A level of dominance that had seldom been seen in recent times was achieved by a charging Red Bull team in 2011 and the question on many minds following the conclusion in Brazil was whether or not the chasing pack, in particular an all too underachieving Mclaren team, could finally reclaim the coveted number one position. A frantic few days of testing in the winter sun of mainland Spain did little to decipher the relative pace of the 2012 challengers. Lotus showed promise, Mclaren and Red Bull looked predictably strong, but this was after all just mere speculation – separating the sponsor pleasing glory-runs from genuine race ability was nigh on impossible with only laptimes on their own and not fuel loads. The final day at Catalunya promised much, all teams previewed as much of their Australia-spec cars as they dared. The net outcome was still inconclusive – bar a surprising lack of running from Vettel and Red Bull. The early season racing would provide many answers, yet also many questions. So, where do they stand after the opening duo of championship rounds.
On the sole two sets of data points we have so far, Mclaren seem to have created the most consistently quick car across all conditions. Supreme qualifying pace has been supplemented by consistent race speed – which, from the evidence thus far, seems only a very close second to that of Red Bull in dry conditions. The Mclarens have capitalised in this respect in a similar way to the Red Bulls of previous years – they are able to duly pull away at the starts and nurture a gap that is most of the time insurmountable to the opposition. Overall, aside from Button’s puzzling performance in the manic Malaysian GP the Woking-based team have a lot to be smiling about so far – most of all the notable muteness of Red Bull and a flustered Sebastian Vettel.
Red Bull look to be having their worst start to a season for a while. However, considering the utter dominance the outfit has enjoyed in the recent past, 2012 has by no means whatsoever been a disaster so far. While the double-WCCs may not be fully content with lying second to bitter rivals Mclaren, there remains reason for Horner and co to be optimistic at the 18 races that lay ahead. The RB-8 looks blisteringly quick on higher fuel loads and Webber has shown signs he has overcome his Pirelli-induced 2011 blip. It still remains the case that Red Bull have suffered more than most from the abolishment of the exhaust-blown diffuser – they will be relying on the genius of Newey now more than ever to ensure they earn their triple-crown. The defending champions leave the impression that there is more to come – hopefully this will mean a classic battle between F1′s two strongest teams.
Ferrari set off on their 2012 adventure looking to bring to an end their trend of decline. Each season in recent years has been more desperate and disappointing than the last. The tifosi were proving tolerant throughout what was a very dry period, but were beginning to demand improvement – the red cars had to start well. They didn’t. Uncomfortable rumours of a poor car in winter testing proved correct in a dismal first qualifying session with neither Ferrari into Q3. Since that ordeal it must be said the Maranello team have had stronger showings, making the case the car was not truly represented in that horrifying qualifying session, albeit only in the hands of a resurgent Fernando Alonso. The fortunate snatching of victory by said driver in round 2 may divert questioning eyes for now, but the pressure is still heavy on Ferrari’s shoulders to repeat the showing in more uniform conditions.
Mercedes have a car with a split personality. An innovative DRS-duct has made the W03 the second quickest car in qualifying, but their race pace has been dismally dire by contrast. A car that had the ability to qualify on the front row was being left to pick fights in the midfield during the race. This is all of course born out of the fact DRS is heavily restricted in the race and also that the Meredes has recorded quite poor tyre wear rates. The result is a car that performs much more favourably in qualifying conditions. Schumacher has yet to have a clean race and therefore his standing is difficult to judge. His teammate Rosberg has not been impressive even without those kind of obstructions - the way in which he slid miserably down the field during the Malaysian Grand Prix was rather shocking (many were simly waltzing around him efortlessly). These issues need to be ironed out before the huge pile of Mercedes investment money finally yields much needed results.
Enstone has created another strong challenger with a fairly limited budget in comparison to the likes of Red Bull, Mclaren and Ferrari. The hiring of Kimi Raikkonen, whose commitment was widely questioned pre-season, has been vindicated wholeheartedly. The cool Finn has lead Lotus to a string of good early results while teammate Grojean has suffered a challenging re-adjustment. A succession of small errors beyond control of the team have hindered their point-scoring thus far, but at the moment it looks promising. Lotus’ season will surely depend on whether they can defy last year’s drop off in pace towards the end of the season, the team look to have a new lease of life unbound by the shackles of a difficult front exhaust configuration.
The rest of the field
Sauber - An advance on last year has been evident so far, the promising performance in Malaysia shows they have a versatile and capable car in the hands of exciting drivers. Sauber could upset many teams larger than them in 2012.
Force India - Year-on-year the team continue to go up in the championship standings. In 2012 the midfield is tightly packed and it may be difficult for the team to progress, but with a consistent car and a stronger driver line up, anything is possible.
Williams - The team’s worst performance of all time in 2011 left plenty of room for improvement and that is exactly what they have done. A maturing Maldonado could lead the historic team to a more satisfing year. They will certainly be in contention to win the midfield battle.
Torro Rosso - The harsh double sacking of last years drivers was strongly criticized by all but Ricciard ond Vergne have so far given some great results. Whether or not the package is strong enough to truly challenge in the midfield has yet to be seen.
Caterham - Testament to just how difficult it is to start from scratch in F1, Caterham, the best of the “new” teams have once again failed to join the midfield. Could a lonely year of running await?
Marussia - Little or no improvement by Marussia so far despite the change in ownership. How long will it be before Timo Glock (and the investors) get bored?
HRT - Failing to qualify in Australia was not on the agenda for the much ridiculed outfit. They look to once again be aiming for single high finishes in freak circumstances that could allow them to avoid last position again.
2012 looks to be an intriguing prospect. The battle we so craved right at the front is seemingly coming into fruition and the midfield looks unbelievably tight – what a classic year this could be.