Formula One is a sport, above any other, defined by past greats; talk to an F1 fan about Fangio, Clark, Senna and Schumacher and chances are they will go misty-eyed. But it’s very rare for the fans to recognise at the time that they could be witnessing greatness. The start of the 2012 season has shown to be the start of a new era for the sport. For the first time since 1983, five different drivers have won the first five races. The top seven in the championship are covered by just twenty points - that’s less than a win. On the track, there are several teams who could all realistically win. But why has the sport got to this point? And why is it so exciting this year, above all others?
In all honesty, there are a number of factors which have resulted in such a close season so far. Firstly, it should be made clear that Formula One is a sport in which the rules are ever changing. Since its inception in 1950, arguably the only rule that has stayed the same is that the driver who crosses the line first at the end of the race is the winner. Whilst that makes comparison between different eras difficult, it also means that the rule makers, the FIA, have the power to make the sport more or less exciting. To this end, there were some small tweaks to the regulations for this season. The exhaust-blown diffusers, which in basic terms involved using trick exhausts to help create downforce, were banned for the start of this year. That meant the teams who had made best use of the technology, notably Red Bull, had to fundamentally redesign their car. This meant that other teams who did not develop the system on their car were given a ‘get out of jail’ card as the faster teams were slowed down and were closer to them. As the rest of the regulations remained mostly static for this year, teams were able to copy the best bits from other teams’ cars and bolt them onto their own - resulting in cars that look as similar as ever and use very similar methodology to exploit downforce to its maximum.
However, one main talking point of the season so far has been tyres. Pirelli, the only tyre supplier, entered the sport at the start of 2011, but for 2012 their job has been under even more scrutiny than previously. That’s because the Italian manufacturer has made the rubber softer (and therefore faster) but which also means that it degrades quicker. As a result, drivers are forced into either making more pitstops in a race, or looking after their tyres. But it can make all the difference, as Kimi Raikkonen found out in China earlier this year - he dropped from second place back to twelfth in just two laps after his tyres suddenly gave up. He had run on them for too long and they had worn out. Conversely, Raikkonen’s run last time out in Spain was the other side of the coin - if there had been just five more laps in the race, he could have challenged Fernando Alonso’s second place and maybe even taken the win from Pastor Maldonado. That shows that tyre management and strategy plays an even more important part in race craft as a driver’s speed and overtaking ability.
That leads on nicely to the final point - the drivers themselves. Never in Formula One’s history had it seen six world champions on the grid at once - until 2012. That’s a quarter of the drivers who have at some point raised the world championship trophy at least once. One of them, Michael Schumacher, has raised it a record seven times. Whilst all six of these men are extremely talented, some of them inspiringly so, it is the remaining drivers in the top teams who have shown that they also have what it takes. Both Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg and Williams’ Pastor Maldonado have taken their maiden wins in the first five races of the year, and there is a distinct possibility that drivers like Romain Grosjean in the second Lotus and Sergio Perez in the Chelsea-sponsored Sauber could also break their ducks before the season draws to a close in Brazil in November.
The opportunity for fascinating racing is as high as ever moving into the most prized race of the year, the Monaco Grand Prix, which takes place this weekend. I, for one, cannot wait. I daresay neither can you.