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Skid row the new season
The opening race of every Formula 1 season hinges on one certainty: You can't just land up and win. Sure, the way Sebastian Vettel won on most occasions in 2011, he needed to do little else other than just show up. But that's another story.
New rules, design changes and new names have ensured that all bets are off. The 2012 testing season did little to assuage already frayed nerves. Pre-season testing at Jerez and Barcelona failed to produce a clear favourite as several drivers and teams took spells at the top of the timesheets. Little separates the teams this year - some appear quick in single-lap trim while others excel over race distances. Add to that confusing mix, Pirelli's aggressive tyres making strategies difficult but more importantly varied, the season opener on March 18 is expected to be nothing less than a thrilling but shocking joyride.
But the biggest whoop of joy should be saved for the mouth-watering prospect of having six world champions go head-to-head in a season that could very well be called the "Battle of the best".
The unbeatable Vettel, who has Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Michael Schumacher and now Kimi Raikkonen, jostling for space up at the front, will be rubbing his hands gleefully, in anticipation of a fight he so sorely missed last season. If Vettel vanquishes all the other pretenders for yet another title, the distance between him and greatness will reduce considerably.
All curious eyes for the moment are trained on the vagabond blonde, Raikkonen. The Finn who got bored of PR appearances and the politics of the sport chose to walk away from the blitz and business of F1. The "free spirit with a fondness for spirits" spent two years in the World Rally Championship, driving in rain, hail, sun and snow. He underlined his talent but also his lack of patience.
An itching to do what he does best - race at blindingly fast speeds - might have brought him back to the circus but for how long? It's a question the Iceman knows is being asked and if his 'motivation levels' and speed move downwards together, the question will be bellowing around his ears.
If pre-season testing is any indication, the hiatus hasn't affected the Finn's natural pace or disposition. Lotus, this year's dark horses, couldn't have asked for a better replacement for the injured Robert Kubica. Despite missing the entire second test with a chassis issue, the car looks reasonably quick and team principal Eric Boullier has faith in the Finn's ability to adapt and be aggressive simultaneously.
It could just be wishful thinking on Boullier's part. It took Schumacher, a seven-time world champion, who's done more miles on F1 circuits than any other man alive, a full season to get back into the groove and a win still eludes him.
But what has warmed the cockles of many a cold heart is the return of one of Formula 1's true characters, a man who's not afraid to drive or do as he wants. For those worried about F1's descent into a sanitised and boring space, Raikkonen's arrival has given them much joy and hope.
If there's one sight that evokes little joy is the 2012 car lookbook. Though the mandate for the sport screams fast and beautiful cars, technical specifications this year made the teams focus sharply on just fast with scant regard paid to looks. The platypus nose design (see graphic) abounds and pretty and platypus cannot be used in the same sentence.
The contest on the track is for speed and scores and most teams, though unsure of how a race will pan out, seem fairly prepared for the unknown. The 2011 champions Red Bull, who as long as they have designer Adrian Newey in their ranks can never end up with a bad car, travel to Australia with a B-spec version of their 2012 car. Will 'Abbey' give Vettel the start he wants for the new season or will it give Red Bull's rivals the teeny-weeny window of opportunity? Will the RB8 give Mark Webber the pace he needs to make 2012 his season?
McLaren though not totally sure of how their contender will measure up with rivals, namely Christian Horner's team, are sure of one thing - they will be competitive.
But former F1 champions Ferrari seem to be on shaky ground even on that front. The Italian giants that devoted a large chunk of 2011 to developing and designing the 2012 car has ended up with a product that in technical director Pat Fry's words is "disappointing". The impression within the team that have double world champion Spaniard Alonso and Brazilian Felipe Massa driving for them is that the car in its present avatar can't challenge for podiums. Not what Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo wanted to hear of the F2012.
Hamilton and Button expressed happiness at the way the MP4-27 has turned out but frankly speaking chasing Red Bulls isn't what either one of them wants to do.
Schumacher at 43 might consider himself one of the best in the world but there's no running away from the fact that the time has come for Mercedes GP to flex its brawn. In Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, they have an undoubtedly strong driver lineup, and the signs from testing have been promising but finishing fourth isn't an option this year.
Force India troubled Mercedes GP on a few occasions in the past and part-owner Vijay Mallya will want to see that become a regular occurrence in 2012. Revitalised after the millions pumped in by Sahara, Mallya and his Silverstone outfit will be looking to make 2012 count with young and determined drivers Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg, given the fact that the VJM05 is, according to the team, their best car yet.
A team that manages to stand on its two feet resolutely, Sauber will be looking to build on the stability of 2011. They've chosen to stick with Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi and a fight for the midfield can definitely be expected from the Hinwill team.
Red Bull's junior team Toro Rosso seems to be taking its talent-developing responsibilities more seriously this year as it pairs young Daniel Ricciardo and the talented Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne. An impressive run this year could elevate one of them to the big team, depending on how Webber's season goes.
It's been a fall from grace for Williams but change seems to be the new mantra adopted by the Grove-based squad. Bruno Senna finds a more permanent spot here at 2012 as he joins Pastor Maldonado.
A new name may just bring Tony Fernandes' team new luck. Caterham will depend on Heikki Kovalainen and Vitaly Petrov to power the Caterham-Renault CT-01 to the midfield.
A good show at the Indian Grand Prix gave Narain Karthikeyan the gumption and backing to scout for a seat for 2012 and he kept his place at HRT. The presence of the massively experienced Pedro de la Rosa gives the Madrid-based team a slight edge over their equally ill-prepared Marussia F1 who have Timo Glock and Charles Pic. Both the teams missed the preseason testing and have reached Melbourne with barely any mileage under their belt.
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