Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Only 2013 Formula 1 Season Preview You’ll Need

The Only 2013 Formula 1 Season Preview You’ll Need:

The action in Formula 1 doesn’t stop once the season ends: Once the champagne has gone flat in Brazil, teams have less than 12 weeks before their first public on-track appearances for the next season. Over those precious three months, teams will spend hours poring over the revised rulebook to discover any loopholes that can be exploited—while staying within “the spirit of the rules,” of course. There will be changes in ownership, management, and sponsorship, as well as teams that may cease to exist entirely. And, as seems to happen every year, tire compounds and constructions will change, adding another element for the engineers to deal with. And while the 2012 season will go down as one of the most exciting in F1 history, what’s transpired since Jenson Button finished first last November in São Paulo indicates that 2013 could be as good, if not better.
Major Changes at Mercedes
When Bernie’s traveling circus reconvened in Jerez and Barcelona for preseason testing, no fewer than eight drivers vacated their cars, but the biggest action was over at Mercedes. Legend Michael Schumacher announced his retirement last fall after his three-year comeback tour with Benz fell well short of expectations. But his departure was just the second step in what would become a massive overhaul at Mercedes as the 2012 season wound down. A week prior to Schumacher’s announcement, Lewis Hamilton made known that he would swap his McLaren for a Mercedes starting in 2013. Six weeks later, Benz’s head of motorsport, Norbert Haug, was relieved of his duties and subsequently was replaced by three-time world champion Niki Lauda. And, early this year, Paddy Lowe, who had been with McLaren for the past 20 years, was announced as Mercedes’ technical director beginning in 2014. Lowe’s appointment likely serves as writing on the wall for team principal Ross Brawn, who has led the non-business side of the team since moving from his eponymous effort to Mercedes for the 2010 season. The other driver changes for 2013 are detailed below in the team previews.

Double-DRS Banned
While the names affiliated with the teams are ever in flux, so too are the rules. Of the 2013 changes, of most interest is the ban on “double-DRS systems,” similar to what was used by Mercedes last season. Essentially, when the driver engages DRS (Drag-Reduction System), the rear wing opens to reduce drag. Benz’s double DRS exposed a pair of intakes, which channel air to the front of the car and stalled the front wing, further decreasing downforce and increasing top speed. Already we’ve seen teams exploiting a loophole in this new regulation. “Passive double-DRS,” in which intakes are permanently exposed and automatically activate above a certain speed rather than being driver-activated, is allowed, and both Red Bull and Lotus have been experimenting with the idea.
Tire Updates
Another obstacle for the engineers is that Pirelli—the exclusive tire supplier since 2011—has again changed its choices for 2013. The entire range will feature softer compounds and more-flexible construction. This combination should make for faster lap times, and Pirelli claims an improvement of 0.5-second per lap versus the equivalent compound from last year. Tires will degrade faster, too, forcing more pit stops and providing even more pit strategies. [Read: Anatomy of an F1 Pit Stop]
Team-by-Team Update and 2013 Preview

Red Bull has captured three drivers’ titles and three constructors’ titles in the past three seasons. Sebastian Vettel is a big reason why, as are design guru Adrian Newey and team principal Christian Horner. Since the latter two joined forces to lead Red Bull’s foray into Formula 1, the energy-drink giant has become arguably the best team in the paddock, besting the likes of Ferrari and McLaren. This season’s RB9 is a gentle evolution of last season’s dual-championship-winning RB8, albeit featuring a “vanity plate” to make its predecessor’s stepped nose somewhat more tolerable.
The reliability of the Renault engine and the RB9’s handling superiority should remain the car’s hallmarks, while development on the double DRS should improve the RB8′s sole weakness: top speed. With Mark Webber again occupying the other driver’s seat, Red Bull appears on track to challenge for its fourth-consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ titles. Anything fewer than at least one of those will be a disappointment, but competition will be tougher than ever for Red Bull in 2013.

