Feature: Daniel predicts the key battles of 2013

Thursday 14th March 2013, 21:42 by Daniel Chalmers 

Red Bull | Getty Images

Who is the quickest team heading to Melbourne?

That’s a very difficult question. In Barcelona the top five teams (Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Lotus) were all very close together. After the test Red Bull had the edge. However that doesn’t mean to say they will have the edge in Melbourne.

The Catalunya circuit is arguably Red Bull’s strongest track. With the demands it places on the aero Adrian Newey cars have always shone there. It was also very cool conditions and Red Bull is good at getting heat into their tyres thanks to the amount of downforce they have.

Melbourne is more of a point and squirt circuit, and conditions will be warmer. With the top five so close together, the order could shuffle completely simply due to the different track layout and conditions. This could well be a theme of the season.

My hunch is that Lotus is going to emerge as being very strong. They showed promising pace during testing even in those cool conditions. Therefore on a warmer track which is generally when they are at their best, they will be mighty.

Their tyre preservation is still good like last year. Furthermore the softer Pirelli tyres will be easier to warm up for that all important qualifying lap, which could help to somewhat minimise their biggest weakness from last year.

Will Caterham and Marussia finally score points this year?

Sadly it will be even more difficult for them to score points. They will both make decent strides forward but it won’t be enough. Let’s not forget that all the midfield teams are making great progress too. 

The quality in F1 is just so high at the moment. If these two teams had been around in the 90s, when there was a bigger margin covering the field, they may well have been good enough to race in the midfield.

Toro Rosso was a team they could potentially catch based on last year. However with the appointments they have made including James Key, they will now prove very difficult to catch.

The other problem is that the top five teams will be hogging the points more than they did last year. So even the midfield teams may have to work harder.

In a freak race there is the outside chance of a point. However lots of cars in front of them have to have issues before they can get near the top ten. I just can’t see it.

Will Perez win a race for McLaren this year?

It would be very surprising if he doesn’t win a race this year. He did end 2012 very badly. There is no doubt about that. 

However his peak performance is clearly very good. He just has to perform at that level more consistently. What he also showed in those drives to the podium last year, was that he isn’t afraid to race wheel to wheel with the top drivers. That is quite an important point.

He has a car that should be able to win races this year, albeit perhaps not at the start. On those weekends where he has one of his eureka moments he will get the chance to win a race or two. 

How many races will Hamilton win for Mercedes?

Let’s not forget that Nico Rosberg won a race for Mercedes last year. So there is no reason why Lewis can’t stand on the top step this year.

Since moving to Mercedes Hamilton seems much happier and relaxed. He now has more tattoos and his dog, Roscoe, even has a paddock pass. The sort of things you wouldn’t have seen whilst he was driving for McLaren.

When Hamilton is happy he produces his best form. Mercedes clearly have a better car this year, and Lewis himself brings a few extra tenths to the table. 

So even if Mercedes don’t ultimately have the quickest car, Hamilton has the ability - like Fernando Alonso - to still be involved in the fight for victory. Plus when the odds are evened thanks to rain you can be sure he will grab those chances too.

How many different race winners will we see?

Unless one team suddenly emerges with a big advantage in Melbourne we will see a number of winners like last year. We could potentially see eight or nine winners from six different teams.

The top five teams could all win races, and I fancy one of the midfield teams to spring a shock victory like Williams did last year. For that shock my money would be on Nico Hulkenberg in the Sauber.

Will Mark Webber still be driving at Red Bull in 2014?

Webber will still be at Red Bull. He is the perfect driver for them. He is capable of winning races and he will score huge points over the season. He is a huge reason why Red Bull has won the last three constructors’ championships. You need both your drivers to score big points to win that title.

He is good enough to push Vettel hard, but not quite good enough to beat him over a season. He is the perfect team-mate for Sebastian.

If Daniel Ricciardo or Jean-Eric Vergne want his seat, then one of them has to really stand out against the other, and perform regular giant killings. I don’t see that happening soon.

What will be the biggest move in the 2014 driver market?

I think it will be Hulkenberg replacing Felipe Massa at Ferrari. It looks like Vettel is more likely to extend his Red Bull contract to 2016 rather than join Alonso at Ferrari in 2014.

In my mind Massa was signed as a stop-gap with the possibility of being able to sign Sebastian for 2014. With the likelihood of Vettel remaining at Red Bull, Ferrari will need to look for a star driver elsewhere.

Alonso clearly thrives as the overwhelming number one in the team. However Ferrari is not going to win a constructors’ championship until they have two drivers scoring huge points.

Whilst Massa will certainly have a better year, I am still not convinced he will score enough points to make Ferrari a factor in the WCC.

Hulkenberg is going to have a fine 2013 and really emerge as a star. So my prediction is that Ferrari will sign Nico, and then have another go at signing Vettel in a couple of years.

Let’s not forget that there is a precedent for Ferrari to sign drivers from Sauber. Both Raikkonen and Massa joined Ferrari from the Swiss team.

Who will win the F1 sack race?

I suppose you could say Luiz Razia has already won it before the season even starts. It was a huge shame to see him lose his chance because his sponsors didn’t pay up.

On paper you sense Max Chilton and Giedo van der Garde are the most under threat. However both bring such a huge amount of money with them that it’s hard to see them losing their seat, unless they are seriously slow, or like Razia, their sponsors don’t pay up.

