As the cars pound round for the final time at the Circuit de Catalyuna for pre-season testing (they will of course be back for the Spanish GP) it marks the end of pre-season and the start of the season proper. Its now only two weeks until the first race in Australia, however its tight semi-permenant nature means its unlikely to be until Malaysia that we will know the true pecking order of the cars. Now picking up hints from pre-sesaon testing is always riskey, McLaren last year had a torrid time but they went away and came back with something a lot better for the first race of the season and were bang on the pace. The big question this year is will Red Bull still have their qualifying speed advantage (last season the team claimed 18 of the 19 poles in the RB7 – only Lewis Hamilton upsetting the status quo in Korea) and will Ferrari, Mercedes or Lotus be challengers for the title this year. With no less than a record breaking 6 world champions on the grid and the teams saying its tight at the top its lining up to be another vintage F1 year. Heres a team by team breakdown of what we’re expecting:
Marussia Cosworth – 2011: 12th
Drivers: Timo Glock & Charles Pic
Marussia (formerly Virgin) haven’t had the best starts to their first season under the leadership of Pat Symmonds in the technical department. However the team failed one of their crash tests and have now had to miss the final pre-sesaon test leaving Charles Pic with so little F1 mileage before the season. Its a big unknown, Pat Symmonds is a world championship winning designer but the team operate on a very small budget and having no pre-season mileage are huge disadvantages.
HRT Cosworth – 2011: 11th
Drivers: Pedro De La Rosa & Narain Karthikeyan
The HRT team have somehow beaten Virgin to the 11th place spot two years in a row despite having no in-season development in 2010 and a slow start to 2011. The team are now locating to somewhere in Spain (Madrid I think currently) and have dispensed with Colin Kolles and the German office (although apparently the car has been designed in Germany – who knows!). Adding to the bizzare twists and turns that the HRT tail continues to take the team signed Pedro De La Rosa who at age 41 makes another F1 return, then the team finally announced that Narain Karthikeyan would return to the team leaving Antonio Luizzi without a drive. It leaves the team with a combined driver age of 76! Like their main rivals Marussia they struggled past the crash tests and have now failed to make pre-season for the 3rd year running. Furthermore the team have finally got realistic and stated that they wont be runing KERS straight away but the car is designed around the system. They have completed a filming day to put some miles on the car but it doesn’t look like a massive step forward here.
Caterham Renault – 2011: 10th
Drivers: Heikki Kovalainen & Vitaly Petrov
The Caterham (formerly Team Lotus) team were the first car to “launch” with a large spread in F1 racing magazine. However this was mostly renders rather than real photos but it was true to form for the most fan friendly team on the grid. The car is the first one they call aggressive with 2010’s car being designed in record time and the switch to Renault / Red Bull rear end last year taking up much of the development time. The team have added KERS and appear to have a very nice package with the Red Bull rear end being a significant boost alongside good looking Aero. Whether its enough remains to be seen but there is nowhere to hide for the team and Jarno Trulli has been dropped after a lackluster 2011 for well funded Russian Vitaly Petrov, if they do catch the midfield then we can expect Q1 to really be worth watching this year.
Williams Renault – 2011: 9th
Drivers: Pastor Maldonado & Bruno Senna
Enough has been said about Williams 2011 season that I wont repeat it here but its all change at Grove with new technical team and a young driver lineup. While I am a fan of Bruno Senna it does have a nice bookend that he’ll drive a Williams Renault – theres a lot here for the romantics – Pastor Maldonado will lead the drivers lineup which is a scarey thought. Both drivers have come with serious fiscal backing to secure the drives as Williams need investment to recover and charge up the grid. They have looked very reliable if not eye wateringly quick in pre-season although they have topped the time sheets on a few days doing qualifying runs. Its a big year for the team as they try and bounce back. But I reckon that Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari, Merecedes and Lotus will all be out of range along with possibly Force India so it could be another lean year at Grove.
Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari – 2011: 8th
Drivers: Daniel Ricciardo & Jean Eric-Vergne
While the main Red Bull teams remains stable the junior team continue to grow with their 3rd year of making their own car after not having developed their own machinery since the Minardi days. The team will field the most inexperienced driver line up on the grid but as they said themselves – thats what they’re here for. The team have looked rather fast during pre-season and by all accounts look very handey. The Italian squad were very quick in the latter part of last season and all eyes will be on the inter-team battle for the next Red Bull susperstar.