A Ferrari pilot last won a drivers’ title in 2007, when Kimi Räikkönen accomplished the feat. Current Scuderia wheelman Fernando Alonso last won a championship in 2006. Neither Ferrari nor Alonso are used to such droughts, and their frustration no doubt was exacerbated by 2010 and 2012 seasons in which Alonso, at various points in each year, looked to be the odds-on favorite for the title until ultimately being reeled in by Vettel. Those setbacks will do nothing to deter Maranello from continuing its support of Alonso, but this year’s F138 car, like Red Bull’s RB9, is more of an evolution of its predecessor, the F2012.
Ferrari was slow to start in 2012, but by the time the paddock reconvened in Europe late in the spring, Alonso began showing championship consistency and proved the F2012 to be no slouch. Using that car as a baseline should allow the Italian team to be competitive from the get-go. A Herculean effort from Felipe Massa will be necessary for Ferrari to have any chance at a constructors’ championship, but Alonso will prove to be Vettel’s equal through much of the season.

Jenson Button’s ability to develop a car will be intensely scrutinized like never before, now that Lewis Hamilton has departed for Mercedes. The task will be all the more difficult after the phasing out of technical director Paddy Lowe, who will follow Hamilton to Merc next season. Button and new teammate Sergio Pérez will be charged with development of McLaren’s MP4-28, what the Woking-based operation is calling a “sweeping redesign” of last year’s MP4-27. The British factory must focus on improving the car’s reliability, which was called into question after no fewer than four mechanical failures forced retirements from races and considerable time was lost in practice and qualifying sessions due to mechanical issues.
Improved reliability should give Button sufficient ammunition for a title assault, but playing even more into his hands are the ever-softer Pirellis on offer for this season, which will complement Button’s velvety smooth driving style. If Pérez can adapt quickly, and the test times indicate that he can, McLaren could take the fight to Red Bull for constructors’ honors while Button appears well placed for a run at the drivers’ championship.

“Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing” became a catchphrase among both casual followers of the sport and the hard-core faithful when Kimi Räikkönen bluntly asked his team to cease communications on the way to victory in Abu Dhabi last November. Lotus’s weapon for 2013, the E21, is a continuation of its predecessor, with the team opting against a vanity plate and sticking with the E20′s ghastly step nose. Development of the passive double-DRS has continued since the system debuted aboard the E20 during a free-practice session at the German Grand Prix last July. But apart from the team’s livelier livery, its double-DRS system is the E21′s main talking point.
After a season in which Romain Grosjean was suspended for one race for causing an accident, and having his decision-making questioned over a number of other incidents, the Frenchman will need to perform much more consistently in 2013 if he’s to have any hope of retaining his seat. His lack of consistency likely will exclude Lotus from talk of any constructors’ titles, but Räikkönen could pose a threat to the established order of Vettel and Alonso—if he’s left alone, of course.

As we noted above, it’s all change at Mercedes. Michael Schumacher is out, Lewis Hamilton is in. Nortbert Haug is out, Niki Lauda is in. Paddy Lowe is waiting in the wings. All the changes are steps in the right direction—one of the few constants is second driver Nico Rosberg—and almost anything would represent improvement over 2012 for Mercedes, after the team narrowly edged Sauber for fifth place in the constructors’ title by a mere 16 points. The question is how long will it take to turn around this team’s fortunes. At least a single podium for either driver should be a given, and at least one outright victory for Hamilton is more likely than not. Should Hamilton spearhead a title challenge, however, all the buzz surrounding Red Bull, Ferrari, and McLaren will transfer to Mercedes’ new-look operation.

Sauber has undergone a complete driver overhaul from last season. Sergio Pérez has moved on to McLaren, while fan-favorite Kamui Kobayashi has moved to Ferrari’s endurance-racing effort. Nico Hülkenberg and Mexican rookie Esteban Gutiérrez will pick up where their predecessors left off. The most noticeable feature of this year’s car, the C32, is its narrow side pods. Not only does this reduce drag, but it’s also believed that it increases airflow over the exhaust outlet, which increases the amount of air passing over the car’s diffuser and boosts downforce. The C32 has garnered a reputation during Barcelona testing as being supremely capable in high-speed corners, making it a sleeper pick for horsepower-hungry circuits like Monza, Silverstone, and Spa. Sauber again will have Mercedes in its sights for fifth place in the constructors’ championship, but it might have to fend off a charge from Williams, too.

