The 2013 Formula One season kicked off with the usual speculation and hasty presumptions about who would be competitive, and who was in for a tough year based entirely upon testing lap times.
A familiar pattern emerged, with Mercedes GP once again talked up as a genuine title contender having set the quickest time at the Circuit de Catalunya on the final day of testing. Lewis Hamilton’s defection to the Silver Arrows did little to ease speculation, even when all key members of the Brackley based team warned against jumping to conclusions about their competiveness.
Five new drivers lined up on the grid at Melbourne when the championship finally got under way. Marussia employed Frenchman Jules Bianchi (a last-minute replacement for Luiz Razia, whose sponsorship money failed to materialise), and Brit Tom Chilton.
Their Caterham rivals requested the services of Dutchman Giedo van der Garde, while reserve drivers Valterri Bottas and Esteban Gutiérrez were promoted to the race line-ups of Williams and Sauber, respectively. With Hamilton’s departure, the vacant seat at McLaren was filled by highly-rated Mexican Sergio Pérez, leading to Sauber employing Nico Hülkenberg as his replacement. A twenty-two car grid is contesting the 2013 championship, two short of 2012 as a result of HRTF1 Team’s departure from the series.
The following week, a turbulent Malaysian Grand Prix saw Sebastian Vettel take victory after disregarding team orders to remain behind Mark Webber.
The next stop was China, where Fernando Alonso bounced back strongly to record a 10 second victory ahead of Räikkönen, while Webber endured a dreadful weekend where he ran out of fuel in qualifying and lost his right rear tyre in the race.
Most recently, Sebastian Vettel took his second victory of the season in Bahrain ahead of Lotus combination Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean. So, what have we learnt so far in 2013?
Formula One is as competitive as it has ever been
There are drivers from four different teams who could realistically win the championship. Sebastian Vettel has picked up where he left off in 2012, and leads the championship for Red Bull.
However, Lotus pilot Kimi Räikkönen and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso appear to be bridging the gap to Red Bull. Mercedes has lacked race pace thus far in 2013, however Lewis Hamilton has managed to bag 50 points from four races to sit third in the championship, and could conceivably mount a title challenge in the cooler European conditions where tyre wear is less of a factor.
Furthermore, in terms of race victories, we have witnessed three different race winners from four events. Force India look to be closer than ever to taking their maiden victory, while McLaren’s upgrades should allow them to compete further toward the front of the pack as the season progresses.
Down the field, Sauber and Toro Rosso are locked in a close fight for top-10 positions, while the battle of the backmarkers between Caterham and Marussia is well and truly alive, with the added incentive of a much-needed financial reward for tenth in the Constructors’ standings.
Tyre strategy and maintenance is crucial
Arguably the most discussed topic of 2013 has been the high degradation of the Pirelli tyre, which has forced the Italian tyre company into making a slight alteration to the hard compound rubber for the rest of the season. Drivers and teams have been particularly vocal in regards to the soft compound tyre, with Nico Rosberg explaining to Autosport: “With those tyres it is more of a question of how many corners you are going to get to, rather than laps.”
Red Bull’s Mark Webber has been similarly critical, suggesting that “Whatever fuel load you have got in the car, if you race people, you are in trouble. So just don’t race, put the tyre on and just try and get home.”
The importance of tyre strategy was showcased in the very first race of the season, as Finnish maestro Kimi Räikkönen required only two pit-stops to set up a convincing race victory. Force India attempted the same strategy with Adrian Sutil, however he struggled badly on the soft tyre and dropped to seventh after leading the race in the early stages.
Qualifying for the Chinese Grand Prix saw another intriguing tactic employed by Red Bull and McLaren, where they elected not to set a qualifying lap during Q3 in order to start the Grand Prix on the medium compound tyre and subsequently run a longer first stint.
All is not well at Red Bull
Tensions flared between Red Bull colleagues Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, following an incident in the closing stages of the Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang.
In what most would consider an already fractious relationship, Vettel opted to ignore the orders of his team and pass Webber to the disapproval of team Principal Christian Horner.
Webber’s adversity at the following grand prix in China prompted numerous conspiracy theories surrounding his relationship with the team, and his highly regarded team mate. The Australian mysteriously ran out of fuel during his qualifying in-lap, and lost his right rear tyre after it was not properly secured at a pit-stop. Horner quickly dismissed any suggestions of something more sinister within the Red Bull camp, while David Coulthard commented on BBC that “If Mark Webber didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all”.
Rumours that the 36 year old signed to race sports cars for Porsche in 2014 have also de-stabilized the Milton Keynes based team, who are struggling with each other, rather than the RB9.
Team orders are a touchy subject
Team orders were implemented on two separate occasions during the Malaysian Grand Prix, causing dramatic scenes between team mates and on pit wall. Some reporters have questioned the integrity of the sport, while others have called for a total ban on team orders.
Red Bull and Mercedes both implemented controversial team orders at Sepang. The difference was that one order was obeyed, and one was not. Sebastian Vettel chose to ignore Red Bull’s “Multi 21” order requesting that he hold position, and he instead fought Mark Webber for the race win. Team Principal Christian Horner was openly critical of the German, who could have made contact with Webber and ended both of their races. A similar situation unfolded at Mercedes, however Nico Rosberg unhappily obeyed Ross Brawn’s orders to remain behind the fuel-conserving Lewis Hamilton, denying Rosberg of a podium finish.
A contrasting situation occurred at the recent Bahrain Grand Prix involving McLaren, as Jenson Button fought wheel to wheel with teammate Sergio Pérez. The pair made contact on numerous occasions, and both voiced their displeasure over the fight after the race. The question is: should Martin Whitmarsh have allowed his McLaren pilots to fight so hard for position? Or should he have stepped in to prevent the possibility of two damaged cars? Wherever you sit in relation to team orders, they are a big talking point this year.
Hamilton is thriving at Mercedes
Lewis Hamilton was associated with McLaren since the age of 13, and it was always going to take some adjustment to imagine him elsewhere. However, desperate for a change of scenery, Hamilton signed to drive for Mercedes GP on a three-year deal starting from 2013. To the 28-year-old’s credit, he has so far impressed at the wheel of the Silver Arrows and appears to have jumped ship at the perfect time as McLaren begins to struggle.
While Rosberg has struggled with back luck and questionable team orders, nothing can be taken away from Hamilton’s two podium finishes and pole position in a car that lacks genuine race pace.
Lewis sits third in the championship, amassing 50 points from the first four races of the season. By contrast, Nico Rosberg is back in ninth, while Hamilton’s former McLaren team mate Jenson Button sits a lowly tenth. While he has openly admitted difficulty in adjusting to the Mercedes environment, any doubters regarding Hamilton’s switch to Toto Wolff’s team have been silenced.
Rookies are making a splash
As mentioned, five genuine rookies are on the grid in 2013, and have certainly evoked discussion for differing reasons. Arguably, the most impressive first year driver has been Marussia’s Jules Bianchi, who has extracted results far above what would be expected from the smallest F1 team. The Frenchman managed to cross the line fourteenth in Malaysia, and has clearly out-performed his 22-year-old teammate Max Chilton. What makes Bianchi’s story even more impressive is that he received a late call-up to drive for the Banbury based team after Luiz Razia was dropped as a result of a sponsor finance problem.
Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas has also impressed in his first four races of the season, managing a best result of eleventh representing the struggling Williams outfit. While Pastor Maldonado has failed to finish two of the first four races of the season, Bottas has brought the car home on all four occasions and equally has out-performed his more experienced colleague overall.
Esteban Gutiérrez has made a splash, but for entirely different reasons. Gutiérrez has endured a difficult start to his season, comprehensively out-performed by Nico Hülkenberg thus far. Furthermore, Gutiérrez completely missed his braking point and caused a big accident during the Chinese Grand Prix, prompting Sauber Team Principal Monisha Kaltenborn to suggest she will “keep a very close eye” on the Mexican driver over the next few races.
Force India is a genuine top-10 team
Force India has always been a team that has flown under the radar in their short history in the sport. However, 2013 has seen the arrival of Silverstone based team onto the big stage, and they are now consistently achieving top-10 finishes. Adrian Sutil led the Australian Grand Prix before falling to seventh on the soft tyre, while his team mate Paul Di Resta finished eighth.
The team did suffer from wheel nut issues in Malaysia, however Paul Di Resta bounced back strongly in China to finish eighth, and narrowly missed a podium finish at Bahrain where he placed a superb fourth.
Adrian Sutil hasn’t achieved the results of Di Resta thus far, having been an innocent victim in the mistake of Gutiérrez’s failed braking, however he has showed enough to confirm that Force India have genuine pace in 2013.
Currently, they sit fifth in the Constructors’ Championship ahead of McLaren, and are aiming to stay ahead for as long as possible. When questioned about the possibility of finishing on the podium, deputy team principal Bob Fearnley told Autosport: “It is going to be when, you can’t get any closer than we got in Bahrain.
“It’s frustrating not to get it. We are competing against very strong teams and delivering,” he said. “We are fighting hard with the cream and should be grateful we are there. In Bahrain, we could easily have had two cars in the top six on merit.”
McLaren and Williams are in trouble
Are we witnessing the downfall of two of Formula One’s historically strongest teams?
McLaren has been a dominant force in Formula One for over 30 years, and their unrelenting supremacy has shown no signs of ending until this year. The MP4-28 has proven to be a difficult car to master, most evidently at the bumpy Albert Park circuit.
After reportedly flirting with the idea of returning to the 2012-spec car, the team from Woking has managed to make some progress on the 2013 chassis, with Button placing fifth in China and Perez taking sixth in Bahrain. However, McLaren remains unlikely to take a victory any time soon, affirming Button’s brutal assessment that “[the Melbourne package] is not going to win a race”.
Williams also looks to have taken two steps backward in 2013, having arguably taken a step forward in 2012. Pastor Maldonado took a race win at Barcelona last year, and the team showed great promise before finishing eighth overall in the Constructors’ standings.
However, fans of the Oxfordshire team were rightly concerned about their inability to have the FW35 completed for the opening test of 2013 at Jerez, and having their exhaust system banned the day their 2013 entry was released. Chronic understeer has denied Maldonado and Bottas any chance of securing points, with eleventh the best finish for both drivers this season. Upgrades for the FW35 due for Barcelona can’t come soon enough as Marussia edges ever closer.
Drivers are winding back the clock
While he hasn’t yet been able to convert his speed into a podium finish this season, the Brazillian is clearly returning to the championship-contending form that he showed in 2008.
Massa out-qualified Fernando Alonso in the first two sessions of the year, and could arguably have finished second overall in Melbourne had Ferrari bought him into the pits earlier after his second stint. Even so, seeing Felipe Massa at the top of the timesheets is a sight most F1 fans would embrace given what happened in 2009.
Adrian Sutil has also shown great promise in his return to Formula 1 in 2013. Following a much-publicised incident at a Shanghai night club in 2011, Sutil did not compete in the 2012 F1 season. Many would forgive the German had he struggled in first F1 race for 12 months in Melbourne, however Sutil led the race up until lap 21, holding off Vettel, Massa and Alonso who were all on fresher rubber. Sutil finished the race seventh, after falling slightly behind on the softer compound tyre, however, it was an impressive comeback nonetheless. Since Melbourne, Sutil has suffered from incredibly back luck in Malaysia, China and Bahrain, however he remains a driver to watch in 2013.
While Kimi Räikkönen impressed beyond belief in his comeback last year, he is genuinely in the hunt for the championship in 2013. The Finnish pilot is showing pace similar to what he showed in 2007, where he took the Drivers’ Championship. Assuming that Lotus remains a competitive team throughout the duration of the season, the baby-faced assassin could take his second world championship, six years after he first reigned supreme.
The Formula One circus heads back to Europe for the Spanish Grand Prix next weekend. Many teams will be sporting upgrades for the first European round of 2013, so expect the field to be shaken up once again. There will be plenty of stories to talk about during the mid-season break following the Hungarian Grand Prix, and we will have learnt a whole lot more about Formula One in 2013. Stay tuned!