2013 Season Preview: The Title Contenders

2013 Season Preview

Eight different winners (seven of them in the first seven races), two new winners and pole-sitters, the return of Michael Schumacher to the podium and his retirement from the sport, the return of Kimi Raikkonen to the sport and the top step of the podium, a championship fight between the favorite and the underdog with a dog of a car, the return of the United States Grand Prix, political unrest in Bahrain, the first race ban in almost 20 years, six world champions on the grid all at once, technical controversies; 2012 had it all.

It is hard to imagine how on earth the 2013 season will be able to even consider competing with the spine tingling, enthrallment that was the 2012 season. It did feature the closest and most competitive grid in recent memory, allowing small teams like Williams, Sauber and Force India to stick their noses in places they had no right to. This is what makes Formula One so appealing, though. It is one of a very small group of sports that allows for technical minds to clash in an almighty battle of superiority, while the best drivers on the planet thrash about in the world’s fastest race cars in the most impressive of locations.

2013 promises to provide fans with the same kind of uncertainty of the competitive order that they all found so exciting last year. Indeed, at the moment, with all three preseason tests done and dusted, there still isn’t a clear picture of just who is the team to beat. The signs are pointing, however, to an even tighter grid. The technical regulations have gone largely unchanged, allowing each and every team to tweak and refine their cars from last year. This means that the times should be closer, the racing harder, and the championship sweeter.

Red Bull:

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On the back of yet another championship double, the team has every right to go into this season with an air of confidence. Still designed by the ever-evolving genius that is Adrian Newey, the new RB9 goes into the first race the performance benchmark, regardless of what testing may have indicated otherwise. The team’s treatment of each driver will yet again be a topic of discussion as, if Mark Webber fails to match Vettel over the course of the season, a flurry of accusations of favoritism, some of them justified, will dent the reputation of the team somewhat.

Sebastian Vettel:

The world’s youngest triple world champion and only the third person in F1 history to take the championship three times in a row certainly has a lot to look forward to in 2013. With one of the slickest F1 operations largely on his side and the most accomplished technical guru designing his car, there isn’t a whole lot for anyone else to do if the German starts out with the best car.

Vettel has been constantly criticized by many that he can only race from the front, that its the car doing all the work and that he won’t be truly great until he has to deal with a bad car. While his lack of experience at the back of the grid isn’t his fault, it just underlines his fantastic ability to put the car on pole race after race. The fact is Vettel is just never at the back of the grid. His race from 23rd in Abu Dhabi all the way to the podium just goes to show that even his detractors are off the mark.

Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen are arguably the German’s biggest rivals this year. There will be none more determined than them to knock the finger-pointing Vettel off his championship throne this year. But will they be able to? If the Vettel/Newey pairing is at its most potent in 2013, it is hard to see how any of them will be able to pull it off

Vettel’s job this season is just to have fun. Realistically, there is nothing left for him to prove; he is a 3-time world champion. If he can just be consistent and positive in his attitude, there is no doubt that he will be in the title hunt this year, barring some horrible disaster.

Mark Webber:

This man’s situation is very strange. While he has had the best car for the last three and a half years, the fact of the matter is, the Australian has (only) won nine races to Vettel’s 30-plus. This hit rate is hardly one to shout about when lined up next to the pesky German’s.

Mark Webber has had a more difficult time at Red Bull than many realize. He has been with the team longer than Vettel and has more overall F1 experience, yet he isn’t given the same type of treatment that Vettel receives. Webber has to deal with a team owner who basically told the world that he is good for two races and then can’t compete on the same level. Certainly, the rather vicious remarks from Helmut Marko would more than just dent the ego of any other driver, but the guy doesn’t call himself Aussie Grit for nothing, right?

Webber is probably one of the most emotionally stable drivers on the grid. He is not one prone to any sort of temper tantrum when things don’t go his way. He grins, bears it and shows up to do a great job under circumstances akin to those in a pressure cooker.

