Donaldson, of course, knows more about F1 than any other Canadian alive and has been covering the sport and writing books about it — several dozen books, in fact — since the 1970s.
So we order our pancakes and bacon and I turn on the tape recorder and ask the questions and “Gerry” answers away. I then transcribe the conversation and dress it up a little bit and usually put it in Toronto Star Wheels the day before the season starts, which would be next weekend.
This is because Donaldson (or I) will go on record as saying this driver will be fast and that car will be slow and this is fine — except the timing often turns out to be terrible.
By putting predictions in the paper the day before the first race, I leave us open to ridicule because the cars have already been out for two practice sessions the day before, on the Friday, and we are left with egg on our faces because our predictions sometimes turn out to be wrong.
So, this year, I’m not taking any chances. This is the preview and it’s on this website a whole week before the first race. This way, we won’t be wrong until at least next Friday.
Of course, it might very well turn out that we’re right.
Whichever — I hope you enjoy what follows.
Gerry, right off the top, what kind of a season do we have to look forward to?
For the most part, the rules are the same as they were last year so the cars will be pretty even and this suggests close racing. Next year, there will be big changes. They are going from 2.4-litre V8 engines to 1.6-litre turbos. The big teams have already said they will switch their focus to next year pretty early in the season, which further opens up the possibilities for this year. The small teams are just going to invest in this year because they don’t have any money to invest in the future so that could make things really interesting.
There are five rookies and they are all pay drivers. Is this good?
It’s always been the case in Formula One. The most famous pay driver was Niki Lauda, who borrowed money against his life insurance policy and won three world championships. A superstar. The Mexican, Esteban Gutierrez, is being supported by Carlos Slim, the richest guy in the world. Max Chilton at Marussia, his father (Grahame) is so wealthy he bought half the team.
However, all of these guys have a good track record. It’s not as if they’re diluting the talent pool. And they’re replacing guys who didn’t do a lot — Bruno Senna, Kamui Kobayashi, Vitaly Petrov. It’s not a bad thing necessarily and it’s not a new thing at all.
I have to slip in some Canadian content here. Robert Wickens, a very talented Canadian, when they were racing in the lesser categories, consistently defeated Gutierrez. Robert is in the DTM and Gutierrez is in Formula One. Poor Wickens beat Jean-Eric Vergne for the Formula 3.5 championship and Vergne is in Formula One and Robert is in touring cars. Is there any justice in the world?
What Robert Wickens needs is a Canadian multibillionaire to back him, which is the case with Gutierrez and Carlos Slim. Robert is not doomed; he had a good year last year in his rookie season, he’s very popular with the team and the fans and the future bodes well.
Okay, the testing is finished and it was really quite amusing this year because, at one time or another, just about everybody led a session; just about everybody topped the charts. For what it’s worth, I think the McLaren is going to turn out to be a rocket. What do you think?
You say you have a hunch about McLaren. I can tell you it’s a wonderful year for hunches. Everybody in the paddock is talking with hunches. Nobody knows what’s going to happen; there’s no foregone conclusion. This year could be even more unpredictable than 2012, which was wonderfully unpredictable.
Okay, quit beating around the bush. Who do you think will win the championship?
It’s my custom every year when we do this to take a big gamble. I’m going to take a driver who switched teams, to a team that hasn’t done much of anything but this year they seem poised to do well. I think Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes will be champion.
My goodness! You mean to tell me that Sebastian Vettel’s reign is coming to an end?
He will have much stronger competition than last year. All the testing didn’t prove a thing, other than to show that the championship and the racing will be extremely close.
Adrien Newey, the greatest designer in F1, has no idea where his team stands in relation to the others. It was a typical pre-season, in that some were sandbagging, some were really testing different things. The kicker here is the Pirelli tries. This year, they have gone more aggressive than ever with the tire compounds.
It’s a bit of a dichotomy for a tire company. Pirelli’s brief is to make tires that don’t last. They wear out quickly, deliberately. They have different compounds that have different stages of degradation. No one has any idea how they will behave in race conditions. It will be a big free-for-all, particularly in the early races until everybody becomes familiar with how the tires behave.
Okay, let’s go down the list and discuss the teams. How do you see Red Bull-Renault doing in 2013?
Vettel will not lose any of his talent. He’s improved every year and he’s a triple world champion. So he’s going to be right up there. But I wonder about the management of that team. The sponsor – Red Bull’s – representative is Dr. Halmut Marko who has a knack of putting his foot in his mouth and he’s done it again.
He says Mark Webber, Vettel’s teammate, is not capable of winning a championship. That’s going to light a fire under Webber. He’s 36, the oldest guy in the field and this is his last chance. Unless they give team orders right from the start of the season, those guys will be fighting each other harder than anybody else in the field, particularly Webber.
Maybe this is a psychological ploy but those are fighting words and they could have been said behind closed doors rather than in public. To do it out front like that is not good for team morale. We have to remember that the cars are side-by-side in the garage and the engineers and mechanics on either side are with their driver. So he’s really dividing the team.
Will Fernando Alonso come close to winning the title. And what about Ferrari as a whole?
Alonso will be close-er to the championship. Both Alonso and Massa have said the car is on a different planet. It is much better. Everybody in the field agrees Ferrari is looking good. Alonso would probably be a safer bet for a champion than Lewis Hamilton, but I’ve made my pick. He is probably the best all-rounder in F1 at the moment.
