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The 'middle of pack' mayhem

Williams, Sauber and Force India surely will provide a lot of entertaining this 2013 Formula 1 season.
Thursday, January 31, 2013

January 31st, 2013 (F1plus / James Parker).- Formula 1, in recent years the sport has perhaps entered a stage of competitiveness that has never been seen before. The decades that gloriously preceded this current generation were in so many ways completely different to the F1 we find ourselves watching in the present day.

In the 80’s and 90’s the middle of the pack was instantly recognisable, the performance differentiation between the “powerhouses” at the time, McLaren, Williams and Ferrari, with the trailing pack were ridiculously stark as massive budgets and testing advantages caused a period of one team domination, whether it be McLaren, Ferrari or Williams enjoying that enviable success.

Bust fast forward to 2013 and the reality is one of a starkly different nature, the sport as a whole enjoying perhaps its most competitive era for an incredibly long time (even full stop) and therefore the race to the front from within the midfield bears much stronger meaning. So before winter testing gets under way, let’s look at the three teams currently embedded within that ferocious battle and what chances they have of propelling themselves towards the sharp end of the grid, firstly beginning with Williams.

Williams F1 Team

After a truly disastrous season in 2011, many fans were extremely worried over what needed to happen at Williams to secure a long term future within the sport; after all, being an Independent team which relies solely on investment, it poses huge implications during a recessional period as we are all currently experiencing ourselves.

2012 was all about securing that future in Formula 1, stability and structure the key priorities of Sir Frank as he looked to put the Williams team back on the map. For this, the team did have to resort to two drivers with substantial backing, Bruno Senna and Pastor Maldonado bringing handsome investment between the two of them with $46 million and $17 million respectively (and allegedly).

But the 2013 seasons brings intrigue and optimism from the Grove based team, replacing Brazilian Senna with up and coming Finn Valtteri Bottas was an incredibly brave move considering Valtteri does not bring the same vast funding as Bruno and has been out of race ready action for over 12 months – having participated in Friday Practice sessions only during 2012 (with very promising results I might add).

Frank Williams wants come back to the top. (Photo: Williams)

It shows the team is looking to become a lot more aggressive in 2013, with a really young and hungry drivers line-up. Alongside Valtteri is our dear old friend Pastor Maldonado, quite the headline hogger last season, he created controversy for all the right, and the wrong reasons. Having clinched Williams first win in the sport for 8 years in Spain last year, the team were on an incredible high, before many high profile mistakes, most notably Valencia 2012 with Hamilton, forced Pastor to feel the heat from fans and journalists alike over his aggressive driving style.

But what Pastor does offer is an incredible raw pace, a 1 lap qualifying talent (beating Senna 18-2 in Qualifying in 2012) that few can match on the grid. Much like some of the best on the grid, the Venezuelan is able to drive around car deficiencies, wring the neck of his car and get 110% out of every lap. His drive to 5th in Abu Dhabi with a KERSless FW34 for almost the entire Grand Prix once again raised his reputation to new heights, and if his talent can be harnessed with a calmer more mature persona for 2013, I see no reason why he cannot be a consistent top 6 performer in the New Year.

But what about the team as a whole?

The most dominant piece of news to come out of Williams during the Winter break is surely the transition of Toto Wolff, going from Williams director to shareholder and big wig at Mercedes AMG, all whilst retaining his shares in the Grove based team.
In the interim, Sir Frank has had to step in to steady the ship until a suitable management candidate can be found. Will this affect them? Well I think in the long term in terms of development it may do, however I am sure the large space that Toto has indeed left at Williams will be filled in the coming weeks. Whether or not Wolff remaining a shareholder in the team will have a detrimental effect on Williams remains to be seen, Bottas is managed by the Austrian, and his wife Susie, is of course the teams development driver, but has recently pledged her allegiance to them stating she is not transferring over to Mercedes.

In conclusion I expect Williams to make greater strides once again in 2013, they have two fantastically talented drivers, substantial investment and a great structure at Grove, my prediction is 7th in the WCC.

Sauber F1 Team

The Sauber F1 team were perhaps one of the surprises of the season last year with the C31 being hugely innovative in terms of interpreting the new regulation changes after the ban on EBD’s. As early as winter testing, the big guns of the Formula 1 paddock were looking at copying the C31’s exhaust solution towards the rear of the car, it at the time, considered a very tidy and fast package which had showed great promise.

Twelfth months on, and in reflection you would have to say the 2012 season was a great success for the little Independent team from Hinwil. The coanda effect exhaust on the C31 set the pattern for the rest of the year, as teams looked to maximise and then optimise the hot gases from the exhaust towards the rear diffuser. The Sauber car was incredibly easy on its tyres and this allowed Sergio Perez to take full advantage in races where tyre degradation was a huge factor in determining the result of races – the Mexican claiming 3 podiums.

or 2013 then, and with “Checo” on his way to McLaren for the new season, Sauber looked for a replacement to drive the team forward over the coming year. Of course we all know now that replacement will be Nico Hulkenberg, the hugely underrated German who had shown immense promise last season at Force India after 12 months on the sidelines.