With Vettel the preseason favorite for the title once again, 2013 is Mark’s chance to work out of the spotlight and get the job done. Everyone up and down the paddock believes in Mark and knows that his talent exceeds his surface level results.

This may be Mark’s do or die year, as pressure from Toro Rosso threatens to cut the Aussie’s career a bit short of what he might want. Indeed, if Mark is to ever win a world championship, this is the year to do it. Does he have what it takes?

Ferrari:

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It’s fairly easy to describe last season for Ferrari: disappointing. There was so much promise to be had in 2012. Red Bull’s biggest advantage was wiped out with new technical regulations and their lead driver was more determined than ever to win a championship with the famous Italian team.

The F2012 was a dog. At the beginning of the season there wasn’t a more apt word to describe the beast. It was hard to control, hard on its tires, hard on its drivers and was usually just plain slow. There were a lot of correlation issues between Ferrari’s outdated wind tunnel and real world data that ultimately proved to be the downfall of Ferrari in 2012. Somehow though, through some divine manifestation most likely, Fernando Alonso managed to take the title fight to the very last race, just to miss out on ultimate glory by four solitary points.

The 2013 car HAS to be good. Ferrari absolutely will not accept anything less than that. There is one assurance though, and you can bet that he will come out fighting.

Fernando Alonso:

What for a simple strategy error in 2010 and a lapse in judgment at the start of the Japanese Grand Prix last year, we could very easily have a brand new four-time world champion in our midst. Fernando Alonso would be company to an elite group of men, the likes of which are all but gone from the sport.

The 32 year-old Spaniard will not have let this fact leave his mind since the last lap of the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix, a race in which he drove his heart and soul onto the tarmac, only to just lose the championship. It is true that Fernando deserved the championship that year, but do not for a second believe that Sebastian didn’t. The German fought just as hard as Fernando for the championship.

Fernando’s approach to racing is one lauded by all the drivers up and down the paddock. Many will attest to his supreme concentration skills and his innate ability to hit every single apex on every single lap during every single race throughout the whole entire season. How this steely meticulousness has only led to 2 championships is certainly not a fault of the driver, you can be sure about that.

The drive and determination that define the driver that is Fernando Alonso is still there, and it will be utilized to its full potential in order for that dream Ferrari World Championship comes true.

Felipe Massa:

The question everyone was asking at midseason’s break in 2012 was whether Felipe Massa would still be driving for the team in 2013. That question still remains at the top of everyone’s list for 2013 as the end of the Brazilian’s Ferrari career is nearing its inevitable end.

One can only feel sympathy for the guy. Once the star driver of the famous Italian team, the arrival of Fernando Alonso in 2010 sparked the immediate downfall of his status in the Maranello outfit. His “polite” request to please move over for Fernando in the 2010 German Grand Prix is still freshly imprinted into the psyche of not only Felipe Massa, but his millions of fans who want nothing more than for the Brazilian to have a fighting chance at the championship rather than being confined to the supporting role from the off.

His more than shaky start to the 2012 season will have taught Felipe about making the most of a bad situation, something Fernando mastered over the course of that trying year. His comeback in the latter third of the season (once he was confirmed for 2013) proved that he still has the fighting spirit in him and that, on his day, he can fight it out with the best of them.

Felipe just needs confidence. Confidence in his car, confidence in his team that they won’t undermine him in a bid to give Fernando the best opportunities, and most importantly, confidence in himself that he is still in Formula One for a reason. He is still here not because the young drivers out there just weren’t quite ready for his seat or that the team felt sorry for him, no. He is here because Ferrari know deep down that Felipe is still a driver of the highest quality. They will be very sad when he is eventually gone.

Mclaren:

They should be the reigning Constructors’ World Champions. It’s as simple as that. They should be the ones everyone is watching with an ever-adjusting focus. They should be the team everyone is afraid of running off with the championship this year. They should be World Champions. But they aren’t.

