As the 2012 season proved, Formula 1 is in rude health. Close racing, a title battle that went down to the last race, and (of course) the statistic of seven different winners to start the year. With everything that went on last year, it would be easy for racing sceptics to say that the sport can’t reach that kind of height for a very long time, right? From a personal view… Wrong.
Stability in regulations in the past has usually had the effect of cars ‘bunching up’ in terms of lap times (2008 springs to mind here, with most of the pack running within a second of each other for a large part of the year), and I can’t see a reason why 2013 should be any different. Testing is reliably unreliable in the sport, but whether teams are sand-bagging the cars or not, the lap times do tell a story. The so-called ‘new’ teams of Marussia and Caterham have shown in testing that they were merrily lapping around a second off last year’s Spanish Grand Prix pole lap. But such is the level of development in the sport, Nico Rosberg’s lap of 1:20.1 in Barcelona was a full 1.6 seconds faster than the pole lap set by his now team-mate Lewis Hamilton last year (before he was sent to the back of the grid for insufficient fuel levels, but let’s gloss over that…) So the cars are expected to be running closer together at the front, while going faster at the same time. What’s not to like?
Because the cars are expected to be incredibly competitive amongst each other, this means that we now have more genuine world title contenders. But the big question is this: Who can build a fast car and have the ability to drive their way into stopping Sebastian Vettel winning a fourth consecutive title? It’s a tough one to call. The raw engineering nouse of über-brain Adrian Newey has built championship-winning cars that span the decades, and not many among the paddock can see why this year will be an exception to that rule. The favourite for the Championship, without too much doubt.
The obvious answer to the question, though, would be Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. He was the choice of the majority among surveys and pundits as ‘Driver of the Year’ last year when he wrestled his often off-the-pace Prancing Horse to within three points of the title. Not that testing is a good indicator at all (as previously mentioned!) but on the face of it, the team back at Maranello have seemingly got their act together from the start to build a car that has been on or very close to the front running pace throughout the winter. And now that Alonso has a rejuvenated Felipe Massa alongside him to seriously back up his title charge, Ferrari can be seen to be in serious title contention in both championships.
So, what of Mark “Not bad for a Number Two Driver” Webber? He’s a multiple race winner, mounted proper title charges in the past, but it’s never quite come together for him over the course of an entire season. On his day, he has been unbeatable. To win twice each at the traditional “Driver’s Circuits” of Silverstone and Monaco is no accident. Now the oldest driver on the grid, whether he will have the capabilities to put together a run of performances to rival and out-score his young German team-mate remains to be seen. Nonetheless, still a World-Class driver.
McLaren have taken some hits in the past few years. Losing Adrian Newey, Fernando Alonso , Lewis Hamilton, Ron Dennis and now Paddy Lowe have had some doubting whether they can still attract big names to the team in the same way that they used to. That being said, Sky F1’s Natalie Pinkham believes that 2009 Champion Jenson Button will take the crown this year, and early indicators have shown that McLaren have built a solid base to start the year; with the MP4-28 being among the favourites to grab pole position in Melbourne. Many eyes will also be tracking the progress of young Sergio Pérez to see if he can handle the pressure of driving for a big team. He probably won’t realistically put in a title challenge this year, but the team will definitely want a strong showing from him.
Lotus had shown their ability to build a race-winning car last year (with the threat to have won more, in Bahrain in particular), but their season culminated in the returning 2007 Champion Kimi Raikkonen taking the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi, after two years in the WRC. Leave him alone, Lotus, he knows what he’s doing. And The Enstone Team (as those working within the factory prefer to be called) will be looking to build on that for 2013 after the Finn took an impressive third place in the Championship in 2012. After being branded a “First-Lap Nutcase” by Mark Webber, and being given another chance by Team Principal Eric Boullier, Romain Grosjean knows where he needs to improve. This isn’t through lack of speed, though, as Grosjean has proven himself to be more than capable of challenging his more experienced team-mate; in qualifying in particular. Lotus will certainly fancy their chances of pushing for both titles this year, if they can keep up with development, and in the case of Grosjean, finish consistently and finish well.
Lastly out of the main contenders, and perhaps the most interestingly, Mercedes. Signing Lewis Hamilton was certainly a major coup for them, and along with Hamilton’s old karting team-mate Nico Rosberg outperforming the great Michael Schumacher over the course of three seasons; some would argue that the Silver Arrows have the strongest driver line-up in Formula 1. Also, the sheer development of the car over the winter testing alone has put Mercedes right up among the big guns. Hamilton and Rosberg have been good friends for a number of years, and if Nico does outperform Lewis, like he is definitely capable of, that relationship could well be tested. Hamilton had said towards the end of last season that he expects to win the World Championship with Mercedes, but not this year. This could be his way of taking the pressure off of himself for this season, but being a driver of his calibre, he won’t want to settle for a mediocre year.
If I’m going to be brutally honest with you, dear reader, as a huge fan of the sport and someone who follows it almost religiously, I can’t tell you who is going to win the 2013 World Championship. I can’t even tell you who’s going to be in the top five for sure… So in true X Factor judge style, I’m going to keep my thoughts a secret. I’ve written my top three Driver’s Championship predictions and my thoughts on who will win the Constructor’s Championship and placed them in a sealed envelope, to be revealed at the end of the season… But in the mean time, I probably won’t be the only one setting my alarm at a ridiculously early time for First Practice on Friday. We could be in for a treat this year, I’m looking forward to this slightly…