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The potential frontrunners - the 2012 Season Preview Part Three 09 Mar 2012

Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing RB8.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Jerez, Spain, Thursday, 9 February 2012 (L to R): Christian Horner (GBR) Red Bull Racing Team Principal, Jonathan Wheatley (GBR) Red Bull Racing Team Manager and Rob Marshall (GBR) Red Bull Racing Chief Designer watch Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing RB8.
Formula One Testing, Day 1, Jerez, Spain, Tuesday, 7 February 2012 Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing RB8.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, 3 March 2012 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren MP4-27.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 4 March 2012 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren.
Formula One Testing, Day 2, Barcelona, Spain, Friday, 2 March 2012 Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren MP4/27.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Friday, 24 February 2012 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari F2012.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 4 March 2012 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari watches the action.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, 3 March 2012 Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F2012.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, 3 March 2012 Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes AMG F1 W03.
Formula One Testing, Day 1, Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, 1 March 2012 Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes AMG F1 W03.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 4 March 2012 Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes AMG F1 W03 leaves the pits.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, 23 February 2012 Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Lotus E20.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, 3 March 2012 Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Lotus F1 Team.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, 3 March 2012

In the third installment of our look ahead to the start of the 2012 FIA Formula One World Championship, we examine the prospects of the key contenders in the race for the drivers' and constructors' crowns (Continued from Part Two)...

Red Bull Racing
1 Sebastian Vettel, 2 Mark Webber
Red Bull-Renault RB8

Will Sebastian Vettel remain Formula One racing’s yardstick and take a third consecutive world championship? Or will Mark Webber provide the sort of challenge he did in 2010, now that he has come to terms with Pirelli’s tyres?

Many questions surround the team that have dominated F1 in recent seasons, not the least of which is did Adrian Newey resist a rule change that would have led to prettier cars without the ugly stepped noses, because he knew something about the slotted version that he planned? Is it part of a front wing ducting system similar to the old rear-wing F ducts that is the next performance-enhancing breakthrough?

It says everything about Newey’s status that such fears exist, for the dread of rivals is that he will have found something they missed. Webber, however, suggests that the title fight will be closer than ever… Is he talking things down, or merely being realistic? Thankfully we’ll start to get an idea on his home ground in Melbourne, where it will be interesting to see if a front wing and then gearbox troubles which blighted their testing have had a deleterious effect on the champion team’s immediate performance.

McLaren
3 Jenson Button, 4 Lewis Hamilton
McLaren-Mercedes MP4-27

What a difference a year makes! This time last year McLaren were in huge trouble with a fancy exhaust system that barely lasted 10 laps all through pre-season testing. They turned that around by Melbourne, in one of the surprises of 2011, but it affected their season.

This time the elegant new MP4-27 has been pretty reliable in testing, with just a couple of hydraulic leaks and a KERS problem hampering its running, and Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button go to Albert Park with a solid knowledge of the platform beneath them after 2,978 miles of decent test running.

There is an unmistakable air of optimism in the British camp, especially as both drivers have hinted strongly that they were running heavy fuel loads all through testing. Certainly, there did not seem to be an awful lot of interest in going for fast times purely for the sake of it.

For the past few seasons McLaren have had difficult starts and then worked their fingers to the bone developing their car into a race winner by season-end; this year there is a definite belief that they have got it right and can thus start taking the fight to Red Bull right from the beginning of the title campaign.

Ferrari
5 Fernando Alonso, 6 Felipe Massa
Ferrari F2012

Ferrari say that they don’t expect to take podium finishes in the opening races with their F2012, which deliberately ploughs a radical furrow in the massive effort to get on to terms with Red Bull and McLaren. Fernando Alonso, meanwhile, says that things aren’t as bad as they might have seemed in testing.

So who’s right? Are Ferrari trying to play things down back home, having resorted to some grandstanding fastest lap stuff in testing? Or is Alonso trying to talk things up?

The team took the deliberate policy to be aggressive with development of the new car, and while testing suggests that it has good single-lap pace, it is harder for the engineers, led by former McLaren stalwart Pat Fry, to get a handle on balance over long runs. But it’s not been all bad news. Their test mileage was the second highest at 3,098 miles, beaten only by Williams.

Two things are clear here: another season of failing to fight for the world championship simply won’t be tolerated and could trigger some wholesale management changes, while as in 2011 Felipe Massa knows that he has to deliver some really good results this year if he is to remain a Ferrari driver in 2013.

Mercedes
7 Michael Schumacher, 8 Nico Rosberg
Mercedes F1 W03

Mercedes have an awful lot to prove this year. They bought Brawn as a title-holding team for 2010 but have yet to get on terms with their top three rivals.

In Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, however, they have an undoubtedly strong driver line-up, and the signs from testing have been promising even if mileage has been a little on the low side (2,411 miles).

The latter is determined to show that he really does have the pace to run at the front, while the seven-time champion wants to prove detractors wrong and demonstrate convincingly that the old skills remain intact. The one thing that the team don’t have to worry about is the commitment of the men behind the steering wheels.

After the team went on an acquisition trail last year and recruited Bob Bell, Geoff Willis and Aldo Costa on the technical side, team principal Ross Brawn believes they are ready to step up. Rosberg recently suggested that they will have the pace to ‘annoy’ Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari.

They had better hope so, because more than any other team except perhaps Ferrari, Mercedes are on their mettle to deliver in 2012. They cannot be seen to struggle behind customers such as McLaren or even Force India (as they did at times in 2011), and another weak season of finishing fourth and being threatened by Lotus simply won’t do.

Lotus
9 Kimi Raikkonen, 10 Romain Grosjean
Lotus-Renault E20

‘Beware false promise’ might be a wise maxim when it comes to studying testing form. Few will have forgotten the pace that Renault showed in testing with Robert Kubica last year before the Pole’s rally accident had such a debilitating effect on their chances. Nick Heidfeld and Vitaly Petrov showed flashes of pace in the opening races, but soon that faded and the team slipped to an unimpressive fifth place overall.

Now reborn as Lotus, with a new type number - E20 - which reflects the 20th year of making cars at Enstone, the team have new purpose. The decision to grab Kimi Raikkonen is inspired, and already the signs from testing are that the oft-misunderstood Finn is as hungry as he was in 2007 when he won his world championship with Ferrari. But that isn’t everything, as new team mate Romain Grosjean has also been very quick as he prepares to grab his second chance in F1 with both hands as he spearheads the French renaissance.

The team might be down on test mileage after missing the second Barcelona test due to a problem with the front-suspension mountings, but the pace of the car in the final test there suggests that they lost little ground. Without question, Lotus start the year as the dark horse that might just get in among the top four.

Continued in Part Four

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