Pastor’s Perception and Pay Drivers: Bad or Misunderstood?

No driver currently in Formula One does not deserve to be there. What Formula One fans around the world fail to comprehend is that the drivers we all know deserve to be in Formula One but aren’t, are just more deserving than the ones we perceive to be undeserving, that are. The line is grey, not black and white. There aren’t a certain number of podiums, wins and pole positions in a certain number of junior categories that suddenly qualify you to race in Formula One. That isn’t how it works. If it was, then Daniil Kvyat wouldn’t have been signed by Toro Rosso to race for them in 2014 and nor would Kimi Raikkonen have been signed by Sauber.

But like I said, the line is grey, not black and white. There is a huge margin of error, you could say, that both Formula One fans and Formula One teams like to exploit in different ways. While the former will write off any driver who brings money that overshadows his junior CV, the latter will use the money to enhance a junior CV, making an unimpressive junior career seem more impressive than it really is by sneakily using the money he brings to sign him, while employing some conveniently vague wording to justify their decision. Just look at the press releases Sauber may make should they sign Sergey Sirotkin for 2014 and you’ll catch my drift.

But why do we hate pay drivers so much? There is a certain air of entitlement in Formula One these days. Should you have a rich father and are more than half-decent at racing then one season in Formula One suddenly isn’t as far-fetched as it may have seemed as a child. That is a fact of the sport.

But nothing is ever entirely given to a “pay driver” either. If it was, then half of the grids in GP2/3 and Formula Renault 3.5 would be gone. You still have to go racing. If there is money involved, then some mistakes or frankly bad driving is inevitably forgotten, at least by the investors behind the driver. A few crashes? Just pump in a couple million more dollars.

While it is not quite that simple, a lot of goes on in junior racing is compensation. Take Rodolfo Gonzalez. He is far from the best driver in the world, and his GP2 record is frankly embarrassing, but he isn’t the worst driver either, otherwise he wouldn’t have gotten where he is. No team, regardless of how financially desperate, would take an outright terrible driver. Why then, has Rodolfo had so many pointless practice outings with Marussia then? The team is gaining nothing from them, as he is often two seconds off either Max Chilton or Jules Bianchi, and Rodolfo is gaining nothing other than an exciting afternoon because he isn’t realistically in the running for a race seat anytime soon. They guy is almost 30 years old for goodness sake. He makes these outings because PDVSA pays for them. They compensate the team for a wasted morning in return for a Formula One outing for one of it’s lesser F1 hopefuls. That is what really gets fans angry.

When a young driver is rumored to be in the running for an F1 seat, we immediately investigate how much money he has with him. If there isn’t any, then you can almost immediately write him off. If there isn’t money, but he is connected to a young driver scheme with another team, then you should still count him in the running. But, if there are millions upon millions behind him in the form of oil or banking or technology, and he has a decent or better junior career, then the seat is almost certainly his. Those are the facts of modern Formula One.

We are never going to get rid of pay drivers. While they may not be good for the sport, they are vital to its longevity. If there were no Maldonados, Perezes or van der Gardes, then the sport would not be here. They are what drives F1 forward in a time where manufacturers consistently avoid getting into the sport or threaten to leave. In a way, pay drivers are just another example of the privatization of Formula One. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, like any perceived negative in life, it must be used in moderation. Should the number of pay driver proliferate, then there would be a problem, but there aren’t that many right now. The sport is not doomed because of Max Chilton and Pastor Maldonado. Far from it. But we as fans have such an idealistic view of what the sport should be that we forget that the sport has to be.

With Pastor Maldonado’s Lotus signing today, the issue of pay drivers was once again shoved into the faces of every Formula One fan. Yes, Nico Hulkenberg deserves to be in that seat. His performances in the second half of 2013 are more than justification for Lotus to sign him. But Maldonado is not undeserving of the seat either. He is just far less deserving than Nico is. That is the grey margin we find ourselves in today. We would all love for there to be a black and white distinction between who deserves to be in a top seat and who doesn’t. But we will never get that. In fact, the sport depends on there being some ambiguity between the deserving and the undeserving. Otherwise, their vital millions would never get into the sport.

