Alonso the Alchemist: 2013 F1 season preview

Formula One cars are ugly – that is, before they are painted in their respective liveries.

Their skeletal shell is one of carbon fibre – a substance resembling a black synthetic cloth.

Had Fernando Alonso, in his carbon fibre Ferrari, actually pulled off his amazing assault on the 2012 F1 drivers’ championship, he would literally have turned his beastly car into gold – becoming an alchemist in the process.

So slow had the Spaniard’s scarlet machine been in pre-season testing, few had given him hope of getting into the points on a regular basis.

That Alonso led the drivers’ championship for much of the season, until the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel finally overhauled him, shows what a fierce competitor the man from Oviedo is.

This season, testing has flowed rather more smoothly for the Italian marque, and the hope is that they have finally given Alonso a car capable of exploiting his exceptional talent from the first Grand Prix in Australia this Sunday.

In theory, if Alonso had the ability to push a faster car all the way to the final race last season, he should be able to win it in a car which is vastly better than one year ago.

Formula One is never that simple though.

The ‘Prancing Horse’ will have to hurdle the imposing obstacle of Red Bull, who have fatally gored their opponents for the last three years to establish themselves as the dominant team in F1.

Their ‘lead’ driver, Sebastian Vettel, will be hunting for a fourth consecutive drivers’ title, and in Mark Webber he has a team-mate who is capable of winning any race on his day – despite the in-house nepotism built around his young colleague.

In McLaren, Alonso will also have cause for concern. The British team have elected to start afresh for 2013, rather than evolve a car that finished 2012 as the fastest on the grid.

Their thinking behind this move is that the new car will open up a new path of development which the old car lacked – and should their calculations materialise they will get stronger as the season wears on.

Despite losing Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes, McLaren have a powerful line-up, with Jenson Button and newcomer Sergio Perez both likely to excel in an era where looking after the delicate Pirelli tyres is key.

Then there is Lotus, a team who arguably conceive the most inventive cars on the grid. Having been pioneers of the tricky passive DRS system, the team based in Enstone is rumoured to have mastered it – a potentially crucial advantage in the race for the title.

Their driver line-up, of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean, remains unchanged for 2013 and their target of third in the constructors’ will depend on Grosjean’s ability to rid himself of the costly first-lap crashes that blighted his comeback season last year.

Mercedes too, seem to have made a step forward. Their car finished ‘fastest’ in pre-season testing – however the headline lap-times are to be taken with a pinch of salt as fuel quantities, setups and a number of other variants are religiously hidden by the teams (there is little way of knowing which car definitively looks quickest at this stage).

The addition of Hamilton also helps the German giants in their quest to bridge the gap to the ‘top four’, while his team-mate Nico Rosberg faces what is widely reckoned to be a career-defining season.

Aside from the top five teams, the midfield battle is microscopically close. Williams appear to have evolved their race-winning 2012 car into what is debatably the sexiest on the grid.

The sometimes maladroit Bruno Senna has been replaced by Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas – who outpaced 2013 team-mate Pastor Maldonado in several FP1 sessions last season – and the team certainly look ready to score consistent points.

Sauber and Force India are joined by Toro Rosso in the midfield race, with the latter looking likely to make a notable step up in performance from 2012, where they languished within the clutches of backmarkers Caterham and Marussia.

Sauber will hope that the exciting all-new partnership of Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez can bring instant dividends to a team that finished on the podium four times in 2012, while Force India need to improve on a season which was hallmarked in underachievement.

Scottish driver Paul di Resta is joined by Adrian Sutil, who returns to the sport following a one-year lay-off as a result of a GBH conviction, and their instant aim for 2013 is to score a podium finish.

Caterham and Marussia, meanwhile, have each brought in two new drivers as they try to stay afloat in Formula One’s money-guzzling environment.

Marussia were most visible in pre-season testing for their employment of ‘pay-drivers’ rather than their pace, as Timo Glock and Luiz Razia both lost contracts due to a lack of sponsorship – Razia rather more unfortunately so because of a last-minute U-turn from his financial backers.

They are replaced by British rookie Max Chilton and Ferrari academy prospect Jules Bianchi, whose rich reputation very nearly landed him a drive at Force India.