Esteban Gutierrez will have to prove his worth. (Photo: Sauber)

Once Nico had got up to speed last year, he was the definition of consistency. Having acquired 7 top 10 finishes in the final half of the season he proved to the F1 paddock he was a man aiming for the sharp end of the grid. On the hit list of both Ferrari and RedBull reportedly, he is a real scoop for Sauber who look to inject some maturity and consistency into the new season.

Alongside the mature Hulkenberg, rookie Esteban Gutierrez is set to make his debut in Formula 1 for the Sauber team, after capturing 3rd in last season’s GP2 Championship having been a reserve driver for the Hinwil based outfit in 2012 replacing fan favourite Kamui Kobayashi. With both drivers however come good investment, which looks set to financially stabilise the team. Hulkenberg brings long term personal sponsor Dekra with him from Force India (famous for sponsoring a certain Michael Schumacher too) and hugely powerful Telmex brand looks set to continue its partnership thanks to its association with Esteban - the company of course owned by the World’s Richest Man; Carlos Slim.

Under the leadership of Monisha Kaltenborn, the first Female Team Principal in Formula 1, and quickly establishing herself as a real powerhouse in the paddock, the team looks set for a very bright season with secure investment and an incredible talent in Hulkenberg who brings much needed stability. With big sponsors such as NEC and Chelsea Football Club already establishing partnerships with Sauber I expect them to solidly 6th place in the WCC or even 5th a push depending on Mercedes AMG’s development programme through 2013.

Force India

So to Force India then where a situation of confusion and worry for the 2013 season might hurt their ambitions. Whilst Scotsman Paul Di Resta has been retained for the new year to drive the VJM06, his partner is yet unknown after a deeply controversial winter. Odds on favourites for the second seat are reserve driver Jules Bianchi, who himself is a member of the Ferrari young drivers academy and is fully expected to break into Formula 1 sooner rather than later – perhaps with the authority of Ferrari themselves behind him. The other potential candidate is Adrian Sutil, who himself had been seen around the F1 Paddock throughout the 2012 season.

After his conviction of GBH towards Eric Lux, CEO of Genii Capital in a Shanghai nightclub in 2011, Adrian Sutil had been given an 18 month suspended sentence and forced to pay a £200,000 fine. The incident made him one of the most unpopular drivers for fans of the sport and Force India dropped him for 2012 due his actions towards Eric on that night.

Paul di Resta is the lone driver for Force India one from the pre-season testing. (Photo: Force India)

However Force India, after losing the mighty Nico Hulkenberg to close rivals Sauber, will be looking for a driver to cement themselves as a leader in the team, an experienced consistent man who can deliver results. Bearing that in mind, Sutil perhaps is the ideal candidate, a model of consistency during his time in the sport, the only risk the team would be taking would be surrounding the race craft rustiness of the German after a year out of the sport.

The team have yet to comment on when the partner of Paul Di Resta will be presented, the VJM06’s launch on the 1st February will not be used as an excuse to announce the second driver of the team according to Force India themselves. This leaves time for the announcement to be incredibly sparse, with the most logical announcement happening just before the first test in Jerez.

But the big news surrounds the owner of Force India, Vijay Mallya, whose fortune is under serious threat after the past 12 months. Last year, in the day’s preceding the Indian Grand Prix, an arrest warrant was handed out for the Indian Industrialist over a controversial cheque bouncing incident towards the GMR Group over payments from the Kingfisher Airlines organisation. The warrant was eventually rescinded, but that has not stopped Mallya’s airline – Kingfisher Airlines experiencing huge turmoil over the winter months. Unable to pay employees wages for the past few months, the airline is close to bankruptcy, with massive debts being built up according to reports.

The situation has not looked to get any brighter, with the staff asked to vacate their premises in Mumbai after missed rent payments and the airline has now lost its flight permit which came into force after the 1st January.

This paints a very despairing picture for both Mallya and Force India, with the long term security and financial investment of the team in huge doubt. Whilst Sahara India Pariwar has bought out 42% of the teams shares, it leaves the other 42.5% of Mallya’s in serious jeopardy and with Kingfisher Airlines in such dire need; title sponsorship could be called off before the 2013 Formula 1 season begins.
With the current problems the team seems to be experiencing I expect them to drop down the grid until stability can once again be reached, my prediction is 8th in the WCC and unless serious measures are made in terms of financial investment, I cannot see development being strong enough to mount a serious challenge from the midfield.

Conclusion

So what can we learn from this? Well I think both Williams and Sauber have very realistic chances of breaking into the top 6 on numerous occasions during the 2013 F1 season with the field as competitive as it is. Williams have a fantastic base to work on from last season and Sauber’s C31 was certainly a wolf in sheep’s clothing, whether they can capitalise on that this year remains to be seen, but with Nico Hulkenberg they have a tremendous young talent.

One the other hand however, I am really struggling to see the positives with the current situation at Force India. Although the team remain adamant that are no current issues in terms of ownership or development of the new car, it will not take long for the current financial issues of their title sponsor to catch up on them unless they find alternative investment. What this does do however, is set up a fascinating fight in the midfield, one I am eagerly waiting to see with anticipation.
Bring on 2013!
 

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