Part II: F1 Season 2013 – It’s time for Predictions!

Featured are the two drivers – Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes – who have the best chance to turn the tables on the top seeds in the current season.

That Kimi Raikkonen is a cult figure in the Formula 1 Grand Prix firmament and has a legion of fervent, and passionate fans as is evident from this picture. A view of the “Kimi Grandstand” before the start of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2012.

That Kimi Raikkonen is a cult figure in the Formula 1 Grand Prix firmament and has a legion of fervent and passionate fans as is evident from this picture. A view of the “Kimi Grandstand” before the start of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2012.

3. Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus (Finland): 2012 Season – Wins 1; Podiums 7; Points 207

Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 1; Podiums 0; Points 31

 When Kimi Raikkonen announced his return to the Formula 1 fold in 2012 after a three-year hiatus, there was a sense of euphoria among thousands of his loyal fans. And yet, there were some apprehensions as well. The question on most peoples’ lips was whether he would be the same force that he was when he walked away from it all after bagging one WDC title with Ferrari in 2007 and two runners-up finishes in 2003 and 2005 with McLaren respectively. Would he be competitive enough after such a long sabbatical especially considering that he was mainly rally driving for the Citroen Junior Racing Team, dabbling in a bit of NASCAR in the U.S. before ending up racing trucks in the Camping World Truck series!

But as the cliché goes, you can take a man out of racing, but you can’t take racing out of him! Raikkonen’s comeback was made possible before the 2012 Season when Lotus-Renault (the re-branded race management of Team Renault),  got him back into the fold. The man himself probably missed the adrenaline rush of being in the fastest cars in the world and so might have even settled for a lesser pay packet to get back into the F1 Grand Prix Circus (although he would be loath to admit it). You can check out the Iceman’s second coming by Lotus F1 at http://www.kimiraikkonen.com. It is truly a must for all Kimi die-hard fans!

And boy! What a phenomenal return it has been! Even after three years away from the mainstream, Raikkonen simply waded back into the frenetic, high-octane world of Formula 1 and glided his way to one win and seven podium finishes and a staggering 207 points to end the season on P3. The feat is categorised as “staggering” only because the car at Raikkonen’s disposal – the Lotus E20 – was way behind in race pace in comparison to the Red Bulls, McLarens and even the Mercedes’. And yet, he managed to beat two former world champions, Lewis Hamilton and Jensen Button, quite comfortably.

The season’s crowning glory came in Abu Dhabi when he held off a marauding Fernando Alonso to win his first race in 2012. It is a testimony to Raikkonen’s sheer driving ability, acute spatial awareness and incredible race control that he managed to score points in that car in each race of the season bar one – at Shanghai, China where he finished at P14. Every other race was within the top 10 and there were 19 of them in all!

What was even more creditable was that he was the only driver to complete all 20 races without a single accident or mechanical failures. It is another matter though that his car had begun to sound like a hollow, damaged drum by the time he hit the brand new circuit in Austin, Texas. Raikkonen had literally worked his car and all the available engines for the season, into the ground! Contrast this performance of his younger team-mate Romain Grosjean’s results for the season wherein he had all of seven retirements through crashes and mechanical glitches!

So what does Kimi Raikkonen need to do this season in order to win the World Drivers Championship? Well, he has started terrifically by winning the Australian Grand Prix and then managing to somehow stay in the points (7th position for 6 points) in the Sepang Grand Prix, his qualifying penalty of three grid positions notwithstanding. A total of 31 points means that he is just 9 points adrift of Sebastian Vettel and already second in the driver’s points table. With the first win out-of-the-way, Raikkonen needs at least a couple more P1 finishes to throw in the gauntlet at Vettel and Alonso. And it is possible this season.

The Lotus-Renault E21 is showing fantastic pace in the dry, even faster than the Red Bulls or the Ferraris. Second, even as the likes of Vettel, Webber and most of the drivers are going to town criticising the rapid degradation of the new Pirelli tyres, Raikkonen has shown the way in their careful preservation and management. On the James Allen on F1 website (the Bible for us F1 fans), Lotus’ Technical Director, James Allison said that unlike what people believe about Raikkonen being a very fast driver; it is his patience over tens of laps that characterise his current version as an F1 racer.

To amplify the point, he revealed that when Kimi was behind the two race leaders at Sepang, he deliberately maintained a one second distance behind them, so that he had the benefit of clean air around him, which in turn, prevented his car’s tyres from overheating.

Allison has said in a podcast that Kimi lost traction on the wheels only twice during the entire race at Melbourne. And that even in the final laps (where he set the fastest lap time of the race), his tyres were only half worn! So much so for tyre degradation!

Given dry conditions, Raikkonen is going to dominate in the season that is unfolding even if the car he has does not have great pace in qualifying. Lotus is expecting a lot more updates in the days and months to come, so that would be one area that they will address specifically. But qualifying pace or not, it takes Raikkonen to spot one gap in the field at the start and he has the talent to simply blow his way into a top three slot. From there on, he is normally unbeatable only because the level of control he exercises is masterful.

