What we've learnt from the launches
Sifting through the optimism and the modesty panels to learn useful pointers for the upcoming 2013 season...
By Pete Gill
Last Updated: 22/02/13 6:07pm
McLaren haven't lost their nerve. Having won the final two races of 2012 in a car widely considered to have been the season's fastest, the easy thing for McLaren to do ahead of 2013 was produce an evolutionary successor to the MP4-27. And given that the team are still coming to terms with the shattering loss of their prized asset, Lewis Hamilton, the temptation towards playing it safe would have been psychological as well as sporting. Yet instead of that, the team have ripped up their design manual and produced a bold, near-revolutionary MP4-28 based around a fundamental change in design philosophy at both rear and front.
So why change a winning formula? The McLaren design team concluded that the philosophy which underpinned last year's car had reached its performance ceiling. There was nothing - or almost nothing - to be gained from tweaking the MP4-27 and so, fearing punishment for standing still, the team have essentially rolled the dice. It's thus both a gamble and a calculated gamble - two very different matters.
As for the critical question of whether it's the right decision, only time, in the form of the 2013 campaign, will tell - although it's reasonable to expect a relatively-slow start from McLaren as they get to grips with their new design concept. In the meantime, the one definitive conclusion to be made is that despite having doubly good reason to play safe, McLaren's nerve is as strong as ever.
Not very much about the Red Bull. As written in our lead story on the Red Bull launch, 'With photographers barred from the ceremony, the team released just a handful of studio images of the new car to accompany its launch and put the covers back on the RB9 almost as soon as Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber had removed them.'
Nothing new there, you might think - after all, given the time and resource they devote to being leaders in innovation, secrecy has become a Red Bull signature. Yet Sunday's big reveal was particularly unrevealing, which was also particularly odd given the team's insistence the RB9 was merely "an evolutionary car". Perhaps it's just their way to be secretive, perhaps there's yet another trick up their sleeve which they are intent on keeping hidden for as long as possible, or perhaps they just like to keep everyone guessing. If so, they've succeeded.
Ferrari have been hurt. And it's a measure of just how much pain they suffered in 2012 - partly from their ultimate defeat at the hands of Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel, but mainly from the self-recriminations of starting the year with a mishandling F2012 that was over a second off the pace - that they have set such modest targets for the start of 2013.
"I don't think we can expect a car that is much faster than the other," cautioned Stefano Domenicali at the launch of the F138. "We have to keep our feet on the ground and have a car that is equal to our competition."
Domenicali's caution seems to have manifested itself in a car which, in the words of Technical director Pat Fry, is "more of an evolution than a revolution". Compared to the substantive winter work done by McLaren and Lotus, the changes made to the F138 are slight and subtle - although the team have pledged to make "significant" alterations to their new charger through the winter test season. The impression, though, remains of a team perhaps playing it safe - which, as discussed above, is a dangerous game to play in a sport that never stands still.
Jenson Button thinks this could be his year again. Just listen to some of the statements the new de facto number one at McLaren has been making: "I am pretty damn excited about this year, more excited since coming into the sport in 2000," the former World Champion told reporters at the MP4-28's launch.
Such was Jenson's enthusiasm for all things 2013 that he even broke the laws of modern society and admitted he was enjoying talking to the gentlemen of the press. "This isn't normal. There's something wrong with me. But I'm in a really good place, and really excited about driving the car on Tuesday," he exclaimed with the giddiness of a child who has just discovered Christmas is around the corner.
It's not difficult to guess why. Not only does the MP4-28 look a fabulous bit of kit - standard disclaimer: looks aren't a reliable indicator of performance - but, following Hamilton's abrupt departure, Button is settled in at McLaren as the head of the family. This is now his team - and his car. Sergio Perez shouldn't be underestimated of course, but if the MP4-28 is half as good as it looks then Button is in pole position to land his second World Championship. No wonder he can't wait to get started.
Sports psychologists are en vogue. Romain Grosjean and Felipe Massa have both revealed over the last month that they saw a psychologist as they attempted to arrest the turmoil of their 2012 campaigns. Felipe has previously admitted to seeking outside help, turning to a psychologist as he came to terms with his horrific crash in 2009 and subsequent slump in form.
That Grosjean also sought professional help is an illustration of how seriously both he and Lotus took his troubles last year and it will be interesting to see any difference in the Frenchman this year. Safer, hopefully, but will a tamed Grosjean be a slower Romain?
Paul di Resta knows it's now or never. The Scot has prepared like never before for the new season, training on 29 of the 31 days in January and "skipping a few meals" to be in the shape of his life for a campaign that will either make or break his F1 career.
The identity of his team-mate is still unknown, and unlikely to be known for another two or three weeks, but from the Scot's perspective, it makes no difference. Whether it is Jules Bianchi, Adrian Sutil or anyone else in the other VJM06, Di Resta has to beat him. After losing out to both Sutil and Nico Hulkenberg in 2011 and 2012 respectively, there won't be a third second chance for Di Resta in 2014.
Lotus could do a sideline in daytime TV shows. In the words of one Sky Sports F1 employee who spectated the scene on Monday night, Lotus' Enstone wind-battered base looked like a set of Grand Designs an hour before the scheduled launch of the E21 as the team strived to shift the launch to the factory floor after their specially-constructed marquee blew down. Not that it showed, however, as the team overcame the last-minute upheaval to host an event which passed without any apparent hitch.
The thought persists: F1 and British carmaking is one of the few remaining (and most) successful manufacturing industries on these isles. Do they have more to give - and, if they did, how far could their wealth of skills spread?
Mercedes need larger website servers. The best-laid plans and all that. When Mercedes announced on Saturday night that they were preparing to 'engage fans with a unique exclusive website and Twitter unveiling', it sounded too good to be true. Unfortunately, it was. What should have been groundbreaking social-media innovation instead turned out to be an interminable PR disaster which saw the team's website suffer the first crash of the F1 year and a grainy picture of the W04 belatedly emerge in utterly underwhelming fashion 24 hours later. It takes a heady leap of the imagination to conceive a more inauspicious start.
Mercedes weren't the only team whose attempts to harness the powers of the internet saw them fall flat. Ferrari's launch was supposed to be streamed live but (in Sky Sports' office at least) all we saw was the F138 under wraps and all we heard was the tinkling of elevator music. Ten seconds later, we couldn't see or hear anything. Thank goodness, then, for Sauber, who managed to unveil their car online without any fuss whatsoever. Swiss stereotyping anyone? Okay, let's not go there.
Using the straw poll of social media, however, what has been notable is the belief that, of all the cars so far launched, their C32 is the most pleasing to the eye. Yet one also wonders whether that's because Sauber are the only team so far who have at least tried to make their new car look markedly different to its predecessor. It's instructive of F1's current rulebook and its evolutionary consequences that perhaps the most revolutionary thing on view so far is a grey paintjob.
Lotus - January 28th, Enstone.
McLaren - January 31st, Woking.
Force India - February 1st, Silverstone.
Ferrari - February 1st, Maranello.
Sauber - February 2nd, Hinwil.
Red Bull - February 3rd, Milton Keynes.
Mercedes - February 4th, Jerez.
Toro Rosso - February 4th, Jerez.
Caterham - February 5th, Jerez.
Marussia - February 5th, Jerez.
Williams - February 19th, Barcelona.