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.

2013 Australian Grand Prix Preview

It’s safe to say that no one really knows who is going to win the season opener. Belting out laps over and over again may prove that your car is reliable, but it doesn’t reveal the most important part: speed. While testing has clouded our judgement of the cars rather than clear it up, the fans can rest assured that whatever happens come Sunday, they most likely will not have expected it.

For the teams, preparing for the race will involve some new and interesting challenges. First off, not everyone completed their testing programs entirely. The rain and cold temperatures made sure of that. This means that rather than just getting re-aquainted with the smooth surface of the Melbourne track, all the teams will still be testing new parts. The significance of all of their impacts is yet to be deciphered, but it would be a good bet to say that the Friday practices will be hectic; more so than any other time we will see this year.

For the top teams, they will also have to prepare for the possibility of the midfield teams springing an early surprise. No one was expecting the fight between Sauber and Ferrari in Malaysia last year (although the rain made sure of a mixed race). Regardless, Red Bull, Mclaren, Ferrari and Lotus will be on the lookout for the likes of Sauber, Williams and even Force India to force their way to the front.

Another part of this preparation will be coming to grips with the relationship between the tires and the track surface. The rough tarmac of Jerez and Barcelona will make way for the smooth surface that characterizes the Melbourne street circuit. Pirelli have been brave to bring the Supersoft and Medium tires to Australia. This will be the former’s first appearance Down Under, prompting many to question the Italian company after the tire debacle we saw in testing. Pirelli assures the paddock, however, that despite all the concerns from testing, two to three stops should be expected this Sunday.

With the step in tire compounds comes an increased importance in strategy. Long gone are the days where drivers drove flat out until they got low on fuel and then pitted. Now, there is a huge degree of tire management that often defines the outcomes of races. The step between the Supersoft and Medium tires is expected to offer more than a second between lap times. Indeed, starting position, along with what tire you start on, will be major factors that influence race strategy.

With all the unknowns surrounding strategy and the running order, the season opener promises to be even more unpredictable than last year’s. The only certainty in uncertainty! Only 58 laps are allocated for the race, ensuring there will be an epic battle for supremacy this weekend.

Qualifying Prediction:

I feel a shoot-out between the top-5 teams is entirely possible. This doesn’t mean, though, that the midfield teams will be left out of the top-10 entirely (although that might be good for strategy). For pole, though, I am not going to discount Mercedes and expect Lewis Hamilton to come out on top.

Race Prediction:

I expect an entirely different narrative for the race. Despite all their flashes of speed and brilliance, I am not convinced Mercedes have what it takes to win right off the bat. With a Ferrari that is much improved compared to last year’s and a driver that is only more determined, I don’t see why Ferrari and Fernando Alonso won’t come out on top. Look out, though, for the likes of Vettel, Button and Raikkonen to fight it out to the checkered flag.

Race Stats:

Track distance: 5.303 Km (3.295 miles)

Race distance: 58 laps or 307.574 Km (191.11 miles)

Expected weather: Sunny for practice and the race with rain predicted for qualifying. Temperature is set to drop over the course of the weekend.

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.