F1 2012 Season Preview: Drivers and Teams

It’s that time of year again race fans. We’re days away from the V8 engines of the Formula One World Championship firing up in anger for the first time in 2012. Last season saw Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel dominate the season en route to their second consecutive championship. So to start our look at the 2012 F1 season, we look at the 12 teams that will be in the field and the 24 drivers piloting the cars.

Red Bull Racing – Renault
#1 Sebastian Vettel
#2 Mark Webber

Red Bull has won the last two World Drivers’ and World Constructors’ Championships with Sebastian Vettel leading the way home. The German is signed through the 2014 season with Red Bull. Teammate Mark Webber is confirmed with Red Bull through this season. Having been rumoured to be out at Red Bull in each of the last three seasons (including for 2012), the dynamic and success of this team could be largely up to Webber’s motivation. He’s a very emotional driver in that he drives better when motivated to drive well. If he’s due to be dropped from the team, I would imagine it would harm his performance.

The RB8 hasn’t been the fastest car according to the timesheets in pre-season testing. However, this year’s car is an evolution of 2011’s RB7 which won 12 of 19 races, 18 of 19 poles, 10 of 19 fastest laps and 27 of 38 possible podiums. Just because it’s fast before the season started doesn’t mean it won’t be fast when the miles really count. If anyone is quickly up to speed on new rules, it’s Red Bull designer Adrian Newey. With the best designer in F1 on their side, it’s hard to bet against Red Bull to take home their third straight pair of championships.

McLaren – Mercedes
#3 Jenson Button
#4 Lewis Hamilton

The all-British effort is back at McLaren for the third straight season. With the introduction of the Pirelli tyres, which benefit drivers who can keep some life in their tyres over the long haul, Jenson Button thoroughly trounced Lewis Hamilton last season. Hamilton claims that his problem was a lack of focus on F1 that won’t be a problem this year. The only change Hamilton has made compared to last season is being dumped by Nicole Scherzinger. I would think that losing your smoking hot celebrity girlfriend would be a bigger distraction than dating her. Then again, I’ve never dated someone who’s been on the Maxim Hot 100 so what do I know.

Scuderia Ferrari
#5 Fernando Alonso
#6 Felipe Massa

This season will be the first in which the Scuderia operates without one technical director. They instead have three other directors who are each responsible for a specific area. Pat Fry is the chassis director, Corrado Lanzone works as the production director and Luca Marmorini is the electronics director. Ferrari started this system mid-way through last season. We’ll have to see if this helps the team improve over the two one-win seasons that former technical director Aldo Costa led the team to in four seasons at the helm.

It will also be interesting to track Felipe Massa’s season. This is the final year of his contract and Ferrari is already said to be looking at Robert Kubica and Sergio Perez as preferred drivers to partner with Fernando Alonso from 2013 on. If Massa can’t pick up the pace this season, he’s very likely to be out of a job at the Scuderia by the season’s end.

Mercedes AMG
#7 Michael Schumacher
#8 Nico Rosberg

As with the rest of the top four teams in Formula One last season, it’s steady as she goes for Mercedes this season. They’ve added they name of Mercedes-Benz’ performance division, AMG, to the team name. I wonder if they’re going to add the “Black Series” tag to the cars in the future in order to market the more track ready high-performance cars AMG pumps out. The story heading into this season is what will happen in the final of Michael’s three-year contract. His comeback has been pronounced a failure by most but it’s not like he’s been thoroughly outperformed by Rosberg. The car seems a bit more prone to under- than over-steer which favours Rosberg over Schumacher.

Lotus – Renault
#9 Kimi Raikkonen
#10 Romain Grosjean

With Lotus dropping the Renault name from the team, they haven’t dropped the French connection altogether. The team will still use Renault engines and will also have a French driver in twice GP2 Asia Series and 2011 GP2 champion Romain Grosjean. Completing the overhaul for this season, Lotus has brought in 2007 F1 World Drivers’ Champion Kimi Raikkonen to lead the team. The Finn was bounced from Ferrari after 2009 with a season left on his contract to make room for Fernando Alonso. Since then, the Kimster has plied his trade in the WRC and even in a couple of NASCAR races with limited success. But if his pace in pre-season testing is any indication, Kimi doesn’t have any rust and will be fast out of the gate.

Sahara Force India – Mercedes
#11 Paul di Resta
#12 Nico Hulkenberg

Thanks in part to an assault conviction on his criminal record for attacking Genii Capital (Lotus/Renault sponsor/owner) CEO Eric Lux with a broken champagne glass in a Shanghai nightclub, Adrian Sutil is no longer employed by Force India. In his place is Nico Hulkenberg who scored Williams’ last F1 pole at the 2010 Brazilian GP. Paul di Resta moves into the team leader role after his rookie campaign last year.

The other big story at Force India is the Sahara company buying 42.5% of the company with Vijay Mallya retaining 42.5%. This move came amidst rumours of Mallya wanting to sell the team outright as a result of his Kingfisher Airlines losing money hand over fist. In fact, Kingfisher Airlines is in such bad shape that it has done all but declare bankruptcy which is why the Kingfisher logos are missing from the car this season.

