Someone is lying. If we discard backmarkers Caterham and Marussia, one of the remaining teams has to finish in ninth place in the championship. As in 2012, one of Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Lotus or Mercedes has to finish fifth. Or unthinkably, worse. It seems an obvious proposition, but amidst every driver articulating that their 2013 car is an improvement on the 2012 model someone deep down knows that this season won’t be the one. So who is it? Until Melbourne, it’s difficult to know. Even then, Melbourne provides a notoriously difficult benchmark; after all last year’s top three in the championship begun the opening race from sixth, twelfth and eighteenth on the grid. Here’s who lines up on the 2013 grid, what they need to do to improve and how they might fare. But in reality, not until the DRS flicks open and each driver comes blasting around the final corner during the final moments of Q3 in Albert Park will we know the order. Even then, it’s just one session of a long, arduous and hopefully compelling season. Can Vettel win four in a row? How will Alonso bounce back? What of Perez at McLaren, Hamilton at Mercedes and Hulkenberg at Sauber? The five rookies, how will they cope? Just some of the questions waiting to be answered across the final season before Formula One heads into a new era. Speaking of which, dividing development teams between 2013 and 2014 progress will be critical not just for the leading teams but for the midfield bunch as well. Just think how the 2008/09 rule changes shook the running order to its core. Hold tight, this one’s going to be good…
1 | Sebastian Vettel | Infiniti Red Bull Racing
Vettel’s transformation from a young potential superstar to triple world champion in such a short space of time is unprecedented in Formula One history. Vettel is still just twenty-five years old; his team-mate Mark Webber had yet to make his debut at that age. Now the task for Vettel and Red Bull will be to try and make it four in a row, a feat that only compatriot Michael Schumacher has accomplished. The competition will be stronger, while the ban on the double DRS – a rule change decided prior to Red Bull’s upturn in form – could rob Red Bull of one of the key assets of the late season RB8. Vettel has to start consistently confounding the limitations of his car and make sure that there aren’t any wobbles like at the start of 2012. Towards the end of the 2012 season, Vettel and the RB8 were unstoppable. But the German won only once in the first thirteen races and was frequently indifferent in qualifying. Vettel’s dominance of the circuits towards the end of the season – Suzuka, Yeongam, Buddh – provide him with a trump card, but he must start 2013 on a better footing if he is to retain his title.
Prediction: Fighting for the title, but this time he comes up short.
2 | Mark Webber | Infiniti Red Bull Racing
Will 2013 be Mark Webber’s final season? Only the Australian can provide an answer to that question, but if it is to be his last year then expect the usual mixture of brilliance and tenacity, interspersed with races where he disappears. Webber has rarely run well at the Tilke designed circuits, but at the classic tracks he excels. There are few racing drivers who can lay claim to having won at Monaco and Silverstone twice; a feat that is a mark of a supremely gifted racer. Sebastian Vettel’s extraordinary abilities have frequently made Webber look ordinary but on the occasions when Mark turns the tables, it only exemplifies the turn of speed he possesses. Where he really needs to improve – and it may be too late – is at the start of the race. Too often does Webber lose a couple of places at the start; a feature best demonstrated in Abu Dhabi last year when a slow getaway turned a potential victory into midfield mediocrity. If the previous three seasons are to be a barometer, then a couple of wins and supporting Red Bull for the WCC will be another good result.
Prediction: A couple of sensational performances, but will it be his final year?
3 | Fernando Alonso | Scuderia Ferrari
It’s impossible to achieve perfection in a sport such as Formula One, but Fernando Alonso’s metronomic consistency combined with his sensational pace in 2012 was as close to perfection from one driver across twenty races. Can Alonso repeat his performances in 2013? It seems to be a difficult task, but Alonso was better in 2012 than in 2011, which in turn was better than 2010. The F138 should be an improvement on the F2012, although Alonso will be hoping that the F138 retains one of the F2012’s few advantages: the large window in which the Ferrari could use its tyres well. Alonso is ultimately the most complete driver on the grid, one who is peerless in victory and confounds expectation. He has a team built around him and a compliant team-mate who is unlikely to pose a sustained threat. Surely it’ll be fourth time lucky?
