2016 F1 season preview

Anyone fancy a bit of Hamilton vs. Rosberg, or Mercedes vs. Ferrari?

Yes, the new F1 season is upon us almost as soon as the 2015 season ended.

After a couple of pre-season tests in Barcelona the teams have packed up and flown to Australia for the first race of the 2016 campaign.

But, easily the biggest question that has circulated the paddock over the winter surrounds the improvement of Ferrari – can they beat Mercedes to the championship title?

Are Ferrari catching Mercedes?

Pre-season testing indicated little in the way of outright pace, headline times were unreliable and there were different teams using different tyres, engine maps, fuel loads etc.

Even so, some number crunchers have concluded that Ferrari may have edged a little closer to their German rivals.

Mercedes are predicted to continue their dominance but if Ferrari have closed the gap, hiding their pace in testing, it presents a very attractive scenario for the season.

F1 has been starved of a two-team title battle for the past three seasons. Not since the infamous Vettel/Alonso scrap in 2012 have two drivers from two separate teams been contesting the title until the last race.

Naturally, the sub-plot to Mercedes’ superiority is the decline in attendances at some races and, worryingly, falling television audiences.

That Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton have been virtually untouchable during the hybrid era has been the final straw for some fans who are either upset at astronomical raceday tickets or the rising cost of pay-to-view television.

So, do Ferrari have more than their reputation on the line? Is their challenge of Mercedes vital to the future of the sport? With every passing race it certainly seems that way.

The answers will begin to become apparent when the 2016 season is established and we know where all the teams stand.

Grid hierarchy

It definitely appears as if Mercedes and Ferrari are the top dogs, while Williams may just be at the head of a tight-looking midfield involving Red Bull, Force India and Toro Rosso – who have switched to 2015 Ferrari power-units this season.

Much of the spotlight will be on the latter’s Max Verstappen, who had a rookie season to remember last year.

Then there is McLaren, who have been encouraged by the news that Honda have fixed their ERS deployment issues, gaining the team multiple tenths of a second per lap.

Can they mix it with the four midfielders?

It’s widely expected that American newcomers Haas may struggle while they sort inevitable teething problems out, but they have decent pace and should be aiming for the occasional points finish with Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez at the wheel.

Renault might be fighting with McLaren, while Sauber will have to beat off competition from the revamped Manor team who are hoping to rid themselves of the perennial backmarker tag.

New rules

Over the winter F1 rushed to get qualifying updated to a new elimination format. The system is similar to track cycling’s elimination race where the slowest competitor is eliminated after a given period.

Q1 will last 16 minutes, with elimination beginning in the final minutes and seeing one driver omitted every 90 seconds until seven are gone.

Q2 is 15 minutes with the same system, while Q3 sees the top eight places decided in a 14-minute shootout.

The tyre rules have also been given a shake-up, with Pirelli adding a new purple-walled ultra-soft compound to the mix alongside the new rule that allows teams and drivers to pick their tyres from the three slick compounds Pirelli will bring to each race.

Theoretically this could see Hamilton on medium tyres being chased down by Rosberg and Vettel on super-softs – which is exactly the type of exciting scenario F1 bosses intended to craft.

Strict new radio rules also come into force in 2016, meaning drivers will have to think problems out without the help and guidance of their race engineers.

So, it’s an F1 season with some good racing ahead of it. Have Ferrari closed the gap to Mercedes or will it be Hamilton against Rosberg for the third successive year?

Stay glued to your screens to find out.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 or WordPress: neilwalton089

 

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2015 Formula 1 season preview

Formula One has had no trouble in producing the headlines over the winter break, with many of them negative.

Among them is the continued ill-health of Jules Bianchi, with details of his recovery scarce.

Then there is the ongoing scenario at Sauber, where the Swiss team have somehow managed to hand contracts to three drivers with only two seats available.

It is greatly ironic that “sauber” is the German word for “clean”. This is a situation that could be called anything but clean.

