After updating you on the rules for this season, now it’s time to get you up to speed with the drivers and teams competing in this year’s Formula One World Championship. We’re short one team from the conclusion of last year’s championship after HRT closed up shop. A couple of drivers have left the grid, voluntarily and otherwise, and we have five rookies on the grid this year.
Red Bull Racing – Renault
#1 Sebastian Vettel
#2 Mark Webber
After three-peating as Constructors’ Champions and with Vettel winning back-to-back-to-back World Drivers’ Championship, why would we bet against them this season? Sure, they haven’t been the fastest in testing but how often does Red Bull put all its cards on the table in testing?
The question I have heading into this season is how the team’s plans for the future affect their plans for this season. Webber is likely to retire after this season which means that they have to find a driver for 2014. They also have Adrian Newey splitting his time between developing for this year and getting a head start on next year’s rules package. If there’s a time to catch Newey off guard, it’s when he’s got one eye on next season.
#3 Fernando Alonso
#4 Felipe Massa
It sure looked like Alonso was going to pick up his third World Drivers’ Championship by manhandling a pig of a car and scrape by the best driver and designer combination since the last major rules change. However, two exemplary drives in three races helped Sebastian Vettel win his third-straight World Championship by three points. Now that the Maranello wind tunnel has been reconfigured so that it works correctly, maybe Alonso can break Red Bull’s dominance this season.
The World Constructors’ Championship may be a bigger challenge. Since his accident at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, Felipe Massa just hasn’t been the same driver. There’s so much we don’t know about head injuries but one wouldn’t be out of line to assume that taking a two-pound spring to the head hasn’t done wonders for Massa’s speed. Having to hear about his future employment prospects for the next eight months won’t help Mass much either.
McLaren – Mercedes
#5 Jenson Button
#6 Sergio Perez
While people say that McLaren will be in contention for the Championship this season, I think they might be a bit optimistic considering the changes at the team. Hamilton, the team’s #1 driver since 2008, is out and third-year driver Sergio Perez is in. The team is also losing technical director Paddy Lowe to Mercedes at the year’s end but he’s likely to be put on leave for the season. That doesn’t even include the rumoured change in engine suppliers to Honda in 2015.
While this is a transition year for the team, they do still have Jenson Button who is back for his fourth season with the team. As opposed to allegedly sharing top billing with Hamilton, he’s the clear number one heading into the season. However, maintaining #1 status won’t be easy. While Button tends to need to unload fast to be fast during the weekend, new teammate Sergio Perez has the uncanny ability to find pace in the race, especially from stretching the life of the tyres. This is one teammate battle that will be closer than most fans and pundits are likely to admit.
Lotus – Renault
#7 Kimi Raikkonen
#8 Romain Grosjean
The Iceman returned to F1 last season after two years away rallying for Citroen. He wasn’t always the quickest driver but he sure was consistent. He finished every race and scored points in 19 of 20 raced, including the last 17 consecutive races which gives him the longest active streak in F1. If he works the rust completely off, he could be in with a shot at the World Drivers’ Championship.
Romain Grosjean is back for this season. Not many pundits like Grosjean. They think he might be quick but suffers from immaturity that caused him to get into a punch of accidents. Of course, most F1 pundits are British and we know how much they love the French. After all, the driver trailer does not have to take responsibility for any moves they make at the start, especially if their name is Lewis Hamilton. What was I saying? Grosjean got a bum rap last season and should be able to rectify that this year.
#9 Nico Rosberg
#10 Lewis Hamilton
Lewis has left McLaren and joined up with the Mercedes factory effort. That’s probably the only piece of news that anyone cares about when it comes to Mercedes this season. Nico Rosberg is still there this year which brings up an interesting issue. Rosberg likes understeer while Hamilton prefers oversteer. Mercedes was more or less able to get it to work with Rosberg and Schumacher last year but can they get two different handling drivers to work from one design this season.
Mercedes has been very fast in testing this winter which is a marked improvement over continuously falling off the pace last season. It could have just been a case of stopping serious development of the 2012 car for the 2013 car. Honda did that in 2008 which won them a championship in 2009 as Brawn before becoming Mercedes in 2010. Maybe this is part of Ross Brawn’s plan. Just as easily, it could be 2012 on repeat with a strong start to the year only for the car to fall apart as things went on.
Sauber – Ferrari
#11 Nico Hulkenberg
#12 Esteban Gutierrez
Sauber is one of three teams with a completely new driver line-up for this season. Hulkenberg comes over from Force India after Ferrari was rumoured to be interested in signing him to replace Massa this season. Don’t be surprised if we hear that again this season. Considering how fast Hulkenberg was last year muscling around that Force India which was probably the 7th fastest on the grid to get 11th in the WDC, I’d say that he’s earned the interest Ferrari has in him.
