Formula One: 2013 preview

lewisIt really is very near now. A week today — that’s Friday 15th March — you’ll wake up and learn something substantial about the destiny of this year’s Formula 1 World Championship.

Yup, first free practice for the first of nineteen races in this year’s series kicks-off in Melborne, Australia, at 01.30GMT next Friday morning. The Sunday Afternoon Club could not be more excited; after all, what are we going to think about on Sundays once the boys wrap up Series 19 this Sunday night with the second part of the Africa Special?

There is every reason to believe this season will be as exciting as last. Every reason and more; the cars are pretty much identical to last year’s, meaning less opportunity for Adrian Newey to conjure some fresh magic and more opportunity for the teams to figure out his old tricks. The Pirelli tyres that turned the early races of 2012 in to something of a lottery are a little more fragile still, but faster; there will be more pit stops this year. And of course Lewis Hamilton, F1’s fastest driver, is in a new car and, what do you know, it could just be a quick one.

Indeed, Mercedes dominated the last two days of the three sessions of pre-season testing the teams are allowed these days. Lewis’ public position went, over the winter, from ‘we can’t be expected to win races’ to ‘we can we races with this car’. And privately he’s saying this; ‘just give me a car that will get me within punching distance of the leaders and I can do the rest’. Mercedes is the story right now, and we’ll come to that and others from testing in a bit.

Over the next week, the Sunday Afternoon Club will post guides to each of the 11 teams (we are one less this year, don’t forget) and what they need to do in 2013, the last year for the 2.4-litre V8s before the V6 Turbo ‘hybrids’ arrive in 2014. We’ll introduce you to the five rookies hoping to get your attention, and we’ll meet the teams from the BBC and Sky who’ll be taking you live.

But we do want you to join in too. This is a blog, but it’s also a club, one that exists in a place this side of the purple rope. There is no bouncer on the door. It is categorically not about a badge and complicated travel itinerary, it’s about a comfy chair, a sandwich and the TV or the TV and an iPad or something similar — F1 racing is nothing if not a social activity these days. Upgrade your membership by registering so you can have your say. The more of you who join in the better. Think of it as an exercise in collective intelligence. All opinions — so long as they’re not offensive — are welcome here.

Because at this stage of the season we need all the grey matter we can get. Winter testing is a dark art; opinions differ as to how much the teams actively promote disinformation. Certainly the days of winter glory laps to get the attention of sponsors are gone; there’s just too much work to get through in these days of prescribed, limited testing. But that doesn’t stop the teams from sandbagging and using the drivers to promote a false sense of jeopardy.

Is that what Red Bull were doing? Champ Sebastian Vettel certainly had his early-2012-season grumpy face on, suggesting not all was well. Mark Webber meanwhile dropped a lap in last Thursday that suggested otherwise. The smart money, however, agrees that Red Bull ran heavier, more fuelled-up cars across all the tests and that the advantage is still theirs. If last season is anything to go by, we won’t see the RB9’s real speed until qualifying.

That leaves McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes in chasing pack, just tiny fractions of seconds apart. Jenson Button is telling the world the new McLaren MP4-28 is tricky. It is less of an evolution than its competitors and more new, which gives McLaren more opportunity for evolution but possibly at the expense of early season pace. This year’s Ferrari however is a much better car. How can we be sure? Just look at Felipe Massa’s pace. He has been much closer to Alonso, suggesting the F138 is an easier car from which to extract pace. And how fast was Alonso in testing? Extremely, second only to Mercedes. And Alonso is already saying this; “I don’t need the quickest car to win the championship….”. Yes, ‘Nando, we saw almost that last year.

And have Lewis and Mercedes got a car he can win with? It is very possible. Everyone who saw Lewis and ‘winter-testing champ’ Nico Rosberg out on the track said the car looked magic. It’s important also to note that over the three tests the W04 got markedly better. Last year’s car, don’t forget, got markedly worse across the season. Have the management changes at Merc got all that engineering talent finally working together?

Williams, Sauber, Force India and Toro Rosso all look like they will again make up the midfield, but the stakes are higher this year; six cars will exit after Q1 and with HRT gone it means two midfield cars will, inevitably, join the Caterhams and the Marussias.

And those two at the back are already saying there will be less scope for development in-season in 2013 than before; with such short budgets it makes sense to gamble on the very new 2014 formula? And indeed the 2014 regulations may well throw a shadow over this season.

Why, frankly, if by the time the teams reach Spain in May it once again looks like Red Bull and Vettel will dominate, would any of the teams throw resource at this year’s cars, when next year’s offer so much more possibility of levelling the playing field?

We’ll know a lot more a week from now…

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