With pay-drivers Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr announced as their two drivers and having appeared in all three winter tests, there seemed to be no issue.

However, along came Dutch test driver Giedo van der Garde to haunt the Sauber team.

Van der Garde had been offered a contract with the team for a 2015 race seat, for which he would pay several million pounds.

Then, Nasr and Ericsson came into the fray and offered more money than van der Garde and Sauber quickly snapped them up, abandoning the Dutchman and employing the newcomers.

Van der Garde took his case to a Melbourne court ahead of the first race and he won the right to drive for the team in Australia, with Sauber also failing in an appeal against the initial ruling.

To cut the legal jargon short, if Sauber do race with Nasr and Ericsson they will risk contempt of court – which would lead to several larger ramifications.

Of course, this is all rather embarrassing for a team run by Monisha Kaltenborn, who has a masters’ degree in International Business Law.

It is thought that van der Garde will replace Ericsson, if Sauber comply with the ruling, as Nasr’s sponsors are splashed on the entirety of the new car.

So, while the situation at Sauber is unwelcome, messy and off-putting there has also been a serious success story.

The saving of the Marussia team by Steven Fitzpatrick, boss of energy firm Ovo, has captured the attention of F1 purists.

To see a small team pull itself free from the quagmire of administration is the kind of positive story F1 needs.

The Fitzpatrick-led rescue of Marussia has seen the team renamed ‘Manor Marussia’ and they have quickly appointed British driver Will Stevens and Spanish youngster Roberto Merhi to race for them in 2015.

Fans should not expect too much from them, though. Although they have modified their 2014 car to comply with the 2015 regulations, they have had no time to test and develop the car.

That means the first four races will effectively be test sessions before the Spanish GP in May allows the team to fully unleash the 2015-spec car.

Moving on to the title battle for this year, there is only one team in with a chance of winning.

Mercedes have again crafted what looks to be the quickest car on the grid, with the only question surrounding which driver will win the world title.

Last season Lewis Hamilton romped to 11 wins in 19 races and it is in race trim where his team-mate, Nico Rosberg, must seek to improve if he is to turn his superior qualifying pace into victories.

Behind Mercedes the trio of Red Bull, Ferrari and Williams look evenly matched.

Red Bull had an inconsistent pre-season but they still look fast and in Daniel Ricciardo they have arguably the most aggressive racer on the grid.

Williams have looked very good on low-fuel runs and will need to cash in and score podiums to avoid a repeat of 2014 where it took them until round eight in Austria to clinch their first podium despite having the second-quickest car.

But it is Ferrari who appear to have made the biggest stride forward in performance.

The Italians have worked hard on increasing their engine power and newcomer Sebastian Vettel has indicated that the car is good to drive, with team-mate Kimi Raikkonen echoing his observations.

Behind that cluster of three, Force India and Lotus look like top ten regulars with the latter benefitting from a switch from Renault to Mercedes power in 2015.

Lower down the order, Toro Rosso, who are running with 17-year-old Max Verstappen and Formula Renault 3.5 champion Carlos Sainz Jr, will be gunning for points ahead of the troubled Sauber and reincarnated Manor Marussia.

Finally, we have McLaren.

Great hope spread throughout F1 that the team would be back to winning ways after signing a deal with Honda to rekindle their successful partnership of the late 80s and 90s.

Yet, the reunion has been an unhappy one with continued, niggling power-unit problems seriously restricting the running of the car during pre-season testing.

We know that Honda will get themselves sorted, it just remains to be seen if they can do so quickly enough to challenge the front four teams.

Added to the disappointing problems was the head injury to Fernando Alonso after a 134mph crash at Barcelona in the second test.

Alonso lost consciousness, sustaining concussion and amnesia, and later took the mature decision to miss the season-opening Australian GP. Kevin Magnussen, dropped for 2015 in favour of Jenson Button, will ironically deputise for Alonso.

Negative stories aside, we should be treated to another compelling year of racing between the Mercedes drivers and a tight battle behind them between three pretenders to their crown as world champions.