Much of this disappointment can be attributed to reliability and pit stop problems, which arguably lost the championship for the team this year. Valuable points were lost due to slow pit stops in early season races while operational issues in Spain (cost Hamilton pole position) and reliability problems in Bahrain, Germany, Italy, Singapore, Japan, Korea and Abu Dhabi cost them many points and potential wins.

Mclaren arguably had the fastest car over the whole season. Other than the spell from Japan to India, and in Valencia and Silverstone, the Mclaren was always the car to beat in terms of one-lap speed and race pace. All of this potential was ruined because of reliability.

At the moment, Mclaren is still struggling to understand its car. There is definitely pace in there, but the team is struggling to understand just why the pace is there. You need to know the “why” before you can do anything else. The one positive on Mclaren’s side is that their relatively aggressive approach to their car will potentially give them more scope for development. And we all know Mclaren know how to develop a car over the course of a season.

Jenson Button:

With the departure of Lewis Hamilton, the affable Briton has become the team’s leader. Regardless of Mclaren’s statements about having two number one drivers, Jenson will be the one driving the technical direction of this year’s car and thus, will have the first say in matters concerning big decisions.

Jenson started 2012 as a favorite for the title, as his brilliant performances at the end of 2011 cementing his place as one of the finest drivers on the grid. Opening 2012 with a win in Melbourne and a second place in China put him firmly in the title hunt. However, with the erratic nature of the Pirelli tires not meshing with Jenson’s driving style, his title hopes were all but shattered by the time the British Grand Prix came around. He turned his performance up in the latter half of the season, ending 2012 with a win.

For 2013, Jenson will be looking to have a complete car underneath him along with a pit crew that won’t let him down during pit stops. Renowned for needing a car set up specifically to his liking. When the car is perfect, he is unbeatable. When it isn’t, he often gets lost in obscurity, failing to return for strings of a couple of races until he gets the car to his liking again.

With the way preseason is going, there is a worry that this very problem could be hampering the team. Only the tires supplied by Pirelli provide Jenson with an advantage. Their ability to warm and reach their operating window quickly will certainly be and advantage.

What Jenson has to do this year is prove that he can lead Mclaren in the post-Lewis era. He needs to show that his 2009 championship wasn’t just down to his car and that he has what it takes to run with the best of them.

Sergio Perez:

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This will be the biggest year in the young Mexican’s career. His move from the impressive Sauber team to Mclaren was mired in controversy, as he failed to score a single point in 2012 in the races immediately following his signing. A mixture of bad luck and some careless mistakes marked his Mclaren career before it even started.

For Sergio, 2013 marks the year where he becomes a racing driver for one of the most decorated teams in Formula One history. The one-off podiums he experienced last year for Sauber will no longer cut it. He needs to be in the thick of it each and every week, because Mclaren doesn’t tolerate continual mistakes. One more thing that Perez will have to remedy is his qualifying pace. It is widely known that Jenson Button isn’t the strongest qualifier and in 2012 we found that neither is Sergio. He was beaten by his teammate in qualifying over the course of the season and will be expected to up his game for 2013.

Often as a result of his poor qualifying, Sergio would rely on clever tire strategy to get to the podium. Indeed his third and second places in Canada and Italy were all down to one stopping when the front-runners stuck with normal two-stop strategies. This won’t be an option at Mclaren as top-5 qualifying spots will be the minimum.

The latter half of 2012 will have taught Sergio a lot about himself. He knows that he needs to take a calm but intense approach to this new season because he needs to perform while also staying out of trouble.

From preseason observations, Sergio looks like he has settled in perfectly with the team. With the car, however, things are proving to be more difficult. Set-up is once again tricky to fine-tune and this is making time spent in the pits more prevalent than is probably wanted.

The season promises to either be one of elation or disappointment.

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