When The Dust Settles – The 2012 Formula One Season Preview


Around 10,500 miles away from me and my computer stands a gantry with some lights on it. In less than 70 hours, the red-coloured lights on it will be lit up one by one, and then extinguished. At that point, the first race of 2012 Formula One season will be underway. A couple of hours later, we will start to have an idea as to whether or not anyone has managed to catch up to those might Red Bulls over the winter break.

Over the past month-or-so, I’ve had people coming up to me asking who is going to win the championship based on the winter testing times. They all went away disappointed, as the simple truth is, no-one really knows. It would be very foolish to try and dissect the information coming from Barcelona and Jerez, shown in no small part by the comments on the BBC blog by Mr Benson. There are, however, a few things we learnt from the tests. Firstly, we should be in for a really good year. It looks like McLaren, Mercedes, and even Lotus have closed in on the Red Bull team, who themselves shouldn’t be sluggish. The McLaren looks pretty good through the fast corners, and the Ferrari seems to be struggling almost everywhere. But more than that, it’s really hard to say. Some teams have been running qualifying simulations, some race simulations, whilst others have done race distance runs and everything in between. They were all doing different things at different times, with the track giving more grip as the sessions and days went on. As if that didn’t make things complicated enough, many of the teams will have been sandbagging, driving slower than the maximum the car can go, leaving their opponents in the dark until the lights go out in Melbourne. To predict the champion, or even winner in Australia, based on this would be totally moronic. Nevertheless, we can discover something about the team’s 2012 efforts…

As far as the new cars are concerned, it is clearly a case of safety before prettiness. McLaren have managed to avoid that as they’ve been slowly working towards a lower nose over the past few years, and have managed to create what is easily the looker of the field. Martin Whitmarsh is confident of some victories this season, and whilst Button and Hamilton may not be quite so sure, they are very excited about the upcoming year. Mercedes look like they’ve stolen a march on a few teams with some clever wing designs, fundamentally reducing the drag on the DRS even further, which is basically a totally passive F-duct system. That should give them some great speed down the straights, one area where the Brackley team really shone last year. There are suggestions that the Red Bull letter-box slot in the nose could be used for a similar purpose. On the whole, the Red Bull seems like it should be right up there at the front once again, as the car looks sleek and very meaningful. A few questions might have been raised over reliability during the tests, especially with how shrink-wrapped the bodywork is, but it remains to be seen whether it will affect them out on the track. Questions are definitely being raised, however, over at Ferrari. They really seem to be struggling to understand the car. At the start of the project, the designers were told to go radical. The issue is, they might have gone too far that way, so they don’t really know why it acts how it acts. That isn’t good for a driver’s confidence behind the wheel. For the boys and girls in Italy, it will be a case of fix it and fix it fast; it might not be too long before someone loses their job over this.

Whilst it is difficult to call the front of the field, the midfield is even harder. Lotus (formerly Lotus Renault, formerly Renault) appear to have made really positive steps forwards, and with Kimi Raikkonen in the hot seat, they could do wonderful things. In fact, after just a few races, I may be judged rather harshly for mentioning them here rather than with the teams above. The same is very much true of Force India, who have a great, if slightly youthful, pair of pilots in their cars. With financial difficulties circulating around Kingfisher Airlines, the team will just have to be hoping that it doesn’t spread and infiltrate their operation. The car looks quick, well designed, and it should be better than in 2011. If I was Ferrari, I would really start watching my back. Elsewhere, it seems very much a case of ‘as you were’, but it is hard to know for sure. Sauber put in some times at the top of the testing boards, but they’ve done that so many times in order to attract sponsors that no-one really takes notice of it. Everyone hopes that Williams will improve on last year, but they have an inexperienced line-up and some big changes back at HQ. It could well be another difficult season for them.

Finally, as far as the ‘new’ teams are concerned, Caterham (formerly Team Lotus, formerly Lotus Racing) look to have really take strides forwards and could be mixing it up with Toro Rossos, Saubers, and the Williams duo. They are really beginning to establish themselves as a proper F1 team, and may well be challenging for points on a semi-regular basis this year. It certainly looks good for them. The same can’t be said for HRT, who have once again not done a single lap in testing due to failing the FIA crash tests. That puts their grand total of all laps done in winter testing over their entire existence at 0. The car looks like it should be better than last years, and should cement them above Marussia. There have been a number of changes to team personnel and drivers, and there is a lot of positive noise coming out of the team. However, you wouldn’t expect anything less. It will be a big year for the team; if there isn’t a noticeable improvement, the sponsors and fans will start getting impatient with them. Likewise, Marussia. Here is another team that failed to turn a wheel in testing due to failing to pass crash tests, and looking at the car, it strikes me as being a moving chicane. It doesn’t look quick or sophisticated. They may have Maria De Villota as a test driver, but the positives stop there. This looks like a difficult year for the team. They’ll be racing the HRTs, and hoping to keep up.

As for the track where everything starts, you could not find a better place than Melbourne. Bernie might already be beginning the threats for when its contract runs out, but it is simply the best place to have the season opener. There is a great party atmosphere to the race weekend, with passionate and knowledgeable supporters camped out at every turn on the circuit. It’s got a bit of everything, from high-speed to slow speed corners, flat out straights and walls to punish you if you mess it up too badly. Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull have all gone well here of late, as has Mercedes in the guise of Brawn GP, and it will probably be between the latter three for the victory. They always provide cars that suit this track, but we won’t know if they have this year until the chequered flag falls on Sunday. The track has got 2 DRS zones, one down the main straight, and the other down the next straight into Turn Three. That should produce some good overtaking. The detection point is just before Turn 14, giving the car behind chance to close right up into the tight Turn 15, making the most of their advantage. If they get past in the first DRS zone, they still have it in the second, as there is only the one detection point, giving them a greater chance of keeping the position. Out of all the teams, expect Mercedes to make the most of the DRS, provided, of course, that they haven’t put it on pole to start with.

Fundamentally, we don’t know how the teams will do, but with a bit of logic, we can start to make some order out of the chaos of winter testing. The only time we will actually know, however, is when those five lights go out in Melbourne and 22 cars thunder into the first corner for the first time in 2012. I, for one, can hardly wait. It looks like we should have another fantastic year on our hands.

UK coverage of the race on Sunday is provided live by SkySportsF1 at 0430 GMT and on BBC Radio 5Live from 0530 GMT. Highlights are shown on BBC One at 1400 GMT.

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