It’s Mercedes vs. Mercedes.

It’s Lewis vs. Nico: The second chapter.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Are F1’s ‘small’ teams doomed?

Formula One used to be so accessible.

Privateer teams would spring up almost overnight and become instantly competitive – at times the sport was dominated by young teams such as Tyrrell, McLaren, Williams and Benetton.

McLaren and Williams, of course, remain two of the most successful teams in history but the same cannot be said of newer, smaller teams, particularly in the last ten years.

In the space of six years four teams – Super Aguri, Toyota, HRT and Marussia – have gone completely bust.

Another, Caterham, is in need of a buyer to remain in the sport after entering administration, although they have been told they can run their 2014-spec cars in 2015.

Marussia are hoping to preserve their existence by auctioning off their assets and assuming their maiden name of Manor F1 for the 2015 season, providing they can secure new ownership.

Not even the carrot of a £40m bonus for finishing in ninth place has so far proved tempting for potential investors in the Marussia team.

It means that F1’s three newest teams, HRT, Marussia and Caterham could all be wiped out after just five seasons.

So the inevitable question must be asked: Are F1’s small teams doomed?

The current trend certainly doesn’t look promising.

Ten seasons ago, in 2005, four small teams were taken over, some suffering with various financial ailments.

Those teams were Minardi, Jordan, BAR and Sauber and their current guises are Toro Rosso, Force India, Mercedes and Sauber – but their journeys to those destinations have been largely protracted ones.

Of the four, Toro Rosso has been running longest – a total of ten years.

The former Jordan team has morphed into Midland, Spyker and now Force India, while BAR has changed to Honda, Brawn GP and now reigning champions Mercedes.

Sauber, meanwhile, were bought by BMW before the Germans phased themselves out of the sport, eventually returning to the Sauber name in 2009.

In 2010 further overhauls at Renault, now Lotus, and Virgin Racing, now Marussia, were applied.

So the trend of the smaller teams encountering serious financial problems seems to be strengthening rather than decreasing, and that came to a head this season.

A new era of green V6 hybrid-turbo engines has prompted a tripling in their expense from roughly £5m per unit to £10-£15m.

The cost of running a team in just one season has consequently soared to £75m per season, meaning teams are increasingly turning to pay drivers to help fund their existence.

Pastor Maldonado is the highest-paying driver on the grid, with his Venezuelan oil money boosting the Lotus budget by £30m each season.

However, the spotlight has recently switched to the visions of the self-nominated ‘big teams’ who have been pushing for three-car teams.

Red Bull boss Christian Horner, who himself has experience of building a team from scratch in lower formulae with Arden, was vocal in saying that small teams should not be in F1 if they couldn’t afford it.

It is Red Bull’s close alliance with Ferrari, McLaren, Williams and Mercedes that has forced the microscope upon them.

These teams operate on a significantly higher budget than the likes of Force India and Sauber, who have seemingly been cut adrift in a ‘survival of the richest’ scenario.

The share of prize money is also weighted towards the top teams, with Ferrari given a guaranteed $100m per season just for turning up.

Frenzied calls have been made to divide the $800m in prize money more fairly and, until this happens, no matter how unlikely, it is difficult to see how smaller teams can close the gap on the track and earn more prize money by merit only.

With this in mind, it is unsurprising that automotive titans like Toyota have appeared and then vanished from the sport in quick time.

Armed with a mighty budget and an ambitious strategy, the Japanese manufacturer tried and failed to first establish itself in F1 and then win races.

A tally of 13 podiums was a poor return on an eight-season campaign which splashed hundreds of millions of pounds during its being.

BMW also dipped their toes in the F1 water, but found the going tough despite earning a race win in 2008 courtesy of Robert Kubica in Montreal.

Honda also quit the sport in 2009, despite building a championship-winning car and selling it to Ross Brawn for £1.

Some experts have questioned the existence of new teams in F1 with the stories of Toyota, BMW and Honda in mind.

If their extensive budgets were not enough, how can new and smaller teams expect to survive?

