While the big teams recovered their advantage by the end of last year the early part of the season saw some surprise surges out of the midfield – so is there anything to suggest similar this year?
The impressive performance of Sauber and Williams at the start of last season – with podiums and a victory respectively in the first few races – suggested they might just break into the long-standing top four, but Williams faded away and although Sauber stayed strong all season they never quite took that final step.
Force India, meanwhile, struggled early on but were on a roll at the end of last season, scoring 63 points in the last nine races – more than Sauber, Williams and even Mercedes.
On that basis, Sauber and Force India look the most likely challengers for the top teams again this year – and in their new cars both have shown they are not frightened of pushing the boundaries of innovation.
At Sauber, much has been made of the narrow sidepods and undercut on the new car – something that was inspired by Sergio Perez’s qualifying accident in Monaco in 2011, which showed the section size could be reduced with no apparent detrimental effects.
We will now see whether that is the case – because while the narrower profile will reduce drag (because of reduced frontal section) and improve downforce (because of improved aerodynamic flow around to the rear diffuser), smaller inlets could negatively impact cooling.
The engineers will, of course, have done their sums on that – and if they have got them right and if they can maximise the benefit smaller sidepods offer to the rear diffuser then this could potentially offer the team the significant step forward they need to play with the big boys on a more regular basis.
The team have also focused on reducing weight in the chassis, which will give them more flexibility with ballast to help balance the car, and they have followed last year’s Red Bull on the approach to the front chassis step, with two side arms aimed at reducing air spill from the top of the chassis.
The team also say they have enhanced the exhaust system used last year and plan to test a passive DRS system over the next few tests. If they can beat their bigger rivals to a good solution on that design, they could start the season in a very good position.
Force India, meanwhile, have taken a McLaren-style approach to this year’s car and gone for a complete redesign – despite having such strong development momentum on the car at the end of last year.
Like McLaren, their theory is they can achieve more development through 2013 from new concepts because they had pushed development of the previous car’s concepts to the limit of diminishing returns.
The understanding gained from development last year, however, has been crucial for this year’s creation – particularly in understanding how the car works with its tyres.
The 2012 tyres were unpredictable and although the 2013 tyres could be different again, the key to success is having flexibility in the car set-up to cope with different conditions.
Last year many teams found that their cars were either ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ condition cars – so Force India have put much of the focus for this year’s car on developing suspension systems that offer more variability in set-up to make the tyres last for longer.
If they have managed to dial in this flexibility to suit all the different conditions, and if they can get it working, they could be onto something.
As for the rest of the field, there could be some interesting battles.
Williams are yet to reveal their hand (they are the only team that has waited until the second test to unveil their car) and given their rollercoaster year in 2012 it’s hard to tell where they will slot in.
Toro Rosso, meanwhile, drifted away from the midfield pack last year but the arrival of former Force India and Sauber technical lead James Key will surely make a difference.
He probably came in too late to influence the baseline of the new car, but the good thing for him is that the focus has been on mechanical development – so if that platform is good he can now put all the focus on fundamental aerodynamic concepts, where significant gains could be made quickly from his recent experience at Sauber.
Only a few of these concepts will be ready in time for pre-season testing, so it could be a slow start but a late bloom for Toro Rosso.
Finally, Marussia and Caterham revealed their cars in the pitlane just before the start of the Jerez test – with contrasting promises.
Caterham admitted there car is very much an evolution with quite a lot of carryover from last year’s model, but Marussia claimed theirs is a “massive” step forward. That could well be true as it’s the first design led by former Benetton and Renault chief Pat Symonds and the first created using wind tunnels rather than all-CFD.