Every March I always brace myself for the best season ever and 2013 is no different. Granted half the time one particular team will arrive at the first race and demonstrate such domination that you can kiss all hope of a title fight goodbye but I have faith for 2013.
The primary reason being this is a year of evolution rather than revolution. Next year all bets are off with the move to the V-6 turbo but this year the rulebook has remained essentially unchanged and all the major contenders save McLaren are arriving in Melbourne with the next iteration of the car that they finished the year off with in late November. And if you can remember that far back, there were multiple players fighting for the win in that fantastic wet season finale. So will the pecking order change from Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari, Lotus? Can Mercedes get on top of their tire degradation issues and join in the fun? Will we ever see anything like 7 winners in the first 7 races again?
The major obstacle that teams will have to come to grips with (no pun intended) is the new rubber that Pirelli is introducing to spice up the show. The FIA has asked the Italian manufacturer of fine rubber and calendars to bring softer compounds that will reach peak operating temperature quickly and then rapidly deteriorate forcing 2-3 stops per race. In other words, no more amazing Perez one stoppers to the podium. On paper this sounds fun because the performance gap between the hard and soft compounds will now be in excess of .5 sec/lap which could make for some great early season strategic battles and should bring about some epic out-lap tussles. But one thing for certain is the geniuses up and down the pit wall engaging in extensive computational analysis will likely all arrive at the same optimal strategy by the 3rd race and all 22 cars will be on the same program.
The big change on the human side is Lewis Hamilton taking his talents to Mercedes. It was becoming apparent that the pressure was mounting between Hamilton and McLaren due to their inability to replicate their 2008 title and at times last year it spilled over to downright animosity between driver and team. While Lewis looks to be losing out in the short term battle he may win the war when the turbo era begins and McLaren has to find their powerplant elsewhere. At his new team it will be fascinating to see how Lewis fares alongside Nico Rosberg. Keep in mind that Nico is entering his 4th year with the German team and must be full of confidence after easily handling 7- time World Champion Michael Schumacher over the last two years.
The musical chairs that ensued after Lewis bolted for Mercedes saw Perez land the plum McLaren ride, Hulkenberg jump to Sauber and Sutil, given a reprieve after going gangster in the clubs, was brought back to Force India. The rest of the driver moves were brought about by budgetary decisions with for hire drivers such as Glock, Kovalainen and Kobeayshi being replaced Chilton, Pic and Gutierrez. Even drivers with money such as Petrov were replaced by drivers with silly money such as van de Garde. The dilemma that a backmarker team faces in these economic times is pay a guy a million and maybe score a point or two and get your hands on that Bernie prize money or take the 15 million from a guy that will need a miracle to score point but will guarantee that the team can see the season out. Nobody ever said F1 was easy!
Red Bull: Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber
Can anybody stop the Newey/Vettel juggernaut and prevent Vettel from winning 4 straight? Alonso looks to be the only hope. Webber will be defiant as usual and will win a couple of races but I could see this being the 36 year olds last year with the team.
Ferrari: Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa
Ferrari arrives in Australia in better shape than last year but it will take all of Alonso’s brilliance to overcome the aero shortcomings of his Ferrari to Newey’s machine. Massa will need to be a regular top 5 finisher and remain the loyal solider to Alonso in order to keep his seat for 2014.
McLaren: Jensen Button, Sergio Perez
Jensen will need to assert himself as the team’s number 1 over Perez and should be looking to match his 2012 win total of 3 and try to find more consistency. Perez needs to avoid mistakes like he made at Suzuka and has to become a podium regular to justify his hiring.
Lotus: Kimi Raikkonen, Romain Grosjean
Lotus was the surprise team of 2012 but they will not sneak up on anybody this year. Kimi begins the year as a legit title contender but will be hard pressed to match the reliability of the previous year where he scored points in 19/20 races. The big question now is can this team outfox the big three to land on the top step more than once? Grosjean is fast but still rough around the edges and will need to bring the car home to stay employed.
Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg
With Niki Lauda hovering over the reshuffled management team, expect heads to roll if they have a repeat of last year. It will be fun to see how Nico and Lewis get along, especially if they have a winning car. Ross Brawn needs to roll out a winner to restore his genius reputation.
Sauber: Nico Hulkenberg, Esteban Gutierrez
Sauber had four podiums last year but I often wondered what a Nico Hulkenberg might have done in the cockpit? This year we find out as the other Nico moves into the top midfield seat to showcase his immense skills for the big 5 teams. Gutierrez was a regular GP2 frontrunner and may surprise if the Sauber is equal to its predecessor.
Force India: Paul di Resta, Adrian Sutil
This perennial midfield team once again has a strong driver lineup and should be there waiting to pick up the scraps if the top teams falter. di Resta seems to start the season strong but fades around midyear. He should be primed and ready to show McLaren that they selected the wrong driver to partner Button. Sutil will look to reestablish himself as a solid pro.
Williams: Pastor Maldonado, Valtteri Bottas
It was nice to see Williams get back on the top step of the podium last year but repeating that feat will be difficult. Maldonado is fast but is still occasionally prone to errors in judgment. Bottas is another unknown but he’s a Finn so you have to consider him legit. If he handles Pastor easily I’d say we have another Mika on our hands.
Toro Rosso: Jean-Eric Vergne, Daniel Ricciardo
The brief glory year where Vettel won at Monza for this small team seems like another era. Even last year was a solid step backwards from 2011 when Helmut Marko tossed both Buemi and Alguersuari for underperforming. I have a hard time seeing either of these current drivers ever partnering Vettel and view them as seat warmers for Antonio Felix da Costa. At least I hear that they now hate each other so that could lead to some on track drama.
Caterham: Charles Pic, Giedo van der Garde
This team has yet to score a point in three years and they likely won’t again this year. Two pay drivers and nothing much else to report. Beating Marussia is all they are playing for.
Marussia: Jules Bianchi, Max Chilton
Bianchi will get the most out of the car and Max will keep the team afloat. Reports say that Pat Symonds had a lot of input in this car so it will be fun to see if they have surpassed Caterham.
1. Vettel – 6 wins
2. Alonso – 4 wins
3. Button – 3 wins
4. Kimi – 2 wins
5. Webber – 2 wins
7. Perez- 1 win
8. Hamilton – 1 win
12. di Resta
21. Van de Garde