With another F1 season upon us (but actually somewhat overdue), we look at the first six teams from the 12 challengers who will grace the grid in Melbourne on March 27.
Of course, by now we could know what the pecking order really is, but in the absence of a Bahrain Grand Prix, we’re going on a combination of history, testing form and finely-honed, panther-like gut instinct before we head down under.
With tongue firmly in cheek, we take an impartial look at the cars and teams who’ll be battling it out for honours between Australia and the thrilling conclusion in Brazil – or Bahrain.
Red Bull Racing-Renault RB7
Niki Lauda says the first win is always the most difficult and, after a rollercoaster of a season, Red Bull Racing clinched both titles last year. The RB7 has yet to turn a wheel in anger but everything seems to be progressing smoothly. The car is both quick over a single lap and consistent on its long runs, and Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber sound relaxed and confident. It’s got the bookies convinced and a good chunk of the press corps too.
Most Important Person? Adrian Newey. Vettel and Webber can do it on the track, and Christian Horner is becoming the consummate mediator behind the scenes, but while Red Bull Racing may not have the financial muscle to compete with McLaren or Ferrari, they do have Newey’s colossal brain to make up the difference. The rules have changed again this year, and Adrian does his best work when that happens.
Up or down? Constructors’ Champions again. Genuinely difficult to call between Ferrari and Red Bull based on testing but both look a ahead of the curve and Red Bull Racing might have just the stronger driver pairing.
Ferrari F150 Italia
The only fly in Red Bull Racing’s Chardonnay is the ominous form of Ferrari. The Maranello Massive are smarting after losing out again last year, and have a determined look about them. Ferrari look rock-solid, having put in more laps than any of their competitors. Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso have both topped the timesheets too – but whether they have the long-run pace to challenge Red Bull Racing isn’t yet clear.
Did you know? Ford took Ferrari to court over the name of the Scuderia’s 2011 challenger. They didn’t buy the line that Ferrari named it in honour of the 150th anniversary of Italian unification and argued that F150 it could be mistaken for one of their trucks. No, this isn’t a line from Talledega Nights, this really happened.
Most Important Person? Fernando Alonso. Ferrari didn’t have a great car last year, but Alonso’s sheer force of will made it look world class.
Up or down? Runners-up in the Constructors’ Championship, unless Massa can rediscover his motivation – but don’t rule out Alonso becoming a three-times World Champion.
Lotus Renault R31 (aka Black Lotus)
With Bob Bell departing for Mercedes, the last vestige of a great technical team has left Enstone, UK, but it doesn’t seem to have harmed Renault. The car has a radical exhaust system, but that only draws the eye away from how neat the rest of it is. Vitaly Petrov and Nick Heidfeld are a low-volume pairing, but they’re both capable of bringing the Renault home with some high-value points.
Did you know? When they’re not on track, Lotus Renault are going to be spending most of their year in court. Alongside the ongoing dispute over which Lotus can call its Lotus a Lotus, there’s the issue of that beautiful old-school black and gold livery. Lotus argue that any resemblance to a well-known brand of cigarette is entirely coincidental. That’s only true in the sense of them not being paid to paint it that colour.
Most Important Person? Robert Kubica. Big Bob won’t be in the car, which will be a blow to the Black Lotus. Make no mistake, if the car is good enough to finish third, Nick Heidfeld is good enough to get it there – but Kubica is a magical talent capable of getting it higher. He will be missed.
Up or down? Up. Despite the exodus of technical talent and the loss of Kubica, the Lotus Renault looks good and has out-performed McLaren and Mercedes in testing.
Mercedes look like they’re improving, but the baseline from which they started was fairly low. Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg will have their work cut out in a Mercedes that looks good over a single lap, but struggles on the longer runs. If overtaking really is easier this year then qualifying isn’t going to have the same significance it’s had in recent times, so they might struggle. At least the new package that arrived for the final test seemed to help.
Most Important Person? Michael Schumacher. But maybe not in a good way. Mercedes have been all about delivering a better car for the F1 legend – but legend or not, Rosberg trounced Schumacher last year. The logical thing would be to make a car that suits him but if the new Silver Arrow works well for Mercedes’ junior German, it’ll be down to luck more than judgement.
Up or down? Ross Brawn reckons Mercedes needed to find a second from somewhere. They picked up some ground but it isn’t likely to be enough.
McLaren may be seeing a lot of their factory. They’ve had more than their share of technical hitches so while Ferrari passed 1500 laps in testing, McLaren struggled to get beyond 1,000, and 300 of those were with last year’s car. And when it has been on track, the MP4-26 hasn’t performed. When the team are releasing statements saying the car ‘isn’t that bad’, you know you're in for a long year. But with their double world champion pairing of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, and a top-drawer team in the garage, you can expect them to turn it around sooner or later.
Most Important Person? Jenson Button: everyone is talking about how fragile the new Pirelli tyres are – and no one can drive fast while nursing worn rubber as well as Jenson.
Up or down? Down – at least to begin with. McLaren skipped the first test and haven’t looked stellar in the others – their times suggest the middle of the midfield, but having two World Champions, plenty of money and brilliant engineers will drag them forward.
Sauber always build the sort of car you could take home to meet your mother: practical, attractive, no nonsense and safe. It’ll score points and keep the Swiss operation ticking over. The worry is that Saubers of old tended to start a season brightly and then fade away as the bigger teams out-spent them with expensive development programmes. But now Sauber are tied up with Carlos Slim, according to Forbes, the world’s richest man. Kamui Kobayashi isn’t everyone’s idea of a lead driver, but on the plus side Sergio Perez has looked very good in testing.
Most Important Person? Kamui Kobayashi. Kamui’s first full season was really, really good. He scored points, took some brave decisions and made some good moves – but now the real work begins. Kamui looks like a talented rookie, but he’s being asked to lead a team as the senior driver. With a new car and a small team, that’s a lot of weight on his shoulders.
Up or down? Up. Sauber struggled in 2010 after BMW pulled out. The team lost a lot of technical expertise, cash and their engine and gearbox, while also needing a new technical director. This year with everything bedded in, plus the added advantage of a truckload of pesos from Mexico, Sauber should get back up the field. As a bonus, Perez looks like the real deal.