Berthold Bouman, F1 correspondent
- The 2012 F1 Rookies and returnees
- Ferrari: Problems or a smoke screen?
- The King and Crown Prince of F1
It has been a long time since the last Formula One race in Brazil last year, but everything is ready for round one of the FIA (Federation Internationale de L’Automobile) 2012 Formula One World Championship, the Australian Grand Prix at Melbourne. The Albert Park circuit will again host the season-opener and for the first time six World Champions will be on the grid: Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus), and Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, both driving for McLaren.
The 5.303km long Albert Park circuit is a semi-permanent circuit with plenty of tight corners and chicanes with really only one long straight, the start-finish straight. If all goes well, for the first time in history two Australians will be at the start of the race: Red Bull’s Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo who drives for Red Bull’s Italian sister team Toro Rosso.
Webber was excited ahead of the race, “This will be my eleventh Australian GP and I can't wait to get started. The Grand Prix is one of the best sporting events that we have in Australia. It's great to see the support and Australian flags in the crowd. There is no better race to compete in for a driver, than his home race.” Ricciardo is also ready for his home Grand Prix. “We're going to be on the edge,” he said when he arrived in Melbourne, adding, “"I'm not going to hold back!”
2012 Regulation changes
The most notable change in the Technical Regulations is the lower nose height, which has led to the stepped nose or platypus nose concept, all teams but McLaren and Marussia have opted for this solution. The nose height was lowered to prevent cars from getting airborne when they hit another car, and to prevent the already pointy nose from piercing through the bodywork of another car and hit the driver.
The blown diffuser has been banned, the regulations regarding the exhausts have also been overhauled as teams were using the exhaust gases to power the diffuser. Also the regulations regarding the flexing of aerodynamical parts have been further tightened.
Also changes in the Sporting Regulations regarding ‘driver etiquette’, drivers may no longer leave the track without “justifiable reason”, and drivers may not make "more than one change of direction to defend a position" and, when moving back onto the racing line, must leave racing room "at least one car width" between their car and the edge of the track.
Also the Safety Car Regulations have been changed, if it is considered safe to do so, cars that have been lapped by the leader will be allowed to unlap themselves under the Safety Car, which means the front runners no longer have to pass back markers when the race is resumed.
Pushing the limits
Although the FIA has tightened the regulations, the cat-and-mouse game between teams and the FIA scrutineers continues, again teams came with innovations that push the limits. Mercedes surprised everyone during testing with a sort of F-Duct incorporated in the front nose, and also came up with a renewed passive F-Duct on the rear of the car that works together with the DRS system and should improve the working of the movable DRS wing considerably, resulting in a much higher top speed. When the DRS wing is opened, air flows through a duct and then does its magic, how it exactly works is still a closely guarded secret.
Mercedes has refused to comment on both devices, but it is believed to be a major development step and without any moving parts both F-Ducts are classified as “passive” and thus should be legal. McLaren also has the renewed rear and front passive F-Duct and like Mercedes also follow the ‘no comment’ policy.
Red Bull attracted the attention with the letterbox slot in the stepped nose, but when asked whether this was a variant on the Mercedes front wing F-Duct, designer Adrian Newey declined any comments and instead jokingly said it was used to cool the drivers.
Insiders believe that the position of the exhausts are the key to success in 2012 and designers are still looking for legal ways to use the exhaust gases to improve the aerodynamics of the car. Sauber was also quick during testing, according to many this was the result of the clever Sauber C31 sidepod exhaust layout, and Red Bull has now copied the Sauber solution and have tested it during the last testing days in Barcelona.
FIA Delegate Charlie Whiting has examined several exhaust layouts today in Melbourne, and he is happy with the result. “There has been a little bit of discussion in general, and most of that discussion centres on different interpretations of the new regulations,” he said. About the new regulations he commented, “They are designed specifically to ensure any aerodynamic effect from the exhaust is incidental to its primary purpose. Obviously engineers have had different interpretations on that.”
And he continued, “All of the systems we've seen so far comply with the extensive new regulations so our position is simple: we are not in a position to be able to say exactly how much aerodynamic influence each individual system has. The aim of the new regulation was to ensure that we don't have to do that. We have no idea how much aerodynamic influence each individual system has, nor really at this point is it anything that interests us. As long as they comply with the rules, we are happy. And as far as we've seen so far, they all do comply with the rules.”
The 2012 Rookies and returnees
There are two rookies this year, Frenchman Charles Pic who will race for the Marussia F1 team, and another Frenchman, Jean-Eric Vergne who will drive for Toro Rosso. Pic hasn’t been able to drive the 2012 Marussia car as it had failed to pass the mandatory FIA crash tests and his team mate Timo Glock only had a taste of the new car during a ‘filming session’ at Silverstone while Pic spent pre-season testing in the 2011 Marussia.
