Natalie’s F1 World: 2012 Here we come!

As the start of the 2012 Formula 1 season looms large on the calendar, March 18th to be exact, this is as good a time as any to look at what lies ahead in what is sure to be another exhilarating year of motor racing.

In all of its history only two drivers (Fangio and Schumacher) have managed to win three consecutive world titles. In 2012 Sebastian Vettel will try to emulate his childhood idols. To achieve this amazing feat he’ll have as his disposal an F1 car designed by, arguably, the best designer of his generation – Adrian Newey. It’s no surprise that the RB8 looked quick straight out of the box in Jerez.

Undoubtedly the car will undergo many changes in time for the Australian Gp but there are some fundamental aspects of the RB8 that has already caught the eye. The ban on rear blown diffuser has significantly decreased rear downforce. Since Red Bull were the pioneers of this ingenious concept in 2011 it doesn’t come as a surprise to recognise that they’ve found a solution, at least partly. A closer look reveals the exhaust appears to be blowing towards the lower element of the rear wing.

The ‘step-nose’ design of the RB8 looks relatively similar to the rest of the field with the exception of an intake in the step. Newey maintains that it’s merely there to cool the driver. Keep in mind that Red Bull possesses some of the best fluid dynamicists in F1 and rest assured every inch of the RB8 has been designed the way it is for good reason.   It’s been suggested that the air intake could be serving as a channel for relaying air towards the rear of the car. Whatever the purpose of the slot may be it is highly unlikely that it is there solely for driver cooling.

Ferrari’s first pre-season test left Technical Director Pat Fry completely underwhelmed prompting the Englishman to divulge that the team would have to make big improvements if it wished to fight for victory off the bat.  It seems incredible that this one near invincible team is struggling to regain the number one status.

The man under most pressure at the Italian squad is undoubtedly Felipe Massa. Two lacklustre seasons has done little to convince the pundits that he is deservedly in the second Ferrari seat. His ‘number two’ tag is going to stick for a while and this may well be the Brazilian’s last season at the Scuderia.

On the other side of the garage Fernando Alonso has to find some way of marshalling his team into a position to fight for the world championship. He is after all, in the words of Pres. Di Montezemolo, a driver who is able to rally the team around him and push them to do great things; it just hasn’t quite come together. Fernando Alonso is a great all-round driver. He has great presence of mind when it comes to pumping in that one flying lap in qualifying, great consistency over long-runs and most importantly a desire to win.

McLaren have bucked the trend by opting for an arched nose as opposed to the ‘step nose’ that most other teams are sporting. It may be a stroke of genius or a complete catastrophe or it may not matter at all. Pre-season testing has revealed a competitive MP4-27 and a buoyant Lewis Hamilton. The former champion’s 2011 season was far from smooth sailing and there are many theories as to why he seemed to lose the plot. The best thing Lewis can do to prepare for the 2012 is to get his mind in the best place possible and have people around him that will ensure it stays in a good place. He is undoubtedly a driver of immense talent and one capable of turning it on at the drop of a hat; but Lewis is also very much a confidence driver. Momentum is one of the most crucial aspects of any F1 success story and coupled with a mega fast, error-free Hamilton, that is dynamite.

Jenson Button may well turn out to be the dark-horse of the season. That’s if you can call the 2009 world champion and runner-up in 2011 a dark-horse. It took time for Jenson to reveal what a stellar driver he is and what a brilliant racing mind he possesses. I was once told not be so romantic about JB following his win at the 2011 Hungarian Gp. It is incredibly hard not to be considering the majestic way he swept to his three victories last season. JB has a real feel not only for his McLaren race car but for the team – a winning combination. Count him out at your peril.

The two teams with the potential to surprise this season are Mercedes and Lotus. The Mercedes team haven’t built bad race cars the last few seasons. They’ve been the fourth best team consistently and it’s not going to take a massive push for them to challenge for podium positions. Given their recent performance it does appear that they’ve taken a step forward; especially the long-run pace – an area where Mercedes fell short last year.

As for the drivers despite Michael Schumacher’s ‘lacklustre’ performances the pressure will be more on the younger Rosberg. This season will mark his seventh in the sport and its way past time for Nico to step up his game; outperforming Schumacher is not going to be enough. A handful of podiums after six years of racing haven’t prompted anyone to rank Nico as a ‘great’ driver. He’s just…solid. For Rosberg to be rated a ‘great’ he will have to drive the wheels off the Mercedes and drag it into positions where it is not supposed to be. If not, Nico may become just another also-ran.

The Lotus team (formerly known as Renault) has scored quite a coup by signing up 2007 world champ Kimi Raikkonen. The team has praised Raikkonen’s work ethic and approachability since the Finn joined the team. On the ‘issue’ of his motivation there are some that question it as they did in his final season with Ferrari in 2009. As far as the Iceman is concerned it’s never been higher; stating bullishly that he will not give up the fight regardless of the position he finds himself in. It seems the two years spent competing in the World Rally Championship has returned a refreshed Raikkonen to F1.

Kimi Raikkonen topped the timing sheets on the final day of pre-season testing; but it’s never a good idea to read anything into these times. Nevertheless, the long-run pace of Raikkonen and his Lotus was staggeringly consistent – an indicator that the car’s behaviour is predictable, always a good sign.

The wait has been long but it has not been in vain.  For the first time in the history of Formula 1 six world champions will line up on the grid. Will Red Bull maintain their dominance? Are Ferrari on the comeback trail? Is it McLaren who has found the sought-after silver bullet? Only time will tell.