2012: What have we learnt?

By on Friday, April 27, 2012

Sebastian Vettel wins in Bahrain

Sebastian Vettel leads the title race from a McLaren, his team mate, the other McLaren and Fernando Alonso. Pastor Maldonado has had a spectacular crash, Team Enstone has a new name and F1 has been dogged by controversy. So this means that everything in the world of Formula One is normal right? Wrong. The dynamics of the 2012 season so far have been changing race-by-race, leaving the F1 community bewildered by just what the hell is going on. We’ve had four different winners from four different teams in the four events held so far. Eight drivers have stepped onto the podium; the world championship leader has changed after every race and we even had an HRT running in the top ten of a grand prix on merit. It’s been one of those seasons and it shows little sign of changing; it has been, to borrow a famous saying ‘predictably unpredictable’.

Red Bull hasn't had it their own way this season

What a difference a race makes. After China, there were questions about whether the Red Bull bandwagon had finally been stopped. Helmut Marko – now famous for his outbursts – claimed that the sport’s governing body had changed the rules in order to prevent the team from running away with the championship. What will be ominous for the opposition is that despite a shaky start to the season, in a car that Vettel has clearly yet to become accustomed to, Red Bull lead both championships after a sole pole position and victory in Bahrain. It was clear even before the lights went out in Australia that the RB8 was not the package that the team had hoped for. Sebastian Vettel, usually a paragon of perfection behind the wheel of a car, was not confident. From the onboard shots you could see that he was nervous as to the behaviour of the car; it wasn’t doing exactly what he wanted, as proved by him spinning off the road in practice and a couple of other moments in the race. Qualifying pace has also been poor, with Vettel succumbing to notoriously tricky Q2 period in China; a session with which he had dealt with for fourty-two consecutive occasions beforehand. There was also a disastrous Malaysian Grand Prix, where a puncture for Vettel – after an erratic move on Narain Karthikeyan – left him down in eleventh. An ill-advised post-race comment about Karthikeyan left him open to criticism, particularly in his native Germany, where they suggested that Vettel doesn’t know how to lose. Even though his start to the season has been a stuttering one, he leads the title race and he’ll be eager to kick on with Spain and Monaco up next – two circuits where he won in 2011. The RB8 quite clearly does not suit Vettel’s driving style yet – the ban on exhaust blown diffusers appears to have hit Vettel particularly hard and him reverting to the older, slower spec car in China demonstrates this –but its seasons like these that show the true measure of great drivers. Mark Webber has had an adequate start to the year that leaves him still in touch with his team mate. A fourth place at home – astonishingly his best result in Australia – has been followed up by another three fourth place finishes. What will frustrate Webber is that his early season advantage over Vettel has not seen him pull out a points lead on his team mate. His pace in Bahrain was not promising, lapping an average of half a second a lap slower than Vettel. Greater confidence regarding the tyres gives him optimism ahead of the European season, but he has the wunderkid as his team mate.

 

A good start for McLaren, but results have worsened

McLaren

After a dire start to 2009 and a struggling start to 2011, the team emphasised that they were intent on making a strong start to the year in order to put the pressure on Red Bull. After playing catch-up to the ‘drinks company’ for three years, they finally appeared to have turned the tables when Jenson Button strolled to victory in Australia, with Lewis Hamilton an unfortunate third. Having taken two pole positions in two years, they matched that in just two races when Hamilton took another pole in Malaysia. It was all going so well until the heavy rain intervened and from there the team fell back. Hamilton was no match for either Fernando Alonso or Sergio Perez, while Jenson Button clattered into Narain Karthikeyan. A gearbox penalty relegated Hamilton to seventh on the grid in China but he fought back to third. Jenson Button’s slim hopes of a win were dashed after problems in the pits, but they were nothing compared to what was about to strike Lewis Hamilton in Bahrain. The Sakhir Circuit was supposed to suit the MP4-27, doubly so considering the likelihood of suitable track temperatures. But on race day the team had no pace, while Lewis Hamilton lost almost twenty seconds courtesy of appalling pit stops. Jenson Button spluttered to a halt with a very sick sounding exhaust. It was their worst race since Hungary two years ago and a three week gap between races leaves them plenty of time to agonise over a missed opportunity to take advantage of Red Bull’s early season struggles. Neither driver has driven particularly badly – save for Button’s error in Malaysia – with Hamilton impressive many with his diligent approach to the season. What will be of concern is if Hamilton cannot pick up a win within the next few races, because there’s usually a point in the year when the Brit cracks. The title is still there for the taking, but the longer they go on making crucial mistakes when they have the fastest car, the bigger the goal is for Vettel and Red Bull to make it a hat-trick.

