Sunday, 28 April 2013

New driver line ups for 2013: Good fortunes or bad decisions?

As the dust settles on the Bahrain Grand Prix, and the Formula One spectacle travels to Europe, it is a perfect time to consider whether changes made regarding driver line up for the 2013 season have proved fortuitous or frustrating.  

Confusion about why Lewis Hamilton would leave an established successful team such as McLaren for struggling Mercedes created mass speculation when the move was announced last year.  A positive change in his demeanour was evident immediately as he exuded an air of liberation, freed from the McLaren confines.  He spoke of his new team with fondness, with his smile revealing his relish for a fresh challenge, however mountainous that challenge may prove to be.  With the season underway, a welcome surprise of a car that is outperforming the expectations of the team neatly iced the cake.  A third place finish in Malaysia, followed by pole position and subsequent third in China spelled out a good start for Lewis and the team. Bahrain proved more disappointing as a gearbox penalty sent him from fourth to ninth on the grid, but with an end result of fifth, it could have been worse and considering the problems McLaren are suffering after developing their car more radically than the rest of the field, his was a quality move in terms of success on the track not to mention general disposition. 

As soon as the Mercedes deal was announced, McLaren revealed that Mexican Sergio Perez would fill the hole left by Lewis Hamilton.  It seemed a hasty decision and the possible funding he could bring to the team through his Carlos Slim connection was widely regarded as the driving force behind the decision.  The moment the ink was dry on the contract, the form shown by Perez to earn his new position plunged, and had until Bahrain, failed to re emerge.  Going to a team like McLaren launches a young driver into the spotlight and Perez is yet to show he has the capacity to deal with such a pressurised situation.  When asked if he was ready for a McLaren drive Martin Whitmarsh talked about the Mexican being the same age as Lewis Hamilton when he made his Formula One debut.  The difference, however, is that Lewis had grown up with the team, developing his knowledge and understanding of the pressures and how the team work over a number of years.  In his maiden year he was able to take the fight to his double World Champion team mate Fernando Alonso.  Checo’s task has not been made easy due to the uncompetitive MP4 – 28 but his performances can be measured against those of his team mate who achieved more with the substandard machinery in the first three races.   A glimpse of a racier Perez shone through at the Sakhir circuit as he fought hard for position against his team mate amongst others, but at times it seemed as though his racing was teetering over the limit, fuelled by pressure to perform.  McLaren will be pleased at a revival in form, but will need to ensure he reigns in his tactics on the battle field. 

A driver widely regarded as more deserving of the seat at McLaren is Nico Hulkenberg who instead made a somewhat sideways step with his move to Sauber from Force India.  What seemed like a sideways move at the close of the 2012 season now looks like a backward one considering the increased performance demonstrated by his old team so far.  The crushing blow dealt by the necessary withdrawal of his new Sauber from the race in Australia due to a fuel tank problem, was slightly atoned for with an eighth place in Malaysia, but Hulkenberg was reported as demanding more from the team.  Although perhaps not a true reflection of positions due to pit stop sequence, he enjoyed a stint leading the race in China; a reminder to all watching of his shining promise.  Sauber may not possess the potential that attracted the promising young German to the Swiss team, but strong performances in this unfavourable CO32 could make the talent of Nico more luminescent.  He will need to overlook the fortunes of his old team and look ahead to the upgrades promised for Barcelona.  Hired to drive alongside Hulkenberg at Sauber was Mexican Esteban Gutierrez who takes the struggling rookie prize which is perhaps understandable as he starts with no Formula One experience to his name besides winter testing.

After leaving their second driver decision until the dusky hour of winter testing, Force India laid their hopes in the hands of Adrian Sutil, bringing him back from his year in the racing wilderness.  It looked to be an inspired decision as he used the season curtain raiser in Australia to show the world of Formula One what they had been missing.  Malaysia was a disastrous weekend for the team with both Sutil and Paul di Resta’s races terminated due to problems with their wheelnut system during pitstops.  Contact with Gutierrez in China and Massa in Bahrain has halted the momentum of Sutil’s return, revealing another positive to arise from his rehiring; the renewed buoyancy of team mate Paul di Resta.  Outqualifying the German in China, Paul went on to finish in eighth position, then topped that result by equalling a career best fourth place a week later in Bahrain.  The slight nudge off track dealt to the Scot by Adrian, showboated the fierce competition between them.  As long as the team mate rivalry remains at a positive simmer, rather than a destructive boil, the reappearance of Sutil within the team is a positive one.


Jules Bianchi’s move from role as reserve driver at Force India to full race seat at Marussia has been advantageous for both parties.  Developments made on the 2013 Marussia including the introduction of KERS and wind tunnel technologies have been complimented by the skills of the young Frenchman.  Together, they started the season by achieving their target to outperform Caterham and have shown they have the capacity and potential to take the battle to the tail end of the lower mid field. 

With the increasing need for drivers carrying currency, Caterham made the decision to change both their drivers for the 2013 season.  The departure of Vitaly Petrov and Heikki Kovalainen made way for rookie Giedo van der Garde, and Charles Pic, who switched from Marussia.  Completely changing the driver line up seems to indicate a slightly cracked team in terms of knowledge of, and comparisons with last year’s car as Kovalainen have now been drafted in by the team for the first practice sessions in Bahrain and Spain. The Finn’s experience is being used by the team to support the development of upgrades as they head to the European leg of the season, and so far they are reaping the benefits of his wisdom and knowledge with Charles Pic out qualifying and completing the race ahead of both Marussia’s for the first time this season.


The hype surrounding Valtteri Bottas as a replacement for Bruno Senna for 2013 has been dampened and almost dissipated in the first three races as the uncompetitive Williams has caused the Finn to appear almost anonymous.  Although not managing to shine through other events unfolding on the track in the same way Jules Bianchi has, he outperformed his more experienced team mate in the first three races of the season. 

With a long way still to go until the close of the season, it may seem early to judge whether changes have been made for the better or worse, but with the flat out world of Formula One moving so rapidly, little time is given to make them work. 

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