Adrian Sutil was the number-one driver at Force India two seasons ago, but he drew a one-year probation after being charged with assault. Once teammate Paul di Resta enjoyed a promising rookie season and the team signed Nico Hülkenberg, it was clear Sutil wouldn’t be back for 2012. But with Hülkenberg moving to Sauber this year, there’s room once again for Sutil, and he’s back with di Resta at Force India for 2013. The team struggled mightily with inconsistency last season, saying the car’s design was incompatible with some Pirelli compounds at some circuits in some conditions. Work on the new VJM06 has focused on expanding its operating range in hopes of making the team’s impressive results more consistent. Overtaking Sauber will be the objective, but staying in front of Williams could prove the bigger challenge.

Williams won its first race in eight years at last spring’s Spanish Grand Prix with Pastor Maldonado behind the wheel. The Venezuelan went on to add three top-10s to his season tally, while then-teammate Bruno Senna added eight more. Williams declined to bring back Senna—and his rumored $15 million in sponsorship money—and instead opted for Friday test driver Valtteri Bottas. But the real story at Williams on the eve of this season is its precise interpretation of the rules. Already the team has had its exhaust deemed illegal by the FIA, and the new FW35 features a hollow axle that reduces drag behind the front tires—Red Bull had a similar system banned last year. (A great summary of Williams’ setup can be found in this YouTube clip from F1 tech guru Craig Scarborough.) Maldonado has called the new car an important step forward, and if that’s the truth, Williams could well overtake the likes of Sauber and begin threatening Mercedes.

A little more than a year ago, Toro Rosso discarded two promising young drivers in Jaime Alguersuari and Sébastien Buemi because the brass at Red Bull’s sister team didn’t feel the pair were up to standard. A year on, another pair of promising young drivers in Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne scored 15 fewer points than their predecessors. This time around, Toro Rosso went to work on the car, hiring technical director James Key away from Sauber, where he played a significant role in the development of that team’s impressive C31. At Toro Rosso, he has the Ferrari-powered, Red Bull–backed Italian team aiming for sixth place in the constructors’ championships after finishing ninth last season. Williams and Sauber look like they can’t be catched given their rate of development, but if things progress nicely at Toro Rosso, there’s a chance the team could reel in Force India by season’s end.

Gone are Heikki Kovalainen and Vitaly Petrov—both are said to have been axed over their inability to secure enough sponsorship—and in their places sit former Marussia pilot Charles Pic and 27-year-old rookie Giedo van der Garde. American Alexander Rossi will serve as the team’s third driver, putting in serious miles during testing of the CT03 and seeing some time during Friday practices. With the team’s grand-prix experience limited to Pic’s single season with Marussia, it’s hard to imagine Caterham improving over last year.

Because Timo Glock’s contract stipulated that Marussia pay him, rather than the other way around, he’s been told his services are no longer required. Brit Max Chilton and Frenchman Jules Bianchi, a former Ferrari test driver, will be the team’s two racing drivers. Neither has a single grand-prix start to their name. Despite the winter of musical chairs, team boss John Booth—of Renault fame—believes that the team is in its best position since it was introduced as Virgin Racing in 2010, and there are whispers that Marussia could overtake Caterham by the end of the year. For a team that hasn’t scored a single point in its history, such progress would be an enormous victory.

• Australian Grand Prix: March 15–March 17; Melbourne, Australia
• Malaysian Grand Prix: March 22–March 24; Sepang, Malaysia
• Chinese Grand Prix: April 12–April 14; Shanghai, China
• Bahrain Grand Prix: April 19–April 21; Sakhir, Bahrain
• Spanish Grand Prix: May 10–May 12; Montmelo, Spain
• Monaco Grand Prix: May 24–May 26; Monaco
• Canadian Grand Prix: June 7–June 9; Montreal, Canada
• British Grand Prix: June 28–June 30; Silverstone, England
• German Grand Prix: July 5–July 7; Nürburg, Germany
• Hungarian Grand Prix: July 26–July 28; Mogyorod, Hungary
• Belgian Grand Prix: August 23–August 25; Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium
• Italian Grand Prix: September 6–September 8; Monza, Italy
• Singapore Grand Prix: September 20–September 22; Singapore
• Korean Grand Prix: October 4–October 6; Yeongam, South Korea
• Japanese Grand Prix: October 11–October 13; Suzuka, Japan
• Indian Grand Prix: October 25–October 27; New Delhi, India
• Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: November 1–November 3; Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi
• United States Grand Prix: November 15–November 17; Austin, Texas
• Brazilian Grand Prix: November 22–November 24; São Paulo, Brazil

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