 

Fernando Alonso took a remarkable win in Malaysia

Ferrari

No matter what he is faced with, Fernando Alonso continues to defy logic and be utterly brilliant. He may have Felipe Massa driving the other car, but engineers in the team have pointed out that Massa’s data matches his driving in 2008, when he was winning races. There is no other way to describe Alonso other than a magician. During pre-season testing, it was obvious that the F2012 was not the car Ferrari wanted. It was by no means a no-hoper, but to a team that harbour ambitions of winning the title for the first time since 2008, it was as bad as it gets. Qualifying in Australia was their nadir, when a furious Alonso misjudged his braking point and got stuck in the gravel. But since then he has performed excellently; his drive in Malaysia may have been overshadowed by the equal brilliance of Perez, but it should go down in history as one of the all-time great performances. Felipe Massa’s season has been next to disastrous. There was a telling photo in Malaysia: Alonso was crossing the line to win, a couple of seconds ahead of Ferrari Academy Driver Perez. A few seconds ahead of Alonso was Massa, just shy of being lapped. Massa’s problems are exacerbated considering the closeness of the field. He may only be a few tenths behind Alonso on occasion, but that’s all it takes to be out of Q2 rather than inside Q3. Points in Bahrain were well received, but it’s difficult to envisage Massa remaining at Ferrari – or even Formula One – next season. For Alonso, the rest of the season will be about dragging every remaining tenth out of the F2012 and push for better results. The championship is all but out of reach, despite only a ten point deficit to Vettel, and focus has to go on 2013: firstly to give Alonso a car capable of the crown and secondly a driver who can consistently back him up.

 

Nico Rosberg took a win in China

Mercedes

It’s been a mixed season so far for Mercedes. Michael Schumacher has had absolutely no luck and has taken just two points from the opening four rounds, while Nico Rosberg finally ended his win drought with a commanding performance in China. Mercedes’s main concern will be that their tyres – so crucial this year – seem to operate efficiently in a very small window, one which they found in Shanghai. Rosberg’s performance in the opening two races, where he was so passive, was disappointing although he then went overly aggressive in Bahrain, when he almost sent firstly Lewis Hamilton and then Fernando Alonso towards nearby Saudi Arabia. Both drivers hit out at Pirelli – Schumacher more than Rosberg – after Bahrain, indicating that the team still has big problems with the tyres. The win will be a massive relief for Norbert Haug and Ross Brawn, but the team now needs to convince everyone that they can perform at the top on a consistent basis ahead of a title challenge next season. What will be a confidence boost is the pace in qualifying, when Rosberg doesn’t crack when it matters.

 

Kimi Raikkonen returned to the podium; Photo credit: Lotus F1 Team

Lotus

‘Lots of Trouble, Usually Serious’ goes the famous saying about the team, although the start to 2012 has provided Lotus with a great sense of optimism about the remaining sixteen races. Lotus’s first two races were blighted by misfortune and errors: Kimi Raikkonen failing to make Q2 in Australia and then suffering from a gearbox penalty in Malaysia; Romain Grosjean failing to keep all four wheels on track and in the right direction for more than three successive racing laps. Grosjean’s first ever points in China were well received and his beaming smile grew bigger a week later after his maiden F1 podium. His approach during the race in Bahrain demonstrated a man at ease with himself and who has finally matured behind the wheel. Kimi Raikkonen has proved that he has lost none of his speed after two years in the rallying wilderness and if anything, his experiences of some harsh rally stages – and sojourns into ditches – have added to his skills set and made him appreciate the sport again, after gaining an extreme disdain for politics during his Ferrari years.

 

Force India's 2011 push cost them early on

Force India

It’s been a mixed bag for Force India so far in 2012. Paul Di Resta snuck a point in Australia, but more impressively kept cool in the wet of Malaysia. The Chinese Grand Prix was disappointing, although after all the team faced off-track in Bahrain, Di Resta excelled by managing a two stop strategy to perfection and finished sixth. Nico Hulkenberg has so far been outshone by his team mate, although the German is having to learn the Pirelli tyres after missing the 2011 season. In what is an engaging battle between two highly rated youngsters it is the Scot who is on top currently. Expect the battle to ebb and flow all season as Force India takes their place in a congested midfield.

