With the 2012 Formula One season about to get going this weekend, the championship battle this year will be a three-way fight between Red Bull, McLaren and Mercedes.
This is the view of highly respected F1 commentator Gary Anderson, who joined the BBC team this season as its technical analyst. And while some fans, especially those who root for Ferrari, might not like his conclusions, there's no reason to doubt Anderson's skill at picking a winner.
Ferrari fans might be a bit miffed by Anderson because his initial feeling for the 2012 season is that the Scuderia has made a huge blunder in its decision to use the pull-rod front suspension in F1 for the first time in more than a decade. The usual configuration is a push-rod, which gives more flexibility and helps the team make more subtle adjustments to the suspension.
That decision, he submitted, means Mercedes will likely overtake the scarlet cars as the No. 3 team on the grid in 2012.
Anderson spent 12 seasons in the top echelon of motorsport engineering as a technical director for Jordan, Stewart and Jaguar. He also worked with Reynard in the U.S. in 2001, when the chassis won its last CART title.
Racing enthusiasts should not miss Anderson's commentary; simply put, his insight is golden and he has the uncommon knack of being able to explain the most complex technical concepts in plain language to almost anyone.
Behind the four front-runners, it's likely that the midfield will see a fight between Force India, Lotus (previously known as Renault), Sauber and Toro Rosso, with Williams and Caterham (previously known as Team Lotus) trailing. Marussia and HRT will battle it out at the rear, as they did in 2011.
This year will involve a lot of long-haul trips for the teams. They begin the 20-race season on Sunday, in Melbourne, Australia, and end the racing calendar in late November in Brazil. The Canadian Grand Prix is June 10 at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.
F1 will also be trying to rekindle interest in grand prix racing in the U.S. with a November stop at the Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Tex. It will be the first U.S. race for F1 since the sport left Indianapolis following the 2007 season.
It might be a good year for F1 to try to crack the U.S. market, since the talent level at the top has never been deeper.
For the first time in the history of F1, there are six world champions in the field: Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull (2010, 2011), McLaren's Jenson Button (2009) and Lewis Hamilton (2008), Ferrari's Fernando Alonso (2005, 2006), Michael Schumacher of Mercedes (1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004), and Kimi Räikkönen of Lotus (2007). The enigmatic and sometimes erratic Räikkönen makes his return after a two-year hiatus to go rally racing.
Also back is the drag reduction system (DRS) which allows drivers to flatten the rear wing at designated areas on the circuit, giving them an extra bit of speed to pass. And speaking of passing, one of the most interesting changes in 2012 is the rule to stop drivers from returning to the racing line after they make a move to defend against a pass attempt. Call this one the “Michael Schumacher Rule,” since it was adopted after the former champion was roundly criticized for transforming his Mercedes into a wheeled slinky in an attempt to keep a faster Hamilton behind in last year's Italian Grand Prix.
While the no-blocking rule is new, some drivers feel it won't have a huge effect on the action.
“I don't think anything has changed, to be honest,” Vettel said.
“Yes, there's a little bit more in writing but I always found that there's a code of honour, if you like, or a gentlemen's agreement. If you're racing someone, I think you are allowed to race him hard but you should always give him enough room.”
Ironically, if Anderson is right about his predictions — and he likely is — Hamilton and Schumacher will find themselves battling on track again this season, perhaps for wins. That said, the Red Bulls look quick again and with double world champion Vettel at the wheel, it's a good bet he will be the driver to beat. In contrast, his teammate Mark Webber will be looking to rebound after a disappointing year in 2011, when he was humbled by Vettel.
It would also be a mistake to count out Button, who proved last year that he was more than a match for Hamilton with equal equipment. In addition, many feel Button is now the McLaren team leader. Nico Rosberg also looks set to have a breakout year at Mercedes, after a solid performance in 2011 when he outscored Schumacher for the second consecutive season. Depending on how quickly Räikkönen can get comfortable in his new car, he might surprise with a win in the Lotus.
In addition to the 2007 world champion, other drivers back in race seats in F1 after short absences are Romain Grosjean (Lotus), Nico Hülkenberg (Force India) and Narain Karthikeyan and Pedro de la Rosa (HRT). The two new drivers on the grid in Melbourne will be Charles Pic of Marussia and Toro Rosso's Jean-Éric Vergne.
Gone are 19-season veteran Rubens Barrichello, who was not re-signed by Williams and joined KV Racing in IndyCar, and Jarno Trulli, who was pushed out at Caterham after a 15-year F1 career. Trulli was replaced by Vitaly Petrov, who lost his seat at Lotus to Räikkönen. In addition, Toro Rosso dumped Sébastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari, HRT dropped Vitantonio Liuzzi, Jérôme d'Ambrosio left Marussia, and Adrian Sutil is gone from Force India. Daniel Ricciardo moves from HRT to Toro Rosso while Bruno Senna left Lotus for Williams.
The Lotus name is now solely used by the former Renault team after a deal was struck with Team Lotus, now called Caterham after owner Tony Fernandes bought the car company. Virgin racing is now known as Marussia after the Russian supercar manufacturer took control of the team at the end of 2011.
While the off-season was a swap meet for much of the field when it came to team names and drivers, there were no changes in the top four teams from last year.
The only big risk taken at the pointy end of the grid seems to be Ferrari's new front suspension configuration. And, while that might mean the scarlet cars will not be up to the task in 2012, all is not lost for the rabid Ferrari fans because they have Alonso on their side, Anderson insisted.
“I wouldn't be that surprised to see Alonso in the top six on the grid in Melbourne — when push comes to shove, there is no-one better at dragging a lap out of a less-than-willing car,” he concluded in his BBC column.
F1 on TV
With a few days to go to before the first grand prix of 2012, TSN finally announced its F1 schedule, which includes all the 20 races.
Most grand prix will be shown live on the main TSN channel with the exception of qualifying and the race for the three grands prix in July — British, German, and Hungarian (they will be shown on TSN2) and the inaugural U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Tex., which will be tape delayed on TSN2 at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 18. The Austin F1 race will get bumped by the NASCAR Sprint Cup season finale Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The Australian Grand Prix opens the 2012 season bright and early for Canadian fans on Sunday with the race broadcast starting at 1:55 a.m. (EDT). Qualifying is Saturday morning at 1:55 a.m. (EDT).
Canadian fans will hear the BBC feed, which has play-by-play man Ben Edwards with colour commentator and retired F1 driver David Coulthard next to him in the booth. Former F1 driver Martin Brundle, who has been part of the feed into Canadian homes since 1997, has moved to U.K. broadcaster Sky Sports and will not be on the TSN feed.
Fans looking to hear a more familiar play-by-play voice may want to download a world radio app for their mobile device or tablet computer and listen to the BBC Radio 5 Live feed, which will feature James Allen's crisp and always insightful call of the racing action.
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Correction: An earlier online version of this story contained incorrect information about the start time for the Australian Grand Prix. It has been fixed.