Roll up, roll up, the circus is back in town this weekend and with an array of talent and delight that may even trump last season's twists and turns. 2013 could be the most unpredictable and exciting season everâ€¦..so, it falls to me to try and untangle a few of the finer details in this, your Frontstretch F1 Season Preview. Feel free to point and laugh as precisely none of these predictions come to passâ€¦.
*Rules and Regs*
Technically for 2013 itâ€™s pretty much â€˜more of the sameâ€™, so expect the main titles (driver and constructor) to be fought out between the big players â€“ McLaren, Red Bull, Ferrari and, to a lesser extent, Mercedes and Lotus. Whatâ€™s interesting though is how much development effort will be afforded to this year's cars through the season. Whereas in years past, teams challenging for the title would change, add, remove and tweak for as long as they could afford to do so, before concentrating on the car for the following year (usually when they realized that the championships were gone), this time round the BIG challenge for all the competitors is developing the new turbo V6 formula for 2014. As a result, the cars are evolutions of the 2012 cars rather than revolutions. But how long will teams risk tweaking before the attention shifts to 2014? That factor could shape the destiny of both this and next year's titlesâ€¦..
One thing that will have changed a little this season is the Pirelli tires. The French company have been asked to firstly increase the performance gap between the compounds of its new range of tires (remember, a team needs to use both types of dry compound brought to a race). Hence the softer tire is expected to be worth around half a second over the harder tire. But, of course, the amount of sets a team can use over a weekend is limited. Thereâ€™s also talk of 4 to 5 pit stops per race as the new tires degrade at a greater rate this season. So, in essence, we have a situation where â€˜lesserâ€™ teams might rattle through a few new tires in order to achieve a good grid slot on the Saturday, leaving some of the faster cars, on fresher race tires, mid-grid. What does that equal for Sunday? Thatâ€™s right, good racing.
<div style=\"float:right; width:250px; margin: 20px; border: black solid 1px; padding: 3px;\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/12502.jpg\" width=\"250\" height=\"283\"/><p style=\"margin: 3px; text-align: left; font-weight:bold;\">Lewis Hamilton moves to the Mercedes this season and already has the car looking surprisingly fast.</p></div>
The vagaries of pre-season testing have always been a pitfall for those of us who like to speculate. Or indeed those of us tasked with writing season previews. What though have we learnt from the two main tests at Jerez and Barcelona? Well, other than that itâ€™s not always sunny in Spain, as has been mentioned, we can expect a more competitive Ferrari from day one, a quick (as ever) Red Bull and a McLaren with masses of potential (the McLaren is without doubt the most experimental car this year), but that hasnâ€™t been unlocked from the car as yet. Interestingly though, the Mercedes, particularly in the hands of Lewis Hamilton is looking stunningly quick in qualifying trim (hereâ€™s betting tip number one â€“ a couple of your American dollars on Lewis for pole in Australia) and the Lotus once again looks a strong contender.
*Runners And Riders*
*The Big Four -*
*Red Bull â€“ Sebastian Vettel/Mark Webber*
The one time â€˜fun teamâ€™ of the paddock has started to take itself seriously and as a result has won three championships in a row. They start again as favourites for that very reason and with the design genius that is Adrian Newey behind them, youâ€™d be slightly deranged to put a big bet against them.
Vettel may not be the most complete, or the fastest driver on the grid, but heâ€™s probably number 2 in both those categories, and given the quickest car, that should be enough to take him to a fourth consecutive world titleâ€¦..this year though, I donâ€™t think it will.
Mark Webber has recently come in from some fairly stern in-team criticism by Helmut Marko, RBRâ€™s motorsport chief. However he retains the support of boss Deiter Mateschitz and if thereâ€™s anyone that can turn criticism into determination, itâ€™s the feisty Aussie.
Frontstetch Prediction â€“ Another constructors title, but Vettel beaten into second by a generously-eyebrowed Spaniard.
*Ferrari â€“ Fernando Alonso/Felipe Massa*
Ferrari started the 2012 season with an absolute dog of a car which, in all honesty, although they improved, it never really got that close in pure pace to the Red Bull, or even the McLaren/Lotus. However, the metronomically brilliant Fernando Alonso still got within an ace and a seemingly indestructible exhaust away from winning the title. Testing and the noises from the team this year would suggest that this yearâ€™s contender is starting from a far, far better place. Basic math would then suggest that Alonso should walk away with the silverware, and Iâ€™d tend to agree with that theoryâ€¦.
Alonso is much the most complete driver on the grid and has a Schumacher (Mk 1) like way of grinding out the very best performance possible race after race. He deserves more than his two titles, and very few would begrudge him a third in 2013.
Felipe Massa upped his game last year just in time to secure his position in the team for 2013. He may sneak a race win, but donâ€™t expect him to trouble Alonso too much, and donâ€™t expect him in the team in 2014.
Frontstretch Prediction â€“ Alonso is driver champion. Ferrari second in constructors.
