Barcelona: The Third and Final Test

Nico Rosberg, the fastest man in pre-season testing
Nico Rosberg, the fastest man in pre-season testing

Last weekend, Mark Webber won his first F1 drivers championship. His scintillating early season form had propelled him to the top of the world championship standings with a few races to go. A disappointing outing at Suzuka ensured that the title race went down to the wire but back to back victories in Brazil and Abu Dhabi helped Webber to clinch the title ahead of a resurgent Jenson Button to become only the third Australian in history (after Jack Brabham and Alan Jones) to win the drivers title.*

The ecstatic 5 year old having steered Mark Webber to title victory!
The ecstatic 5 year old having steered Mark Webber to title victory

*Actually this is not totally an elaborate construct of my imagination. It really did happen but admittedly the title-winning Mark Webber was a virtual driver in cyberspace (with Indian nationality) and all the plaudits must really go to the 5 year old who drove his little socks off on Mark’s behalf. Having scornfully cast Mario Kart aside as too easy and babyish, he has moved on to the real thing (ish) and already mastered a game that the husband and me thought was totally impossible to drive (never mind win). The 5 year old’s favourite track is Brazil and his worst is Suzuka (which provoked truly epic tantrums and Hamilton style steering wheel throwing across the room). Apparently Australia is ‘super easy’ so I’m already looking forward to his critique of the Australian Grand Prix and observations on whether drivers should have taken the apex earlier or later. Who knows I might actually learn something!

All of which anyway got me thinking as to which driver is destined for glory this season. I mean obviously its not going to be Mark Webber (if I’m wrong I shall sellotape a sign to my head saying ‘I am a moron’ and upload it to my blog for general mocking!). The last 5 world champions have been Vettel, Button, Hamilton, Raikkonen and Alonso. Its VERY unlikely that the 2013 world champion will come from outside those Famous Five. With the exception of Hamilton, all the other drivers are very much the Chosen Ones at their teams either through sheer ability and/or good old team orders. The driver pecking order at Mercedes is not so easy to determine as both drivers have yet to turn a wheel in anger and much will depend on the competitiveness of their cars. So should the Mercedes car be the greatest surprise package on the F1 grid since the 2009 Brawn, it is entirely possible that Nico Rosberg could challenge for honours as well.

Lewis and Nico, team-mates and good buddies in a former karting life
Lewis and Nico, team-mates and good buddies in a former karting life

And lets be honest, all this uncertainty is what makes the first Grand Prix of every season SO exciting. Its our first chance to really discover how good or bad or utterly mediocre all the new cars are. The early season performance level of a car can be season-defining (though admittedly upgrades can be a game changer – see Adrian Newey, Red Bull 2012). We know that Alonso is a supremely skilled and determined driver, we know that Vettel can ruthlessly annihilate the oppostion given a fast car, we know that Hamilton is blindingly fast and uber tenacious, we know that Kimi is a uncomprising racer and we know that when Button gets a car perfectly set up for him he is very hard to beat. But what we don’t know is who will have the best car. Or do we?

Four title contenders and Mark Webber
Four title contenders and Mark Webber

For what its worth here’s my twopenneth worth (literally worth 2p but hey this blog is free to read so you’re quids in!) on the likely frontrunners in Melbourne based on Notoriously Misleading Pre-Season Testing™. So in no particular order:

Mercedes: On the penultimate day of testing, Hamilton set a blistering lap time to break the lap record and his own pole-winning time at Barcelona last year. Just as the British journos and commentators were getting all giddy at the prospect of Lewis winning the world title with Mercedes (I’m looking at you, Gary Anderson – Lewis Hamilton: Mercedes on pole for Formula 1 title bid), the following day Rosberg went and smashed the lap record at the Circuit de Catalunya and shaved half a second off Hamilton’s lap time! The Mercedes looks fast and very nicely balanced. Those two things will take you a long way in an F1 race. Without a doubt, this is the team I am most curious about seeing in action in Australia!

Red Bull: As always, Red Bull have stayed under the radar during pre-season testing and were busy trying out lots of different things. There have been no Sit Up And Take Notice stunning lap times but that is classic Red Bull. They never like to show their hand and it is entirely possible that they could blow the rest of the field out of the water in Australia because we simply don’t know how fast their car is. Obviously I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the extremely close front rows of the grid that everyone keeps predicting. Except for Martin Brundle who tweeted the other day that the Red Bull looks mighty out on track. What does Martin know hey? Oh bum. I am in TOTAL denial until qualifying so stop with your doom-mongering Martin.

McLaren: Although changes to regulations have been minimal for this season, the McLaren has a whole stack of new bits and bobs (front and rear suspension and chassis for starters). The car looks solid but is definitely slightly lagging behind the front pack in terms of pace and apparently has understeer issues (lets predict how many laps into the race it will take Button to complain of understeer over the team radio – I’m going to say five). I have a funny feeling it could be a long, hard season for Team McLaren.

Ferrari: The only other person apart from Rosberg who beat Hamilton’s time was Alonso so clearly the Ferrari is pretty darned good and looks very consistent on longer runs. And as we all know a very good Ferrari driven by Alonso can pretty much manage a fractionally better car driven by another driver…lets call him Sebastian. If Sebastian had only a very slightly better car than Fernando, then I think Fernando would have the edge but if Sebastian’s friend Adrian gives him a car that is much faster than Fernando’s…well Fernando is not a miracle worker.

Lotus: The car showed its impressive pace by topping the timesheets on the final Friday of testing but the main area of concern for me are their reliability issues. Here’s hoping they can iron those out (especially the gearbox problems) by Australia. The mood at Lotus seems calm and confident with suggestions that they could have matched the Mercedes times if they’d wanted to. Fightin’ talk? We’ll see.

I have totally run out of time today (the car is about to turn into a pumpkin and I have to play at being mum again) but will definitely be back in the next couple of days with my Predicted Grid for Australia. Obviously I don’t really have a scooby but blogs are no fun without opinions. Did I mention HOW excited I am about the start of the season!!!

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