DRS, KERS and Pirelli all remain, although the blown diffusers are to be abolished (or at least reduced significantly). Here’s a brief and approximate explanation of how the blown diffuser works, and what hot and cold blowing (do stop giggling) are:
Teams have taken to channelling the exhaust gases from the engine to specifically designed aerodynamic parts, which acts to push the car into the road, improving grip. The engine can be (and has been) used to do this even when the car isn’t accelerating, substantially enhancing grip in slow corners particularly. Hot blowing is much the same, only fuel is used to heat the exhaust gases which enhances their effect.
Possibly helpfully this was banned (in a rather shambolic way) at the Silverstone Grand Prix, which was also the only one that Ferrari won (ironically it was the only race won by a car not built in Britain). Ferrari are a bit rubbish at it compared to Red Bull, and McLaren are in between.
This may help the others catch up to Red Bull somewhat, as their downforce is the very best on the circuit (more than making up for a slight lack of straight line speed or a dodgy mini-KERS unit). However, I don’t anticipate the teams being shuffled around too much. It’ll be intriguing to see how Mercedes and Lotus (formerly Renault) do in their bid to close the gap to the frontrunners.
I think roughly 70% of speed is down to the car, with 30% from the driver. However, drivers are more consistent across seasons. So, I fully expect Vettel and Hamilton to be the best qualifiers in 2012, and Schumacher to consistently be out-qualified by Rosberg.
In 2009 I enjoyed an epic (albeit Pyrrhic) tipping victory as I tipped, but didn’t back, Button before the season began at 70/1. In 2010 I had a plethora of long-term bets, almost all of which were utterly wrong.
This season I didn’t tip on title or similar bets but did make a small number that turned out green in the end. I think a sensible approach is to avoid pre-season tipping due to the low number of tests and high degree of variability (due to fuel especially), but consider such things around a quarter or a third into the season. At that stage matters will be clearer, as will the direction of travel (which teams are improving, or not) and there’s plenty of time to hedge.
I had a pretty good run on the safety car this year. I think I’m right in saying every bet on it was green. There are two big things to look for when making such a bet: the circuit, and weather. Circuits like Malaysia and Hungary are good, as there’s lots of run-off area, and Monaco and other street circuits are bad (obviously). Weather can be hard to predict, but this can also help as many people have monsoons in mind when contemplating Malaysia, but actually it’s one of the circuits least likely to have a safety car, artificially lengthening the No Safety Car odds.
Raikkonen (surely this was Raikonnen a few years ago? Or am I going mad?) is a big wild card. He varies from Absolutely Cannot Be Bothered to Staggeringly Fast, for no apparent reason. It may take him a little while to get used to the Pirellis, but I think he’ll be a bit faster than Schumacher when it comes to re-acclimatising to F1 (he’s been out a year less, he’s raced cars competitively since and he’s a bit younger). A few races at least will probably be needed, perhaps more.
It’s also important to consider in the first few races that different circuits suit different cars, so you can’t necessarily draw immediate conclusions (the first of 2012 are Australia, Malaysia and China).
Anyway, I thought a quick rundown of the teams and drivers at the end of 2011 and their prospects for 2012 might be worth doing, so here it is:
The champions. Less KERS (40kW and unreliable unlike the standard 60kW other teams employ), less straight line speed but absolutely top drawer downforce which enables them to use the DRS in places others can’t, partially explaining their relative qualifying advantage. Absolute pace cannot be guessed at in 2012 but the recipe of lower top speed and excellent downforce is likely to continue.
Vettel – fantastic driver. Very good qualifier, enjoys leading from the front, is capable of excellent passes (cf Monza this year). Few weaknesses, possibly uncomfortable when things are tight in the wet (cf Canada) and, weirdly, relatively rubbish at the Nurburgring (which we next visit in 2013). Rightly favourite to retain his title.
Webber – good, but not in Vettel’s league. Had some difficulty adjusting to the Pirellis and more reliability issues than his team mate, so I expect the gap to close this year. More capable of challenging in qualifying than the race, and he needs to sort his starts out.
Excellent straight line speed, downforce good but not on a par with Red Bull. They were actually faster than Red Bull at many races but failed to capitalise, such as in Spain and Monaco. Improved strategy (including some qualifying faux pas that cost Hamilton and the Monaco disaster) needed.
Button – better than in his 2009 winning year. He’s still got his cunning tactical mind for tyres and the ability to find grip in soggy conditions when others can’t, but he’s also a great passer. Qualifying is his weakness, but towards the end of the season he was matching and sometimes beating Hamilton. Almost as importantly, he’s got a 3 year contract and has been working the team diplomatically.