There is a question I want everyone who reads this to think about long and hard: Would you rather watch Formula One with many great drivers and a few average, or no Formula One at all?

 

Advertisements

Could Perez be Lotus’s Savior?

Now that Sergio Perez has officially announced he is leaving Mclaren, its time to officially add him to the mix of drivers currently looking for employment in 2014. Speculation has no place here. This is real uncertainty for Sergio.

It’s hard to deny that Perez was given a pretty tough set of circumstances to deal with in 2013: a bad car, a teammate at the top of his game (at the end of 2012, at least), tricky tires, more media/sponsorship commitments than ever before, national pride always pressuring him, oh, and a bad car. All of these factors conspired against Sergio and eventually clouded what really hasn’t been a bad season for the Mexican. Sure, it has been far from what he expected, and some mistakes on his part have prevented him from scoring more points than he has now (Monaco comes straight to mind), but considering all of the setbacks mentioned before, Sergio has been a solid performer this season.

Perez’s departure, then, would seem as something of a surprise to the casual onlooker; surely since it was not Sergio’s fault that the car was uncompetitive, the only fair thing to do would be to give him another chance in a much more competitive car to see what he can really do. Mclaren, in all likelihood, would have taken this path, had their priorities not gotten in the way.

I can completely understand the Perez sympathizers in this situation. I agree that he deserves another chance in the car when it is more competitive and representative of his talent, of which there is plenty. But I do understand the commitments Mclaren have to their own, that is, to Kevin Magnussen. It is rare to get the chance to put a rookie in a top team these days. It’s been six years since Lewis Hamilton made his splash into the F1 scene. Mclaren would be silly to turn down an opportunity like this, and looking for any way to do so is understandable.

We must also not forget that Perez is not a Mclaren man. He was a Ferrari protégé just days before the 2012 Singapore Grand Prix, destined for greatness alongside Fernando Alonso in 2013 and as the team leader once the Spaniard left. But then Lewis Hamilton left Mclaren. That meant the team had some frantic searching to do to find a suitable, or at least suitable enough, replacement for their 2008 champion. At that time Perez was the man to watch, having just scored his third podium of the season at the previous race in Italy after, ironically, almost chasing down Hamilton for the win. Importantly, he was out of contract for 2013 with Sauber. That gave Mclaren some pretty serious leverage when it came time for contract negotiations.

Many rightly criticized Mclaren’s decision to sign Perez. I still believe he was not meant for the seat. Nico Hulkenberg was the man to sign, and that became even more clear at the Brazilian Grand Prix. But his lack of “standout” performances at that point in the season (though his fourth and fifth place finishes in Belgium and Valencia, respectively, were extremely impressive) meant he was at a disadvantage when it came to making his case to Mclaren as to why they should sign him for 2013.

One year-and-a-bit later, and now Perez is gone. Almost like he wasn’t even there at all. One can almost here the name “Kovalainen” ringing in one’s head as the words of Perez’s classy, respectful, but rather sad, letter are read aloud.

The driver market is now busier than it has ever been, with Perez, Pastor Maldonado and Nico Hulkenberg the three key players in this rather confusing tale of the silly season. This is how it all plays out, though: Should Lotus’s deal with Quantum fall through (remember, it isn’t officially done, just agreed to on both sides of the deal i.e. Quantum and Lotus), then money from a driver is of vital importance.

Pastor Maldonado has been the favorite candidate for that seat should the situation play out in the manner described above. But Maldonado’s millions are not as secure as we may have once thought.

AUTOWEEK reported in its most recent issue that all “disbursements of hard currency to automobile and motorcycle racers (from Venezuela) who compete abroad” have been “frozen” as the Venezuelan government investigates a corruption scandal. That means Maldonado shouldn’t sit pretty just yet. That $48 million a year in precious oil money could all but disappear just when it would come in its most handy.

Enter Sergio Perez.

His Telmex money, once a major sponsor for Sauber when the Mexican was a driver there in 2011 and 2012, could be put to use in securing him a drive at the Enstone-based squad for 2014. Perhaps not quite as sizable as Maldonado’s sponsorship, Perez’s backing from Telmex would still ensure whichever team was the recipient was far from scared for its financial future. This is where the Mexican’s more highly regarded talent would come in handy. The fact that he isn’t labeled a crash-happy nutcase puts him a step ahead of Pastor. While the mistakes have been cut down vastly in 2013, it takes more than just obscurity on the grid to erase a name like that. Just ask Romain Grosjean.