That conundrum has not deterred Gene Haas, who is set to enter his own F1 team in 2016, having deferred his entry from 2015.

Haas can call on a budget drawn from an expansive and hugely successful NASCAR career, with his long-standing interest in F1 finally proving too tempting to resist entering his own team.

There are also rumours that the VW Audi group are researching and assessing the viability of their own entry in 2017, having been buoyed by the £1.8bn worth of television exposure gained by rivals Mercedes this season.

It is likely that both these new projects will be well-funded but, as seen with Toyota, that does not guarantee success.

Small teams in F1 will continue to be discriminated against by Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes, Williams and McLaren.

It is a reality that will endure until a compromise can be reached with either the distribution of prize money, or the yearly cost of running an F1 team.

The new green regulations have ironically repelled teams from the sport rather than attract them, so something has to budge.

Will that budging be the extinction of F1’s smaller teams, a fairer sharing of prize money or a reduction of costs?

At the moment the issue of money is poisoning the sport and with it, the smaller teams too.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

F1’s loss is Mark Webber’s gain

When drivers retire from Formula One, their powers are usually on the wane. This driver, though, timed his escape from an increasingly shackling sport to perfection.

For Mark Webber, F1 had long lost its purity and its ability to enable drivers to push to the limit of their car’s capabilities before his decision to switch to endurance racing with Porsche for 2014.

He had become increasingly frustrated after Pirelli moved to F1 to manufacture the sport’s tyres in 2011. Under a brief from F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone to encourage overtaking and more pit stops, Pirelli built tyres which degraded quickly – much to the abhorrence of the Australian.

Such a change forced drivers to nurse the cars lap-by-lap on race day, and Webber was among the fiercest critics of the new approach.

So much so that he once claimed qualifying to be the highlight of a race weekend – the only time when he could extract maximum pace from his car without fear of his tyres ‘falling off the cliff’.

The introduction of Pirelli, coupled with Red Bull’s mastery of the exhaust-blown diffuser in the same season made for a very disgruntled Aussie.

It seemed the tide would not turn, especially when his young team-mate Sebastian Vettel would later perfect the counter-intuitive use of the exhaust-blowing to romp to his second world title that year.

The German’s success, coming a year after Webber’s flirtation with his own world championship triumph, was particularly galling but he never relented in his persistent chase of Vettel, despite being ultimately powerless in seeing his greatest rival record his third and fourth titles in the following two campaigns.

When Webber moved to the Austrian-owned team in 2007, he had already notched his maiden podium for Williams in 2005 and scored two points for perennial backmarkers Minardi in his debut Grand Prix in Melbourne in 2002.

From the outset of his F1 career it was clear that Webber’s greatest strength was qualifying and he had already made the front row for Jaguar and Williams before taking his maiden pole position for Red Bull in 2009 at the German GP.

In an outstanding show of pace, Webber negated a drive-through penalty – given to him for a first-lap brush with Rubens Barrichello – to claim his maiden F1 win. The euphoric celebration over his in-car radio underlined just how much it meant to him.

The subsequent season was a mixture of highs and lows, and was also the beginning of his intense rivalry with Vettel.

By mid-season Webber had delivered commanding wins in Barcelona and Monte Carlo, but then came the British GP at Silverstone.

Red Bull had manufactured a new-spec front wing and fixed it to Webber’s car but, after Vettel damaged his old-spec wing in qualifying, the team took the decision to switch it to Vettel’s car instead.

The difference between having and not having the wing was only 0.1 seconds per lap, but it was the principle of the move that upset Webber the most. He was incensed by what he saw as the team’s favouritism towards Vettel.

Vettel duly took pole but Webber passed him at the start of the race and took a crushing win, delivering his infamous “not bad for a number two driver” message over the radio on the cooldown lap.

Another win in Hungary set Webber’s title charge up nicely and with three races left he was ideally placed.

But, in a wet inaugural Korean GP, disaster struck when he spun on a sodden piece of astro-turf, clattered the inside wall and was then hit by Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes.

