And the Winner of the 2012 Formula One World Championship is…

In the long and illustrious history of this great and magnificent sport, there have been only two drivers to win the Formula One world championship three times in a row. They are two of the all-time greats; Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio. It is, perhaps, a surprisingly small list when you consider some of the talent that has graced the top flight of motor sport. Alain Prost, Niki Lauda, Jackie Stewart, Ayrton Senna, all great drivers who were unable to do a hat-trick. In 2012, it is possible that we could be adding another German to that list of two, as Sebastian Vettel has the opportunity to make it three on the trot and secure himself a place in the front of the F1 history books. He has the opportunity, he certainly has the motive, but will he have the means? That remains to be seen. Without doubt, he had the best car this year by a country mile, and got the most out of it every time he sat in the thing.

With a lot of stability in the rules going into the next year, most of the cars should be a development of the 2011 machines. That works in his favour, but the banning of blown diffusers should slow them up a little bit. As a rule of thumb, the longer you are competing for the title, the less you can develop the following year’s car, and as a result, the car isn’t as quick out of the box. There is one team that has ‘been focused for some time on the challenge of 2012’, and it should play to their advantage. I’m not a betting man, but there is a part of me that’s tempted to pop down the local bookies and put a few coins on Mercedes winning the title next year; constructors certainly, if not the drivers. That might seem a bit of an odd prediction looking at the past two seasons, but there is some reasoning behind it.

The Brackley team were the first to win both championships under the ‘new’ regulations in 2009, so they’ve understood them from day one. With the cars as developed as they are, it won’t help a huge amount for 2012, but if they’ve done it once, they can certainly do it again. There is a tremendous group of people working for the Silver Arrows, headed by one of the greatest minds in the sport, Ross Brawn. Already at the team and settled in is Bob Bell, formally of McLaren and Renault, among others, and is one of the first guys I’d try and procure if I headed up my own team. But it doesn’t stop there, as Mercedes have added another two of the best engineers to their roster. On the 1st of December, Aldo Costa left Ferrari, where he helped the Scuderia win 8 world championships, and Geoff Willis of BAR, Red Bull and HRT fame joined on October 17th. Now whilst they may not have a huge impact on the car for next year out of the box, they can certainly help develop it during the year and will be able to make a big difference for 2013. With guys like James Vowles and Norbert Haug and some great engineers, the team has a fantastic wealth of talent at the factory and at the track, and some of the best pit stops in the pit lane. If they don’t deliver the goods in the next two years, with a team like that, they have really failed. Especially when you consider that they have the best powerplant in the back of their car from Mercedes Benz HighPerformanceEngines, which has the added benefit of being just 30 miles down the road from the team. It all looks good.

However, the car is going to have to be good straight away. The team have said that they will be doing their first test on February 21, which leaves them with only 8 days of testing before the season opener in Melbourne. Missing a few tests may seem like a bit of a drawback, and might suggest they’ve had a small problem over the winter, but it seems to me like a good idea. There are new regulations for this year which state that teams have to pass the crash tests, which have got harder for 2012, before they are allowed to go testing. It seems odd that in such a safety-conscious sport, this wasn’t implemented years ago as a rule. By waiting until a later test to debut, the team have a bit longer to develop the car before they have to sign it off; the sooner they sign off, the fewer changes they can make, especially to key areas like the actual chassis itself. Paradoxically therefore, having less track-time could result in a faster car. An added benefit is that if they hit on something big, they can keep it a secret a little bit longer, giving their opponents less time to catch up. In 2009, McLaren had the RW80, or F-Duct, ready for use at the final race, but elected not to use it. If they had, the other teams would have seen it and might have been able to copy the system over the winter. McLaren waited, and as a result the F-Duct was explosive. When the teams did catch up, their systems were inferior as they were less developed and not integrated into the chassis in the same way the McLaren system was. Any advantage Mercedes might find could remain exclusively theirs for just a little longer. In addition, for 2012 missing pre-season testing is not as big a deal as in previous years, because there is one less so that they could have a mid-season test in May. More development, keeping secrets, and less of a penalty for missing tests with one mid-season all adds up to a sensible decision from the bigwigs at Brackley.

It still seems a long way off between now and the start of the season, and a lot can happen during that time. It’s impossible to predict who will lead the pack, who will fall at the first, and just quite what we will get when those lights go out. In the meantime, it is fun to speculate, but there is a serious side to all this; with everything and everyone that you will find down at the Silver Arrows, there is a lot of potential, and they will have to deliver. Mercedes Benz should be world champions in 2012. The question remains: will they?


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