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Chalmers predicts the winners and losers of '12
Sunday 18th March 2012, 05:13 by Daniel Chalmers
© Getty Images | Red Bull
It's that time of the year again, where I put my neck on the line, and predict who are going to be the winners and losers of this year's F1 championship.
Who will be world champion?
It’s going to be very hard to stop Vettel from winning a third straight title. He is in the form of his life at the moment and his second title is only going to make him even stronger, and give him yet more confidence and belief. You can also be sure that Red Bull will be consistently quick at every race track.
However I think 2012 will be a much closer season than last year. McLaren look extremely competitive and I think both Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button are going to have a very strong season. That’s where I think the key to Vettel’s title challenge will lie.
Hamilton is going to be much stronger in 2012 and I think we will see him at his best more than we did last season. However in a great car Jenson is just as capable of producing incredible performances. That along with the fact that Button doesn’t make mistakes and will likely out-perform Lewis on the high tyre degradation tracks, means it will be quite close between the pair again.
Even though in my opinion Webber will close the gap to Vettel, I think the young German will still have a clear margin over his Aussie team mate. This means that Seb will be in a position to benefit from the McLaren duo taking points away from each other.
I think the title will go down to the wire with Vettel winning by a mere handful of points, but the best driving moments of the season may well come from the McLaren duo.
If it wasn’t for the current regulations I would go for Hamilton to win the title by a clear margin. However I feel that with the Pirelli tyres and DRS, the regulations have moved away from him, and removed a bit of his edge.
He can’t push flat-out during every race like he used to, and with DRS everyone and their grandmother can suddenly overtake.
Who will be constructor’s champion?
McLaren won their last constructor’s title in 1998 so it’s about time they won it again, and I think 2012 is going to be their year.
McLaren haven't won a Constructors' title since 1998.
McLaren have enjoyed their best pre-season for years. It’s hard to recall a season when winter testing has gone so well for them. The car has been reliable and they have put a lot of miles on the clock. Both drivers also seem very happy with the car, which is a huge contrast to this time last season.
McLaren are the best team in the field when it comes to development. For instance in 2009 they found over 2.5 seconds worth of gains over the course of the season.
It’s looking likely that McLaren are currently only a few tenths behind Red Bull at worse. Maybe it's even closer than that. If the Woking squad can start this strong from round one, but still apply their traditional rate of development over the course of this bumper 20 race season, then 2012 could be a magnificent year.
Furthermore, although Hamilton and Button’s rivalry may prove costly for the WDC, both drivers’ points count towards the WCC. The advantage of two number one drivers is that they both score huge points.
Who many teams will win races in 2012?
Four or five
There is no doubt that it’s going to be McLaren and Red Bull doing most of the winning this season. However the likes of Mercedes and Lotus look closer to the front than they did last year.
How many different drivers will we see on the podium?
On days where tyre degradation is key, or it’s a wet race, they are close enough that they could win a race if they produce a perfect performance.
Also don’t rule out a couple of race wins from Ferrari later on in the season if they can figure out their new car. Although it will probably be too late to win the title by then.
I also think we will see a wider variety of teams competing at the front throughout the season, even if Red Bull and McLaren are the two that are consistently there. I think it’s also very likely that we will see more drivers standing on the podium than last year too.
Which team will surprise?
There are a number of teams that could surprise in 2012 including the likes of Lotus and any of the midfield runners. However I am going to go for Caterham.
They have looked really strong in testing this year, and have looked the most competitive they have done in their time in F1 so far.
Looking at testing it looks as if they are only a few tenths away from the midfield group, which looks very tight this year. Getting in reach of the midfield is the hardest part for a new team.
However once they get to that midfield group, it’s only covered by a few tenths of a second. So if they can then out-develop a few of their rivals, they could suddenly surge right up the order, and I think that’s what we will see later on in 2012.
Also they have a very experienced and quick driver in Heikki Kovalainen. There is not much experience in the midfield and I think that could help Caterham as well. On days when some of the newer drivers lose their heads, Heikki will keep his and benefit.