Prediction: World title number three. Bold call? Possibly. But he deserves it.
4 | Felipe Massa | Scuderia Ferrari
The trials and tribulations of Felipe Massa have been well documented since his horrific accident in 2009, but Massa finally rediscovered the joy of driving in the middle of 2012. Since then, he was regularly in the points and occasionally troubling Alonso. It’s difficult to envisage the Brazilian leading Ferrari’s main challenge but if he can continue this trajectory then he can provide dutiful back up to Alonso. Massa’s key weakness in 2012 was psychological and once he understood his issues, he was transformed. That doesn’t mean he’s suddenly a championship contender, but it’d be fantastic if Massa could win again.
Prediction: Regularly challenging for the podium although that win could remain just out of reach.
5 | Jenson Button | Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
After Lewis Hamilton’s move to Mercedes, Button is now McLaren’s main man as he will undoubtedly assert his authority over Sergio Perez at the start of the season. The MP4-28 will be among the frontrunners, while the Brit should be aided by the Pirelli tyres warming up at a more rapid rate. But to deliver the title to McLaren, Button will need to match Alonso and Vettel in terms of consistency, speed and relentlessness. Button occasionally has a tendency to go missing for a couple of races every season. Titles are often won not through the best races, but through limiting damage in the worst; out of the top contenders, this is one of Button’s weaknesses. Improving qualifying performances will also be crucial, particularly if the grid is as tight as expected.
Prediction: Races where he is sublime, races where he isn’t. Unlocking the potential of the MP4-28 will be crucial.
6 | Sergio Perez | Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
The new Hamilton or the next Kovalainen? That’s a question that should begin to be answered across the next nineteen races. Perez is undoubtedly an intelligent racer, although there are a few lingering doubts. Was his tyre saving ability down to the Sauber or was it his own style that can be transferred across to McLaren? Does he have the ability to be relentlessly quick across the duration of a race rather than simply using a quirky tyre strategy? Can he improve his qualifying performance? Moreover, does he have the ability to compete at the front every race? Some have belittled his podiums as merely achieved through an alternative strategy, but that discredit’s Perez’a ability at managing such a strategy. Nevertheless, anonymity for a couple of races is possible at Sauber, but not at McLaren. Perez at McLaren is an intriguing proposition.
Prediction: A maiden victory and top six in the championship.
7 | Kimi Raikkonen | Lotus F1 Team
Raikkonen’s return to the sport in 2012 was impressive. Now it’s up to him and Lotus to build on a strong first season and challenge for the title. One area for improvement will be qualifying, as a lack of top four starts in 2012 meant it was difficult for Raikkonen to make that final breakthrough. After two years out of the sport, his consistency and racecraft remained exquisite, if not better than ever. The Finn hasn’t had the most ideal of pre-seasons as reliability issues seemed to hit his E21 while he also missed a day of running through food poisoning. But Kimi is Kimi. Will he be bothered? Probably not.
Prediction: A couple of victories, but ultimately falling short in the title race.
8 | Romain Grosjean | Lotus F1 Team
First lap nutcase of future world champion? Opinion is split, but Grosjean undoubtedly possesses the speed that others can only dream of. He claimed three podiums in 2012 and could have won in Valencia, but before aiming for results, he has to utilise his supreme speed in the correct manner. He says he’s approaching 2013 with a different mentality and that it’s already paying dividends. But until he’s in the middle of a first corner sandwich, the jury’s out. His lack of special awareness and risk is worrying – note his incident with an HRT in Brazil – and that could be a character trait hard to iron out. For his sake and that of the sport, let’s hope he can.
Prediction: A maiden victory, fewer moments of madness – although they linger – but an all-round improvement on 2012.
9 | Nico Rosberg | Mercedes AMG Petronas
Rosberg finally achieved the breakthrough win in 2012 but was unable to sustain his early momentum. Part of that was down to Mercedes, but he didn’t fare too well against Schumacher as the season progressed. Getting the better of Hamilton early in the year before the Brit gets settled in will be crucial, although it appears over one lap the W04 is up there. The race pace of the W04 remains the great unknown but the German – with experience of all four Mercedes packages – seems confident. This is his chance to show the world whether he’s simply a very good driver or a future world champion.
