What's New in F1 2012

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New faces, new cars and new tracks will all play their part in the Grand Prix season ahead. As for the car regs, the devil – as usual – will be in the detail

Sebastian has improved and is stronger than ever”, Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz recently told Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport. “He has prepared during the winter break like he’s never done before.”

Not great news if you’re Mark Webber. Or indeed anyone else on the 2012 Formula 1 grid looking to break Vettel’s recent dominance. This year there is relative stability on the rules front, so it’ll be tough for the likes of Mercedes and Lotus to start mixing it with the Red Bulls. But still, there are plenty of reasons to start getting excited about F1 in 2012.

The drivers

There are no driver changes at Ferrari, Mercedes, Red Bull or McLaren this year, but the return of 2007 World Champion Kimi Räikkönen – who will drive for the renamed Lotus team alongside the returning GP2 champion Romain Grosjean – has caused quite a stir (see Nigel Roebuck feature, p52).

It’s all change too at Toro Rosso after Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari were shown the door in favour of new Red Bull talents Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne. The Italian team is adamant that it exists to nurture young talent and both Alguersuari and Buemi had had their chance. Watch out for Vergne once he’s settled in – the Frenchman has been mighty impressive in every category he’s raced in so far.

Former Williams driver Nico Hulkenberg will return to the grid after a year as reserve at Force India, joining Paul di Resta in the team’s line-up, while Bruno Senna has gone to Williams to partner Pastor Maldonado. After its disastrous 2011 campaign Williams will be hoping that the new deal with Renault to provide engines will mean a step forward in performance and that Senna can deliver the speed he showed briefly at Lotus-Renault in the latter half of 2011.

Other changes include Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan signing for HRT and Frenchman Charles Pic replacing at Marussia the promising Jerome d’Ambrosio, who is now the Lotus third driver.

The tech rules

There are no drastic changes in the technical regulations this year, but there are two significant modifications, as Marussia consultant – and recent Motor Sport podcast guest – Pat Symonds explained to us. “One is the repositioning of the exhausts,” he told Motor Sport in January, “and the other is the rule which has effectively doubled the stiffness of the front wings.” The former could mean as much as 0.75 seconds a lap is lost.
“With the exhausts [which helped increase downforce by blowing over the rear diffusers] there was definitely a ‘have’ and ‘have not’ on the grid. With my Marussia hat on I’m not sorry to see that go because it was a very complex technology to get to work right and I think [without it] the field will close up a bit. The performance advantage was significant.”

There are also tighter regulations on engine mapping now, which – alongside the repositioning of the exhaust exits – will bring an end to off-throttle blown diffusers and mean smaller fuel tanks.

However, Symonds isn’t sure that we have seen the last of blown diffusers completely because of the Coand?a effect. “The simple way to explain it,” said Symonds, “is to run a tap and then put your finger in the water stream from the side. The water will curl round your finger and be diverted – this is the Coanda effect. I think it is possible to do the same with the exhaust.

Although bodywork is banned in a cone behind the exhaust it will still be possible to put a piece of bodywork at the edge of the coneshaped exclusion zone which, by use of the Coanda effect, could divert the exhaust plume away from its obvious path.” Time – as always – will tell.

“Last year most people were exploiting the stiffness of the front wing quite effectively,” continued Symonds, “and they will continue to do that even though it’s now double the stiffness. I don’t think it’s a game changer so I don’t think we’ll see the grid shaken up drastically.”

The other area teams will have been looking at over the winter is the DRS [drag reduction system] moveable rear wings. Many teams – like Red Bull – didn’t see a particularly large difference in straightline speed with it open at the beginning of last season. With a year’s experience of using the ‘flappy paddle thing’ – as Damon Hill puts it – expect plenty of attention to have been paid to rear wings in order to maximise the potential of DRS.

So what of this ugly step in the nose that we have seen on the majority of the new cars, as predicted by Symonds when he came in to see us ahead of the team launches? “The FIA decreed that the nose height needed to be reduced and this is largely from the work that has been going on in the FIA Institute regarding the launching of cars when they run into the back of one another,” he explained.

“The nose height is now considerably lower, but in doing that it would have been sensible to have lowered the height of the front bulkhead. The bulkhead is a very regulated thing – it must be a certain height, and it must be a certain height above the ground relative to the cockpit – and some teams didn’t want that changed. It does leave more area under the chassis to work with and we’ve tried very hard to exploit that at Marussia, but couldn’t get it working so have gone for something a little more conventional.”

As he expected, teams have tended to stick with a high front bulkhead, despite the lower nose, to allow for aero developments in this area.

It looked like this year’s game-changing technical innovation would be a reactive ride height system developed by both Lotus and Ferrari. The technology, which exploited brake torque to maintain a more stable ride height during deceleration, was initially given the go ahead by the FIA but has now been banned on the grounds that it changed the aerodynamics of the car while it was moving.

“There might be something else out there that I don’t know about or haven’t thought about,” admitted Symonds. “Assuming that isn’t the case, or even if it is, the main part of work this year will be about refinement thanks to the reasonably stable set of regulations.”

The tyres

The Pirelli tyres transformed the racing in 2011. Yes, the DRS helped drivers to overtake, and then on some occasions to be immediately re-passed, but it was the unpredictable tyres that made the action so exciting.

What can we expect in 2012? Thankfully Pirelli wants to continue as it did in 2011 by making tyres that will create a spectacle. However, it has changed its range of tyres this season in order to bring the compounds closer to each other in terms of performance. The aim of this is to encourage teams to try different strategies rather than to run most of the race on whichever of the two allocated compounds proves to be quickest.

“We have optimised the tyre compounds in order to guarantee even better and more stable performance, combined with the deliberate degradation that characterised the P Zero range from 2011,” said Pirelli’s research and development director Marco Tronchetti Provera during an Abu Dhabi media event in January. “We’re expecting unpredictable races.”

The tracks

Bernie Ecclestone is adamant that the Bahrain Grand Prix will go ahead this year, despite the continuing social unrest in the country. If it does, then with the arrival of the first United States Grand Prix since 2007 we’re looking at the prospect of a 20-race season. This, though, was also promised last year.

The North American race will be a focus of attention. It seems unbelievable that it has taken this long for the US GP to return. There were fears that the new Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas was backing out of its agreement with Formula One Management.

However, with work on the track having started once again you can now register your interest in main grandstand tickets – essentially putting down a deposit on a ticket for a hefty $100. As with Bahrain, we’re going to have to wait until nearer the Grand Prix, on November 18, to know if it is definitely going to happen.

Ed Foster