 

Perez gave Sauber his best ever F1 result

Sauber

Nicknamed the ‘Panda’ after its black and white livery, the Sauber C31 has proved to be a handy package, particularly the rear end of the car. The team took a healthy points haul away from Australia but better was to come in Malaysia. Sergio Perez’s outstanding performance was the best ever result for the team (minus the BMW years) although many fans were disappointed that Perez didn’t manage one better. Perez is the latest in a long line of driver nurtured to the top by team boss Peter Sauber, who intends to hand over the reigns to Monisha Kaltenborn in the near future. Kamui Kobayashi put in a stunning lap in qualifying in China to start third, although the team has a tendency to try and pit one less time than their rivals. The C31 is a tyre friendly machine, but the team has the ability to challenge for the points on an equal footing with their rivals.

 

STR: Young guns trying to impress; Photo credit: Red Bull GEPA

Scuderia Toro Rosso

Many within Formula One think that Jean Eric Vergne is the real deal; the man who one day will take over at Red Bull from Sebastian Vettel. The French driver challenged for points in Australia and astonishingly stayed out on Intermediate tyres in Malaysia when the deluge arrived, enabling him to finish eighth. It was performance that belied his experience at the top level, having only been expected to become the test driver this season. Such was Red Bull’s eagerness to see Vergne in Formula One that they tried to place Daniel Ricciardo – supposedly higher up in the Red Bull chain – at Caterham to make space for Vergne. Both drivers have performed well this season, with Ricciardo’s qualifying in Bahrain particularly impressive. However, his performance in the race was abject. Vergne’s problems currently stem from qualifying, having failed to escape Q1 on three successive occasions. Both drivers have huge potential.

 

Williams has taken a leap forwards

Williams

Rejoice! After years of trying, Williams is finally back. After 2010 heralded a false new dawn for the team, 2012 appears to be the start of an era for a restructured Williams team after a dismal 2011 season. The team already has a good haul of points despite Pastor Maldonado chucking away 6th place in Australia. Maldonado’s erratic nature remains, but he still has raw pace. Look out for him in Monaco – he could be mega there. After several false starts with Honda, HRT and Renault, Bruno Senna has finally been given a chance to prove that he is more than just a famous surname. A scrappy opening race was forgotten after two strong drives in Malaysia and China, although his one-lap pace still requires improvement. Hopefully the team is now on an upward trend, while driver coach Alexander Wurz should help the drivers, who are still a bit rough around the edges.

 

Photo credit: Caterham F1

Caterham

After two years of promising to move forwards, 2012 has provided a glimmer of hope that the team may soon be joining the midfield. Heikki Kovalainen managed to qualify 16th in Bahrain, while Vitaly Petrov’s best lap time was only a tenth shy of Fernando Alonso. There is still work to be done, but the prospect of battling the likes of Toro Rosso appears realistic, even if it is later than the team planned. That crazy Group Lotus press release picked on the team for their lack of results, but to an extent it was justified. On the driver front, Vitaly Petrov has pushed Heikki Kovalainen more than Jarno Trulli did, but the ultimate target for the team is a point. Simply finish tenth should no longer be an acceptable target.

 

Photo credit: HRT

HRT

For the third year in a row the team failed to make pre-season testing and was refused entry to the Australian Grand Prix after drivers Pedro de La Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan could not set a lap time within 107% of pole during qualifying. An inspired tactical call during the Malaysian Grand Prix left Karthikeyan tenth and the team praying the red flag would signal the end of the race and the awarding of half a point. Sadly that ambition failed to materialise and Karthikeyan was then used as a battering ram for both Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel. The team has shown little sign of progress this year, with team principal Luis Perez-Sala repeatedly stressing that 2012 is a step backwards in order to take two forwards for 2013.

 

Marussia has shown promise

Marussia

Despite failing to take the MR01 to pre-season testing, the team has fared well this season. Pace in qualifying has been strong, while they have easily seen off HRT in the race. Managing to finish the Australian Grand Prix was a huge bonus for the team, especially seeing as it means they record a fourteenth place finish – something that could be crucial in the battle for tenth in the championship. Timo Glock has continued to excel as an underdog, while rookie Charles Pic has shown that he has the potential to remain in Formula One beyond this season.


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