Sauber – Ferrari
#14 Kamui Kobayashi
#15 Sergio Perez

With both Lotus and Toro Rosso looking like they’re fielding faster cars this season, Sauber may have their work cut out for them this season. The advantage that Sauber has is that they’ve kept Kobayashi and Perez together for a second season. Familiarity between the drivers and team will help everyone involved deal with the changes to the car this season. The biggest problem that Sauber faces is being able to stay strong all season. The Sauber boys came flying out of the gate last season but weren’t able to keep pace as the season drew on. They were still able to score points regularly at the end but had definitely lost pace. The key this season is to not fall too behind on in-season development.

Toro Rosso – Ferrari
#16 Daniel Ricciardo
#17 Jean-Eric Vergne

Toro Rosso has completely shaken things up for the 2012 season. Gone are Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari and in their places are rookies Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne. Ricciardo split time between racing for HRT and in Formula Renault 3.5. Vergne raced exclusively in FR3.5 and finished second in the championship to Canadian Robert Wickens (who is a Marussia development driver). Red Bull boss Helmut Marko said that neither Buemi nor Alguersuari were “winners” which resulted in the pair being jettisoned. Team principal Franz Tost said that STR is a training ground for rookies and essentially said that it was time to bring new blood into the sport. We’ll have to see how much time Ricciardo and Vergne are given to prove themselves. With the car looking reasonably strong in testing, they may not get as long as they’d like to prove themselves at STR.

Williams – Renault
#18 Pastor Maldonado
#19 Bruno Senna

The big news from the last week is that Williams is profitable. They released their 2011 financial statements which showed revenue of £102.3 million and a pre-tax net profit of £9.8 million. Both are improvements over their results from the 2010 fiscal year. However, both those increases can be attributed to Pastor Maldonado and his sponsorship backing from PDVSA, a Venezualan state-owned oil company. That sponsorship is apparently the largest single source of revenue on the Williams books which means that Pastor is staying as long as he’s bringing large sums of money. A leaked invoice shows that PDVSA is paying Williams £29.4 million for the 2012 season which would make up about 29% of Williams 2011 revenue.

Apart from Maldonado and his money, there have been quite a few changes at Williams heading into the season. Cosworth has been replaced by Renault as engine supplier which harkens back to the last time Williams won a World Championship with Jacques Villeneuve in 1997. Williams also brought in Brazilian driver Bruno Senna to replace fellow Brazilian Rubens Barrichello who will be making the move to Indy Car with KV Racing. Management has also had a change as Patrick Head has left his role with the Grand Prix team to focus on Williams’ Hybrid Power engineering subsidiary. With all these changes, I don’t foresee a successful reuniting of Williams and Renault this season. In fact, I’d say that a good run of luck by Caterham could see Williams fall as low as 10th in the World Constructors’ Championship.

Caterham – Renault
#20 Heikki Kovalainen
#21 Vitaly Petrov

After a year of fighting, Tony Fernandes has dropped the Lotus name from his team and will instead enter the team as Caterham, the British car manufacturer that he purchased last year. Despite having the endorsement of the Chapman family as the official Team Lotus in regards to F1 lineage, Fernandes gave up his rights to the Lotus name in favour of marketing his own company.

The new Caterham was the first 2012 car to debut and was harbinger of the horrific looking cars to come. Despite how the car looked, the team didn’t look too bad in pre-season testing. With Kovalainen at the wheel, the car looks like a threat to challenge for points before the season is over. The Finn is partnered by Vitaly Petrov who brings his large sums of sponsorship money to Caterham from Lotus (formerly Renault).

HRT – Cosworth
#22 Pedro de la Rosa
#23 Narain Karthikeyan

The question with HRT is whether it’s two steps forward and one back or one step forward and two back. They’ve sorted out their management situation and hired experience driver Pedro de la Rosa to pilot one of the cars. Those are the steps forward. Bad moves include not having a car ready for testing, planning to move into a new facility that isn’t ready and re-hiring Narain Karthikeyan’s money. Without seeing the car on track at all, I don’t know how HRT is actually doing heading into this season. However, I would imagine that it’ll be the same as last year. They only managed 11th in the Constructors’ Championship through a lucky 13th place in the topsy-turvy and unpredictable Canadian Grand Prix. They’ll again need luck or a fluke on their side to finish higher than 12th this season.

Marussia – Cosworth
#24 Timo Glock
#25 Charles Pic

Having purchased a majority stake in the team in 2011, Russian car manufacturer Marussia is listed at the constructor and the Virgin title gets dropped from the team. However, the Russian team couldn’t land Vitaly Petrov who would’ve been a perfect fit for the team, though not necessarily for Vitaly. Instead, they got little known French racer Charles Pic, who finished 4th in last year’s GP2 series, to partner with Timp Glock. It is also of interesting to note that if Marussia lasts through the end of the season, they’ll have lasted longer in F1 than any other Russian owned team. Jordan was purchased by the Midland Group in 2005 and became Midland F1, considered a Russian team, in 2006 before selling to Spyker before the season was out.

Like HRT, Marussia did not run their 2012 car in the pre-season tests due to the car not being ready after failing the FIA mandated crash tests. The team parted ways with Wirth Research in 2011 which makes this year’s car the first that won’t be developed using solely computational fluid dynamics (CFD). We’ll have to wait until the car runs in Melbourne to see if going to the traditional design and testing method will improve the team over their first two seasons in F1.

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