With Vettel also retiring, Fernando Alonso took a vital win and with it the championship lead from Webber.

With five drivers going into the last race in Abu Dhabi with a chance of claiming the title, Red Bull firmly nailed their colours to the mast by deploying Webber, who had got ahead of Alonso, as a decoy.

The genius of the idea brought them into the pits at the same time, with Ferrari covering Webber’s move as Alonso’s main challenger. The pair rejoined in heavy traffic and, with overtaking seemingly impossible, Vettel took the win and the title.

Webber had been used, and he was livid.

So began his misery. The next season saw him win just one race in a campaign dominated by his team-mate, while reliability issues in 2012 thwarted his title challenge, although he registered impressive wins at Monaco and Silverstone for the second time in his career.

This season has been equally frustrating, Webber enduring further difficulties with the Pirellis and yet more reliability gremlins, but he managed to claim three pole positions before the end of the season to prove his pace over one lap still existed.

The outpouring of love and fondness for Webber from his colleagues, notably Alonso – the pair began their F1 careers together at Minardi – was a reminder of his popularity, which is reflected in his outspoken view on the sport.

Some of the most famous quotes in F1 are attributed to the Australian, and they are partly a reason for his status as a fan’s favourite.

On his disgruntlement at the burgeoning use of “Mickey Mouse” street tracks like Valencia, Webber took the chance to say the Spanish circuit was akin to “a Tesco car park”.

Valencia, of course, would provide excitement of an unwanted kind in 2010 when he somersaulted into the air after colliding with Heikki Kovalainen on the back straight.

That he landed safely and escaped unhurt was a minor miracle but he bounced back to win the next race at Silverstone, despite the front-wing controversy.

Other famous quotes include his description of Romain Grosjean as a “first-lap nutcase” after the Lotus driver shunted into him at the start of the 2012 Japanese GP, and earlier this year in an interview on Top Gear, Webber was asked by Jeremy Clarkson if he had ever been tempted to punch arch-rival Vettel.

His reply was typically memorable: “My Dad always said you shouldn’t hit boys, mate.”

Of course, the relationship between the two had been tempestuous ever since the Malaysian GP.

A pre-race agreement, coded ‘multi-21’, was designed to protect whichever Red Bull driver held the lead after the first pit-stop.

That honour fell to Webber and, safe in the knowledge that Vettel wouldn’t challenge him, he dialled his engine down to preserve his car in the heat and humidity of Sepang.

Vettel began to close in on him though, and defied desperate team orders over the radio to pass the Australian for what would prove to be the first of his thirteen victories this season.

Webber was enraged, but had further cause for irritation when Vettel said he would do the same again during a press conference at the next race in China.

Their rivalry truly ignited in 2010 when Vettel veered across Webber’s path in the Turkish GP, while the pair had earlier been involved in a collision in 2007 when Vettel smashed into Webber at Fuji, depriving them both of podium positions in horribly wet conditions.

The incident provoked more memorable remarks from the New South Wales- born veteran who, in reference to Vettel’s inexperience, stated that, “It’s kids isn’t it…you do a good job and then they fuck it all up.”

Webber will be remembered not only for his straight-talking ways, but his infamous lack of luck and recent poor getaways off the line.

Despite those setbacks, Webber has a glittering set of statistics to look back on his time in the sport ahead of his new career with Porsche in the World Endurance Championship.

He triumphed with nine victories, claimed 42 podiums – the last coming in his final race in Brazil – and secured 13 pole positions in his 215-race career, amassing 1047.5 points and setting 19 fastest laps.

Webber is not the type to fuss about such things, but at the time of his exit from F1 he was placed in the top twenty drivers of all time. “Not bad for a number two driver.”

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Women in Formula One

Women in Formula One – it’s the topic on everyone’s lips in the motorsport community.

This morning, the subject was elevated further into the public domain with the patronising comments of Sir Stirling Moss.