Sauber are the other team I back to surprise. In Barcelona they did a very impressive qualifying simulation on the soft tyres, whilst other midfield teams did slower simulations on the same day on the quicker super-soft tyres. Their long runs have also looked quick and consistent. Nobody has really talked about them so reckon they could cause the biggest shock in the early races.
Which team will disappoint?
Unless you have been hiding in a cave this winter, you will know that things aren’t looking great for Ferrari at the moment. Unfortunately for all those dedicated Ferrari fans I don’t see things improving in Melbourne this weekend.
A difficult pre-season for Ferrari could see them off the pace.
Over testing Ferrari have struggled to understand the behaviour of their radical car and that’s never a good sign. If you understand what your problem is then you can solve it, if not then it becomes extremely difficult.
There is clearly a lot of potential in the car. Over a single lap it’s actually not that slow. Raw pace wise it’s probably around half a second off the pace. However over a race distance the car is too hard on its tyres and the lap times fall away and are inconsistent.
Over the season I think Ferrari will start to solve their issues, and will become more of a factor in the second half of the season. However as McLaren and Red Bull will be racking up big points in the early races, by the time Ferrari become competitive again, it’s likely to be too late.
Their only hope is that four or five teams share wins and podiums, whilst they are solving their problems. That is very unlikely to happen.
For Ferrari nothing but the title will do. So in that sense 2012 will be another huge disappointment.
Which driver will surprise?
I think Romain is a very talented driver. In 2009 he was thrown straight into the deep end mid-season when he wasn’t ready.
Can Grosjean impress after two years out of the sport?
Despite the fact that he made mistakes, his raw pace was actually pretty good considering the circumstances. If you look at the Q2 section of qualifying in the weekends he took part in, there were times when he was only a few tenths slower than Alonso.
That’s no mean feat and closer to Fernando than Massa has been at times.
However the grid was so tight in 2009 a few tenths covered eight or nine cars, and made the gulf between Alonso and Grosjean look larger than it really was.
Last year he won the GP2 title brilliantly and this year he has been able to enjoy a full pre-season, so is now ready to show the full extent of his talent.
If the Lotus is as quick as it has looked in winter testing, then 2012 could be a huge year in the Frenchman’s career.
Furthermore it would be great to see a Frenchman doing well this season, after a lack of a French connection in F1 recently.
Which driver will disappoint?
I really do worry about Massa this year. Ferrari was often in no man’s land between Red Bull/McLaren and Mercedes in 2011. So even though there was often a sizeable margin between the Brazilian and Alonso they were often still near each other on the grid.
Massa is under immense pressure to perform.
If Ferrari end up starting the year in the tight midfield pack then there could end up being a number of cars between separating them on the grid. Therefore the gulf will look even bigger than it did last year.
Furthermore, with a car that looks difficult to drive you suspect Fernando will be able to extract more out of it than Felipe will.
Another potential problem for Felipe is that we have been hearing that the Pirelli tyres are slower to warm-up than last year. That’s not good news for Massa in qualifying. Tyre warm-up for that critical qualifying lap is something that he struggles with.
The writing already seems to be on the wall for Felipe, unless he manages to pull a rabbit out of the hat in 2012.
I would absolutely love to be proved wrong and to see Massa bounce back to form, but I just can’t see it happening.
Will it be a calm season off the track?
Unfortunately I think we will see plenty of politics this year. The concorde agreement runs out at the end of this year and I think there will be plenty of arguments and bickering over that. The teams will be wanting a bigger slice of the pie or possibly wanting to own the sport outright.
Fingers crossed we don’t get into the same situation as 2009, where there is a threat of a breakaway series. As seen over in America breakaways just don’t work.
With Red Bull and Ferrari leaving FOTA I think we will see yet more arguing and bickering when it comes to controlling costs in F1. With two of the big teams not part of the association anymore that’s only going to complicate matters.
Plus I think we can be sure there will arguments about the legality of a few of the cars in 2012. Everyone wants to find a way of getting back the gains they got from the exhaust diffusers in a legal way. They will find any loopholes they can within the regulations. And who knows what other on the edge designs we will see from people this year.
At least if there is a lot action off track this season, it does look as if we will see plenty on it too.