Sergio Perez may have ended the day a sad fellow, but all is not lost. He could just have set himself up for a future at a team that now has the capability to beat Mclaren on a regular basis. That is something to smile about.

New Kids on the Block

This is going to be a big year for Esteban Gutierrez and Valtteri Bottas. I mean, after joining twitter, starting his F1 career will be the latter’s greatest accomplishment.

These two young drivers have a lot of hype surrounding them. They both have junior championships under their belts and at least two years of being test drivers for an established Formula One team. Along with this, they have been with their respective teams for a number of years, having both been picked up early on in their journey up the F1 ladder.

The similarities continue when you look at the teams they’re at. They both arrive on the scene against very formidable teammates, both former pole-sitters and one, a race winner. Their respective teams had much improved seasons last year, with Sauber grabbing four podiums and a several top-5 grid spots and Williams taking a pole, win and more top-5 grid spots as well. All of this points to a lot of pressure for them to improve in 2013. Indeed consistency, not usually trademarks of rookies, is all the teams really need in order to deem 2013 a success.

While he plays down the prospects of any eye-catching performances, don’t think that Esteban will just hide in the shadows in 2013. The Mexican has a very solid racing platform that will serve him well.

Esteban comes into Formula One on the back of a slightly disappointing GP2 campaign. While he finished 3rd in the championship, it was a rather distant one, with some careless accidents denting his hopes of a championship challenge mid-season. However, the performances that did come together were very impressive. He beat veterans of the series like Giedo van der Garde and Max Chilton who should have done better in the championship. This relative disappointment from Gp2 doesn’t mean he hasn’t enjoyed success. He absolutely dominated the 2010 GP3 season, taking 5 wins. All this time, he was test driver for BMW Sauber, courtesy of his Formula BMW championship in 2008. Indeed, that championship 5 years ago may have secured his place in F1.

Esteban has a lot going for him. He is young, eager, talented and has financial backing in the form of Telmex. Being funded by the richest man in the world certainly has its perks, but don’t think that was the determining factor in his step up into a race seat. We must keep in mind that Telmex was staying with Sauber regardless of their driver choice. This goes to show Sauber’s decision wasn’t purely commercial.

This season, Esteban will have to call upon his experience with Sauber and their way of operating in orfer to gain any advantage over Nico Hilkenberg, his new teammate. Esteban has been with the the Swiss squad since 2009, so he has lived through the tough transition of the team from factory giant to privateer outfit. If the Mexican is to deem his debut season as a success, consistency and solid points need to be the minimum. If he can score a podium, that will be a fantastic boost for both him and the team who hope to emulate the giant killing performances from 2012.

There is a sense from a lot of people that Esteban needs to perform on the level of now Mclaren driver, Seegio Perez. His near wins in Malaysia and Italy are a testament to his immense talent, but just because he his a fellow countryman, it doesn’t mean Esteban will be directly compared to him. Of course, completely avoiding comparison will be impossible, but the rookie deserves a clean slate on which to make his mark, rather than just adding to Sergio’s already decorated CV. Who knows, maybe Esteban will surprise us all this year.

Esteban has enjoyed a very successful preseason. All of his outings in the car have been uninterrupted and consistent. He is proving to be reliable in this sense. The consensus also points to the team being quick. They won’t challenge for the title, but nothing suggests they can’t scare the big boys more often than last year. All Esteban needs to do is stay out of trouble.

The trouble is, one very determined Finn could get in his way.

Valtteri Bottas has finally stepped up to the race seat many believed was his the moment we saw him drive his first FP1 of 2012. His speed and consistency impressed throughout the paddock. Indeed, he was good enough to even beat Maldonado every once in a while in practice. For 2013, the expectations are high as everyone at Williams has dubbed the Finn the next great thing. Certainly, his goal must be to emulate the successes fellow countrymen Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen, rather then the relative disappointments of Heikki Kovalainen and Mika Salo.

