RED BULL THE FAVOURITE BUT McLAREN, MERCEDES BOTH IMPROVED
The fact that six former World Champions are on the same grid will make the 2012 Formula One season one of the most interesting in years, says Canadian F1 expert Gerald Donaldson.
Led by seven-time title-holder Michael Schumacher (his first championship came in 1994 and the most recent in 2004), the list includes Jenson Button (2009), Lewis Hamilton (2008), Kimi Raikkonen (2007), Fernando Alonso (2005, ’06) and current two-time champ Sebastien Vettel (2010, ’11).
Three of them — Vettel, Hamilton and Button — could win the championship again this year and two of the others — Alonso and, to a lesser extent, Schumacher — can’t be counted out entirely. Only Raikkonen is not a threat; more about him later.
During a breakfast meeting last week before he flew to Australia for this weekend’s opening race (check “George’s TV listings for race fans” at wheels.ca for Canadian channels and times of telecasts) Donaldson checked off a list of observations to expect over the course of the season.
Not surprisingly, he thinks Red Bull Racing and Sebastien Vettel will be a tough combination to beat.
“Red Bull has to be the favourite because they’ve done it for the last two years and they’ve got the momentum,” he said. “Adrian Newey is the finest designer in Formula One today. In fact, he’s a superstar. He’s probably the best in history.”
Donaldson cautions, however, that it won’t be a runaway for Red Bull and Vettel.
“The other teams are catching up because they’ve been busy stealing Newey’s ideas. However, Red Bull was very smart this year: they waited till almost the last minute to unveil their full car for 2012. It was probably too late for the others to copy it before the first race.”
Donaldson, who’s written nearly two dozen books on Formula One since he started covering the sport in the 1970s, likes Vettel’s chances of winning his third consecutive championship.
“Vettel will start the season as the favourite,” he said. “He’s mature and, like the team, he has the momentum. Most important, he knows he can win. He is the newest world champion of the six that are on the grid. This is the first time in history that so many champions have been out there at the same time and that, in itself, will make this season extremely exciting and among the most interesting.”
Although he was careful not to sound dismissive, Donaldson doesn’t think Vettel has much to worry about when it comes to his Red Bull teammate.
“(Mark) Webber is a good team player,” he said, “but I’ll be surprised if he stays beyond the 2012 season.”
Donaldson, who counts the story of Team McLaren among the books he’s authored, also likes the chances of the organization that the late Bruce McLaren founded and long-time owner Ron Dennis built.
“McLaren looks to be in good shape,” he said, noting that among all the cars on the grid, “theirs looks the best. The others have ‘broken noses’ (the reduction in the height of the nose of F1 cars, as per 2012 regulations, has resulted in ‘platypus’ noses) but McLaren does not.
“We won’t know until qualifying - not practice in Australia, qualifying - how the grid will shake out. You can’t tell from off-season testing because everybody plays games, but McLaren looks to be stronger than last year.”
Donaldson finds it fascinating to analyze the McLaren drivers, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton, who are both world champions.
“Their careers are going in reverse,” said the author of the definitive biographies of James Hunt and Gilles Villeneuve. “Hamilton started off brilliantly but has flamed out as a driver. He’s reportedly back with his girlfriend (U.S. entertainer Nicole Scherzinger) and he seems to like the celebrity lifestyle. I hear he’s moved to Monaco, and what does that tell you?
“Button used to be this way, playing around with beautiful women and spending all his money on yachts and such. But as he’s grown older, he’s matured and it’s made him a better driver. He has been the best of the rest the last two years.”
Donaldson isn’t quite sure what to think about Ferrari.
“It’s up to (Fernando) Alonso, but both drivers (Felipe Massa is the second Ferrari driver) have said publicly that they can’t win and the best they can hope for is podiums.
He thinks Mercedes has improved, however.
“Mercedes is looking better,” he said. “Their car appears to be the most reliable and it runs like a top. Mercedes could be up with the best of the bunch this season.”
Donaldson doesn’t think much of Lotus (formerly Renault) and has concerns about Kimi Raikkonen. He doesn’t think he’ll do all that well.
“Since Kimi went off to play in rally cars and NASCAR, F1 has advanced in leaps and bounds technically,” he said. “There’s just so much more to think about and do in the cockpit. KERS and DRS and a steering wheel that’s at least twice as complicated as it was the last time Kimi was in an F1 car (in 2009) — it has so many different functions on it now.