Prediction: As ever for Rosberg, it could be a case of sixes and sevenths, but look out for him in China and Singapore. Unless the W04 really is the surprise package…
10 | Lewis Hamilton | Mercedes AMG Petronas
The boldest move by any driver since Schumacher moved to Ferrari in the mid-90s? Only once the 2014 season starts can that question be answered. But as for 2013, it may not be the write-off that many have predicted. Winter testing remains a notoriously deceptive time, but the W04 has shown promising pace. Hamilton will get the maximum out of every car he drives, particularly in qualifying, but if the W04 cannot preserve its tyres then it’ll be a tricky season. Nevertheless, Hamilton is particularly effective at circuits such as Montreal and Yas Marina. One intriguing aspect will simply be Lewis Hamilton without McLaren. Hamilton was never the most assertive driver on the grid when at McLaren – think of his tyre calls against Button’s – so how will he take on the craved mantle of team leader at Mercedes?
Prediction: There may well be races where the W04 is strong. If that’s the case, Hamilton will be up there. Wet races will be an opportunity as well.
11 | Nico Hulkenberg | Sauber F1 Team
Should he be wearing Ferrari or McLaren overalls this season? Probably. Nico Hulkenberg joins his third different team for his third season as a Formula One racer and the Sauber C32 should provide him with a good package. Hulkenberg has an abundance of talent that should gel well with the Swiss team; after all, how frequently does Hulkenberg get into trouble on the track? Both Hulkenberg and Gutierrez were hindered by reliability issues during their final race simulations in Barcelona; perhaps a worry for Melbourne.
Prediction: He’ll be on the podium and he should win a race. Magic in Interlagos again?
12 | Esteban Gutierrez | Sauber F1 Team
After several seasons of being touted as the next big thing, Gutierrez finally earns his promotion with Sauber, the team he joined as a reserve driver in 2011. The Mexican has strong pace but a very good team-mate in Hulkenberg, meaning that simply establishing himself should be an initial target. For a driver who is frequently prone to erratic moments, Gutierrez could learn a lot from his team-mate’s measured approach to racing while avoiding over-driving early on in the year when Hulkenberg will have the upper hand.
Prediction: A typical rookie season: mistakes, moments of madness, some promising races and a few points scoring finishes.
14 | Paul di Resta | Sahara Force India
2013 will be di Resta’s third season in the sport and it’s probably due time to start making a greater impact. The Scot showed signs of promise during his rookie season in 2011 but last year his star waned slightly as he was struck by misfortune and a few errors while Nico Hulkenberg impressed at exactly the right moment. The Pirelli tyres should play into his hands, although he really needs to put in a couple of standout drives to catch the attention. Di Resta takes a quiet, methodical approach both in and out of the car and while there’s nothing hugely wrong with this, it means he can be very good but go unnoticed. How he compares to re-signed team-mate Sutil will be fascinating.
Prediction: A couple of standout drives – Bahrain and Singapore perhaps – and narrowly edges Sutil in the championship.
15 | Adrian Sutil | Sahara Force India
Everybody deserves a second chance. His form towards the end of 2011 was the best of his career and while Force India denied it at the time, his conviction for the nightclub incident seems to have been the reason for his enforced sabbatical. Missing a year of racing won’t be ideal, but he has experience, knows the team and it will feel like he’s never been away. He’s not a star, but he’s reliable; the Nick Heidfeld of this decade. Force India will hope that in Sutil, they can take advantage of rookie mistakes at rivals Sauber and Williams, particularly early in the season.
Prediction: Consistently skirting around the lower end of the top ten. Watch out for him in the wet.
16 | Pastor Maldonado | Williams F1 Team
2013 is the year where Maldonado must blend his supreme speed with consistency. Aside from his stunning maiden win, he also pumped in a couple of fantastic races in Singapore and Abu Dhabi. The Venezuelan squandered too many points in 2012 and he can’t do that again, particularly with the political uncertainty following the death of Hugo Chavez. His qualifying pace is a strong asset, but he needs to be assertive without being reckless if he is to continue his upward trajectory.