*McLaren â€“ Jenson Button/Sergio Perez*
Make no mistake, the loss of Lewis Hamilton has seriously hurt McLarenâ€™s driver line-up, but it will mean they have had the opportunity to sculpt the new car more to Jenson Buttonâ€™s style, which in his previous years in the team they havenâ€™t. The car itself is the bravest and riskiest development of the main runners. Blisteringly fast on the first day of testing, McLaren have lost their way a little bit in terms of understanding what in the car made it that quick. Once they get that back, expect race winsâ€¦..but how long will that take?
Jenson Button, on his day and in the right machine, can give anyone a run for their money. However, unlike Hamilton heâ€™s not about outright speed and you wonder how much heâ€™ll get pushed by Perez in the sister car. Heâ€™ll realise, however, that as team leader this will be a big chance for him.
Speaking of big chances, hereâ€™s the biggest one of Sergio Perezâ€™s career. Thereâ€™s been a strange sea-change in terms of the perception of Perez recently â€“ people seem to think he â€˜lucked-inâ€™ with his podiums in the Sauber last year. Certainly his potential is yet to be fully understood, and rumours of an overweight driver in pre-season doesnâ€™t sound a lot like a McLaren manâ€¦..
Frontstretch Prediction â€“ Button wins races, but comes up short in an unpredictable car. Perez flatters to deceive and is replaced by Bottas for 2014.
*Mercedes â€“ Nico Rosberg/Lewis Hamilton*
It might be a stretch to say that theyâ€™ve been a revelation in pre-season testing, but the Silver Arrows have certainly been quicker than predicted. The arrival of Hamilton, the out-and-out quickest driver on the grid, will galvanise the team, but the top heavy management structure will cause internal strife.
Lewis Hamilton took a huge risk in walking away from McLaren, but sometimes to become a man you need to break away from â€˜parentalâ€™ control. It could actually work. The fact heâ€™s just bought a private jet, painted it red, but says he wants to go about his work unnoticed, will tell Mercedes that theyâ€™ve employed a â€˜complicatedâ€™ characterâ€¦.
Weâ€™ll finally find out just how fast Nico Rosberg really is this year. Yes, he beat a fading Schumacher fairly simply, but Hamilton is a different prospect entirely.
Frontstretch Prediction â€“ Hamilton to take pole in first race, and surprise with some early race wins. Mercedes fade in pace as the season progresses however. Ones to watch in 2014.
*Lotus â€“ Kimi Raikkonen/Romain Grosjean*
The new â€œRed Bullâ€ in the sense that theyâ€™ve tried to take the (rather painful) mantle of the fun team in the paddock. Perhaps if they threw that away and concentrated more on the matter at hand, then their potential could be better realized.
Kimi Raikkonenâ€™s return to the grid last year was massively impressive. His racecraft showed no sign of rustiness and his consistency was remarkable. Again a dark horse for the title.
Romain Grosjean is quick, if he can tame his accident prone nature. The jury is still out as to whether he can.
Frontstretch Prediction â€“ a win or two for Kimi and another consistent season. Grosjean tempers his wildness but as a result loses some speed to follow Kimi home.
*The Chasing Pack (in Frontstretch Prediction order!)*
*Williams â€“ Pastor Maldonado/Vateri Bottas*
Another pleasant surprise in testing, the new Williams could be nudging the top four once again. Theyâ€™ve also replaced the average Bruno Senna with the exciting new Finnish rookie, Bottas.
*Sauber â€“ Esteban Gutierrez/Nico Hulkenburg*
The small team itâ€™s easy to like, Hulkenburg is an excellent driver and just seems to be waiting for Massaâ€™s Ferrari seat to be vacated. Gutierrez impressed to an extent in the GP2 series, but his Mexican sponsorship package likely impressed the Swiss team more.
*Force India â€“ Paul Di Resta/Adrian Sutil*
Two drivers with something to prove â€“ Di Resta needs to show heâ€™s worth consideration from a big team (in the car that is â€“ out of the car heâ€™s still eye wateringly boring to listen to) and Sutil needs to prove he deserves to be back in the sport. Just donâ€™t argue with him if thereâ€™s bottles on the tableâ€¦.
*Toro Rosso â€“ Jean-Eric Vergne/Daniel Ricciardo*
A tough team to really understand â€“ unlikely to threaten much and hard to see if either driver really has what it takes to make the step up to the Red Bull senior team. Expect another season of mediocrity.
*Caterham â€“ Charles Pic/Guido Van Der Garde*
Rather than looking forward as Tony Fernandesâ€™ team would have hoped, itâ€™s more likely the perennial backmarkers will be looking over their shoulder at Marussia. A real mistake to let Kovalainen go.
*Marussia â€“ Jules Bianchi/Max Chilton*
Should be closer to Caterham, and may in fact beat them this year. However, donâ€™t expect either to be worrying the rest of the grid, other than when theyâ€™re getting lapped.
So thatâ€™s it â€“ feel free to come and laugh at my predictions from Monday morning, but either way, I look forward to spending the season with you!
*Connect with Andy!*
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