Standing ovation for Raikkonen after his win at bu Dhabi in 2012.

Standing ovation for Raikkonen after his win at Abu Dhabi in 2012.

Raikkonen in his second coming is a lot cannier and a more measured. As a bottom line, all this is great news for true-blue racing fans because we can expect to be treated to some masterful driving on the most grueling and competitive race tracks in the world.

4. Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes (Great Britain): 2012 Season – Wins 4; Podiums 7; Points 190

Season 2013 (2 races): Wins 0; Podiums 1; Points 25

On his day, there is no better sight than Lewis Hamilton blazing his way like a silver arrow at the front of the grid. Such is his pace and control that he is capable of opening up significant leads in a matter of mere seconds. It is often said that the 27-year-old Englishman knows only one gear to drive in – overdrive! He possesses incredible control but his blazing, blasting style of driving can end in heartbreak and that too in a few crucial races when points in the bag matter the most.

Easily one of the fastest drivers in the world, Hamilton has also been plagued with a mixture of bad luck and myriad mechanical problems with his McLaren MP4-27. Season 2012 could have seen Hamilton challenging the eventual winner and leaders and even dominating the standings had it not been for five crippling retirements.

In Germany, (Hamilton’s 100th Grand Prix start) he had a punctured tyre in Lap 3; in Belgium Romain Grosjean made contact forcing him to plough into Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez thereby ending the race for all four drivers; his gearbox failed at Singapore, followed by another mechanical failure at Abu Dhabi when he was comfortably in the lead, and finally in Sao Paulo, Nico Hulkenberg made contact with Hamilton forcing the two-time world champion to retire from P2 in his very last race for Team McLaren!

The sum total of all the mishaps suffered by Hamilton meant that he lost at the very least between 50 and 75 points which had a significant impact on the final standings in Season 2012. Had Hamilton completed all races like say Kimi Raikkonen, he would have finished third overall and could have even challenged Alonso for second. Even then his stats for the season were extremely impressive with over 75% of his total points (190) coming from wins and podiums! In a car that gave both McLaren drivers a lot of grief during the year, those are remarkable figures.

Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton (Photo credit: Dwonderwall)

As the season drove to a close, controversy erupted when Hamilton was said to be unhappy at McLaren owing to contractual differences with the team principals (McLaren apparently refused to hike his salary for the 2013 Season), Hamilton finally joined Mercedes even after he was rumoured to have approached Bernie Ecclestone for getting him a seat at Red Bull Racing. This was subsequently vehemently denied by Hamilton but true to form, he was yet again at the centre of an unnecessary controversy.

Analysts wondered whether all this would have an impact on his performance in the season. If the first two races of the season have been any indication, Hamilton is back to doing what he does best – making the most of a machine that cannot as yet be categorised as really quick. He finished 5th at Melbourne and 3rd at Sepang netting him a total of 25 points so far (adrift by 15 points from the leader Sebastian Vettel). But there are encouraging signs that Mercedes will be a serious top 3 contender in 2013 with both Hamilton and Rosberg showing excellent form. The two have pushed Mercedes within 3 points of the second place held jointly by Lotus and Ferrari in the Constructors Standings.

A lot of Hamilton’s assault on Vettel’s stranglehold atop the F1 food chain will depend on his ability to curb his naturally aggressive instincts. Much like Alonso and Raikkonen, he will have to nurse, cajole and coax his car into providing the best possible performance within its limitations and chalking up points consistently over 20 races. He has started well and that is half the job done because the worst fate that can befall a race driver is to have mechanical problems or accidents early in the season. It tends to play with their psyche in a negative way and adds way too much pressure when the time comes to playing catch-up.

If you race fans have noticed, this season Hamilton seems to be taking it a whole lot slower and easier. He seems calmer and has been pacing his sessions a lot more sensibly. Gone is that instinct that pathologically drives him to blitz the time-sheets, be it in the practice sessions, qualifying or then in the race. Instead, he is now driving well within himself and selecting his moment to unleash the beast for a few flying laps when it matters, say in qualifying. He was also raring to have a go at Vettel and Webber towards the end of the race at Sepang but a curt instruction from Ross Brawn from the Mercedes telemetry station and his own new-found sense of maturity, saw him conserve fuel and his tyres and safely bring home the car in third place.

Hamilton’s machine may not possess the heavy artillery required to destroy the Red Bulls’ charge at the top of the grid. But there is no way that he can be written off as a title contender especially considering the driver problems being faced at the Austrian team garage and the terribly designed, uncompetitive car of his former team, McLaren. If he manages to keep his head as he did at Malaysia, Hamilton could well be one of the top three drivers vying for the title in 2013.

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Part I: F1 Season 2013 – It’s time for Predictions!

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.

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A live shot of Sebastian Vettel (P24) taken from an Apple iPhone at the 2012 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

1. Sebastian Vettel, RBR (Germany): 2012 Season – Wins 5; Podiums 11; Points 281

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