Well, well, I am looking forward to 2012. Or just let me refine that, I am looking forward to great racing in 2012! While the year may be variously heralded as Olympics, City of Culture this and Titanic Quarter that, it as much as I always think – where is the great racing going to be? And as ever, there are just so many things to think about, so many great potential great individual performances, flashpoints, conjecture, interest and technology. Just two little parts of the menagerie were confirmed recently, and they show how the battle between team mates can be so intense, and so fascinating. And the key link in both, is 2013.
Surely you meant 2012? No, no, no! In two recent driver moves, the state of contracts in 2013 adds intrigue to the inter team battle. These are at the Toro Rosso and Force India teams. Here we have had the recent announcement of Jean Eric Vergene and Daniel Riccardo at Toro Rosso, and Nico Hulkenburg and Paul di Resta at Force India. These are four great drivers, and would be fascinating battles in themselves. But what adds some petrol to the bonfire is the driver situation at Red Bull and Mercedes.
At Red Bull, Mark Webber has signed another contract extension, and as a great fan of his attitude, plain spoken demeanour, effort(and he was an absolutely lovely guy when I had the opportunity of meeting him and a very brief chat!), I really hope he nets a World Championship before he stops Formula One. And with his fighting attitude, it certainly still is possible – look at the age of Nigel Mansell, and the struggles he went through, before he pulled it off! But it remains that in a car where Sebastian Vettel smashed plenty of records (although not as near a superior car as the Williams FW14B in my opinion), Mark was only able to win one race, seemed to struggle with the less durable tyres, and when Vettel did not win, Webber could usually not. So the one year extension leaves Webber with all to prove in 2013. With Red Bull preferring drivers from within their own stable (of charging Bulls!), it means the battle between Riccardo and Vergene is potentially fascinating. The two are great drivers, and it will be great seeing them, and I’m glad they have both ended up on the grid, as they are just the kind of exciting, stellar young talent that is continually needed to sustain and strengthen the rich well of talent we already have in the sport. I have been excited to hear about the entry of Vergene, after his domination of British F3 and his competiveness in Renault World Series (honourably beaten by the talented Robert Wickens). I really feared that he might be relegated to a test driver role, which I always find disappointing as I think there should be more young talent in Formula One, and at times the lack of seats on the grid can mean a lack of driver changes and things getting a bit staid. Having said this, I think that Jaime Alguserauri, who really impressed me with his intelligent use of tyres this year, still deserves a seat. The problem is, many drivers still do – get those new teams on the grid! Personally I hope he can get his derrière in a Williams or a Caterham. But it looks like he will not be in the Red Bull team in the future, having had the strings cut by the parent mega-corporation, and now he has to cycle without stabilizers. I’m sure he will be very capable of this. But for Riccardo and Vergene, this prospect is tantalizingly open to them, if Webber does not pick his pace up. Predicting who will win in the tussle of the young tigers is almost impossible. In some ways Riccardo seems in prime position, as he has half a years experience in Formula One. To my mind during that truncuated run out he was outstanding. He was at HRT, up against Viantonio Liuzzi, the 2004 Formula 3000 champion, and still surely a decent peddler. Giving away half a seasons Bernie miles to the bestudded Italian, I watched Riccardo's progress closely, and I thought his performance was really good. After a couple of races to warm up, he outqualified Liuzzi four times and when he didn’t, it was often tight, a couple of tenths or thereabouts. By doing so, he may have permanently edged Liuzzi out of Formula One. His already impressive pedigree and knowledge of half the tracks puts him in a strong position. But, in the equipe de France corner, we have Vergene, who lacks this experience, but does possess obvious natural talent, pulverising the competition in British Formula Three, and coming within a whisker of the Renault World Series. He has been touted as a special talent, and overcoming Riccardo would be a big first tick in the box of potential future champion. With the added interest of wither of both possibly fighting for a seat in Adrian Newey’s magic carpet in 2013, I will enjoy monitoring how things are progressing at Toro Rosso.
I also see a similar effect at Mercedes and Force India. One thing that has become apparent is that the 2012 Mercedes might be the cracker of a car the board at Stuttgart have been waiting for. The recent hiring of Bob Bell, Aldo Costa and Geoff Willis, while potentially not having a full effect on the 2012 car, may make the 2013 vehicle a force to be reckoned with. Given that, I would posit that even after all the championships, controversies and records, 2012 is a vital year in the career of Michael Schumacher. Having done the hard slog of three years hard racing during his comeback, even at 43, would one expect Schumacher to hang up his helmet and retire to his sofa? Not a bit of it! If there is a championship winning car he will surely want it. But of course Mercedes will be under no contractual obligation to take him. If he doesn’t start beating Nico Rosberg more, or at least continue his upsurge of form in the second half of 2011, he could well be forcibly offered re-retirement. In that case, many drivers would want what could turn out to be a real plum seat, but one would think two prime contenders would be two men from another Mercedes powered team, Paul di Resta, with his Mercedes links, and the German Nico Hulkenburg, now managed by Schumacher’s long time manager Willi Weber. Both had impressive first seasons in the sport, Hulkenburg even sticking the Williams on pole during a memorable qualifying session in Brazil, and di Resta having some great races, especially in the first half of the year. So again, this will be a close battle, and it is hard to call a winner, and we have the added spice that the winner of it might find himself in the Mercedes in 2013 and give a real leg up to his career.
There are always a million different stories and sub plots to a Formula One race, and season, and it is always fun trying to spot them, or highlight them before the season starts. On the first look, the midfield ‘play off’ between the Toro Rosso and Force India drivers for a plum seat further up the grid will be one of them, and I very much look forward to taking a close look at it during 2012.