F1 2012 Taking Shape

Posted on 11 August, 2011

Formula One team’s have been rather busy lately getting themselves ready for the 2012 season. It may seem quite early, but with Red Bull having all but sown up both the drivers and constructors championships, it is unsurprising that teams are now beginning to focus on changes that will be required for them to be able to mount a better challenge in 2012.

First came the realisation that teams would not have to bother with their European breakdown cover packages in 2012, with the European Grand Prix in Valencia proving the remarkable reliability of modern Formula One cars as all 24 drivers saw the chequered flag. Then teams found out that not all of the 2012 races would be broadcast on terrestrial television in the UK, something which may have significant ramifications on their sponsorship agreements.

However, it is the line up of drivers and technical personnel which are of the largest significance for teams in terms of determining their ultimate performances. We therefore take a look at the changes that Red Bull’s key rivals are planning for 2012 and the impact that these alterations may have.

The woeful performance of the F60 Italia at the Spanish Grand Prix in May prompted Ferrari to replace technical director Aldo Costa with former McLaren man Pat Fry. The Englishman has been tasked with creating a more adventurous attitude in the design office of the Italian team, with high level figures alleged to have blamed Costa’s conservative style for the squad’s early season performance.

First signs have been positive, with the Fry led design office eradicating the wind-tunnel correlation problems which resulted in many of Ferrari’s early season upgrades being duds. This has led to a gradually improvement in the cars performance, with Ferrari now believed to be as fast, if not faster, than Red Bull in high speed corners. Alonso proved this with the team’s first win of the season at Silverstone.

Di Montezemolo and Alonso have spoken of a radical departure for the team in terms of the design of its 2012 car; while Stefano Domenicali is promising to shift focus to the new car in September in order to make sure that Ferrari are capable of winning races right from the start of the season in 2012. Things are certainly looking good for Ferrari in 2012.

Following the trend of recent years, McLaren followed up a strong car with a bad egg. The 2011 McLaren was initially a disaster which was over two seconds per lap off the pace of Red Bull. However, a last minute pre-season update transformed the car, allowing Button and Hamilton to challenge for wins in the early season races. Nevertheless, one can not help but wonder what the team might have achieved had it started testing in February with the car that it took the Melbourne, which was ultimately the package that they admit they should have stuck with rather than experimenting with complex ‘octopus shaped exhausts’.

However, the one-off banning of ‘blown diffusers’ at Silverstone left McLaren lagging behind, highlighting the fundamental flaws the chassis has carried throughout the season. McLaren has conceded that its decision to split its design force into two rotating teams has failed, with the same group ultimately not producing the goods with either 2009 or 2011 cars. Whether or not reverting to a conventional system will work will not be known until next season.

However, is the real reason for McLaren’s problems a lack of superstar technical staff like Red Bull’s Adrian Newey, who coincidentally designed the last McLaren car to win the constructors championship? If so, McLaren don’t seem to be doing much about it, which could leave them struggling to retain the services of superstar drivers Button and Hamilton past 2012.

In many ways, Mercedes has been the disappointment of 2011. It entered the season aiming for race wins and said that things couldn’t get any worse than 2010. However, it actual has been, with the team failing to score a single podium finish in the opening 11 races of the season, whereas as in 2010 it already had three 3rd places under its belt. Many excuses have been given for this, but Ross Brawn was ultimately forced to concede that the development potential of the car had been exhausted at round ten in Germany and announcing that focus would now shift to a whole new design for 2012.

Former championship winning designer Bob Bell has been brought in from Renault, and this would appear to be a shrewd move. Under Bell’s leadership the Renault team won two championships with Alonso in 2005 and 2006 despite being handicapped by having a much smaller budget than either McLaren of Ferrari. Mercedes Benz has no such problems, and there is no reason why they can not be a force to be reckoned with in 2012.

The team’s driver line-up is likely to remain the same, with Rosberg not really having a better option and Schumacher looking to reduce the damage to his reputation which has been caused by his comeback. However, the Schumacher of new is not the race winning force he once was and Rosberg has missed to many opportunities for strong finishing positions to be classed in the same league as Alonso or Hamilton; both of whom often finish to in positions above where there car deserves to be. This could ultimately prove to be the teams undoing once it gets a car capable of fighting for wins.

Renault started the season with a quick, innovative and nimble little car that allowed them to take podium finishes in the opening two races of the year and establish themselves as Red Bull and McLaren’s main opposition ahead of Ferrari despite the loss of their lead driver Robert Kubica in a rally accident in February.

However, since then performances have dropped off significantly and the team has only managed to score four points in the last three races. The team is finally beginning to shows the cracks under the surface, with the confused management structure (the team is owned by investment firm Genii Capital who are allegedly keen to off load the team as quickly as possible without spending too much money on keeping them competitive) and loss of key personnel like Robert Kubica and Bob Bell all having contributed to this fall from grace.

Even if Kubica is physically capable of coming back in 2012, it is difficult to see the team going anywhere but backwards. New technical director James Allison is highly respected, but the team has almost looked like it has been standing still over the course of the season due to a lack of effective car upgrades. Is this a prelude of what is to come in 2012?

Williams Renault
The Williams Renault partnership is legendary, winning five constructors and four drivers’ championship during their eight year partnership which ended in 1997. However this is not the Williams of old, with the team having recorded its worst ever start to a season in 2011 with just four points to its name. Williams will therefore be pleased to have off-loaded the Cosworth powerplants, and the return to Renault power can only be a good thing for the team.

Poor performances have also led to the sacking of current technical director Sam Michael, and the appointment of former McLaren man Mike Coughlan, as well as former Toyota aerodynamicists Mark Gillan and Jason Sommerville. The appointment of these three men is sure to move the team forward, but the wisdom of sacking Michael has been lost on many. The team may not have achieved much under the Australian’s direction, but Frank Williams himself recently admitted himself that this was more to do Michael being overloaded with work rather than a lack of abilities.

On the driver front, the team is relying on rookie Pastor Maldonado for money from his sponsor PDVSA, despite there being more capable pilots available. It is therefore likely Williams will retain its current driver line up with Maldonado again partnering Rubens Barrichello. Disposing of Barrichello’s services would be hugely unwise at a time of restructuring when it is relying on the Brazilian’s masses of experience for guidance.