Caterham, like Nico Rosberg, face a defining season in the sport. Consistently finishing fastest of F1’s newest teams they have threatened, and failed, to catch the midfield and earn their first world championship point. If they are to show signs of progression their driver line-up of Charles Pic and rookie Giedo van der Garde must score that elusive point to keep their sponsors interested.

With testing indicating very little about what shape the grid will take in Melbourne, a unanimous verdict would be to say that the pack of 22 cars looks closer than it has ever been in recent seasons.

In that type of situation, the most consistent team and driver will usually come out on top to win the respective championships – an observation which favours F1’s resident alchemist Alonso.

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2013 F1 Seat Showdown: The Contenders

With testing for the new Formula One season due to begin in less than a month, there are still two seats available on the 2013 grid.

Only 11 teams and 22 drivers are expected to make the first test on February 5th at Jerez due to HRT’s apparent demise in the close season.

So far, only 20 drivers have been confirmed for next season and this has left an intense battle for the final two seats, with places at Force India and Caterham still available.

Let’s look at the contenders for each drive.

Force India

1. Jules Bianchi

The promising Frenchman is a member of Ferrari’s Driver Academy and drove for the British-based team in nine Practice 1 sessions during the 2012 F1 season.

Nico Hulkenberg’s move to Sauber has given him a chance to partner Paul di Resta and the 23-year-old is widely tipped to fill the vacancy created by Hulkenberg’s switch.

There is also a persistent rumour that Force India are looking to secure Ferrari engines for 2014 when major new regulations come into play, and Bianchi’s signature for 2013 could be a sweetener to such a partnership.

2. Jaime Alguersuari

The talented Spaniard drove in 46 Grand Prix for Toro Rosso between 2009 and 2011, becoming the youngest-ever driver in Formula One history at just 19.

His controversial departure from the team led to a testing role with F1 tyre supplier Pirelli in 2012, and it was thought his valuable knowledge of the newly-constructed 2013 tyres could have led to a seat with a big team next season.

However, such prospects failed to materialise and Alguersuari is now one of many drivers linked with Force India.

Despite decent financial backing, the 22-year-old is expected to miss out on the seat and has been in talks with teams in the popular German Touring Car Championship (DTM) about a 2013 drive.

3. Bruno Senna

The nephew of the late great Ayrton, Bruno stopped racing for 10 years after his death. This stunted his improvement as a driver, but his talent still endures. Coupled with hefty financial backing from Brazil, Senna is in with a good chance of taking the seat at Force India.

But the Brazilian will have to improve on his race performances for Williams in 2012, where a lack of practice time (Valtteri Bottas drove his car in several Practice 1 sessions) cost him in race trim.

Is also a candidate for the vacant seat at Caterham, where his vast sponsorship may prove irresistible.

Caterham

1. Vitaly Petrov

Having saved the team’s season in the final Grand Prix of 2012 in Brazil with a lucrative 11th place (securing them a cash windfall for 10th in the constructors’ championship), Petrov might have expected a quick offer of a drive from Caterham for 2013.

Instead, Caterham employed Marussia’s Charles Pic and the Russian is now fighting to save his F1 career. Significant backing from Russia and the added possibility of huge media and corporate attention in the run up to the inaugural Russian Grand Prix in 2014 makes Petrov an attractive prospect for the F1 minnows.

2. Giedo van der Garde

The Dutchman impressed during his six Practice 1 drives for the team in 2012, and despite an average GP2 season in which he finished 6th overall, van der Garde is a serious contender for a 2013 seat.

Like so many other drivers, he carries good financial backing. His age, 27, is a potential obstacle to a deal while his inexperience, allied with that of Pic’s, also hampers his chances of securing a 2013 spot, with Caterham unlikely to pick two drivers with only an aggregate of one season’s experience between them.

3. Heikki Kovalainen

The experienced Finn is unwilling to provide the millions that Caterham want to keep his seat for 2013. Having had three outstanding seasons with the team he has been discounted. Should the team wish to call on his knowledge again, he would provide the perfect balance for Pic’s unpolished talent, but he looks set to suffer the same fate as fellow veteran Rubens Barrichello.

My picks for remaining 2013 seats:

Force India: Jules Bianchi

Caterham: Vitaly Petrov