Spring heralds end to waiting game

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 March, 2012, 12:00am


The early flowers are out, the trees are starting to blossom in glorious pinks and yellows. The sun is warm on your back and higher in the sky. You can tell it's spring in middle England, where the majority of the Formula One teams are based. And if you were to ignore nature, there would still be a couple of indicators that winter has run its course.

First, there's the blossoming of F1 previews on the newsstands and then there's the absence of the cars themselves from the factories. They are down in Melbourne (where of course it's autumn just to confuse matters). We stand on the brink of a new season of motor racing, and like the advent of spring itself, it can't help but put a spring in your step.

With 20 races, stretching all the way to the start of Christmas shopping, there's a lot to cram in. So what are the highlights of the year to come? For a start, how about six world champions lining up on the grid? Kimi Raikkonen is back and everyone will be watching to see if his motivation levels have improved since he left Ferrari to go rallying.

Bruno Senna isn't a world champion, but we all know his uncle was. This year, he's in a half-decent Williams car, a team that Ayrton raced for. When his uncle died at the wheel of a Williams, Bruno was banned from racing carts by his family and only returned to the track 10 years later. He's in a hurry to prove himself against younger rivals.

As always, there will be plenty of those. France has three drivers on the grid, but for the first time in ages there are no Italians. Jarno Trulli had his seat pulled at the last minute in favour of Vitaly Petrov. We've also waved goodbye to a reluctant Rubens Barrichello, who will ply his trade in the United States.

As for the teams, it's all got a bit confusing. Renault are now called Lotus, Lotus are Caterham and Virgin are Marussia. At the front of the grid though, there's little change. The top four all retain the same drivers and like the other teams, they've been working through the winter to get a vital advantage.

Winter testing is anything but reliable in gauging how the teams will fare this weekend, especially with track time so curtailed. Red Bull seem as strong as ever, but crucially McLaren seem to have hit the ground running this season. In the past couple of years, it has taken the team a little time to get everything right, by which time Red Bull were too far ahead in the standings.

Things seem to be a little less smooth at Ferrari, where pre-season testing has not gone well and engineers are struggling to tame the car's radical design.

It's a big year for Mercedes, where team boss Ross Brawn has said that third place in the constructor's championship is a minimum after two years of underperforming.

One thing you will notice in Australia is that the cars are a good deal uglier than last year. Most cars have a 'stepped nose', thanks to new regulations and the designers' reluctance to drop the rest of the chassis. Unfortunately, speed will always be more important than beauty in this business.

The 20 tracks include a newcomer, a welcome return to the US. The track in Austin will be a belter - if it's ready in time for its debut in November. Unfortunately, Bahrain is back on the calendar next month despite the civil strife. Just as speed trumps aesthetics in a car, so money will win out over morality.

Finally, the most difficult part of the first column of a season - the predictions. Red Bull will lead the way and Sebastian Vettel will look to continue his advantage over Mark Webber. McLaren's good winter has given their drivers a fighting chance. Don't be surprised if Jenson Button continues to surprise Lewis Hamilton and ruffle Vettel's feathers. Ferrari will struggle early on, although you can never rule out Fernando Alonso's brilliance and Mercedes might start winning races - with Nico Rosberg.

All I know for certain is that the roar of engines into turn one in Melbourne is as sure a sign of spring as the cuckoo's first call.