The latest sports journalist to stick their expert neck on the line for this ‘umble little blog of mine is BBC News producer NICK PARROTT. Here he looks ahead two months to the start of a Formula 1 season which will see Sebastian Vettel chasing a world title hat-trick and the return of Flying Finn Kimi Raikkonen…
When the Australian Grand Prix is go-go-go on March 18th, there will be six world champions on the starting grid. Last year’s five will this year be joined by 2007 drivers’ title winner Kimi Raikkonen, returning to the sport after two years in rallying. He has joined the former Renault team, who will race under the Lotus name from this season. The 32-year-old will get behind the wheel of an F1 car for the first time since the 2009 Abu Dhabi GP when he drives the 2010 Renault car in Valencia next week.
Raikkonen has spoken of his ‘overwhelming hunger’ to return to the sport but the BBC’s Nick Parrott, an F1 expert, says the former champ will be frustrated by the Lotus car’s limitations. He told me: “I am not surprised Kimi Raikkonen returned, he should never have left. He may well have a point to prove, but he will find it difficult to get near the front as was the case for Michael Schumacher. A driver can only do so much, if the car isn’t up to it he won’t win.
“It takes a lot for a team to rise from the midfield to the top and I think it is too much of an ask for Mercedes or Lotus to provide them with a car capable of making a sustained challenge, although I would never rule them out of winning a one-off race over the course of the season, but that would require the top drivers to encounter some sort of misfortune.”
Inevitably, two-time champion Sebastian Vettel remains the man to beat – his odds for the title are currently no bigger than 5/4 and you won’t get much better than evens at most places. Lofty comparisons with legendary racers are not hyperbole, Parrott believes. He said: “The way he dominates qualifying sessions reminds me of Ayrton Senna in his pomp. Vettel is usually the last to set a time and nearly always clinches pole.
“He and [Red Bull designer] Adrian Newey are the dream team in Formula One. So long as both are at Red Bull then Vettel will either win the title or finish in the top three. I think the only thing that can stop Red Bull is a resurgence at McLaren or Ferrari.”
Parrott believes Vettel’s teammate Mark Webber, whose frustrations with being used as a support act for the German have occasionally been clearly voiced, is in his last year at Red Bull. He said: “He was disappointing by his standards last season and a repeat will probably see him replaced by a younger driver.”
Should Red Bull falter this season, Parrott predicted Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, champion in 2005 and 2006, would emerge as Vettel’s chief tormenter. “Alonso is best-placed because he is a clear number one driver who enjoys all the privileges that brings. With Ferrari having appointed former Bridgestone motorsport manager Hirohide Hamashima, they should get more out of their tyres for 2012.
“Lewis Hamilton can’t possibly have as bad a year as 2011 and with a better car he and Jenson Button will be able to challenge this year. So I think it will be a far more competitive season that last year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if come the end of the season Vettel wins the title for a third consecutive year. I think the top four drivers will be, in no particular order – Vettel, Hamilton, Button and Alonso.”
Red Bull’s sheer dominance in 2011 – they finished 153 points clear of McLaren in the constructors’ standings – means the chasing pack’s technical teams will have a lot of work to do to close the gap. “Quite simply McLaren and Ferrari need better designed cars,” Parrot said. “They’re not as quick because they design is not as good. Sort that and they will challenge them.”
The latest development which has got the F1 paddock talking is Lotus’s ride-height control system, which aims to improve stability during braking. Although Raikkonen’s team are naturally keeping details of the innovation close to their chest, the aim would be to keep the ride height of the car as close to constant during braking as possible, as any change can have a major effect on its aerodynamics.
The former Renault team, whose technical expertise helped Alonso win his back-to-back titles, have been told by governing body the FIA that the system is legal and Ferrari are now also looking into replicating the system. Parrott said it could be a ‘major innovation. He added: “It may well make a similiar impact to the blown diffuser, which has been outlawed, but the problem is that once one team introduces something successful the other teams follow suit pretty quickly, although to varying degrees of success. Remember though that Red Bull struggled to get their KERS system to work properly and that didn’t harm them too much.”
Britain’s other driver on the grid, Paul Di Resta, will be looking to use his second season in the sport, and build on his experiences in the last 12 months, to launch into the top 10 of the drivers’ standings. But where is this country’s next F1 driver going to come from? Parrott said: “Despite the re-emergence of the Formula 2 series, GP2 remains the key feeder series to Formula One. Keep an eye out for Sam Bird. However, the biggest problem facing British talent is being able to bring sponsorship to a team.”
Nick Parrott works as an assistant producer on sports bulletins for the BBC News Channel. Follow him on Twitter at @NickParrottTV.