Formula One gets ready for another enthralling season
Formula 1 2012 effectively starts now. The first race is not until 18 March, but by the end of this week the world will have seen two of the cars expected to be competing at the front - and one of them will have had its first run on the track.
The McLaren breaks cover first, with a launch at the team’s base in Woking, Surrey, before Ferrari reveal their new challenger in Maranello on Friday.
Ferrari plan, weather permitting, to run the car briefly at their Fiorano test track on Saturday ahead of the start of pre-season testing in Jerez, Spain, on 7 February.
On Sunday, the new Lotus (formerly Renault) will be unveiled on the internet – and F1 designers and engineers across Europe will be losing sleep about what they will see when the new Red Bull breaks cover in the same fashion on Monday.
Ferrari Formula One team and drivers including Fernando Alonso (right) of Spain and Felipe Massa of Brazil (left) take part in a winter training session in Lanzarote, Spain. Photo: Getty
These new cars will be pored over for hints of the key themes of the new season – and it will not just be to do with the cars.
At McLaren on Wednesday, the issue of Lewis Hamilton’s mindset will inevitably be raised after his wildly up-and-down season last year – indeed team principal Martin Whitmarsh has already delivered a robust, if familiar-sounding, defence of his driver in an interview last week.
Hamilton has kept a low profile over the winter, training in the US, and whether he can find the mental equilibrium to consistently access his very best form is already one of the talking points of 2012.
At Red Bull, Mark Webber says he has “had a good winter, recharging my batteries, and now I can’t wait to get going again”.
But can the Australian rediscover the form he showed in his title bid in 2010 and challenge team-mate and world champion Sebastian Vettel more strongly than he did last year?
Just as importantly, will Webber stay on at the team for 2013, or will he make way for either Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne, the Red Bull juniors going head-to-head at Toro Rosso, to prove they deserve a chance in the senior team?
Over at Mercedes, the pressure is on to start winning after two lacklustre seasons, while another question is whether Michael Schumacher will decide he wants to stay on beyond the end of his contract into 2013 - and will the team want him to?
Schumacher is so clearly a shadow of his former greatness and has only just begun to get on terms with team-mate Nico Rosberg, and even then only in races.
Already ex-F1 driver Gerhard Berger has said he cannot see his former rival continuing.
"I do not think he will extend his contract,” the Austrian told Auto Motor und Sport.
“He will be tired. I have to admit he drove better in 2011 than in 2010, especially in the second half of the season, and I can imagine he can improve even on that but still he has no chance against Rosberg.
“Schumacher will have to admit that, with an age over 40, it’s impossible to beat a young driver on the level of Rosberg.”
Ferrari, too, find themselves with serious questions hanging over the future of one driver – Felipe Massa – and a need to raise their game after a single win in 2011.
A lot hangs on the new car – and the early evidence is they have lived up to their promise to push the boat out in terms of aggressive design.
The veteran Italian technical journalist Giorgio Piola has produced one of his famous drawings based on leaked details of the new Ferrari.
Italian journalist Giorgio Piola has attempted to draw an image of Ferrari's 2012 Formula One car. Photo: Getty
“If the pictures are accurate,” BBC F1’s technical analyst Gary Anderson says, “Ferrari seem to have gone a different route by shortening the sidepods and having the crash structure (beside the driver) separate and in front of the sidepod.
“They’re trying to remove the blockage the sidepods create to the airflow coming off the front of the car.
“It’s a total concept thing – in that it is integral to the whole car design. So if it works, they’ve got one up on everyone else.”
It’s clear already, in fact, that the look of the new cars will attract even more attention than usual – and that’s because, as Anderson puts it, “the first thing that will stand out will be the ugly noses”.
These are the result of new rules that dictate lower noses to improve safety, but keep the height of the front bulkhead – the front of the chassis – the same.
A glimpse of these has already been seen on the new Caterham (formerly Lotus) – which features a kind of platypus look, with a long rectangular nose, ahead of an ugly lump on the chassis around the area of the front suspension.
The other major talking point will be how teams deal with the banning of last year’s must-have technology, exhaust-blown diffusers, where downforce was increased by blowing the exhausts along the rear floor of the car even when the driver was not pressing the accelerator.
Governing body the FIA has attempted to end this by stipulating that the exhausts must exit on top of the rear bodywork, well in front of the rear wheels, as well as heavily restricting ‘exotic’ engine maps.
But already there is talk of teams directing exhausts at the rear wing – either upper or lower – to try to increase downforce there.
“The exhaust acts like a compressor,” says Anderson. “It moves the air quite effectively, increasing the air speed, and that gives more downforce. The return will be small, but that’s always the case because the regs are so tight.”
This being F1, there is plenty to talk about – and that’s without touching on the politics, which will be intense as teams, the FIA and commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone negotiate a new Concorde Agreement, the contract that ties them all to F1 and which expires this year.
As ever there is a lot going on – and, as always, you can bet something else will emerge to surprise everyone, too.