Like Gutierrez, Valtteri is a champion of GP3. He won the championship the year after the Mexican and was already a part of the Williams family before that. His time with Williams exceeds that of several current F1 drivers, and he hasn’t even raced yet! Indeed, there are many similarities between the careers of Esteban and Valtteri. Perhaps this will make it easier to compare their success or failure throughout this unpredictable season.

Valtteri’s transition from test to race driver for Williams was expected early on in the 2012 season. Most expected the 2012 campaign to be a buffer year just to get the Finn ready for racing in 2013. Bottas should be well prepared, though, as he has had one of the more pleasant preseason testing experiences of any of the drivers. In Jerez, he got used to the new tires in the car he already knew very well, and in Barcelona, he added the new car variable to the tricky tire mix. This will be a very trying year for all the rookies as the tires have proven to be at least easy to warm up, but very hard to conserve. Valtteri, though, is taking the challenge in his stride.

Having a teammate like Pastor will be helpful as well. Although a bit unpredictable, the Venezuelan is undeniably quick and a proven race winner, providing the Finn the perfect performance benchmark. Having immensely talented teammates are just more of the similarities between Esteban and Valtteri.

Throughout his career, Valtteri has been supported and backed by Toto Wolff, a former stakeholder of the Williams F1 Team. Many were skeptical about the partnership and assumed that the Finn was in the team just because of this connection. When Wolff announced his departure from the team last month, though, I personally was convinced that Valtteri’s placement as a race driver was genuine and not linked explicitly to his connection with Wolff.

Williams is the perfect place for Valtteri at the moment. They are on an upward swing in terms of performance and management, and with the determination to challenge the big teams this year, Williams have provided the Finn with the perfect opportunity to prove to us all that he deserves his place in F1. If he lives up to all the hype, it won’t be long before the likes of Mclaren are knocking on the doors of Williams.

The battle between the midfield teams is set to be one for the ages, but their new drivers promise one that could be even more spectacular. Roll on the Australian Grand Prix!

Barcelona Testing: Winners and Losers

This first test in Barcelona offered up the first slight glimpse at the competitive order for the 2013 season.  We know who will most likely be fighting for the championship and who will be fighting for the final money-paying position in the Constructors’ Championship.  What we don’t know, however, is who is fastest and who will eventually end up on top.  We have 19 races for that to be decided.

The test was action-packed with four different drivers on top over the course of the four days.  We also got some heavy rain and thus an opportunity to test the wet and intermediate tires on the brand new cars.  Here are my winners and losers from Barcelona.

Winners:

Williams:

With a delayed car launch, many thought that the Grove-based outfit were in some sort of trouble.  This was proved wrong when the FW35 turned out to be one of the most reliable cars of the test, while also showing a fair turn of speed in the process. The team has made it very clear that they intend to challenge the bigger teams in the 2013 season.  Indeed, if they are to consider 2013 and improvement upon 2012, surely there need to be two wins in the book, right?  They will also have some very stiff competition in the rest of the midfield, especially Sauber, who have impressed everybody so far with their reliability, speed and consistency.  Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas will undoubtedly have more work to do to fully understand the new car before the season kicks off in Melbourne, but if the team and car keep operating at the same level as in the first Barcelona test, then they are in good shape for the upcoming season.

Sauber:

The team who enjoyed a very successful and productive test in Jerez continued the trend in Barcelona. A grand total of 308 laps over the course of the four day test ensured the Swiss team was one of the most productive of the field.  Running without reliability problems was an added bonus to a thoroughly successful test. Both Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez weren’t chasing lap times for most of the test, rather they focussed more on set up work and further understanding the Pirelli tires, which have proven to be tricky to work with. Only on the final day of dry running did we see the C32 show a turn of speed in the capable hands of Nico Hulkenberg.  He went second fastest on that day and racked up a fair bit of mileage.  The small swiss team is looking like it could challenge the big teams again this year.