In an interview with BBC Radio 5live Moss, 83, said on the prospect of women competing in F1: “I think they have the strength, but I don’t know if they’ve got the mental aptitude to race hard, wheel-to-wheel.”

Such comments are not only unnecessary, they are fundamentally flawed.

There are several women competing in motorsport’s most famous disciplines – notably Danica Patrick, who earlier this season became the first woman to take pole position for the Daytona 500 – NASCAR’s biggest race.

Patrick, who currently drives for the Stewart-Haas team, also became the first woman to lead a lap in the Daytona 500 and went on to finish eighth, despite entering the final lap in third place.

Patrick, 31, is also a former IndyCar driver – and a very successful one at that.

In 2008, she became the first woman to win an IndyCar race, securing victory at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit in Japan.

She also earned the rookie of the year accolade in 2005, while also showing her consistency by boasting the record for the number of consecutive IndyCar races finished – which stood at 50 before she switched to stock car racing in 2012.

Fellow female racing driver, Britain’s Katherine Legge, 32, also competed in IndyCar during the 2012 season, but she was cruelly replaced at the Dragon Racing team for 2013 despite having signed a two-year contract to race for them.

Her sponsors, TrueCar, took the decision to sign Colombian driver Sebastian Saavedra for 2013 despite entering the sport looking to sustain their Women Empowered initiative the year before.

TrueCar’s sudden change of heart has been viewed by many critics as a dishonest way of breaking in to IndyCar – and now Legge has been left without a drive this season.

Legge undoubtedly has the skill to drive at the highest level of single-seater racing in the USA, but this development leaves her future IndyCar career in jeopardy.

However, the future for women in Formula One, motorsport’s highest level of competition, looks altogether brighter, despite today’s comments from Moss.

Legge tested a Minardi car in 2005, becoming the first woman to do so for three years, and since then Spanish driver Maria de Villota and Scotland’s Susie Wolff have both driven an F1 car in testing format.

Sadly, de Villota lost her right eye in a freak accident during a test with F1 minnows Marussia last year, but the probability of Wolff – a development driver for Williams – driving competitively in F1 is much higher.

Wolff, who is married to Mercedes big cheese Toto Wolff, has completed seven seasons in German Touring Cars (DTM), with a career-best finish of seventh for Persson Motorsport – a privateer team which has seen good success, counting current F1 driver Paul di Resta and McLaren test driver Gary Paffett among its former employees.

However, sceptics of Wolff’s involvement in F1 claim that she has not done enough to warrant her place within the Williams setup, and that her powerful husband is putting his clout behind her in her bid to race in F1.

Such opinions seem unsubstantiated, but she will need to impress Williams – who currently employ Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas in F1 – to earn a drive in a future season.

One driver who is also turning heads with her performances is 18-year-old Dutch driver Beitske Visser, who last week announced that she had been signed onto Red Bull Racing’s junior team.

Red Bull have claimed both the drivers’ and constructors’ titles in the past three seasons and are the dominant force in F1.

They also have two graduates of the junior team – Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne – racing in their second F1 season for sister team Toro Rosso.

Visser will look to maintain her impressive results in the ADAC Formel Masters series, where she recorded two victories, as she bids to become only the sixth woman to earn an F1 contract.

Of the previous five, just two have qualified sufficiently to start a race.

Those two drivers are Italians Maria Teresa de Filippis and Lella Lombardi, who is the only woman in history to have scored points in an F1 race.

That success came at the horrific 1975 Spanish Grand Prix where Lombardi, racing for March, finished sixth in a race that was abruptly curtailed by the death of five spectators following a big crash involving Rolf Stommelen, who sustained a broken leg, wrist and two cracked ribs.

As the race finished before half distance, the points were halved meaning that Lombardi received just 0.5 points for sixth instead of the usual one.

De Filippis, meanwhile, was the subject of additional comments from Moss this morning, with the 16-time race winner claiming in debasing fashion that he used to “blow a kiss” to de Filippis if ever he lapped her, later adding that “she knew there was a race going on around her and she’d keep her eye on the mirrors and she’d always pull over.”

