The leading contenders - the 2013 Season Preview Part Two 08 Mar 2013
In the second instalment of our 2013 season preview we look at the teams that occupied the first five positions in the constructors standings in 2012 (Continued from Part One)
1 Sebastian Vettel, 2 Mark Webber
Red Bull-Renault RB9
Its interesting that Sebastian Vettel said he was disappointed with Red Bulls form in the final test in Barcelona. "We didn't tick all the boxes that we would have liked to and the last two days were not as good as we would have expected, he told reporters.
Like many of the drivers, he expressed the view that they were limited by the day-to-day performance of the new Pirelli tyres, which were adversely affected by the relatively low temperatures in both Jerez and Barcelona and were thus prone to graining.
Theres a feeling that while they might not actually have been sandbagging, Red Bull were running high fuel loads, which would explain why Vettel was never the fastest at any stage, and Mark Webber was only quickest on the fifth day in Barcelona.
The majority of seasoned observers believe that there is zero reason why the RB9 wont be highly competitive, especially as it is an evolution of the RB8 with which Vettel dominated much of the latter half of 2012. It has good traction and aerodynamics, and the team are one of only four who appear to be persisting with passive double DRS and seem to have the best handle on it. Expect them to be the early pacesetter.
3 Fernando Alonso, 4 Felipe Massa
Ferrari were second and fourth fastest overall, courtesy of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, who each had a day being fastest, in Barcelona and Jerez respectively.
It seems that there is still work to be done on the F138, which is an evolution of last years F2012 intended to remedy that machines shortcomings. Alonso, however, was much more upbeat than he was this time last year.
The Spaniard believes that he and Massa can vie for victory in Melbourne, but admitted: "Its difficult to judge rivals. Actually, it's impossible. You cannot go to the training grounds of Barcelona Football Club and see if they will win Sunday's match - as they are only warming up. I don't think by seeing (tennis players) Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic warming up you will see who will win the game. So well see whats what in Australia.
"We should not forget the goal we have, and we should not forget the 0.7-0.8s gap we had to the rest at the end of last year. But we can be closer to Red Bull and McLaren, who will be the strongest this season."
If you look at what Alonso did with the car he had at the start of 2012, its clear that Ferrari are in with a strong chance for 2013 and will pose a formidable threat.
5 Jenson Button, 6 Sergio Perez
McLaren are one team that have opted for more than just evolution in the design of their MP4-28, which mates an ambitious pullrod front suspension design to a revision of the MP4-27 which set the pace at the beginning, middle and end of 2012 and won seven races.
Jenson Button stunned rivals with his pace in cold conditions on the first day in Jerez testing, but car performance has been inconsistent since then. New team mate Sergio Perez has looked strong in long-run tests and was fastest on the second day in Jerez, but both drivers report that they are still having trouble understanding their new machine.
It may be that they get their heads round that early on, especially if there are decent track temperatures in Melbourne and Malaysia, but equally it may take a little longer than that. Set-up changes reportedly took too long in Barcelona, to Buttons frustration, and the team are still at an early point on the learning curve which could compromise them in the opening races.
But the flipside is that the MP4-28 arguably has greater development potential than its rivals because of the teams adventurous design approach, which should bode well as the season progresses.
Expect McLaren to be as strong as they were in 2012, but perhaps as inconsistent until they get their car sorted fully.
7 Kimi Raikkonen, 8 Romain Grosjean
Lotus did the least mileage of the top teams - 3,527 kilometres to Mercedes 5,224 - as they struggled with transmission reliability issues. But on-track the evolutionary E21 - one of the few cars not to have opted for the vanity panel - looks pretty handy and demonstrated a notably strong front end which allowed Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean to place the car just where they wanted it.
The Finn was fastest on the final day in Jerez, the Frenchman on the second day there and the sixth day in Barcelona. Theres an air of optimism in the garage, and a feeling that they have recaptured the strong form the E20 showed at the beginning of 2012 when the drivers werent quite in a position to exploit it. They are both ready now.
Like fellow Renault-powered teams Red Bull, Williams, and Caterham, Lotus have had to accept an FIA ruling that they must run with the same engine mapping mandated by the FIA in Hockenheim last year, but team insiders deny that will compromise their latest Coanda exhaust arrangement. So expect Lotus to remain F1 racings dark horse.
9 Nico Rosberg, 10 Lewis Hamilton
Mercedes F1 W04
There is a strong feeling among the top four teams that Mercedes are deliberately playing down their potential, after Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton recorded the overall first and third fastest times of the pre-season tests.
Things got underway badly when Rosberg suffered suspension problems in the F1 W04s first run and then Hamilton crashed because of a brake failure, but the team recovered quickly and their respective testing distance of 2,640 and 2,584 kilometres topped everyone but Sauber. Of the top teams, Ferrari got closest to Mercedes combined total of 5,224 kilometres, with 4,913.
Of course, it may simply be that the Mercedes drivers were running less fuel than Ferrari, McLaren, Lotus or Red Bull. But having denied that the team have a chance of winning a race in 2013 after the first tests, Hamilton changed his mind in Barcelona, having been fastest on the fourth and seventh days there.
"I think we definitely will be able to win a race at some point during the season," he told reporters, before adding: "I don't think my fastest time was anything you need to be impressed with, really. I think everyone's doing their own programmes and everyone's on different fuel loads so it was just another testing day for us. We've still got a lot of work to do. But Mercedes are doing a great job. It's obviously a lot better than it was last year."
The Silver Arrows could spring the biggest surprise.
Continued in Part Three
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