Prediction: With the hype, probably a lap 1 exit in Spain! Always quick when the walls are close. More points than in 2012 and less criticism to boot.
17 | Valtteri Bottas | Williams F1 Team
From GP3 to F1. It’s a big step for any driver, but Williams has absolute trust in their young Finnish star. Bottas has been groomed by the team for several years, including helping the team set up and pack away during race weekends. He’s now been promoted to a race seat and the world gets to see just how good Bottas really is. He could start the year a little race rusty – after all, his last start was in September 2011 – but if he can get near to Maldonado’s pace then Williams’s faith will be justified. What mustn’t happen is writing Bottas off if he has a slow start; the same happened to Hulkenberg and look where he is now.
Prediction: If the FW35 is in the ballpark, he should be the rookie to beat.
18 | Jean-Eric Vergne | Scuderia Toro Rosso
Four eighth places interspersed with sixteen races outside of the points. Vergne’s 2012 season in a nutshell. One concern about Vergne’s debut season was his qualifying pace; he was trounced by Daniel Ricciardo and too frequently found himself eliminated in Q1. Vergne’s aggressive style meant he was usually overdriving in qualifying and made too many silly errors. To have a chance of staking a claim to a Red Bull seat, Saturday pace needs to be improved.
Prediction: Another one to watch in wet weather, but as usual expect STR to be firmly in the midfield and occasionally scoring points.
19 | Daniel Ricciardo | Scuderia Toro Rosso
Mark Webber’s successor? At this moment in time, it seems to be a likely destination for Ricciardo. The STR7 wasn’t a spectacular machine yet Ricciardo’s lap in Bahrain last season was utterly sensational; his race start less so. Ricciardo impressed across the second half of 2012 and he now needs to continue this momentum without focusing too much on the carrot on the stick that is a potential Red Bull seat in 2014.
Prediction: Some unexpected results, tenacious racing and a grin as wide as his country.
20 | Charles Pic | Caterham F1 Team
Pic’s arrival at Caterham consolidates their French connections, but viewing Pic as simply a backmarker pay driver discredits the quiet Frenchman’s talents. On occasion in 2012 he took the challenge to Timo Glock which is an impressive feat. Pic operated largely under the radar last year yet he bucks the trend of Marussia drivers in remaining on the grid. His contract is a multi-year deal, meaning that 2013 will simply be a learning year.
Prediction: Another year of being quietly impressive, although the hunt for the elusive point goes on.
21 | Giedo van der Garde | Caterham F1 Team
After several years of agonising near-misses (remember, he was a junior contemporary of Vettel and Hamilton), Van der Garde finally returns the Dutch flag to the grid in 2013. His financial backing enabled him to make the step up from GP2, but Van der Garde is a competent and amiable racer. Even if his sojourn lasts just a season, it’ll be one that he enjoys.
Prediction: Consistently a few tenths behind Pic although without many errors.
22 | Jules Bianchi | Marussia F1 Team
Bianchi joins the grid in 2013 to make it a quartet of French drivers in the pinnacle of motor racing. Bianchi’s talent is not in doubt – his GP2 and FR3.5 record is testament to his ability – but what is a lingering niggle is his tendency to make errors under pressure. He curbed his erratic behaviour somewhat in FR3.5 last season and Marussia should provide the perfect environment for Bianchi to spend his rookie season. Midfield teams, and Ferrari, will be watching.
Prediction: Leading Marussia’s challenge and taking the fight to Caterham.
23 | Max Chilton | Marussia F1 Team
Like Van der Garde, Chilton owes his position on the grid down to the size of his wallet. Also like Van der Garde, writing him off before he’s started would be to ignore the fact that he has extensive junior experience – despite his youth – and won two GP2 races last season. His qualifying pace was in GP2 was strong but his racecraft was lacking; at the back of the F1 grid this will be less of an issue.
Prediction: Likely to be propping up the grid but far from out of his depth.