Twenty-twelve has already gone down in history, and the season hasn’t even started yet. The most VIP driver line-up, never before have there been as many as six World Champions on the starting grid.
Kimi Raikkonen, the monosyllabic bon vivant, has returned after a sabbatical spent rally driving and re-launches his F1 career with the Lotus F1 Team. When he won the F1 title in 2007, with Ferrari, there was just one other champ on the grid; the Conquistadorial Fernando Alonso. But now we have baby-faced wunderkind Sebastian Vettel, who is eying a hat-trick; mercurial A-lister Lewis Hamilton; Mr Smooth, Jenson Button; and, like Rocky Balboa weighing in against much younger fighters, 43-year-old Michael Schumacher. Don’t call it a comeback.
Between them they share 14 world titles, and the chances are the 2012 trophy too will find its way into the Swiss chalet of one of these famous gents.
F1 cars are, of course, the most technologically advanced, valuable, and fast-cornering racing machines in the world. Due to a change in crash structure regulations this year, they look like they picked a fight with a doorman. Their noses now look like a platypus’ beak. Only the McLaren MP4-27 has been spared this ‘step’ treatment, earning it a sash and tiara in the beauty stakes. But, have McLaren missed a trick? Duck bill or not, the quickest car will be deemed a good-looking car – and in testing the Lotus E20 has been the pacesetter.
Lotus are quietly confident. Bookending pre-season testing with the fastest times, the E20 car has looked quick and reliable. A design issue with one of the front suspension struts threatened to derail the teams preparations, and cost them a week’s testing as they strove to solve the problem, but the team bounced back and left no one in doubt of their potential.
In recent years, McLaren have started the season slowly and then caught up. Red Bull Racing, which has dominated for the last two years, is considered the favourite to win again. Ferrari, the most successful and long-running team, has struggled in pre-season tests and may feel the heat from Mercedes GP in the first half of the season.
Where Lotus will be in the mix is unclear, but the target is to finish the championship in the top four. Kimi and team-mate Romain Grosjean, who returns to F1 full-time having won the GP2 championship last year, are gunning for big points – maybe a podium – Down Under, and the challenge for the team will be to keep with and close in on Red Bull as the season develops.
Twenty races, starting with Melbourne on March 18 and ending in Sao Paulo on November 25; this is the longest and biggest season yet. Read more background on the 2012 Lotus F1 Team.
The first race of the year is liable to be the most unpredictable. What’s more, Albert Park’s tarmac gets rubbered-up just once a year, so the surface will be greener than a month-old ciabatta and as slippery as Rockefeller Plaza come Christmas. That, combined with the narrow walls that line the circuit, means there’s always some carbon-crunching drama.
Despite the lack of true straights, Melbourne is a fast circuit not unlike Montreal – a quick and narrow track punctuated with chicanes. The most thrilling section for the drivers can be found as they thread through turns 11 and 12. The cars are doing approximately 292km/h in seventh gear, before dropping one cog followed by another as they flick left then right, pulling 4.5G. Overtaking can be achieved on the start/finish straight, though many run wide at the first turn. Another good opportunity can be found down to turn 13. More Facts >
With its colourful run-off areas, lakeside position and skyscraper backdrop, Albert Park provides a great looking and well-run circuit.
Local start time: 17h00
Number of laps: 58
Circuit length: 5.303km
Race distance: 307.574km
Lap record: Michael Schumacher (Ferrari, 2004), 1:24.125
Pole position: Sebastian Vettel – Red Bull-Renault
Podium: 1) Sebastian Vettel – Red Bull-Renault
2) Lewis Hamilton – McLaren-Mercedes
3) Vitaly Petrov – Lotus-Renault
Reigning champ Vettel got his campaign off to the perfect start, while Lotus-Renault proved a force to be reckoned with. Vitaly Petrov, who started sixth, became the first Russian driver to stand on the podium. Team-mate Nick Heidfeld raced from 18th to 12th.
One of the most popular venues on the F1 calendar, Melbourne has it all: Its climate is sunny but refreshing, and it’s right on the beach; its population is cosmopolitan and laid back; it’s the cultural hub of Australia, has some truly great cocktail bars and restaurants; and the whole city is sports mad.
Most drivers stay at the Crown Towers, Melbourne’s biggest luxury hotel and home to a lavish 24 hour casino. On the Thursday before the race it plays host to the black tie Grand Prix Ball, attended by all F1 and Victorian glitterati. For fine dining, try the Stokehouse – a relaxed beachside restaurant where teams entertain their guests. After the race, go clubbing at Boutique. The velvet-and-mirrors VIP room gives Kimi and co their first chance this year to let their hair down together.