Rosso to at the minimum, beat Sauber in this year’s constructors championship and challenge for a top six constructors placing. If the drivers don’t perform from the start, the team boss might regret his gamble in getting rid of proven drivers, Buemi and Alguersuari.