Hamilton – had a slightly rough year, but it’s somewhat over-egged. Multiple collisions, some of which were not his fault and a few that were, helped him to a lowly 5th in the title race. However, at the end of the season he was qualifying and racing better. Man most likely (perhaps excepting Webber) to challenge Vettel for pole.
Dog of a car, mostly. Couldn’t get the medium compound (white) tyres to work which repeatedly compromised them (cf Brazil) all season. They also failed to challenge for pole throughout 2011.
Alonso – However, the very fact that Alonso was just a point behind Webber, who had the championship winning car, despite this, points to his continued excellence. Should he get a truly competitive car next year I think he’s the man likeliest to challenge Vettel for the title (partially due to his undoubted number one status at the team.
Massa – has put in some good qualifying performances but sadly is a shadow of his former self. I do not think he will remain as Alonso’s sidekick for long. It’s a real shame after his great 2008 season.
Played with themselves all year long (as it were. Ahem). Not fast enough to beat Ferrari, not slow enough to be seriously under pressure from a lower team. Great DRS and top speed but still shredding rear tyres. If they get that sorted and find a smidgen of performance they could join the big three, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Schumacher – Had a cracker of a race in Canada when he gained 4th and only just missed out on a podium. Although the team’s best result of the year he was beaten overall by Rosberg (perhaps due to failing to finish around a quarter of the races). His qualifying remains ropey, his starts are excellent and in the latter half of the season he was a better racer than Rosberg.
Rosberg – very hard to assess as we have no idea how good his team mate is today, relatively. His qualifying remains pretty good but in terms of race pace he’s now the second driver in the team.
I’ll cover the other teams, who are unlikely to get race wins or contest for the title or regular podium places, more briefly.
Renault – renamed Lotus next year. They’ve got a surprising lineup. Firstly, the still-injured Kubica cannot drive for them (incidentally, I’ve read that the problem is now not his hand/arm but the fact he’s been so inactive and has lost the strength, perhaps especially in the neck, needed to cope with heavy G-forces) and Raikkonen is now their lead driver. Romain Grosjean also makes a return to the team, having driven for them somewhat unimpressively a few years ago. I doubt Renault will be able to challenge regularly at the sharp end but they should be just behind Mercedes.
Force India – unsurprisingly Sutil has been axed and replaced with Hulkenberg, and di Resta retains his seat. I rate both the relative newcomers highly, and think that Force India are in a pretty good position. At certain tracks (high speed circuits, like Spa or Monza) they may spring the odd surprise. Hulkenberg’s lack of race experience on the new tyres may hinder him for the first few races, but his practice sessions this year should mean his qualifying is unaffected.
Sauber – they’re keeping Perez and Kobayashi. The team often starts pretty well but lacks the knack (or money) for full-season development. Perez is pretty good, and Kobayashi likewise, but I suspect they may be let down by their car.
Toro Rosso – not often we get teams changing both drivers, and even rarer to have it happen twice. I think Buemi and Alguersuari are somewhat unlucky to both be axed, though the latter may get the final seat at HRT (a grim fate). They’re replaced by aspiring Red Bull young guns Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne. Hard to assess the drivers as Vergne hasn’t been in F1 before and Ricciardo spent a few races last season at HRT. Toro Rosso have been reasonable in 2011, and have excelled in speed traps suggesting a ferocious top speed but lacking elsewhere. Their aim must be to beat the likes of Sauber.
Williams – at the time of writing Williams have yet to announce who will partner the bank manager-pleasing Maldonado, who has not impressed with manner or skill. Barrichello seems likely to be out but Sutil, Senna, or another could take the seat. The car has not been good enough for a while, and unless they want to be overtaken by Caterham/Lotus they need to sort it out.
Lotus – renamed Caterham for 2012. They’re sticking with Kovalainen, who’s been driving well, and Trulli (probably). The team’s been the best of the backmarkers for the last couple of years but that’s not good enough. However, they do get a pleasing slice of money for their performances over the last few seasons which could help them start to actually nibble at the points occasionally.
Virgin – renamed Marussia, and featuring Glock and a new chap called Charles Pic. Most significantly, predictable yet nevertheless vaguely amusing double entendres regarding the team’s name will be a thing of the past.
HRT – rather surprisingly the 73 year old Pedro de la Rosa has gotten a drive with them. The other seat in the comedy acronym team remains vacant. The new boss, Luis Perez-Sala, has said that the team will be taking a step backwards in 2012, a statement that seems to defy all reason. How can you take a step backwards when you’re always last? Presumably this means the team will now comprehensively fail to beat the 107% rule (I use the term ‘rule’ loosely) and when they accidentally get to the starting grid their cars will burst into flames before the lights go out.
I’ll write a final preview after the final pre-season test but before the first race. Unless something dramatic happens I don’t intend to write another article between now and then.