Moss and his comments have provoked angry reaction from women and feminists in and outside of the sport, with Wolff claiming his opinions made her “cringe”, before stating that she is part of a “different generation.”

It appears that Moss is in the minority with his views, particularly as several women are now involved in the sport on merit.

Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn will, in future, no longer be the sole female team principal on the grid, as Claire Williams, daughter of founder Sir Frank, is being given a more involved role at Williams with a view to running the team when he is no longer capable.

Add Wolff and Visser to the equation and there is a good possibility of F1 welcoming a female driver to the sport for the first time since 1992.

Whilst it is extremely unlikely that Patrick and Legge will be attracted to F1 to race for a small team due to the lucrative positions they find themselves in stateside, their presence in motorsport should serve as inspiration alone to a new generation of female drivers – one or more of whom could make it into Formula One in the future.

There is no doubt that women can and are driving at the highest levels in motorsport, but the moment when a woman competes full-time in F1 is merely a matter of when, not if – and rightly so.

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.

Is Ferrari’s legendary reputation in Formula One fully merited?

Ferrari. The name synonymous with the scintillating sport of Formula One. For many fans their existence on the grid is reason alone to watch one of the world’s most exciting sports. Having been an integral and prominent constructor from the very first World Championship in 1950, and the only one to have featured in every season since its inception, few people could doubt how important Ferrari is to both the history of the sport and indeed its future.

Yet, when you deeply examine the history of the sport, including drivers’ titles and constructors, some cracks begin to appear in the revered standing of the famous Italian marque.

Starting at the very beginning of Formula One history, Ferrari were immediately a big team and were always challenging for wins and podiums. Alfa Romeo, however, dominated the first two seasons in 1950 and 1951 with Giuseppe Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio respectively. Alfa subsequently pulled out of the sport and a major change of rules for the 1952 season to Formula Two specification was designed to avoid a Ferrari landslide. That failed dramatically.

For the next two seasons Ferrari, who had a successful Formula Two setup prior to the rule change, won the title with the legendary Alberto Ascari. They dominated in ’52 and ’53 with Ascari winning all six races he entered in ’52 and winning a further five in ’53.

Ferrari would not have it all their own way in 1954, however, as the emergence of Mercedes as a powerhouse and Ascari’s switch to Lancia for financial reward saw them beaten to the title. Ascari had endured a frustrating season that year, waiting for Lancia to get their car ready in time, and he would not be able to defend his title, instead watching Fangio race to his second world crown.

The following year was a horrific season for the sport, and one which still resonates to this day. At the Monaco Grand Prix, Ascari crashed his Lancia into the harbour and escaped with minor injuries. Just four days later, in a testing accident at Monza, he died. It is known that Ascari drove in that test without a helmet, although the exact cause of the crash which killed him will never be known.

Ascari’s death came in the same year as the Le Mans 24 Hours tragedy in which 80 people died. It was a dark year for motorsport, and too dark for some. Mercedes withdrew from racing altogether whilst Gianni Lancia, who was close friends with Ascari, was so distraught at his death that he signed his entire team over to Ferrari. This was to be a significant move.

The Lancia’s had been widely tipped as title-winners in 1956 with their innovative design and super-quick performance. Such was Ferrari’s confidence in them they entered Lancia’s cars under their name and ‘Prancing Horse’ logo and won the title with Fangio.

Fangio left them the following season for Maserati where he won his fifth and last title and Ferrari retaliated by signing British driver Mike Hawthorn in 1958. His team-mate, Peter Collins, also British, died in a crash at the infamously dangerous Nürburgring and, after Hawthorn won the title for Ferrari, he quit before tragically dying in a road accident a short time after.

Ferrari’s progress went into remission over the next few seasons as they were overhauled by a number of new and fast British constructors with a more powerful rear engine configuration. They would not win the title again until 1961 when new 1.5 litre engine regulations were introduced. USA driver Phil Hill won the title, but only after more tragedy when German driver, and championship leader, Wolfgang von Trips, died in a crash at the steep-banked Monza.

