June 21st, 2012 (F1plus / Rob Myers).- It’s been an exciting and unpredictable opening seven rounds of the 2012 Formula 1 championship. The usual suspects – Alonso, Button, Hamilton, Vettel and Webber – have all won a race in the opening seven rounds of the season, and two unusual suspects – Maldonado and Rosberg – also have a victory apiece. This makes it seven winners from seven races and fans and media alike are speculating about whether we might see an eighth winner and, indeed, who that eighth winner might be.
With the teams finding it difficult to work out how the Pirelli tyres are going to behave at each race, and how to set up their cars to extract the optimum performance from those tyres, and eighth winner is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.
But who might be our eighth winner in 2012? Like everything else this season, winner number eight – if there is one – is tough to predict. In this article I look at the five drivers that I consider to be the leading contenders to be winner number eight, and assess their chances.
Let’s start with a driver that’s certainly had his share of bad luck in 2012: Michael Schumacher. The seven time Formula 1 world drivers’ champion is, in the third year of his ‘second career’ in Formula 1, finally in a car that’s capable of winning races. Indeed, the Mercedes AMG F1 W03 has already handed the team their first win since buying out Ross Brawn with Nico Rosberg’s first F1 career victory in China.
So, we know that the W03 is a fast car, which Schumacher himself demonstrated in Monaco qualifying with a brilliant pole lap (Schumacher actually started sixth once his five place grid penalty for his Barcelona crash with Bruno Senna had been applied), but what are Schumacher’s chances of driving it to victory? As I mentioned, Schumacher has been extremely unlucky this season, scoring a paltry two world championship points for two 10th place finishes in Malaysia and Bahrain, with five retirements. This compares very poorly against his team-mate who has a total of 67 world championship points and sits fifth in the drivers’ championship table.
Having said that, though, Schumacher’s run of bad luck simply has to run out at some stage. Retirements like the failed DRS that we saw at round seven in Canada are one-off’s and four out of Schumacher’s five retirements have come from mechanical/team failures that have had nothing to do with Schumacher himself (the notable exception being Spain).
Given that the W03 is already a race winning car and Schumacher, although no longer at the height of his powers, is still a fast driver, I believe all that Schumacher needs are the right conditions and a change of luck in order to be able to record his 92ndcareer Formula 1 victory in 2012.
The next contender is another Formula 1 world drivers’ champion who has returned to the sport after taking a break: Kimi Raikkonen. The 2007 champion returned to F1 this season, after two years in rallying, with the Lotus team.
As another former world drivers champion, Raikkonen is clearly a driver that’s capable of winning races in F1, as he has demonstrated 18 times before his two year break. But is Raikkonen still a driver that’s good enough to win and is the Lotus E20 a quick enough car to win in 2012? The answer to both of these questions is yes.
Raikkonen has already scored two podium finishes in 2012, with second place in Bahrain, swiftly followed with third in Spain. Indeed, the Finn could easily have won in Bahrain had he not been held up behind his team-mate, Romain Grosjean. Had the team ordered Grosjean to let his more experienced team-mate through, Raikkonen would have been able to catch eventual winner Sebastian Vettel more quickly, with tyres that had not been worked as hard. Whether this would have been sufficient to allow Raikkonen to take and retain the lead, we’ll never know, although it would certainly have increased his chances. Although Raikkonen has also had his fair share of less impressive results in 2012, he has clearly demonstrated that he’s still a quick driver. There’s no reason why, if Lotus can maintain pace with the other front running teams, Raikkonen can’t take his 19thcareer F1 victory in 2012.
The other Lotus driver, Romain Grosjean, must also be considered a contender for a race win in 2012. Like Schumacher and Raikkonen, Grosjean is another driver that is in his second stint in Formula 1, having returned after a break. However, that’s where the similarities end; Grosjean’s position is very different to the previous two contenders. Grosjean is not a F1 world drivers’ champion. At 26 years of age he’s still a relative novice, having competed in just 14 F1 races (his first stint in the sport lasted for just seven races, having failed to impress after replacing Nelson Piquet Jr part way through the 2009 season).
So, is the Frenchman capable of taking victory in 2012? The answer, as with the previous two contenders, is yes. Before returning to Formula 1 this season, Grosjean demonstrated his speed in GP2, winning the championship in 2011 – his first full year back in the F1 feeder series.
Although Grosjean has been somewhat erratic this season, having had three retirements, he has proved himself to be very capable Formula 1 driver. He sits just two points behind his far more experienced team-mate in the drivers’ championship and, just like his team-mate, he has scored two podium finishes in 2012, taking third in Bahrain and an impressive second in Canada with a one stop strategy.