Vergne already impressed during the Young Driver Days at Abu Dhabi last year, but was also quick during testing in Spain. All in all, Toro Rosso seems to be much faster than last year, so keep an eye on Vergne this season, he has also been tipped to be the possible successor of Webber at Red Bull next year.
Three returnees this season, most notably 2007 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen and veteran Pedro de la Rosa who will compete for the renewed HRT team now led by Team Principal and ex-Formula One driver Spaniard Luis Perez-Sala. The 41-year old de la Rosa only had the chance to drive a few laps in the F112 at Barcelona, as it also failed to pass the crash test and it even remains to be seen whether both cars will be ready for the race in Melbourne, it could even be the second car piloted by Indian Narain Karthikeyan will not be ready before P1 commences on Friday morning.
A much smoother return for Finn Kimi Raikkonen, who has been lured away from the FIA World Rally Championship by the Lotus team, previously known as Lotus Renault. A master move from a PR point of view, but Raikkonen is certainly happy with his return to Formula One and showed it by clinching the quickest time twice during pre-season testing. As did returnee number three, Romain Grosjean who is Raikkonen’s Lotus team mate for 2012.
Lotus has proved to be fast and Raikkonen can’t wait to race again. Asked about the race in Melbourne he said, “I will try to do as well as I can and see where we end up. For the first race in Australia we want to have a good weekend without any major issues or mistakes.” But he refused to give a prediction about how fast the Lotus actually is, “I don't know where we're going to be on the grid - nobody knows. If you look at the lap times from testing everybody is very close to each other.”
The King and the Crown Prince of F1
As opposed to last year, McLaren is now right on the pace, and this time they won't be wasting any time sorting out the car in Melbourne, they know what it can do and are keen to show they are where they belong: at the top of the ladder. If Vettel is the present King of Formula One, then Button must be the Crown Prince, as he is widely regarded as the one to challenge Vettel, who is after winning the crown for the second successive season, clearly the man to beat.
Even Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner admitted Button would be the most likely candidate if anyone was to beat Vettel this season. “Jenson had a great year last year and you can’t rule him out. He will probably be the strongest challenger,” said Horner. About Vettel Horner commented, “We are yet to see the best from him. He will evolve and get stronger. But there are some big opponents out there. Lewis Hamilton is going to be pushing hard and we’re set for a really fascinating season.”
Button himself hopes the new regulations will make it more difficult for Red Bull to dominate this season, “Obviously this year there is quite a big change in the regulations in terms of the blown diffuser, so now is the interesting time to see whether Red Bull can hang onto the advantage they have had in the last two years.”
And he added, “But I feel that the field will be bunched up a lot more now. They won’t have the advantage they had out of the blocks that they had last season. It gives us an opportunity.” About his main rival he said with a smile, “Sebastian Vettel is the favourite because he is the double world champion, but nobody knows what is going to happen this year and I think that is great for the sport.”
Meanwhile Vettel remains determined and hungry as ever, and still thinks qualifying is the key to victory. “I think, no doubt, qualifying is always very important -- It's usually easier when you start from the front,” he said in Melbourne.
Asked about his chances this weekend he said, “First of all it's important to have a good feeling about yourself, about the car, how you feel in the car. We were quite happy with that, surely it didn't always go to plan but overall we can be happy and as I said it's unknown at this stage what is going to happen. It's good to finally be here and only a couple of days before we really find out.”
And let’s not rule out their respective team mates Hamilton and Webber. The Australian is looking forward to the first race of the season, “I have been waiting for the season to start,” he said. “I am really looking forward to getting back in the car and doing what I most enjoy.” Asked whether Red Bull is still fast, he replied, “We don’t have the blown diffuser anymore so we lose a lot of down force, which is from the rear of the car, so we need to balance that. We will fight over the season to learn, how to get that grip back in terms of the aerodynamic setup.”
Hamilton had a disastrous 2011 season and he found himself in the lime light several times for all the wrong reasons, but he has said he will stay out of trouble this season. “I hope it’s a new phase and a new stage in my life, but the only way I will know that will be from the results and I can’t predict what will happen. Every year, you feel as though you have prepared better but you get to the first race and lots of things happen.” the 2008 World Champion said.
And he promised, “I will just take every race as it comes, keep my head screwed on and my feet on the ground for the whole year. I actually feel more relaxed and ready for the new season than I think I've ever done. Everything has gone smoothly with the car -- which is more than we can say for last year! -- and it just seems to be a responsive and reliable package.”
Ferrari: Problems or a smoke screen?
Another team that doesn’t know where they will be on the Melbourne start grid is Ferrari. The team from Maranello have been struggling to find the right pace and the word “crisis” seems appropriate when examining the reaction of drivers Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa and Technical Director Pat Fry.
