The Midfield Scrap: Who Will Come out on Top?

With the 2013 F1 season fast approaching, I thought now would be a good time to gauge everyone’s thoughts on the impending battles that will commence in Australia. I asked my followers on Twitter who they thought would end up on top in the battle of the midfield (ie. Sauber, Force India, Williams and Toro Rosso) and the consensus wasn’t all that surprising, at least for the winner. The runner-up in the poll was what surprised me the most.

With 13 votes, and the win, is Sauber. Their exciting, if not all that consistent, season in 2012 has set up the small Swiss team for more success in the coming year. A slightly more aggressive approach to their C32 has had some of the big teams talking. An all-new lineup in Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez will only add to the excitement, as everyone knows Nico is a real star of the future. Esteban is a bit of an unknown quantity, though. Coming third in the 2012 GP2 championship was not bad, though some mistakes during the season held him back from mounting a title challenge. One hopes that the 2010 GP3 champion can rediscover his consistency.

At Jerez, the C32 completed the most laps of any other team and also ran without any major reliability issues. This fact is made all the more impressive when you consider that their massively reduced sidepods could have had serious negative impacts on the car’s ability to cool its engine. The reliability of the C32 could be its biggest asset in the coming season as performance advantages become harder and harder to come by. If the Sauber can manage to stay reliable, then maybe it could challenge the top teams even more regularly than last year.

In second place with 7 votes is Toro Rosso. This result was the one that surprised me the most. It is no secret that Toro Rosso didn’t have a fantastic year in 2012. In fact, they were the only midfield team to not improve on their points tally from 2011. This fact does not put the team in good stead for the upcoming season. One of the points that let Toro Rosso down last year was that it had, like the tires, a very narrow window of operation and development. It was hard to get the car performing right, and if it was, the car still wasn’t competitive. This year, Toro Rosso have taken a step back and made a floor that is much less aggressive and will hopefully make life a little easier.

Another talking point about the team was the performance of their drivers. A fairly obvious point of much needed improvement is in qualifying pace. Jean Eric Vergne was almost always the one driver to be eliminated from Q1 with the backmarkers, thus hindering his potential in the race. Apart from a shock 6th place grid spot in Bahrain thanks to Ricciardo, the Toro Rosso duo were hardly ever a feature in the top-10.

I’m unsure about this team for 2013. I don’t think they will be in the same league as Sauber or even Force India this season, though they could spring a few surprises every once in a while.

With a paltry 3 votes is Force India. One would think that Nico’s stellar end to the 2012 season would put more confidence in the eyes of Force India’s fans for 2013, though the great results were more down to Nico’s sheer driving brilliance than the car’s performance. Force India’s financial troubles are sure to stifle the hopes of those hoping for many years of their presence in F1. There were even rumors that one Bernie Ecclestone was interested in buying the team from owner, Vijay Mallya.

The driver situation at the team is, at this point, laughable. I’m sure that making a decision for the team regarding drivers is very stressful, especially considering the financial ramifications of taking a driver that might not bring as much money as another. But being this late in the off-season, and this close to the start of the new season without a second driver confirmed is slightly unprofessional.

The new Force India, in the hands of Paul di Resta, looked solid and reliable, if unspectacular. There is nothing wrong with that, as consistency is more important than speed right now, but if the struggling team is to compete with the promise that Sauber is showing, then they have some work to do before we head to Australia.

This just leaves Williams. Coming home with just 2 points is the team that took the most surprising win of the 2012 season.

Williams showed a lot of promise, especially when we saw Pastor Maldonado battling with Fernando Alonso at the Australian Grand Prix. This turn of speed was a welcome reprieve from the torture that was the 2011 season. There was no doubt that the speed of the Williams was there all last year (Pastor lined up 4th for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and finished 5th), often when other teams like Sauber struggled to get points. If Williams manage to keep the speed, then their season should be even better than last year.

The two points holding the team back potentially are the fact that their drivers are a bit of an unknown and that their car hasn’t even been launched yet. Even coming into his third year in F1, Pastor Maldonado is still a driver we can’t predict. The only thing we know is that he is usually very fast; but that speed is often coupled with carelessness. Valtteri Bottas is also an unknown. If all the hype surrounding him is to be believed, then we have nothing to worry about and he should get a few podiums this season. But nothing is ever to be believed in F1. We can’t know for sure that Valtteri won’t crack under the pressure of being a race driver and we don’t know that he won’t be this year’s “crash kid”. We can only hope that Williams is preparing him sufficiently to perform consistently.

I think too much is being read into the fact that Williams’ car is yet to be launched. Yes, it is a bit unorthodox to launch at the second test, and yes, this may mean that the team is a bit unprepared for the season to come, but we don’t know for sure. We just have to wait to see the new car on track to gauge its performance. And even that may be tricky.

The midfield battle this year is set to be even more enthralling than last year’s. All four teams could be in the podium mix throughout the season and there may even be a surprise win or two. If we thought 2012 was a classic season, we have another thing coming.

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