“Kimi’s an instinctive racer. All he needs is a gas pedal and a steering wheel; maybe a brake, but maybe not. I don’t think he’s going to hit the ground running. But he’s one of those guys who’s always been just plain fast. In a rare moment of self-analysis, when I asked him what made him so fast, he said: ‘I don’t know; I just do it.’ ”
At the end of the day, though, it’s the six champions on the grid that really intrigues Donaldson.
“Think about it: six world champions — that’s 25 per cent of the grid! On the other hand, at the back of the grid are six drivers whose inferior equipment won’t allow them to go anywhere. This underlines the disparity in the equipment.
“These three teams — Caterham, HRT and Marussia — were brought in two years ago by Max Mosley who promised them a budget cap, which never came, so they are disadvantaged hugely, performance-wise.
“So you’ve got the front-runners, the back markers and then you’ve got a midfield where I think most of the action will be this year because they are very closely matched. Williams is recovering, we have Force India, Sauber, Lotus and Toro Rosso. So that should be entertaining.”
Donaldson likes the battle that’s forming up between Toro Rosso and Force India.
“Toro Rosso is a farm team of Red Bull, we know that for sure now, and last year they got rid of two guys who showed great promise: (Sebastien) Buemi and (Jaime) Alguesuari. Now they have two rookies, Daniel Ricciardo, an Australian, and Jean-Eric Vergne, who our Canadian driver, Rob Wickens, beat last year in Formula Renault.
“So they have these two guys who are really under the gun; they’ve got to perform. And they’ve got Ferrari engines. Although they’re not supposed to have Red Bull technical assistance, there’s the residue of it, so they’re a good team.
“And it will be fascinating to watch these two guys because if they don’t perform, they’ll be done. There’s no loyalty with the farm system.
“Force India, they’ve had good driving strengths in recent years. Adrian Sutil was quite good but they let him go. They kept Paul di Resta who was, if they had such an award, rookie of the year last year. They’ve also got Nico Hulkenburg, who’s a future star for sure.
“So they are very strong driver-wise and the car is right up there amid the mid-fielders. They came on strong toward the end of last year. Occasionally, they could break into the front group and they might do that again this year.”
Donaldson thinks any debate over Michael Schumacher’s continuing involvement in Formula One is just folly because the seven-time champion is in a position to do what he wants.
“Any problems that we have — fans and observers — with Michael sullying his career are our problems, not his,” he said. “He still won 91 races, he still won seven world championships and he’s having a ball. He’s so rich he can do anything he wants in the world and this is what he wants to do, race Formula One cars.
“But he adds as much luster to F1 as an individual as Ferrari does as a team. He’s the most famous racing driver in the world. Forget about NASCAR; nobody knows anything about that outside of North America. But everybody knows who Michael Schumacher is. He’s a huge asset to Formula One.”
In previous years, I would set this annual column up as a “Gerald said, I said” piece. That was because I would sometimes disagree on a few things and it seemed like the best way to handle it.
This year, I’ve let Gerry have his say, uninterrupted, and that’s because — frankly — we’re pretty much seeing eye to eye.
There are a few things, though.
For instance, I’m not so sure Ferrari is as badly off as they’re suggesting. As Gerry said, and it’s so true, you can never tell from pre-season testing who’s really going to be where on the grid.
It’s like spring-training baseball. Guys hit .400 because the pitchers are working on their delivery and only throwing curves, or whatever. When the season starts, batting averages drop accordingly.
Yes, Red Bull and McLaren look to have a lock on the first four places on the grid. But I won’t be at all surprised if Ferrari’s in there too.
Now, can somebody tell me what Romain Grosjean’s doing back in F1 with Lotus? He fell flat on his face the last time. Oh, I know. Does it have anything to do with money? Every now and again, overt “ride buying” rears its ugly head in F1 and this year is one of them. Go down the list of drivers in F1 this year and it's pretty easy to spot the guys (and the one woman reserve driver) who have more cash than talent.
Two last things: I suggest that Michael Schumacher might buy into a team, or buy one outright, when he finally decides to retire for good. He has the money and he loves the life. Why not?
And Sebastien Vettel will leave Red Bull after the 2012 season, win or lose, to drive for Ferrari. Like Schumacher before him, It will be for the challenge.