THE 2012 Formula One Championship will be stuffed with firsts. The biggest of them is the fact that the grid will contain six world champions for the first time, with the super six having won an incredible 14 titles between them. That’s an unprecedented one in four of the drivers competing in this year’s championship.
With a record 20 races spanning 37 weeks, it will also be the longest championship ever and, if the bookies are right, it could be the most one-sided. The men in trilbies already have the constructors’ championship as a shoo-in for Red Bull, while Sebastien Vettel is so heavily fancied to become world champion for a third successive time that he’s all but unbackable both over the season and at Melbourne in next Sunday’s opening race.
That’s probably a little hysterical, but there’s no doubt that it would be a brave punter who bet against Red Bull. Realistically, the one team which can harbour any hope of ending the season ahead of the fizzy drink boys is McLaren, whose feisty combo of a revitalised Lewis Hamilton and the surprisingly steely Jenson Button, who last year became the first team-mate to best Hamilton, contains enough quality to take the championship all the way. Much will depend on how veteran Aussie Mark Webber, to whom Red Bull have declined to give a contract extension, performs.
One of the other unknowns is how the aerodynamicists – and particularly Red Bull genius Adrian Newey – will cope with a huge raft of new technical regulations. These cover everything from lowering the nose (making for some prodigiously ugly cars) to the banning of the exhaust-blown diffuser which gave Red Bull such an advantage last year. Two other changes could also make life interesting for Red Bull, mainly because Lewis Hamilton remains the best overtaker on the grid.First, the new, even softer Pirelli tyres will mean more pit stops, which will mean more overtaking. Second, the fact that drivers can only move once to defend their position in corners will also mean more overtaking.
There is a whole roster of drivers with something to prove and, as ever, the most interesting battles will be between team-mates. As well as Webber taking the battle to Vettel one last time, and Hamilton and Button duking it out at McLaren, the battle at Mercedes, where Niko Rosberg is desperate to consolidate his place in a team dominated by the lucrative presence of Michael Schumacher, will be fascinating.
Ferrari, meanwhile, had just one win last year and are steeling themselves for a dire start to the season after disappointing results during testing with the “unpredictable” F2012 led Luca di Montezomolo to read the riot act to team boss Stefano Domenicali and his engineers. Their priority in the short term is to ensure they stay in touch with Red Bull and McLaren and are not dragged back into a dogfight with Lotus and Mercedes, who are the best of the second-tier teams.
The competition in the next tier is ferocious, with Force India trying to hold off Sauber’s experience, Toro Rosso’s young cavaliers, a cash-rich Williams team and Tony Fernandes’ rebranded Caterham team. When it comes to drivers, great things are expected of Lotus’s French driver Romain Grosjean, one of a trio of rookies – the other two are Toro Rosso’s pairing of fellow Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne and Aussie Daniel Ricciardo – who have created a palpable wave of excitement. Slugging it out at the back of the grid will be the HRT and Marussia, who both struggled to pass the mandatory FIA crash tests and look set to be hopelessly uncompetitive.