Massa commented, “I won't hide that we are not 100 per cent satisfied with what we did in the three test sessions in Spain. But we have a very strong team and I have lots of faith in their capacity to be able to develop the chassis during the season.” Alonso went one step further and even sounded rather alarming, “In the first races we will suffer -- we are not yet at 100 per cent.” It is clear both drivers think they will not fight for a podium position until the European races.
Fry was also pessimistic. "In the hunt for the podium in Melbourne? At the moment I'd say no," Fry commented. "We are disappointed with the performance level seen at these tests and I think we have a lot of work ahead of us. Clearly the decision relating to the exhausts that we took last week meant we took a few steps backwards in terms of development.”
And that seems to be the problem for Ferrari, the exhaust layout, and Ferrari is even seriously considering of building a complete new chassis hoping it will provide a cure for the current problems. But designing and building a new chassis would of course take a lot of time and by then it would probably too late for Ferrari to fight for the championship.
But are things really that bad for Ferrari? If one looks at the lap times they are really not far off compared to McLaren, Red Bull and Mercedes, but again this is a very difficult call as teams ran different configurations during pre-season testing. But it looks like Ferrari has less problems with the Pirellis as opposed to last year, but as Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo said, “We will only discover the truth about where we stand compared to the others after Saturday’s qualifying session in Melbourne.”
Grand Prix Australia, Albert Park, Melbourne
|Albert Park Circuit||Melbourne, Australia|
|Circuit length||5.303 km|
|Longest straight||735 m|
|Total number of race laps||58|
|Total race distance||307.574 km|
|Top speed||305 km/h|
|Average speed||225 km/h|
|Gear changes||60 per lap|
|Tyre wear||Medium to high|
|Tyre compounds||Medium [White] / Soft [Yellow]|
|Downforce level||Medium to high|
|Lap record||M. Schumacher - Ferrari - 1:24.125 (2004)|
|2011 Pole Position||Sebastian Vettel - Red Bull Racing - 1m23.529|
|2011 Race Winner||Sebastian Vettel - Red Bull Racing - 1h29m30.259|
|Speed limits in the pit lane||60 km/h during practice sessions; 100 km/h during qualifying and the race|
|FIA race stewards||Johnny Herbert (GB), Paul Gutjahr (CH) and Enzo Spano (VEN)|
Melbourne weather forecast
|Day||Forecast||Min Temperature||Max Temperature|
|Friday||Rain showers with sunny intervals||15C||21C|
|Saturday||Sunny with cloudy intervals, cool||14C||19C|
|Sunday||Sunny with cloudy intervals, cool||11C||max 20C|
Pirelli tyre report
As said, Albert Park is a semi-permanent circuit which means the track is still green at the start of the weekend, which means there will be less grip, but grip levels will increase as the weekend progresses and more rubber is deposited at the circuit. From a tyre point of view the circuit is a succession of braking and accelerating, the circuit has 10 right-hand corners and six left-hand corners, according to Pirelli the rear-left tyre will be the most stressed.
Pirelli did an awesome job last year with their fast degrading tyres, and they were largely responsible for the tsunami of on track overtaking action. This year Pirelli has completely renewed the soft, medium and hard rubber compounds, while the super soft compound will remain the same as last year. Pirelli has brought the soft (yellow marked) and medium (white) tyres to Melbourne.
Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembery, “"Last year, we set the standard high by helping to ensure a season with the most overtaking in the history of Formula One, but this year we aim to make the spectacle even better. The teams have a better idea of what to expect from us in 2012, and after nearly 50,000 kilometres of pre-season testing, we are sure they will already have a pretty good handle on the characteristics of the tyres and possible strategies.
What we have aimed to do this year with the tyres is to give them more options, which of course makes the tyres more of a talking point. The drivers and cars will always be the stars of the show, but we'd like, once more, to bring the tyres more to the forefront. The teams asked us to challenge them this year, and naturally our aim is not to disappoint them. So we're looking forward to another great race in Australia, which is always a fantastic place to get the season underway, thanks to its wonderful atmosphere and warm welcome."
Mercedes: master of the F-Duct
Mercedes was already mentioned as the inventor of the new passive F-Duct, but what no one but Mercedes knows, is how much of an advantage the Silver Arrows team will have with these new devices. Obviously Mercedes is not going to give any insight on this as they intend to keep any advantage time-wise a secret as long as they can, but Team Principal Ross Brawn thinks his team is well prepared for Melbourne.
“We are well prepared, both at the factory and on track, as a result of our structured development and testing plan, and I am confident that we are in a good position,” Brawn said. “How this translates to our performance relative to the competition is, of course, the key question and it will be interesting to see how it all shapes out next weekend.”