Sauber Ferrari – 2011: 7th
Drivers: Kamui Kobayashi & Sergio Perez
Continuity is the key this year for the Swiss squad as they keep the same driver line-up on for another year after edging out Toro Rosso to take 7th place. At least that was the plan until James Key handed in his notice before pre-season testing began. This doesn’t seem to have hampered the team that much and they have looked in good form, with a lot of time spend on correcting their qualifying pace from last year which obviously has had them appearing at the top of the time sheets a lot. There are rumours that the whole budget isn’t in place for the year but its a dynamic driver line up and there are a lot of technical people saying it could be a car to watch. The team last year didn’t run a EBD and still managed to do as well as they did which highlights their underlying performance in the car.
Force India Mercedes – 2011: 6th
Drivers: Paul Di Resta & Nico Hulkenberg
The winners of the mid-field battle last year and so nearly caused an upset by beating the Lotus Renault team (the black lotus) into 5th place, which is precisly their aim this year. The two drivers are young and hungry and mirror the McLaren pairing of Button and Hamilton. With Di Resta being more race wise and Hulkenberg having blistering 1 lap pace, its one of the most exciting line ups on the grid for 2012 and should be a cracking battle. Their pre-season pace looks solid and the car has taken a step forward, the only questions remain are about how much cash Vijay will have as his airline is tanking in India.
Lotus Renault – 2011: 5th
Drivers: Kimi Raikkonen & Romain Grosjean
Its all change at Enstone as the team have yet another new name (in fact they’ve given up and called the new car the E20 as its the 20th car from the Enstone team) and now are the only Lotus on the grid. All 3 drivers who raced last year have been dumped with GP2 champion Romain Grosjean getting promoted to a race seat along side 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen. The team last year took a wrong turn with their clever exhaust system and found it couldn’t really be developed and nearly lost 5th place to Force India. I expect they will be straight back on the pace and Kimi looks in good shape after two years of throwing rally cars at trees. People have been writing them off due to the relative strengths of the other teams but if Kimi finds some spark he will really rack up the points
Mercedes – 2011:4th
Drivers: Nico Rosberg & Michael Schumacher
The silver arrows enter their 3rd year with the same overall lineup as before, the car looks to have taken a decent step in the right direction after being in no-mans land last year. The team cruised to 4th but failed to pick up any podiums along the way, however Schumacher seemed more with it than before and big things are expected this year with big name re-enforcements in the technical department (Bob Bell, Aldo Costa & Geoff Willis have all joined for this season). Assuming there are no upsets the team really need a few podiums to keep the money masters in Germany happy.
Ferrari – 2011: 3rd
Drivers: Fernando Alonso & Felippe Massa
Now for me the biggest surprise here is the fact that Massa has been given another year in the prancing horse after another lackluster year in 2011. Fernando Alonso however was in vintage form as he out drove the car to places it really shouldn’t of been including that victory at the British Grand Prix, while his team mate failed to make the podium. The car was the real issue last year and Ferrari’s problems with the windtunnel and blown exhausts, lead the team to hire Pat Fry to lead to the technical charge for 2012 with a bold new direction. Furthermore the team has hired ex-bridgestone employees to help them with their tyre warm up issues. Has it worked? time will tell but the signs from testing are that the ugliest car of them all is a difficult beast with a small operating window that devours tyres. Soothsayers have been predicting doom and gloom for the grand old team, but nobody including Ferrari really know.
McLaren Mercedes – 2011: 2nd
Drivers: Jenson Button & Lewis Hamilton
McLaren have been the only team over the last few years to consistantly challenge Red Bull, with their double world champion lineup the all British team head into 2012 with a much better start than previous years. The Woking team have had real problems in recent seasons in pre-season but it has all gone rather well with a pretty looking car that appears to be fast and a rather clever exhaust system that could seem them take the fight to Red Bull from day one. Lewis Hamilton will be under pressure to perform in the last year of his contract after a poor 2011 attacking Massa’s front wing, Jenson however has taken the number 3 car after being the first ever team mate to Lewis Hamilton to beat him in a sesaon. Strong stuff indeed
Red Bull Renault – 2011: 1st
Drivers: Sebastian Vettel & Mark Webber
There are only a few questions about Red Bull this year, How far in front are they? Will Mark Webber regain his 2010 form? and how will they cope with a tight title battle again? They will win races, the question is simply how many. There are also questions again this year about the teams reliability with their B-Spec car that arrived for the last two days of testing really running into problems and using an exhaust system that Ferrari failed to get to work at all.
Answers start this weekend! Excited? I am!