Massa? First, Alonso will not tolerate a quick teammate; we know that and he’s the team leader. Massa came on strong at the end of last season (after his contract was renewed) but he knows his place, he’s a real team player and he knows his place. Everybody in the paddock loves him, including Alonso — so far. Ferrari will be strong and Alonso will be basically backed up by Massa.
How do you see McLaren? I think they have a rocket. Sergio Perez was a surprise signing and, at 33, Jenson Button ain’t getting’ any younger.
Jenson won the championship in 2009 because he had the best car. He’s a good journeyman driver who, on a good day, can beat anybody but he doesn’t have a good day every Grand Prix. Everything’s got to be perfect; he won’t drive around a problem.
He’ll be pushed by Perez, who’s a bit of an unknown quantity with a top team. He did well with Sauber but he’s got a bit of a reputation of being a hot-head and it will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure of being with a team like McLaren.
During this conversation, we’ve danced around a bit and neither of us has mentioned Lotus-Renault, or Kimi Raikkonen. How do you see that team and Kimi?
First, Romain Grosjean (the No. 2) has been given yet another chance; he crashed a lot last year, stupid crashes. . . but he will straighten out. We used to watch him in GP2 and he was as good in GP2 as Lewis Hamilton, who was the best there’s ever been in GP2. So he’ll straighten out.
Kimi, his teammate, is without doubt the most popular Formula One driver of them all. Everybody loves him because he’s so quirky. He’s so against the grain. Remember last year, he put himself into history with the simple phrase over the radio, ‘Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing.’ And he does know what he’s doing.
Lotus is a feel-good story in F1. It’s a grand old name and last year it was a comeback team with a comeback driver. Kimi loves racing. He’s a hard racer but a safe one. Last year, he was the only driver to complete every lap of every race despite the fact he was so aggressive. Yes, he knows what he’s doing.
So you’re picking Lewis to win the championship. Tell me about the team, Mercedes.
They have a whole bunch of new technical people and the car is better. They’ve also got a driver who can get the best out of that car, Lewis Hamilton. His teammate, and they’ve been good friends their entire lives, Nico Rosberg, is a good, steady driver. This will be a test of their friendship; they live next door to each other in Monaco.
But there is a bit of dissension within that team. They brought in Niki Lauda and a new team manager and the personnel are a bit confused about who’s in charge. At the moment it’s Ross Brawn and he says he’s in charge but I wouldn’t be surprised if he leaves. It will be a test of his perseverance to hang in there.
Niki Lauda is a wonderful character but he doesn’t have a great track record of being in charge. That will be the only part of Mercedes that might not work. I think they’re good with the car, the engines and the drivers.
But the rest of the team . . .
Okay, those are the top dogs. Let’s talk about some of the lesser teams, starting with Sauber.
This is the best of the rest. Sauber has always punched above its weight. The team is Swiss and is a reflection of the country — prudent money managers, cautious and safe but also aggressive. Williams? They think they’ve got a good car. Count on them to be up there. And Paul Di Resta is a talent, as is Adrian Sutil, so don’t pass on Force India.
Toro Rosso is a curious team. It’s supposed to a farm team for Red Bull. But neither Jean-Eric Vergne nor Daniel Ricciardo have shown themselves to have superstar potential.
We had one team drop out at the end of last year, HRT. Will the others hang in there, and do they have a chance?
Caterham has a lot of money but they will never catch up. They and the other ‘new’ teams were brought into F1 in 2008 by Max Mosley, who promised them that budgets would be reduced and everybody would be able to get along on $50 million a year and everybody would eventually be equal and it’s never happened and never will happen. They are doomed to be backmarkers.
But, they build their own cars like everybody else and hire pay drivers. Nobody is going to drop out. Anyway, in the background is the great orchestrator, Bernie Ecclestone, who will look after anything and everything that needs looking after.
Okay, we’re nearly finished. Let’s return to the rookies. Which ones will impress?
Gutierrez might; he’s well-placed. Sauber is a respectable, competitive team; they know how to bring people along. Vettel, Robert Kubica, Raikkonen, Perez — they all made their debut with Sauber, so he’s best placed to do well. He has a respectable track record, too.
Jules Bianchi (Marussia) has the best credentials. I expect the latest Finn in F1, Valtteri Bottas, to do well. He’s been Williams’ reserve driver, so knows his way around, and he could be the pick of the crop.
I think it will be a good year for the championship and it’s a very high quality class of rookies. It’s going to be very interesting.
I agree with Gerry that 2013 could be a banner year for F1 excitement. But Niki Lauda aside, I’m not crazy about the high number of pay drivers (more than the rookies are bringing money).
As mentioned, I suspect McLaren has a rocket ship of a racing car but I’m not sure the drivers will be up to it. Perez was signed when the team was on the rebound from Hamilton’s defection and I’m not sure he was the best choice. And Button? He’s no Mark Webber.
But I’ve been wrong about Button before . . .
In the end, the title fight will be between Fernando Alonso and — tad-da — the “Iceman” himself, Kimi Raikkonen. Personal habits, though, will make the difference in the end.
And what do I mean by that? Well, the Kimster missed a test session in Barcelona last week (Lotus had to call Grosjean back) because his tummy was acting up as a result of Kimi out being Kimi the night before.
He’s a character, for sure, but Alonso is too disciplined for that and will be world champion as a result.