Indeed, Grosjean would arguably have won the race in Montreal had McLaren attempted a one stop strategy for race winner Lewis Hamilton (as Ferrari did for Fernando Alonso, and Red Bull attempted for Vettel). So, assuming that Lotus can maintain development pace with their rivals, Grosjean is definitely a contender for victory this season.
Sergio Perez is the next of my possible 2012 race winners. Like Grosjean, Sauber driver Perez has yet to taste victory in his Formula 1 career but has sampled the podium finisher’s champagne on two occasions with a second place in Malaysia and a third in Canada.
Just like the two Lotus driver’s, Perez could already have won this season, having come extremely close to catching race winner Alonso’s Ferrari in Malaysia, before running wide and costing himself vital time. As a Ferrari development driver Perez is clearly a driver that is highly rated by one of Formula 1’s top teams. With two podium finishes this season, Perez has already shown us glimpses of his huge speed and potential.
The young Mexican has shown himself to be particularly adept and managing his tyres, making one stop strategies work extremely well when others have struggled to conserve their tyres. All of this adds up to demonstrate that Perez will almost certainly win races in his F1 career. Whether that happens in 2012 is another matter. Sauber have worked wonders to build a competitive car this season.
The C31 has shown itself to be fast and able to deliver consistent lap times, particularly in Perez’s hands, but there must be some question marks over whether Sauber can maintain the same development pace as some of their better funded rivals. For these reasons, I think that if Perez is going to deliver a victory in 2012, he will need to do it sooner, rather than later.
On to my fifth and final contender for victory in 2012. This driver is notably different to all of the other contenders. He is not a world drivers’ champion like Schumacher or Raikkonen, and he hasn’t come close to a top three finish like Raikkonen, Grosjean and Perez. So who is the fifth and final contender for victory in 2012? The answer to that question is Felipe Massa.
The Brazilian has proved himself perfectly capable of winning rases in his Formula 1 career, having taken the chequered flag 11 times. However, the last time that Massa won was at the 2008 Brazilian grand prix at Interlagos; the same race at which he lost out to Lewis Hamilton in the race for the world drivers’ championship.
Massa has also had a truly abysmal season so far, with a best finish of sixth in Monaco and just two other points finishes. He lies a lowly 14th in the drivers’ championship, a massive 75 points behind his team-mate, Fernando Alonso, who has completely dominated at Ferrari.
Massa has really struggled with a Ferrari F2012 that was pretty uncompetitive at the start of the season. While his team-mate was able to deliver results, notably winning at Sepang, despite the car’s deficiencies, Massa toiled, not scoring points until the fourth round of the season with a ninth place finish at Bahrain.
Why then is Massa a contender for victory in 2012? The simple answer is that Ferrari have managed to develop the F2012 to such an extent that it is now a genuinely quick car. Alonso demonstrated this with an impressive qualifying and race performance in Canada, qualifying third and eventually finishing fifth after the wrong strategy call when in contention to win the race.
Massa, too, has shown signs of improvement recently with sixth at Monaco, followed by 10thin Canada. Indeed, had it not been for an early spin at Montreal, Massa might have finished further forward. Massa’s qualifying performances have also improved in the last couple of rounds of the season, having failed to make it into Q3 before Monaco.
So, the improvement of the F2012 means that victory for Massa in 2012 is not beyond the realms of the possible. It is, though, beyond the realms of the probable. As I mentioned earlier, Massa has not won since the last race of 2012. Between that victory and now Massa suffered an unfortunate accident in Hungary in 2009 which meant that he sat out the remainder of that season. Many, including myself, would argue that Massa has not been the same driver since. These factors, along with Alonso’s pre-eminent position at Ferrari mean that we’re unlikely to see Massa win in 2012.
Having run through the five drivers that I think are most likely to be in a position to become our eighth winner in 2012, who do I think will be the driver to do it? If I had to make a prediction I’d go for Schumacher or Raikkonen on the basis of their past experience as grand prix winners and world champions. The truth of the matter is, though, that, given the unpredictable nature of Formula 1 in 2012, it’s all but impossible to predict what might happen in future races. We could quite easily see an eighth winner that’s not on my list of contenders. Who, for example, would have predicted a victory for Williams driver Pastor Maldonado in Spain on the basis of past results?
We’ll just have to wait and see what happens, I suppose. Round eight is at Valencia, a venue that has traditionally not delivered the most thrilling races in F1. Let’s hope that Valencia can deliver a great race in 2012 and, who knows, maybe even an eighth winner in eight races.