Possibly the biggest threat for the sack is at Toro Rosso.Red Bull are very keen to get the talented Antonio Felix Da Costa in a F1 seat sooner rather than later. With HRT no longer in the sport they can’t do what they did with Ricciardo, and pay HRT to run him in their team.

So if they want Felix Da Costa in a Toro Rosso then one of their current young drivers has to be sacrificed. It wouldn’t be wise for Red Bull to do that mid-season but we have seen how ruthless their young driver programme is.

If the change isn’t made mid-season then it will certainly happen for the start of 2014.

Who will be the best rookie?

Statistically it won’t be any of the rookies at the back of the grid as they will not have the equipment to score points. However that doesn’t mean they won’t impress. Alonso and Webber have shown that it is possible to stand out in a backmarker.

Jules Bianchi has the talent to potentially achieve a similar feat. He could be the guy who challenges Charles Pic as the stand out driver at the back of the grid. He could have a few very strong races in 2013 once he gets some miles under his belt.

Statistically it’s between Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Gutierrez for rookie of the year. Both are talented and it will probably depend on the car as to who comes out on top.

My money is on Williams to win the midfield battle so therefore I think Bottas will emerge as the rookie of the year. We have to be realistic in our expectations of him, but I do expect points finishes plus a few flashes of star potential from him.

Which team will be the biggest surprise?

There are a number of nominees for this award. I believe Williams will be the biggest surprise. This is a team which has turned the corner. Their new appointments including ex-McLaren designer Mike Coughlan, and the technical restructuring has made an enormous difference.

When you look at their car this year it just shouts out “we are a much more confident team”. It’s a much more adventurous car than we have seen from them in the past with a complex front wing, and their innovative brake ducts.

They will be leading the midfield, and they will be right behind that leading pack of five teams.

Lotus and Mercedes will also surprise, in the fact that they will be victory contenders more often than they were in 2012.

Which driver will be the biggest surprise?

There are a number of candidates but Romain Grosjean will really step up to the plate this year. There is a school of thought that Raikkonen will be stronger in the second season of his comeback, and leave his young team-mate behind. However I believe Romain will make a big step forward too in what’s only his second full season in F1.

If the Lotus is as strong as it has appeared in pre-season testing then we know that Grosjean is capable of putting a great lap together. In 2013 with the pack set to be so tightly bunched qualifying is going to be critical, and that could favour the Frenchman.

Everyone is going to be asking how many times is he going to crash? However if he can regularly start races in the top three on the grid then that will greatly reduce his chances of a first lap incident.

Who faces the most critical season?

It has to be Rosberg. He faces a career defining season. If he can keep up with Hamilton then it secures his place at the front of the grid for the foreseeable future. However if Lewis is consistently ahead, then chances are Rosberg’s position in a front running team will be under threat. It’s a crossroads season.

His team also face a critical season. With the money that has been spent, the people who have been signed and the changes that have been made Mercedes simply have to make a big impression. If all these changes make no difference at all to Mercedes’ form, then there could be some very interesting meetings in the HQ board room at the end of the season.

What will be the most exciting team-mate rivalry?

Ricciardo and Vergne. They are one of the most closely matched partnerships. Daniel is the better driver over a single lap but Jean-Eric has very good race pace.

What makes that duel exciting is that there is so much at stake between them. The prize for coming out on top is potentially huge, with a penalty just as big to match for the loser.

They have also admitted recently that due to what’s at stake it’s not possible for them to be friends. Ricciardo has also admitted that he wants to blow Vergne away. All this just adds that little bit of extra spice.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see some very hard battles on the track between them this year.

I also think the Sutil/Di Resta battle will be very interesting. Di Resta really needs to win a team battle this year, but Sutil is quick and won’t make it easy for him. Bottas/Maldonado will also be very exciting to watch.

Who will win the constructors’ championship?

The top five teams all have a chance of winning it. For me it could end up being a battle of the number two drivers. The number two driver who does the best job for their team could win them the constructors’ title.

I still don’t believe Massa will score enough points for Ferrari so that rules them out. Whilst Perez will have a few big highlights, he will be a bit erratic so that rules McLaren out. 

Webber will again score huge points this year and he will ensure that Red Bull are right up at the top all year. Rosberg could also score very well for Mercedes. However the question mark is can Mercedes keep the pace all year long?

In my mind Grosjean potentially holds the key to this championship. If he can step it up and score huge points alongside Raikkonen then Lotus could topple the Bulls.

However the realistic answer is Red Bull. They have Adrian Newey and a very strong rate of development. It’s always going to be hard to bet against them. If I was braver man I would back Lotus - but I’m not feeling that brave.

Who will win the drivers’ championship?

It will be another tight one but it’s hard to see past Vettel.

Whilst a number of teams will have their days in the sun this year, you can count on Red Bull hitting the sweet spot the most times. On weekends like that it’s very rare that Vettel wastes the opportunity. So I think three or four races like that, just as was the case in the second half of 2012 could prove decisive.

Also Vettel will be even stronger again this season. Let’s not forget that he is only 25 so still hasn’t reached his peak yet. There is more to come.

Alonso and Raikkonen will be his closest challengers, but keeping up with Newey’s rate of development, could be what see’s them, Lotus and Ferrari just fall short.

Hamilton would be my dark horse for the title. Even if Mercedes are not the quickest, Lewis is still capable of putting together a title challenge, in the same way that Alonso did last year.

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