After a winter of movement this season’s driver line-ups have a very different complexion to last year’s pairings.
Wed 13.03.13, 3:03PM
The 2013 season might be light on technical upheavals but the driver line-ups are markedly different to last year and as the teams prepare for the opening race in the season in Australia this weekend, the paddock will see a parade of new kids on the F1 block, while some familiar faces have moved on to new pastures.
Top of the list of movers shaking things up is of course Lewis Hamilton. The 2008 world champion shocked F1 late last year when he decided to split from McLaren, the team he had been with since childhood, in favour of a new challenge at Mercedes.
Initially the move looked something of a retrograde step as Mercedes raced to an unconvincing 2012 championship finish, having failed to find the form that had seen them win the Chinese Grand Prix in April with Nico Rosberg. However, after an impressive winter test programme in which Hamilton set the quickest lap time of the two test programmes held in Barcelona, the switch looks a solid bit of business on both sides. Whether the team can run at the same pace at all venues and in all temperatures remains to be seen, but in the short term Hamilton, and team-mate Rosberg, could spring a few early season surprises.
The Briton’s move opened up a coveted spot at McLaren and to the surprise of many who had tipped him for a berth at Ferrari thanks to his connections to the Scuderia’s driver academy, the seat alongside Jenson Button went to former Sauber pilot Sergio Pérez.
The Mexican arrived at McLaren with a few question marks hanging over him, however. After claiming three podium finishes in the first two thirds of the season – in Malaysia, Canada and Italy – Pérez’s final six races were far from perfect and he failed to take a point after taking 10th place at the Singapore GP. On the plus side, however, his trio of top-three finishes were hugely impressive and his wily way with a set of tyres and his ability to often match pacey Sauber team-mate Kamui Kobayashi on lap times left many tipping the young Mexican for great things.
A winter of intensive bedding in at McLaren gave way to a cautious test programme that revealed little about Pérez’s adaptation to the team and it will undoubtedly take some races for the man from Guadalajara to settle. However, once he does the results will surely come.
Also on the move during the winter was Nico Hulkenberg. With Pérez making way at competitive Sauber and Kobayashi’s tenure with the Swiss team looking fragile, Hulkenberg stepped in. The German’s switch from Force India to Sauber might seem like a sideways step across the midfield but the Sauber C31 was one of 2012’s best cars and with the regulations largely static there’s no reason to believe that its successor won’t be just as quick.
Hulkenberg’s switch meant a seat at Force India was going begging and the battle for the berth at the Silverstone-based squad eventually boiled down to a straight fight between 2012 tester Jules Bianchi and Adrian Sutil, who had spent five seasons racing for Spyker/Force India before losing his drive at the end of 2011. The duel between the pair was a long one and it wasn’t until midway through the final pre-season test that Force India eventually opted for experience over youth and welcomed prodigal son Sutil back to the fold.
While Sutil’s place on the grid took some time to confirm, Charles Pic made his switch before the 2012 was over. The Frenchman’s move from Marussia to Caterham again looks like a sideways move but the Leafield team just pipped the Banbury squad for 10th place in the Constructors’ Championship at the 2012 season finale in Brazil and the resources that finish reaped might mean Pic gets a car with which he can consistently demonstrate the pace that saw him match experienced former Marussia team-mate Timo Glock on more than one occasion last year.
Pic’s departure from Marussia and the team’s later split with Glock, brings us to the 2013 rookies. The first to benefit from the changes at Marussia was Max Chilton. The Briton finished the 2012 GP2 season in fourth place and has had the benefit of the second largest number of test kilometres (2,536) of any of this season’s rookies.
Chilton is joined at Marussia by (very) late addition Jules Bianchi, who spent 2012 as test driver at Force India, for whom he drove nine Friday sessions. After missing out on the Force India drive, the French driver didn’t have to wait long before being picked up by a rival team. Indeed, less than 24 hours after Sutil’s signing was announced, Bianchi was unveiled as a Marussia driver.
The news was a bitter blow for 2012 GP2 runner-up Luiz Razia. The Brazilian had signed a contract with Marussia but a dispute with his backers led to Marussia pulling out of the deal and opting for Ferrari-supported Bianchi instead.
The early season will be a steep learning curve for the French driver. Having spent most of the winter testing Force India’s VJM06, moving across to Marussia’s MR02, which he drove for a just a few hours at the final Barcelona test, will make the early races a tough prospect.
At Caterham, Giedo van der Garde gets his chance alongside Pic. The Dutchman spent last season as test driver for the team while simultaneously racing his way to sixth in the GP2 championship. His six Friday sessions for Caterham last year mean he knows the team well and he’s also the first Dutchman in F1 since Christijan Albers raced for Spyker in 2007.
Van der Garde’s opportunity at Caterham came at the expense of Heikki Kovalainen, but the balance of Finns on the grid has been restored with the graduation of Valtteri Bottas from testing duties to a race seat at Williams. Bottas was impressive as a Friday tester last season and with the new FW35 looking competitive, the driver from Nastola could do well this year.
The season’s final rookie is Esteban Gutierrez, who was a shoo-in to replace compatriot Sergio Pérez at Sauber, which has substantial Mexican backing. Gutierrez comes with good pedigree. He blitzed the 2008 Formula BMW Europe championship and later stepped up to GP3 with where he was similarly dominant with ART Grand Prix in 2010. It’s been rougher ride across two seasons in GP2, however. In year one in the series he finished 13th but improved last year to take third place in the standings behind series winner and current Lotus tester Davide Valsecchi and Razia.
Gutierrez logged the most test miles of any driver in pre-season with an impressive 2,768km, which means that Sauber are supremely reliable and the Mexican should be well prepared for what should be a fascinating opening race to the 2013 Formula One season.