 

Losers:

Caterham:

Many expected Caterham to have made the step from backmarker to midfielder by now.  This is unlikely to happen if testing form proves to be the reality of their situation.  Reporting trackside, experts have observed the unstable nature of the green machine, saying that it struggles to find grip in all types of corners and that its ungainly way of changing direction makes it look even slower than it actually is.  Much of these observations could have been made while the car was on heavy fuel, as there wasn’t a lot of evidence that the team did any qualifying simulations.  Running with lots of fuel would have accentuated any bad, underlying qualities of the car, thus causing this concern.  However, if Caterham are to have a long-term future in the sport, they need to get their act together and make the step up to the midfield.  Marussia seem to have made more relative progress than Caterham, and soon, they may well overtake them in the pecking order.  Caterham have a good, if largely inexperienced, lineup in Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde.  They are capable of being consistent and delivering good performances.  Now, the car needs to be up to par in order for the drivers to deliver their best.  At the moment, this is looking unlikely.

The team have also experienced some controversy with their exhaust.  The team ran with a panel in their Coanda tunnel, thus breaching the technical regulations regarding exhaust design.  The FIA have ruled it to be illegal but, since this is testing, the team aren’t required to remove it.  If the team reach Melbourne with the panel still present, there could be significant consequences for the team.

Pirelli Tires:

In Jerez, one of my losers was the circuit itself.  Many observed that the old and worn out track surface was causing the new tires to degrade at a far greater rate than expected, thus cutting runs short and potentially skewing data from the test.  We were all relieved that the remainder of the test was to be carried out at Barcelona, a tried and tested racing circuit which the teams will be racing on this season.

What was perceived to be track characteristics causing the tire concern, has now been changed to tire characteristics.  The teams found that even the surface at Barcelona was tearing up the tires within just a couple of laps.  The data that the teams were gathering was inconsistent and runs were much shorter and carried out at slower speeds.  After his pacesetting day in Barcelona, Sergio Perez said of the 2013 spec Pirelli tires, “I hope it changes, because if we are in this situation in Melbourne we are going to see something like seven or ten stops.  There is very little what the driver can do to help the degradation.”  This concern over tire life has put Pirelli in the hot seat as the potential for another “lottery” start to the season could well be upon us once again.

The problem with the tires last year was that they were very difficult to warm up and get within their working range.  Once there, the tires were fairly durable and consistent over the course of a stint.  The tires that Pirelli have on offer for the 2013 season have remedied this warming problem, but may have created another.  All the drivers are full of praise for the tires’ ability to gain heat and get within their working window. However, the time the tires are within their working range in fleeting and soon the drivers are struggling for grip.  This rapid switch from grip to slip is a bad sign for the season to come.  These facts only go to show that Romain Grosjean’s race simulation on Thursday, where he did a behemoth stint of 20 laps on the medium tire, was one of the most impressive feats of all the preseason testing so far.  It also proves that the Lotus has the potential to be the car to beat this season.

The weather may have also had an effect on the performance of the tires.  Temperatures in Barcelona were much colder to those that will be experienced throughout the season.  Perhaps the conditions experienced in testing were causing the tires to degrade at a more intense rate.

Whatever the problem is with the new tires, Pirelli need to solve it fast. Otherwise, their decision to bring the Soft and Supersoft compounds to Melbourne may prove to be disastrous.

 

With the final four days of preseason testing upon us in just two days, and the season opener just under three weeks, there is still a lot of work to be done.  Stay tuned for coverage of each day of testing and another edition of Winners and Losers from the final four days afterwards.

Barcelona Testing: Day 1

The F1 circus returned to action this morning at the chilly Circuit de Catalunya for what may be the prologue to another classic Formula One season. Williams finally revealed their 2013 challenger, thus completing the field and there was plenty of work to be done. Here is how everyone got on.

The morning was relatively quiet as everybody got used to the very green circuit. Once the teams came to grips, however, they were quick to show their speed. The last 20 minutes was when the drivers started to show their speed as Vettel, Raikkonen, Alonso and Rosberg impressed.

Sebastian Vettel in the Red Bull enjoyed a lot of time at the top of the time sheets (he ended the morning session fastest). He would eventually end the day 4th.

Fernando Alonso got his first taste of the F138 after he opted to sit out the four days of testing in Jerez. He said the new car was on another planet compared to the F2012 of last year. Funnily enough, this is precisely what Felipe Massa had to say about the F138 in Jerez. Fernando also completed by far the most laps of anyone, slipping past the 100 lap mark to finish on 110 for the day.

