Just two races into the season and the champions, Red Bull Racing are in complete disarray on both management and driver fronts; there’s an unsaid but palpable unease over at the Mercedes garage, and the second driver at Ferrari seems to driving the pants off his more illustrious counterpart. That’s the top six of the seven contenders right there for you! Add the mercurial Finn from Lotus to the mix and you have a most intriguing of Formula 1 season at hand.
The following is a three-part review of the seasons profiling two contenders each. Once we get through that we’ll look at the final `Predictions Table’ for both the Driver and Constructors championships.
A live shot of Sebastian Vettel (P24) taken from an Apple iPhone at the 2012 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 1; Podiums 2; Points 40
Despite a podium at Melbourne and a win at Sepang, the 3-time World Drivers Champion is an unhappy camper these days. A furious team-mate, more-than-just-miffed bosses, and the loss of a large dollop of goodwill around the paddock are just some of the fallouts of Vettel “disregarding team orders” and passing team mate Mark Webber after a fairly intense bullfight in the dying laps at Sepang. The question on every fan’s mind, as a result, is whether this will have a bearing on the German’s charge towards the fourth World Driver’s Title in 2013.
The answer is simple: Of course it will! Fact is that however much the team principals try to bring about an amicable rapprochement between their warring drivers, the seeds of mistrust have been sown far too deep to be quickly ripped out – starting with their infamous Turkey-shoot in 2010, carrying on to Silverstone in 2011 and culminating in the race-start stampede at Sao Paulo in 2012.
Fact also is that Vettel will be driving this season with a bull’s eye painted on his diffuser. Not only will Webber, now in his last season with Red Bull, want to reassert his importance in the team, he faces the strongest possible competition from the likes of Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Felippe Massa who are all showing ominous form in their 2013 race packages. Given Vettel’s current state of mind; his possible apprehension with team orders on the one hand and his burning desire to remain world champion on the other, it doesn’t take an F1 expert to predict that this year is going to be one intensely tumultuous roller coaster ride for him.
So what is the silver-lining for the 25-year old? Vettel polarises opinion among pundits and fans. There are those that love him and those that love to hate him. But that is only because there are, clearly, two distinct but diametrically different Vettels that everyone is confronted with in a race season.
The first one is almost childish, petty, selfish and arrogant to the point of considering himself the anointed one, above the team or team-mate. This is the Vettel one usually gets to see when he has pole and then does everything in his power to keep it that way, or then is stuck in midfield and would scrap, scratch, bite and claw his way to the front of the grid. No threat is brooked and he is not averse to railroading his team-mate if required in order to maintain his dominance and supremacy. This is the bully, the heavyweight champion who believes in winning at any cost – even if it meant chewing off the ear of an opponent! Yet, no one can deny his skill and concentration levels when it comes to controlling a race from the front. And more often than not, he wins.
The other Vettel is the one that turns up every now and then at an Abu Dhabi Circuit or the one at São Paulo at the end of the season – gallant, fearless, determined and simply brilliant. In this avatar, Vettel is irresistible and a sheer joy to watch. At Abu Dhabi, he qualified at P3, but was pushed down to P24 for the race owing to his car showing insufficient fuel after qualifying. It would have been a body blow to any driver on that grid. Undeterred, Vettel pushed gallantly from the back of the grid, blowing past the back-markers to reach a respectable P12. That’s when the second tragedy struck. A damaged front wing forced him to pit yet again and he restarted at P18. What followed was yet again an exhibition of the highest quality of pure racing. In a spectacular display, the defending world champion cleared the field notch-by-notch, to end up at P3. It was a race wherein that result has to be categorised as nothing short of miraculous.
