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SPEED previews the F1 season
The inaugural race of the 2012 Formula One World Championship is right around the corner, with live coverage of the Australian Grand Prix set for Sunday, March 18 at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT (replay at 3 p.m. ET/Noon PT).

SPEED also is set to broadcast practice starting at 1:30 a.m. ET/ 10:30 p.m. PT on March 16, with qualifying at 2 a.m. ET/11:00 a.m. PT on March 17. The Formula One audience can also catch live streaming of the first and third practice sessions at SPEED.com.

All 20 Formula One races are to be broadcast on SPEED or FOX in 2012. SPEED will include 30-minute, pre- and post-race shows for the four events scheduled to air on FOX (Grand Prix of Canada, Grand Prix of Europe, the British Grand Prix and the German Grand Prix).

With a new season in mind, the SPEED on-air team of Bob Varsha, David Hobbs, Steve Matchett and Will Buxton talk about a few on-track storylines of interest.

“I think we could be in line for one of the greatest Formula One seasons we’ve ever seen,” Buxton said. “We’ll have a full grid made up of former champions and GP2 graduates, so you have a younger generation of drivers in the field as well. It is all shaping up to be a really, really fantastic year.”

Based on the last two years of competition however, defending and two-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel, driver of the Red Bull Racing - Renault, still has to be the presumed favorite for a third-straight triumph. Last year, the 25-year-old driver recorded 15 poles, most ever for a single driver throughout a season, and amassed a single-season high in laps led en route to 11 victories, becoming the youngest to ever score back-to-back F1 titles.

“The more championships you win, the tougher it gets,” Varsha said. “By the same token, I think you have to acknowledge the momentum that Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel both have built up in the last few years. Everyone on the team loves him. Adrian Newey, who provides the cars, loves him. Being a human being, he’s probably more inclined to design a car that suits Vettel.”

“Who will win the world championship? Red Bull,” said Matchett, referring to the team of drivers Vettel and Mark Webber. “I have to say it comes down to Adrian Newey. He’s a genius aerodynamicist in my opinion, the best that’s ever been. We’re living through a very fortunate time for Formula One enthusiasts. His work with Williams was outstanding. His work with McLaren was outstanding. His work at both of those teams led to multiple World Championships and it has proven to be the same at Red Bull. They worked out niggles with reliability for the first two years. Each year, his designs just seem to get faster and stronger. I do not see that changing quite frankly this year in Formula One.”

The question is does Vettel have any challengers?

“For me, I think the team that might just do it is McLaren (drivers Lewis Hamilton & Jensen Button),” Buxton said. “For the past two years, they very much started in the back, and really had to work hard throughout the season to get those cars on the same pace as Vettel. Arguably towards the end of the season, they ended up with marginally better cars.

“Starting as they have appeared to have done this year, with a competitive and reliable car, if they keep that same progressive advancement in technology throughout the year, they could end up with a superior car by mid to late season, which could make all the difference,” Buxton continued. “The problem you have with McLaren is they always run 100-percent parity between the drivers and they are taking points off each other, handing the title to someone else. Still, with McLaren starting strongly, I could look towards either Hamilton or Button potentially taking the title.”

“Red Bull has been very quick in testing,” Hobbs said. “So has McLaren, but the big step up (has to be at) Ferrari. Are they going to pick up the pace? Their testing has been a bit lackluster. But Ferrari has a massive depth of resources financially, technically and of course, brain power. Last year looked uncompetitive because Vettel won it by such a large margin, but the fact was he was a little bit lucky early on in the season because nobody could get their act together. Different people kept coming in second, so he built a massive points lead early on.”

Much like his fellow analysts, Matchett thinks McLaren has an opportunity for success, but offers a word of caution.

“Look very carefully at the McLaren,” he said. “They are the only team that opted not to run the stepped plane on the front nose – as every other team has. They have had a look at the regulations and worked the aerodynamics in a different way. The McLaren, you would have to say, has a unique design, very different from all the other constructors.

“We have to watch that,” Matchett continued. “Just because it is different, doesn’t mean it is better. McLaren is out on their own this year with the way they designed aero on their car.”

Every year, there’s a driver or a team that seemingly comes out of nowhere, catching the racing world by surprise. Whom should the fans keep an eye on for 2012?

“(2007 World Champion) Kimi Raikkonen might be a bit of a surprise, with the new Lotus-Renault,” Hobbs said. “If they manage to get the thing screwed together again, he might just show some of his old spark. I don’t think he’ll win the World Championship, but he might be a factor.”

“Mercedes (drivers Nico Rosberg & Michael Schumacher) I think,” Varsha said. “I don’t think they are going to allow a customer team to outdo them again. There is just too much power. They have embarked on a questionable strategy of hiring everybody else’s former technical directors, so you wonder if there are too many chefs and not enough cooks. They are top heavy with talent, if everybody gets along, and they hit the sweet spot with the car, I think we’ll see resurgence from Mercedes this year.”

“Force India,” Buxton said. “Their car looks very good, they have two, very exciting, very quick young drivers (drivers Paul di Resta & Nico Hulkenberg), who will push each other. If the money doesn’t fall out of the bottom of the team, I could see them being a real surprise this year.”

“Two potential surprises,” Matchett said. “Caterham (drivers Vitaly Petrov & Heikki Kovalainen), who were originally Lotus, seems to have come out with a strong, reliable car, which is the main thing to take away from it. They go to new premises this year in the heart of motor sport valley (Leafield Technical Centre, Oxfordshire), where Super Aguri and Arrows are based. That will make it a lot easier for Caterham to find staff because there’s a lot of great talent working around there.

“Also, I’d love to see Williams (drivers Pastor Maldonado & Bruno Senna) have a significantly better season than they did last year, which was their worst year in forever,” Matchett said. “They have gotten Mike Coughlin now working for them as a chief designer. He was an apprentice of John Barnard… who was the guy that created the first carbon fiber chassis and the first semi-automatic hand-pedal gearbox. There’s great depth of engineering strength. Mike Coughlin was involved in some scandal a couple of years ago, so he will be very keen to come back and prove his worth, working for somebody. Keep your eye on Caterham, keep your eye on Williams.”

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