Sergio Perez kicked things off for Mclaren in Barcelona. A lengthly reset process after an aero run delayed his running for a large chunk of time in the morning, but he had a productive day nonetheless.

Kimi Raikkonen was the first of the Lotus drivers to get to know the E21 around the Spanish circuit. He was happy with the progress made today, but feels there is still some work to be done. He also enjoyed time at the top of the time sheets today, eventually finishing second.

Nico Rosberg had some gearbox troubles this morning. He was delays for a worrying amount of time, but eventually got running after the lunch break. He was quick to show his speed as well, ending the day fastest, just .007 second quicker than Raikkonen.

Esteban Gutierrez had a very quiet day in his Sauber. He was vocal about the tire situation, saying that they were degrading very rapidly, just like they did in Jerez. Nevertheless, Sauber have a lot of information to analyze over the next three days.

Paul di Resta was the early pacesetter this morning. There weren’t any mechanical issues of note and he ended the day 8th fastest.

As the first man to drive the brand new FW35, Pastor Maldonado had a lot to do today. The Venezuelan was very happy with the progress made on the new car and his is pleased with the overall performance. If there is anyone to gauge good car performance around the Barcelona circuit, it is last years’ winner.

Daniel Ricciardo impressed the time sheets, often hanging around the big boys on the speed charts. He didn’t encounter any mechanical issues and ended the day 6th fastest.

Marussia’s Max Chilton and Caterham’s Charles Pic were tenth and 11th respectively as the first of the four days of testing came to an end.

Tuesday times:
Pos  Driver                              Time                     Time                                 Laps    Tyre*
 1.  Nico Rosberg       Mercedes     1m22.616s            54  Medium
 2.  Kimi Raikkonen     Lotus        1m22.672s  + 0.007s  44  Medium
 3.  Fernando Alonso    Ferrari      1m22.952s  + 0.336s  110 Medium
 4.  Sebastian Vettel   Red Bull     1m22.965s  + 0.349s  66  Medium
 5.  Pastor Maldonado   Williams     1m23.733s  + 1.117s  86   Soft
 6.  Daniel Ricciardo   Toro Rosso   1m23.884s  + 1.268s  73   Hard
 7.  Sergio Perez       McLaren      1m24.124s  + 1.508s  77  Medium
 8.  Paul di Resta      Force India  1m24.144s  + 1.528s  82  Medium
 9.  Esteban Gutierrez  Sauber       1m25.124s  + 2.508s  68   Hard
10.  Max Chilton        Marussia     1m26.747s  + 4.131s  65   Soft
11.  Charles Pic        Caterham     1m27.534s  + 4.918s  49   Hard

F1 is Turned up to 11

The final car was launched at last as Williams revealed this FW35 to the media before testing began in Barcelona. Williams have been a feature in the press because of their decision to delay their car launch until the second pre-season test. The head honchos at Williams have justified their decision by saying they utilized the extra two weeks to perfect their design so they could ensure it was the best it could be.

20130219-061625.jpg
Williams weren’t just lazing around before they launched their car, though. They were hard at work in Jerez putting the new Pirelli tires through their paces. The evaluation, however, has been seen as a bit useless as the track surface at Jerez chewed up the tires at a ravenous pace, thus rendering the data gathered slightly skewed.

The first chance did at least give the team a chance to get their drivers back up to speed. Rookie Valtteri Bottas has a lot of hype behind him, and expectations are high for the Finnish rookie for the season opener.

The FW35 has launched as the successor to the quick and reliable FW34 which propelled Williams to their first win since 2004. The Spanish Grand Prix was the highlight of Williams’ season as good results in Abu Dhabi and Hungary were fragmented by driver errors mainly on the part if Maldonado.

Williams are confident that the FW35 is an improvement over its predecessor even though the design is more of an evolution than revolution. Technical director, Mike Coughlan is assured that The FW35 is “a better, more refined Formula One car than the FW34 and I think everyone involved can feel proud of the work they’ve done.”

The Williams team may be a bit on the Blackfoot compared to the other teams, but rest assured that the FW35 and their drivers will come out of the gate rearing to improve upon the successes of 2012.

20130219-061548.jpg

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.