In 1962, Enzo Ferrari’s staff walked out on him and he was forced to enter old cars into the championship. It was an unmitigated disaster for the team as the British constructors continued to improve and the Italian giants were soundly beaten.

Ferrari owed much to the emerging talent of John Surtees in 1964 when they took both the drivers and constructors titles. Surtees became the first man to win the World Championship on two wheels and four wheels, having previously been a motorcycling World Champion.

The British teams had gathered strength though and Lotus, led by the ambitious Colin Chapman, were chief architects of Ferrari’s downfall with their revolutionary cars which put speed before safety. Other British teams, in the shape of Brabham and Tyrrell, played their part in dominating the next decade of racing and it was only in 1975, eleven years after their last title, that Ferrari next tasted success with the Austrian driver Niki Lauda.

Lauda was to suffer horrific burns in a crash at the Nürburgring during the 1976 season and, despite making an astounding comeback just six weeks later, lost the title to McLaren’s James Hunt in the final GP of the season at Suzuka. Ferrari did win the constructors title though and, in 1977, despite not having the best season, Lauda regained the title for Ferrari in a triumph of consistency over speed.

Lauda then left for Brabham after being replaced by Gilles Villeneuve, a quick young French-Canadian. Villeneuve enjoyed a popular status amongst fans for his driving style and, although he never won a title, was considered to be a Ferrari legend.

Jody Scheckter, a highly-regarded South African driver, was signed to partner him and pipped Villeneuve to the 1979 title in a double-triumph for Ferrari who had comfortably sealed the constructors’ title in the same year.

The subsequent 1980 season was perhaps one of Ferrari’s worst ever. They lost ground in the continuously evolving race for development and came tenth in the constructors’ title having scored just eight points.

Ferrari would not win another drivers title until 2000, after 21 years of being ruled over by the dominant McLaren and Williams teams. They did manage three constructors’ titles in that barren period, but they were not enough for a team of Ferrari’s wealth and ambition.

Their luck started to change in 1999, when they built a seriously competitive car for double world champion Michael Schumacher to drive. But, when he broke his leg in a crash at Silverstone, McLaren driver Mika Hakkinen won the title ahead of Schumacher’s team-mate Eddie Irvine.

Schumacher would have his day though, going on to win five consecutive drivers and six constructors crowns with the dominant Italian team as years of frustration in their pursuit of glory were washed away triumphantly – almost as easily as they brushed aside the competition.

French manufacturer Renault then halted the Italian charge, winning back-to-back titles with Fernando Alonso before Kimi Raikkonen stole the title at the last GP of the 2007 season in Brazil from McLaren to give Ferrari their sixth ‘double title’ of a distinctly red-liveried decade.

Since then, Ferrari have only won a solitary constructors title in 2008 (although it was their seventh of the decade) and have hampered themselves with a succession of complex and ambitious, yet fruitless, car designs as they continue their passionate quest for success in Formula One.

So, having looked at the highs and lows of Ferrari’s participation in Formula One, it has to be said that not only do they deserve their reputation in the sport as a result of their colourful and captivating history, but also on the basis of their achievements within the sport.

Although they have been massively inconsistent, with periods of domination often followed by unprofitable and hapless spells of drought, they were always searching for wins and success – winning was their vocabulary, their language. Their fifteen drivers titles and sixteen constructors titles may not statistically carry a better win percentage than other famous teams like Williams and McLaren, who have not been involved in the sport since its inauguration, but the sheer scale of contribution to the sport that Ferrari has been responsible for is, perhaps, immeasurable.

Ferrari’s intrinsic value to F1 is incalculable and there is a magnetic love for them across the world which illustrates just how significant and resounding their impact has been throughout the 62 seasons that Formula One has spanned. Historically they are priceless and their success is unrivalled. They are Formula One royalty – the very embodiment of the sport – and their legendary reputation is unquestionably deserved.