Esteban Gutierrez gets a promotion from test/reserve driver up to a full race seat. That makes him the second Mexican on the grid right now. It’s kind of amazing that there are no Italian drivers but two Mexicans. Not that their backing from Telmex has anything to do with getting here. It’s not that Gutierrez isn’t good though. He was 3rd in last year’s GP2 championship and is the highest finishing driver from last year’s championship to graduate to an F1 race seat (and keep it). His greatest drawback may be a lack of seat time in an F1 car compared to the likes of Williams’ Val Bottas.
Sahara Force India – Mercedes
#14 Adrian Sutil
#15 Paul di Resta
Any preview of Force India this season is probably going to focus on two things. The first is the re-signing of Adrian Sutil. He was decently quick in his first stint with FI but he never seemed like a championship calibre driver. Mind you, neither did Jenson Button until he got the best car on the grid. Sutil’s biggest challenge might not be getting the rust off but being permitted entry into all the host countries thanks to that assault conviction for stabbing Genii Capital CEO Eric Lux.
The other big story is that both the Sahara and Kingfisher groups are a bit short on money. Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher Airlines’ finances are in a bad way. It recently had its international flying rights and domestic landing slots revoked by the national flying authorities. Meanwhile, the Sahara group had two of its bank accounts frozen by Indian securities authorities after the Indian Supreme Court determined that they had collected some $4 billion in illegal bond sales. A potential lack of funding should be a major concern for the team going forward.
Williams – Renault
#16 Pastor Maldonado
#17 Valtteri Bottas
Maldonado is back for another season thanks to his sponsorship from the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA. However, one has to wonder how the recent death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will affect Maldonado’s sponsorship going forward. Political pundits are expecting major changes to the political situation of the country in the wake of Chavez’s death and it might just affect Williams’ financial situation.
Joining Maldonado at Williams is rookie Vatteri Bottas. I don’t know if the old motorsports adage of “if you want to win, employ a Finn” would apply when said Finn didn’t run a race last season and had only raced as high as GP3. Granted, Bottas won the 2011 GP3 championship and ran Friday practice at 15 grands prix last season. Despite the lack of running in anger lately, I’d still rate Bottas higher than Maldonado.
Toro Rosso – Ferrari
#18 Jean-Eric Vergne
#19 Daniel Ricciardo
The two Toro Rosso drivers had been rumoured at one point to be on their way out of the team as a result of what Red Bull motorsport bosses considered underwhelming performance. The problem is that Red Bull sees Toro Rosso as a development team to prep young drivers for a drive with the big Red Bull team as opposed to an actual team. Turning over drivers frequently isn’t going to help anyone.
So Vergne and Ricciardo are back for another season but are driving for their jobs. They’ll need to improve on their 17th and 18th place finishes in last year’s WDC. The problem is that this year’s STR8 has been looking quite slow. How will Vergne and Ricciardo be able to prove their worth to their bosses if they don’t have the equipment to do so?
Caterham – Renault
#20 Charles Pic
#21 Giedo van der Garde
There’s a little bit of irony to Caterham signing Pic for this season. It was Pic who was in position to win 10th place in the 2012 Constructors’ Championship for Marussia, only to be passed late in the running by Caterham’s Vitaly Petrov. Conveniently enough for Pic, his team has money coming in beyond what sponsors he and van der Garde bring in. Not that he would have been thinking that while cruising around the Interlagos circuit.
Anyway, Pic didn’t do a bad job at Marussia last year. He wasn’t consistently as quick as teammate Timo Glock but he had his moments. Van der Garde hasn’t exactly torn things up in GP2. His best championship finish is 5th but he does have five wins in four seasons. However, he did win the 2008 Formula Renault 3.5 Championship. Even if he hasn’t had much GP2 success, having one championship is something that is lack from a few pay drivers’ resumes.
Marussia – Cosworth
#22 Jules Bianchi
#23 Max Chilton
With the departure of HRT, Marussia becomes the new basement dwellers of F1. While they’re off the pace compared to the mid-pack, they’ll be stiffer competition for Caterham than HRT would have been.
At the end of last year, Charles Pic jumped ship to Caterham and Timo Glock was dropped for a pay driver. The Marussia line-up consists of two pay drivers in Max Chilton and Ferrari development driver Jules Bianchi. I’d hazard that Bianchi is likely to be the quicker of the two over the long term given how highly Ferrari seem to rate him.