Polishing the silverware
MARCH 14, 2012
There is a genuine feeling of uncertainty, here in Melbourne. Yes, it's normal for every preview under the sun to claim this will be the best season ever; that it's impossible to say who will win. But, deep down, most informed pundits usually have a feeling that one team will dominate; it's just that they don't want to appear to write off the season before it has started.
But not in 2012. No obvious patterns have emerged from winter testing. Two questions dominate: which team has made the most of the revised exhaust exit? And who will best deal with the latest breed of Pirelli tyres?
The teams, as ever, are giving nothing away. A walk down the Albert Park pit lane reveals little as screens - permitted at such times - block close-up views of the cars as they are being built and prepared. But at least you can see activity in the background. Except at Mercedes, the only leading team to have two of the three roller-shutter doors closed tight, the third entrance completely blocked.
It's interesting that this should happen at Mercedes. A dark (silver) horse? Maybe. Every F1 team is under pressure to succeed at different levels on the performance scale. But, when discussing the leading entrants, only Ferrari can match Mercedes if you're talking about a massive need to produce results.
It's true that Ross Brawn will tell you the Mercedes bosses understand how F1 works; that they appreciate winning is more difficult now than it has ever been. But you can bet that board members at Daimler AG, not necessarily au fait with F1, will want to see results for their investment sooner rather than later.
Mercedes F1 insiders are quietly confident. They say the 2012 car, the WO3, is a carefully considered design, one without the risks we've seen with Ferrari route of feeling the need to be risky rather than conservative. The Mercedes exhaust, experts say, is neat and trick-free. But Craig Scarborough in particular is speculating that Mercedes are using their DRS to operate a front wing F-duct in order to balance the car when DRS can be used at all times during qualifying. Interesting stuff.
If the team's progress is worth watching, then the juxtaposition of the drivers is fascinating. In simple terms, it reads like this: Michael Schumacher is 43 years old and threatening to pick up where he left off at the end of last season when he showed flashes of the form everyone has been expecting for two years. Schumacher will never be the force he once was but, for that very reason, Nico Rosberg needs to beat him - and beat will handsomely if he is to be considered something special after seven seasons of....well, not very much.
Rosberg is neat, tidy, quick - at times very quick, particularly during qualifying. But is he hungry? I mean, REALLY hungry, just like his Dad? The jury in this corner of the room remains out. The time has come to prove it because Rosberg can no longer afford to be beaten by the oldest man in the field. Saying that, Brawn thinks Rosberg will be like Jenson Button and, once he wins a race, Rosberg will move on to a different level. And if Rosberg does destroy his team-mate, then why should Mercedes keep Michael at the end of the year? You can bet Schuey has worked that out for himself.
Schumacher's future actually depends on how he gets on with the latest tyres. In a recent interview with sports writer Richard Williams, Brawn had this to say about the driver he knows better than any other:
"When there was a tyre war and we (Ferrari) were the main Bridgestone customer and the tyres had been developed with a large input from Michael, they naturally suited his style and approach. Now there's only one tyre out there, it's the same for everybody and he's got to work out how to get that performance from it. There's no testing, or very little, so you can't go out there with 10 sets of tyres and say: 'Right, I'm going to do one lap on each set and work out how to squeeze out that last little drop'.
"Perhaps the tyres have evolved in a way that suits some drivers more than others. Nico is quite exceptional in that respect, and he's a great asset to the team. I think when he wins a race, you'll see another step in his performance."
Win a race? Hmmm.... Are those closed doors at Mercedes hiding a potential and overdue winner? Are the Silver Arrows preparing to polish some silverware? We're about to find out.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.