The opening four races of the season have yielded three different winners from three teams, some intra-team controversy and, generally, exciting racing. There’s a familiar name at the top of the standings but with 15 races remaining, a lot can change. Here’s a summary of what we think we know…
Red Bull, Ferrari and Lotus are in the hunt…
It may come as little surprise that the three teams who have won the races are in the hunt for the championship. Red Bull eased to victory in Malaysia and Bahrain, while Ferrari claimed honours in China. By stopping just twice in Australia, Lotus secured the opening race of the season and a similar approach netted them two podiums in Bahrain. The E21 is kinder on its tyres than its rivals, so as long as the two stop/three stop conundrum rumbles on, Lotus has a tactical advantage. The sooner the teams understand the tyres – as they did in 2012 – it falls into the hands of Red Bull. In the two races where medium and hard tyres have been used, Malaysia and Bahrain, Red Bull has claimed a comfortable win. Consistency will be crucial for Lotus, who has yet to show they can match Red Bull or Ferrari on pure pace. Lotus’s smaller workforce – combined with the regulation changes for 2014 – will also make their task harder. But for Red Bull and Ferrari to underestimate Lotus would be a grave mistake, particularly with Kimi Raikkonen on board.
…but Mercedes cannot be written off.
Mercedes is currently the fourth wheel in the title fight, with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg contributing to two poles and podiums. The team has traditionally started the season brightly before trailing off, but there are reasons to be optimistic. Hamilton has reinvigorated the team, simultaneously pushing Rosberg to his best. Back when Ross Brawn was undertaking changes in 2011, he stressed that 2013 would be the first season in which to judge those alterations. The car wasn’t as strong at the front-limited Shanghai as in 2012, but it was the rear tyres where the W03 struggled last season. It looked like a worryingly similar situation was occurring in Bahrain, but Hamilton’s drive to fifth suggests that the team has turned a corner.
Ferrari’s strategic errors cost them in 2012…
…and they’ve made two mistakes already. Fernando Alonso can blame Romain Grosjean’s Spa madness for losing the 2012 title, but he lost more points through Ferrari’s strategic errors in Spain, Monaco, Canada and Britain. This season, Alonso’s Lap 1 faux pas in Malaysia was a minor mistake that had huge ramifications. Every man and his dog could see that despite his heroic efforts at battling Mark Webber, his front wing was not going to stay on for very long. The DRS malfunction in Bahrain was unfortunate, but the mechanics simply hit it shut and expected the wing to magically fix. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t, and consequently Alonso was forced into another stop. He battled back to eighth, but even with the initial problem fourth place was obtainable. Twice Ferrari has gambled this season and been bitten. For a team whose conservatism cost them in 2012, they need to find the correct balance.
McLaren’s ambitious MP4-28 has backfired
McLaren ended the season with the fastest car yet arrived in Australia with a terrible one. It has, since then, improved, but fifth place remains the team’s best result of the season. There’s the perennial ‘what would Lewis do in it’ question, but even with Jenson Button and Sergio Perez – two drivers not renowned for outright speed – they have struggled. McLaren is pinning hopes on a major upgrade for the Spanish Grand Prix, but it could be too little too late. A pertinent concern will be that neither Button nor Perez – whose supposed asset is their tyre conservation skills – have shown to be particularly easy on their rubber.
The Multi 21 saga in Malaysia saw the fractious relationship between Vettel and Mark Webber reach new heights following the German’s disregard of team orders. Over at McLaren, Button was vocal with regards to Perez’s driving standards in Bahrain while at Mercedes, Rosberg’s ‘remember this one’ hasn’t gone unnoticed after he was told to stay behind good friend and team-mate Hamilton. Every driver should have a burning desire to defeat their team-mate – if they don’t, then they won’t last long in the sport. But with a few relationships simmering – and one very openly broken – it provides an intriguing sub-plot for the remainder of the season, particularly at McLaren where Perez has staked his claim to be number one.
Force India: Midfield maestros…
Few – including ourselves – didn’t expect Force India to be the team taking the battle to the top teams, but here they are sitting in fifth place in the championship. Adrian Sutil’s starring role in Australia owed more to strategy than his own brilliance, but that double points finish has set them up for a promising 2013. 26 points is an impressive return, especially considering their misfortune: both cars were stranded by a wheel nut issue when running strongly in Malaysia, while Sutil was the innocent party in early clashes in China and Bahrain. The VJM06 has been capable of making the top 10 in every race.
…but Sauber and Williams have regressed
Sauber and Williams excelled in 2012, when the latter won a race and the former were narrowly beaten on several occasions. This season, neither team has been anywhere near competitive. Nico Hulkenberg failed to start in Australia, while in Bahrain the C32 was uncompetitive. Esteban Gutierrez has also had a difficult start, but will improve as the season progresses. While Sauber has a least scored points, Williams haven’t scraped into the top 10. Pastor Maldonado has made a few errors, but for Williams the promising aspect is that Valtteri Bottas has been applying himself well. They retain confidence in the potential of the FW35; their Spanish upgrades will be critical in defining the remainder of their year.
It’s getting spicy at the back
HRT’s demise has led Caterham and Marussia to battle it out for honours at the back of the field. Marussia has held the upper hand, with the excellent Jules Bianchi finishing in 13th at Sepang. Caterham’s upgrades in Bahrain worked well, while the return of Heikki Kovalainen has also provided a much needed morale boost. Progress has been made by both teams and although that elusive first point may not come this season, it’s certainly getting closer. Let’s hope that, particularly in Marussia’s case, the finances are secure. The loss of $10m under the proposed new agreement makes this particular battle even more important.