Will Gray

Gray Matter: Season preview – The Midfielders

In what could be F1’s tightest season for years the midfielders have a big chance to shine – so after glimpses of glory in 2012 can Sauber, Williams or Force India make a more permanent step forward?

The indication from pre-season testing is that this season’s early races, at least, will be closely fought – much as they were last season – and that means every possibility that one of the midfield teams could catapult up to the front of the grid.

The important thing for these three, however, is not just to grab a brief moment of glory but to achieve sustained success throughout the season that can build up the points needed to break into the top five.

To do so in such a tight field will require a good baseline car, a successful and progressive development programme and a strong driver line-up...

SAUBER

Sauber stepped up a level last year, rising just one place from seventh to sixth in the standings but scoring three times as many points as they did in 2011. They secured four podiums, Sergio Perez led three races and they ended up just 16 points behind fifth-placed Mercedes.

This year, with some key changes in drivers, a new team leader firmly in place from the off and a radical design approach to the new car, there is certainly good reason to think they could go one further.

Team principal Monisha Kaltenborn, a veteran of 12 seasons with the team, took over from Peter Sauber in October last year and as CEO since 2010 she had already been responsible for a big part of Sauber’s recent success. She will be able to exert even greater influence over the day-to-day running of the team this year.

Last year’s car had impressive pace but was often inconsistent, with a series of driver errors and reliability problems forcing them to miss out on even more points they could have claimed.

This year, however, sees an all-new driver line-up with Nico Hulkenberg joining from Force India as lead driver and the team’s experienced test driver but rookie racer Esteban Gutierrez stepping up to join him after Sergio Perez moved to McLaren and Kamui Kobayashi was dropped.

The team have made another step forward with the car, making headlines with an innovative narrow sidepod design, and the arrival of Hulkenberg should give them a driver with the pace, consistency and experience needed to develop the concept and make the most of it.

In pre-season testing, Sauber covered more laps than any other team and while times are only a loose guide to performance Hulkenberg ended up leading the midfield group, narrowly beating Adrian Sutil’s time for Force India, in the final Barcelona test. Whether they can step up beyond that remains to be seen in Melbourne and beyond.

FORCE INDIA

Force India had good momentum with car development at the end of last year and has the strongest and most experienced driver line-up in the midfield – but a series of significant off-season changes could take the team one way or the other.

The competitive partnership between Paul di Resta and Hulkenberg has been broken by the latter’s defection to Sauber – but the return of Adrian Sutil re-unites a partnership the team ran in 2011 and creates a pairing with 129 Grand Prix starts between them.

Sutil is a highly rated driver and performed well against di Resta when they were last together, and although he was a late addition to the team he had run more laps, and set a faster time, than his team-mate by the end of the final test.

The intra-team battle should be one to watch but it is also one that Force India will have to carefully manage it to ensure it is a positive rather than detrimental to their hopes of chasing down sixth place or higher in the constructors’ standings.

Despite ending 2012 riding the crest of a development wave the team decided to change much of the car’s design – which is a gamble similar to the one taken by McLaren further up the field.

The theory behind this major overhaul is that the team had reached the development limit of the concepts on the 2012 machine and in theory the new model will give them more potential to move forward.

That could be key because closest rivals Sauber have never been strong at developing their car during the season and Force India’s experienced driver pairing should enable the team to get the maximum out of their programme. That could give them a significant boost compared to their competition.

WILLIAMS

Williams scored a popular victory in Spain last year – their first since 2004 and just one year after their worst ever season – but it proved to be one of few highlights as they struggled to build on the potential of a new reunion with Renault.

The season was still seen as a major improvement, however, and there is hope within the team that with a new engineering leader now well bedded in, this year could be the time for a return to glory.

Pastor Maldonado has proven very quick at times but in his third season he must finally rid himself of the mistakes he regularly makes. Highly rated test driver Valterri Bottas replaces Bruno Senna, and that should create a stronger driver line-up for this season.

Mike Coughlan’s team has created a neat car but has also already had to steer around potential trouble – removing an innovative exhaust outlet over fears that it could be illegal.

This is a strange situation as most teams are careful to check any potentially controversial designs with the FIA to make sure they are within the regulations – and that Williams did not do so seems to indicate a surprising lack of attention to detail.

The car was also released late – missing the first test in Jerez – and although Williams claimed that gave them the opportunity to test the new tyres with the old car, there is little benefit of doing that in Jerez because of the track surface.

As a result, the team had fewer laps with their new car than any other team in pre-season testing but what they did have appeared to please the drivers – with both declaring the new machine a clear step change above what they had last year.

Encouragingly, Maldonado also suggested the tyre degradation on the new machine was low, which could open up some interesting strategy opportunities – and if it all comes together then Williams could also have what it takes to be a consistent challenger.

Overall, there is little to choose between these three teams on paper – and that is likely to be the story on the track too. So expect some fireworks in the midfield again this season.