Mercedes Motorsport Director Norbert Haug agreed and said, “After testing, we know we have a solid basis to work from and a good platform for development. Understandably, there is much speculation about the pecking order of the new season, and finally we will get a first answer on Saturday afternoon during qualifying in Melbourne, when everybody has to put their cards on the table.”
Both Brawn and Haug also think it is too soon to think about the championship, but Brawn still has the same dream, he wants to give Schumacher a winning car just like in the days of Ferrari, and he wants to help Rosberg to score his maiden victory.
Rosberg, “I'm really looking forward to the start of the new season in Australia. I had a perfect winter break with plenty of rest, a good training camp and a successful pre-season test programme where we were able to put a lot of mileage on our F1 W03 car. After all of the hard work, and all of the speculation, it will be really interesting to see where we are on Saturday afternoon after qualifying.”
Schumacher shares Rosberg’s opinion, “Finally, we can stop trying to read the tea-leaves from testing and actually go racing. Melbourne is a perfect location, and the ideal place to start the season.” Schumacher is now 43 years old, but certainly not the oldest driver to start a Formula One race, that honor goes to Monegasque Louis Chiron, who started the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix when he was 55 years and 292 days old.
The pecking order
A lot has been said during and after pre-season testing, and everyone has been trying to answer the question who has the fastest car at the moment. It is not an easy evaluation, teams have been testing different aerodynamic parts, different tyres, different configurations and most teams have even completed several race simulations, including standing starts, pit stops, pit lane drive-throughs and have even simulated tailgating the safety car.
Without a doubt Red Bull as the current champion is the favorite and the team to beat. But unlike last year, this time they have more competition and the competition also seems to be closer than ever. Battling for the fastest time during testing often involved just a few thousands of a second to mark the difference between the number one and two, just like in real qualifying.
Three teams are believed to be the fastest teams at the moment: Red Bull, McLaren and Mercedes. Not in the top three is Ferrari due to their recent problems, they are now in the next group of contenders together with Lotus, Force India and Sauber. Lotus of course has hired race-ace Raikkonen who is still as fast as ever, and is still as motivated as ever. He is someone who can get the most out of a car, and he never gives up, so Lotus is also high on the list.
Force India have definitely improved their car, and replacing Sutil, who has been driving for the team for years without much improvement, was the only right decision. Nico Hulkenberg is a very fast young driver who needs no further introduction, his task will also be to spur on his Scottish team mate Paul di Resta, who easily beat Sutil last year. Force India will benefit from this in-team battle and the Indian team would probably be able to fight with Lotus for positions, and certainly should be able to beat Sauber.
Sauber last year lost a lot of points and sixth place in the Constructors’ Championship to Force India, a mistake they intend not to make again. Both Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez are two talented drivers who are regular points scorers, provided they have the right machine, and it seems the Sauber C31 is the right car for them. Peter Sauber is determined to take back that sixth place, and since Ferrari is very interested in Perez, the Mexican will be poised to show what he can do with the new Sauber.
Next group is Toro Rosso, Williams and Caterham. Toro Rosso has a fast new car and decided to ditch Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi in favor of Ricciardo and Vergne, who both have been impressing the crowd during testing in Spain. For Williams this season is all-decisive, they must succeed and it is almost simple for them, as it is hard to imagine they could perform even worse than last season. Pastor Maldonado and Bruno Senna will try their best, but a new car and a complete overhaul of the Williams technical department is still no guarantee for success.
Also looking for success is Caterham, last year known as Team Lotus. Team owner Tony Fernandes hired Petrov and ditched good old Jarno Trulli who was of course very experienced, but did not deliver the desired results. Petrov of course has brought a lot of money from his Russian sponsors, but he has proved he can deliver the results provided he has a reliable car. Caterham’s goal is simple: they want to challenge Williams, Toro Rosso and even Sauber and Force India, but first they will have to score those long awaited first World Championship points to get rid of the stigma of being one of the three ‘slower new teams’ in the sport.
Which leaves us with the two remaining teams: Marussia and HRT. Both teams have overhauled their organization and technical department, HRT has even found some extra money to hire the experienced de la Rosa and Perez-Sala. But unfortunately for both teams, their cars failed to pass the mandatory FIA crash tests and thus were not able test to their brand new car. They will have to do a complete shake-down of their new car on Friday morning during the first free practice session, and it is even possible they will encounter problems that cannot be solved in time for qualifying or the race.
That is roughly what one can expect for the race in Melbourne, but like everything in Formula One, things can change in a split second -- the question who is really the fastest team at Melbourne this weekend can only be answered on Sunday afternoon, when the chequered flags is waved after 58 laps on the Albert Park circuit.
May the best man win.