Four races to define the future

Mark Webber Australian GP 2012 © James Moy Photography

Mark Webber
Australian GP 2012
© James Moy Photography

This time next week I’ll be somewhere over the Indian Ocean on one of Emirates’ finest, en route to Melbourne for the start of what promises to be a fascinating Formula 1 season. With stability in the technical regulations we have a situation where the gaps between the top teams should, theoretically, be decreasing. Competitiveness should be even higher than last season. And 2012 was hardly boring.

Of course it is futile to try and read too much into testing, but even the teams themselves are predicting that the opening rounds of the 2013 season are going to be wide open.

With that in mind, the teams are going to find themselves with a tough decision to make come Barcelona.

You see, Barcelona and the start of the European season is usually the time at which the teams bring their first major upgrades of the season. It’s the time when the big push towards the championship begins. But in 2013 Barcelona will also signify another, far larger juncture. This year, Barcelona will mark the cut off point at which the vast majority of teams decide that they will either keep pushing on with their 2013 programs and fight for the title, or switch the vast majority of their attention to their 2014 designs.

Charles Pic - Caterham Barcelona testing 2013 © James Moy Photography

Charles Pic – Caterham
Barcelona Testing 2013
© James Moy Photography

Some of the smaller teams have made it clear that their development schedule for 2013 has already been established. They will have specific developments introduced periodically throughout the season. These developments have already been agreed and there will be little deviation from this path. The story of their 2013 season has already, to a large extent, been written. They will focus fully on 2014.

If one remembers back to the last big technical shift in 2009, Super Aguri did much the same. They’d been focused and working on the design of their 2009 challenger, which was to be their first from scratch, from the moment the 09 regs were published. Of course, destiny was to see the team collapse mid way through 2008, the design of the car shift over to the parent Honda team at Brackley and, in turn, form the basis of the Brawn BGP001 that went on to take the 2009 world championships.

It is clear, then, that getting a head start can be of huge benefit. One wonders what Caterham might achieve with a full 2014 focus in 2013… afterall, they’re in Super Aguri’s old base at Leafield. Perhaps that place still has a bit of magic left in it.

Anyway, I’m getting off the point,

The point is, when we get to Barcelona we may begin to see a two tier Formula 1 of those teams who have shifted their focus onto next season and will be bringing small developments for the rest of the season, and those teams who are still throwing everything at 2013 in an attempt to take the title.

What we don’t yet know is which teams will fall into which group. But we can hazard a guess.

Fernando Alonso - Ferrari Barcelona Testing 2013 © James Moy Photography

Fernando Alonso – Ferrari
Barcelona Testing 2013
© James Moy Photography

Ferrari is desperate for glory. It came so close last season, and this year starts with a car in the F138 that is light years ahead of where the F2012 was at the same point of the campaign. But… Ferrari is a manufacturer. It has all the resources to get fully ahead of the game for 2014 if it puts all its eggs into that particular basket. If it isn’t leading the charge by the time we return to Europe, was does it do? Rory Byrne is back on board for the 2014 car which already should give you some impression of how important that season is for them… so do they keep their powder dry in an attempt to launch a new era of Ferrari domination in 2014 or take the fight to their rivals for 2013?

Mercedes is in a similar position. After the first four races last season you’d have thought the team was in a fairly good place to record multiple wins. Already a pole and a win under its belt in China, a double DRS system which was the talk of the paddock… but the train came off the rails. So what does Mercedes do if it finds itself in a similar position? The car has looked quick in testing. But is it good enough to mount a championship challenge? Does the Brackley team look back to 2009 and take inspiration from the head start it got on its rivals back then to rise to the challenge of the new V6 era?

With the two factory teams able to throw all their resources at 2014, could we see a 2013 battle between the likes of Lotus, Red Bull and McLaren?

Lotus has looked good in testing, just as it did last year. The team was probably the most consistent over the course of last season. If they can maintain that consistency as rivals allow their attention to switch elsewhere, could the championships return to Enstone in 2013? It could be their best shot and one they’d be unlikely to let slip if they felt it was within reach.

Red Bull is a strange one. The prospect of four titles in row has surely got to be too glittery and grand to ignore and the RB9 is clearly not going to be an easily beatable car. But if they put everything into 2013 then they might lose out in 2014 and be thoroughly on the back foot and fighting to regain their position at the front of the field. Christian Horner has already admitted that with such a huge shift in regulations between this year and next, there is the scope for someone to get it spectacularly wrong. You wouldn’t put a dime on that person being Adrian Newey, but stranger things have happened.

Jenson Button - McLaren Barcelona Testing 2013 © James Moy Photography

Jenson Button – McLaren
Barcelona Testing 2013
© James Moy Photography

McLaren, meanwhile, is struggling to get on top of its new car. They had developed the MP4-27 as far as it could go last season, and so out of all the top teams have had to make the biggest shift in design philosophy between last year and this. But despite feeling confused about where they stand with the MP4-28, Jenson Button in particular has faith that the potential of the car is even greater than last season. As such, if that potential is realized through season-long development, can McLaren afford not to fight for their first constructors’ championship of the 21st Century?

With rumours that McLaren is on the verge of signing a deal to run Honda V6 Turbos in 2015, you’ve also got to ask yourself… just how much is 2014 actually going to matter to McLaren? If, and it is a big if, but IF Honda does return as an engine supplier, and IF it is with McLaren in 2015, then does it make sense to pour too much into 2014 and a car designed around a Mercedes power unit which will not be forming the basis of their future designs?

This is why the Honda story is fascinating. Sure, the rumoured link up is two years away, but if it is true it could have a very real effect on the 2013 world championship.

But all of this means nothing until we know the lay of the land, and who stands a chance of fighting for the title in 2013. And this is why the first four races of 2013 could provide us with the most incredible spectacle.

Think about it. A wide open playing field which the teams are already describing as being one of the most competitive starts to a Formula 1 season we’ve ever seen. And just four races to determine whether they put everything into this season or throw everything at the next.

The first four races of 2013 stand to be not only a window into the competitiveness of the teams and the likely season-long championship battle, but a mini championship in their own right.

And imagine this… what happens if we get four different race winners from four different teams over those four races as we did last season?

There are going to be some big decisions to make come Barcelona. By the time we leave Bahrain, the cards will have been dealt. There’s no going back.

These four fly-away races will determine not just the outcome of this season but, potentially, the competitive landscape for 2014 and beyond.

Pretty awesome, right?