The Brazilian Grand Prix was yet another reflection of the true champion qualities that Sebastian Vettel possesses. A shunt with Bruno Senna of Williams in the very first lap of this crucial championship race turned Vettel a full 180 degrees – his car’s nose pointing the wrong way – and resultantly relegating him to the end of the field. But Vettel was not one to give up at this stage and promptly turned things around. Sound pit strategies and a steady race pace and amazing control in the rain, saw Vettel come in at P6 and netting him the required number of points to stay at the top of the driver’s standings.
That then is the story of the two Sebastians. A lot of his fortunes in 2013 will rest on which of them turns up on each of the race days over the next eight months. In just two starts this season, he has shown both personalities in equal measure, which does not auger well for him or the team – the race wins at Sepang notwithstanding.
2. Fernando Alonso, Ferrari (Spain): 2012 Season – Wins 3; Podiums 10; Points 278
Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 0; Podiums 1; Points 18
Fernando Alonso started season 2013 with the same kind of tenacity and consistency that saw him come within a handful of points of the 2012 World Driver’s Championship. His performance at Melbourne was outstanding even as he chased down a dominant Kimi Raikkonen in the last few minutes and laps of that Grand Prix.
Last season, Alonso was severely handicapped by a terribly designed car. The Ferrari F2012 was essentially a jalopy on wheels that did not stand a chance to win a single race had it been in the hands of a lesser driver. But under Alonso, what started out as a snorting, misbehaving pony was gradually cajoled, coaxed, tuned and pushed until it meta morphed into a thoroughbred and began to purr, glide and then run like the wind on the race track by the end of the season.
It was virtuoso stuff and Alonso produced some spectacular results in 2012 – 3 wins and 10 podiums with that lame duck of a chariot! The thought on every racing fan’s mind was, “Give this man a decent car, and just imagine what he might be capable of!” No question that everyone expected him to easily replicate his Renault heroics of 2007 and 2008, but on a much, much more grandiose and dominant scale considering he was driving for Ferrari now.
On the face of it, all prayers were answered at the start of testing at Barcelona in February 2013 after Ferrari took the wraps off the spanking new Ferrari F138. Pre-season testing in Spain proved that the latest Ferrari package was vastly improved, better-looking and much faster than its 2012 sibling. The verdict among race fans and analysts was almost unanimous in that Alonso had his first solid opportunity since 2008 to wrest the WDC. And if Australia was an indicator, Alonso was well and truly on his way to achieving that goal.
But things and matters still aren’t all that rosy for the 32-year-old Spaniard. Contrary to expectations, the sheer race pace of Alonso’s Ferrari F138 is still up for question. Then there is the little matter of his team-mate, Felipe Massa, not only out qualifying him in the two concluded Grand Pris but looking distinctly more threatening in the races. At the start of the season, it is Massa who seems more likely to actually win a race than Alonso. But that perception may have been exaggerated by Alonso’s crashing out in the very second lap of the Sepang Grand Prix in Malaysia. With the requisite updates on the way and the car being continually tweaked and tuned, it shouldn’t be long before Alonso comes into his own and even begins to dominate the front of the grid.
So what does Alonso require to do in order to beat Vettel to the post this season? For starters, he can’t afford another DNF. Given the minuscule difference in points between the top two, Alonso has probably already reached the maximum limit in terms of races he can afford outside of the points table. He had only two of that last season and so will need to eschew bravado and risk of the type he took in Malaysia in order to stay in contention for the rest of the season. Two, and for this he will need all the help from his race engineers and pit crew – is to somehow get ahead of Vettel early in the season and open up a substantial points gap between him and the German. Easier said than done, but we all know how desperate Vettel can get when he is a follower and not the leader! Also, leading the table could have a liberating effect on Alonso freeing him from the pressure and tension that he was under throughout the two previous seasons.
Alonso has all the tools and weapons in his armoury to dismantle the German juggernaut and hold off challenges from the likes of Lotus, Mercedes and McLaren. This season he will need a little more luck than has been bestowed upon him of late. Couple that with his remarkable consistency and what was a struggle in the last season could end up being a canter to the top in 2013.
Next Edition: Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus and Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes