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Posted on 17 Mar 2012 Posted in
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Twelve months ago, Sebastian Vettel was preparing to kick-start the defence of his championship title, with his rivals trying to work out the best way to dethrone the champion from his place at the top of the pile.

Fast-forward to 2012 and the F1 field finds itself in exactly the same position after the Red Bull driver produced one of the most dominant championship campaigns seen in recent memory to become the youngest ever two-time champion at the age of just 24-years-old.

As Vettel now aims to become only the third driver after Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher to take three consecutive titles, the same question needs to be asked. Can anyone knock Vettel from his perch?

Whoever does emerge as champion at the end of 2012 will do so at the end of a season that is set to be the biggest in the history of F1, with no fewer than 20 races taking place between this weekend in Australia and the season finale in Brazil at the end of November.

The calendar, which features one additional race compared to last season, includes a return for the Bahrain Grand Prix after the 2011 event was cancelled due to political unrest in the Gulf State, while there is also a return to American shores for the first time since 2007, with construction ongoing at a new circuit near Austin, Texas.

The only other change to the schedule is the loss of the Turkish Grand Prix in Istanbul, which was dropped after a new deal couldn't be agreed between organisers and F1's commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone.

In the ever-evolving world of F1, there is also little surprise that teams have to deal with changes to the regulations for the year ahead, with one of the major changes being to the exhaust systems fitted to the cars. The 2011 season saw a number of teams elect to make use of exhaust-blown diffusers, a device which made use of the gases from the exhaust to generate more downforce and therefore improve performance.

In an effort to remove the elaborate designs, the rules for 2012 state that the exhausts must now exit the car from the top of the sidepods and point to the rear of the car; effectively preventing the gases being used to the same extent to improve aerodynamic performance.

The other major change, and arguably the most noticeable for fans watching on, is to the front of the car – with the maximum height of the nose having been reduced by 75mm in an effort to improve safety. The lower nose has been introduced to reduce the chance of the nose intruding into a cockpit in the event of a side-on collision, although the fact that the front of the chassis can be higher than the nose has resulted in the majority of teams electing to run with a stepped nose, which hasn't proved popular with everyone.

Regardless of the technical changes implemented for 2012, there is little doubt that Vettel goes into the new season as the man to beat after his dominant success last year, where the title was taken after a campaign that saw him secure victory eleven times in 19 starts. In total, Vettel finished on the podium an astonishing 17 times; the only exceptions being a fourth place in Germany and a retirement in Abu Dhabi.

Much has been made of the impact that the regulations changes will have on Vettel's Red Bull Racing team, with the title-winning RB7 from 2011 having been one of the first cars to feature the blown diffuser, but initial testing of the RB8 in Spain has suggested that the remainder of the field will have its work cut out to keep pace with the Milton Keynes-based team – with ace designed Adrian Newey having once again produced a car that looks set to be the class of the field.

The pace of the car on longer runs has been impressive, although Vettel will head into the season-opening Australian Grand Prix with only limited running in the final-spec RB8 after a troubled final day of testing in Barcelona. It would however take a brave man to bet against starting this title defence with victory.

One man who will certainly be keen to ensure that Vettel doesn't start with a win is team-mate Mark Webber, who heads into 2012 eager to improve on what proved to be a challenging season last year; where he was comprehensively out-performed by Vettel and didn't manage to win a race until the season finale in Brazil.

In fairness, Webber wasn't the only driver to be out-performed by Vettel last year and the Australian's third place finish would have seemed a lot more impressive had it not been for the stunning season enjoyed by his Red Bull stable-mate.

If Webber can improve his qualifying performance this season, there is little doubt that the 35-year-old will aim to be a contender for honours and he heads into 2012 as something of a dark horse for the title.

Red Bull's main challengers last year proved to be McLaren, despite the MP4-26 being off the pace during pre-season testing as the team struggled with its exhaust system. A redesign ahead of the season opener in Australia meant Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton were closer to the pace when racing got underway, with the team then working hard on development as the year wore on.

Although lacking the one-lap pace of Red Bull, the team was strong on race day, which ensured that Button and Hamilton were the only drivers other than Vettel to win more than one race.  What the team now needs is to try and match Red Bull from the outset in order to challenge for the crown.

The MP4-27 is the only car on the grid not to feature a stepped nose after McLaren opted to take a different approach to its design, but the team has enjoyed its best pre-season for some time with both Button and Hamilton happy with the performance of their new challenger.

Button's aim is to build on a 2011 season that many feel was equal to, if not better than, his title-winning season in 2009 while Hamilton has to put the issues that plagued him last year firmly to one side and focus on delivering the goods on track.

With arguably the strongest driver line-up in the field, hopes are high within the McLaren team that 2012 will be the year when it regains some championship silverware.

At Ferrari however, things couldn't be more different, with a difficult pre-season leaving the Maranello-based team on the back foot heading into the start of the season.

Changes within the technical team over the past twelve months have seen Ferrari produce a much more radical car for this season in the shape of the F2012. Testing of the car hasn't gone smoothly however, with the team struggling to unlock the true potential of the machine and finding itself off the pace as a result. While others turned focus to race simulation, Ferrari was still trying to find a good set-up for the F2012 and its new suspension layout, leaving technical chief Pat Fry to say he wasn't optimistic of fighting for the podium in the opening races of the year.

For Ferrari, that simply isn't good enough and the team will need to respond to its current issues quickly to ensure a title challenge can be built over the course of the season.

One huge plus for the team is the continued presence of Fernando Alonso as team leader, with the Spaniard widely seen by many to be the most complete driver on the grid. The double champion only managed one victory last year and will be eager to improve on that total this year if Ferrari can get to grips with its current issues.

Team-mate Felipe Massa meanwhile is facing arguably the biggest season of his career as he seeks to retain his place in the Ferrari line-up. The Brazilian failed to even make the podium last season and hasn't taken a race win since his home race back in 2008 when he briefly thought he had beaten Lewis Hamilton to the title. Out of contract at the end of the year, Massa needs to return to that 2008 form if he wants to keep his drive for another season.

Ferrari's issues going into the start of the season may well provide an opportunity for someone else to break into the top three which has been dominated by Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari for the past two years.

Mercedes will hope to be the ones to take advantage after a below-par showing from the Brackley-based team in the two seasons since emerging from the success story that was Brawn GP.

The past twelve months has seen Mercedes strengthen its technical staff with a series of big-name arrivals as it seeks to make forward progress towards its ultimate goal of securing championship success. Having taken the decision to launch its new car the W03 after the first pre-season test, Mercedes made good progress during the two tests that followed in Barcelona, leading to optimism that a good season may lie ahead.

The two Mercedes drivers go into 2012 eager to challenge for victory, albeit for differing reasons. Nico Rosberg has yet to take to the top step of the podium after 108 races but could be given his best opportunity to date this season if the W03 can realise its potential.

For Michael Schumacher, 2012 could be the final chance to add to his 91 race victories, with the seven-time champion heading into the final year of the three-year deal he signed to come out of retirement in 2010. So far, Schumacher hasn't even taken to the podium since his return but made noticeable forwards progress last year and now has the opportunity to show he was right to come of retirement and is still capable of fighting at the front against his younger compatriots.

The only other team heading into the new season being viewed as realistic winners would be the former Renault team, now running under the Lotus banner after arguments over the use of the Lotus name in F1 last year were finally resolved.

The team heads into 2012 on the back of a 2011 season that promised much, but delivered little from the moment Robert Kubica was injured while competing in a rally before the championship campaign kicked off and was ruled out of action. A bold move to fit the R31 with a forward facing exhaust also failed as the innovative part actually slowed up development over the course of the year.

Although there were podium finishes last year, Lotus will hope they are more regular during 2012 with the new E20 having shown impressive speed during pre-season testing. That testing wasn't without problems however, when an issue with the suspension forced the team to miss the second test of the winter and hastily redesign parts to return to the track for the final test where the car was quickest on three of the four days.

Key to Lotus' hopes is the returning Kimi Raikkonen, the sixth world champion in the field. Raikkonen makes his comeback after two years in the World Rally Championship but his performance in testing has made it appear like he has never been away. The Finn is without doubt one of the quickest drivers on the grid and if Lotus can make the most of the potential that appears to be in the E20, Raikkonen is a dark horse to challenge at the front of the field.

Raikkonen's team-mate shouldn't be discounted either, with Romain Grosjean also returning to the grid this season. His time with Renault in 2009 when called on to replace Nelson Piquet Jr didn't go to plan, but the Frenchman makes his comeback a more rounded driver having dominated the GP2 Series last year. Quick in pre-season, Grosjean should make much more of an impression this time around.

Elsewhere on the grid, the midfield battle looks set to be tighter than ever before, with the likes of Force India, Sauber, Toro Rosso and Williams appearing to be quite closely matched going into the opening round of the year.

Force India were a thorn in the side of some of the bigger teams on a number of occasions last year, and with an impressive driver pairing of Paul di Resta and Nico Hukkenberg, the Silverstone-based team will hope for more of the same in 2012 as it seeks to continue the forward progress that has been seen in recent years.

Sauber lost out last year due to the lack of a blown diffuser, so will hope that the removal of the device this season will aid an unchanged driver line-up of Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez. What the team really needs is the consistency that has been lacking for the last two years, with a bad start in 2010 being followed by a solid finish, and a strong start last year tailing off as the year went on. What may well hold the team back however is the loss of technical director James Key on the eve of the season. How Sauber responds to the loss could dictate how its season pans out.

After finishing eighth last season, Toro Rosso will seek to at least maintain its championship position with an all-new line-up of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne after Sebastien Buemi and Jamie Alguersuari were unceremoniously dumped in the winter. Although the new pairing have just eleven F1 starts between them, both have the talent to push the new STR7 towards the points and both have extra motivation to impress given that a strong showing for the Italian team could be the springboard to move into the Red Bull line-up when Mark Webber calls it a day.

For Williams, 2012 surely cannot be worse than 2011, which turned out to be the worst in the long history of the team with just five points all season. The FW34 is the work of a new-look technical team after mid-season changes last year while the Cosworth engine has been replaced by a Renault unit that Williams hopes will improve its performance. The experience of Rubens Barrichello is no longer there, but South American pairing Pastor Maldonado and Bruno Senna are quick enough to fight for the points that will take Williams back up the championship standings.

That leaves just the three 'new' teams to consider, although only Caterham the former Lotus team has shown the potential to move closer to the established teams. Now running with KERS to add to its Renault engine, the CT01 will be another step forwards although the team will be aware that the impressive times set in testing will count for little when the competitive action gets underway.

How realistic points are, on a much smaller budget that the big boys, remains to be seen, but Heikki Kovalainen and new signing Vitaly Petrov are both capable of opening Caterham's account if they have the car underneath them to challenge.

For HRT and Marussia, the only target going into the season is to avoid the wooden spoon, with neither team able to do any meaningful testing after failing to pass the mandatory FIA crash tests in time. Both are in the process of restructuring, with HRT going into its first full season under the ownership of Thesan Capital, and Marussia formally Virgin Racing now using more traditional methods to design its car having worked solely with CFD for the previous two seasons. With limited budgets and starting on the back foot, it's difficult see either team being a series challenger to the midfield.

Intriguingly this season, it isn't just a battle on-track that people will be keeping an eye on, but a fight amongst the broadcasters as a result of the new TV deal in place for UK viewers.

While the BBC will show coverage of all 20 races, only ten will be shown live with Sky Sports becoming the only place to see uninterrupted coverage of every event on the calendar.

Although the move to Sky does mean fans are faced with paying for a subscription to see all the racing action, there is little doubt that the broadcaster is taking its new role seriously launching a dedicated F1 channel and signing up top talent like David Croft, Martin Brundle, Anthony Davidson, Damon Hill and Ted Kravitz as part of its team.

Making the sport available on the go on both smartphones and iPad, Sky is set to offer multiple live camera feeds and the ability to catch highlights while the action is ongoing as part of what it describes as the most in-depth coverage F1 has ever seen.

Away from the live action, Sky is also set to run a new Legends series with former stars and will air archived action showing some of the best action from years gone by.

Having also secured the rights to show both GP2 and GP3, the new channel is set to provide F1 fans with the opportunity to see the stars of the future in action over the course of the year.

And so the time comes for the talking to stop and the action to start, with on-track activities in Melbourne now underway. Will Vettel make history this season with another title or will the German finally be toppled? Only time will tell…

This blog was written by Motorsports Journalist and F1 Matt Salisbury

NettaMD23 March 2012, 11:04 First-class article! Whets the appetite for an exciting season ahead with a better understanding of everything involved. Well done Matt! Excellent writing!
23 March 2012, 06:54 Excellent article - even better start to the season - Fab win Jenson - lets hope its a lucky omen. J
21 March 2012, 20:47 One of, if not the best F1 summaries that i've read! A real treat is ahead. Well done Matt.
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