I'm a huge F1 fan, have been all my life. Being a Finn, of course whenver a Finnish driver wins, I am grinning like a child at christmas for the next week. And this blog today has nothing whatsoever to do with mobile, digital, smartphones or media technology. This is all about my passion, F1. If you're not an F1 fan, please feel free to skip this blog entry.
A new season cannot start any better than this one did, with my fave Finnish F1 driver of all time, the 2007 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen, who left F1 for two years and came back last year, to start the season racing for Lotus - the first-ever F1 team that I was a fan of - and winning the first race. Thus Kimi now leads the 2013 Grand Prix racing season - he has thus led the season at three different teams (McLaren, Ferrari and Lotus). Ever more the sweeter that Kimi did not start this first race in Melbourne Australia on the pole position, he started 7th and won the race fair-and-square, making overtaking moves as well as very clever tyre and race strategy. I am happy like a little child... :-)
(this picture is of Kimi Raikkonen in the Lotus last season at the Chinese Grand Prix)
So lets talk F1 and the 2013 season. This season has a unique mixture or past world champions in what seems like the ultimate mix of race-winning and indeed championship-winning cars. Last year we had six past world champions on the grid (Michael Schumacher of 7 Championships, Fernando Alonso of 2, Sebastian Vettel of 2, Lewis Hamilton of 1, Jensen Button of 1 and Kimi Raikkonen of 1 Championship). They all drove cars that actually won duing the season (Vettel won the season in the Red Bull, but also Hamilton and Button won in their McLarens, Alonso in the Ferrari and Kimi in his Lotus. While Schumacher did not win in his Mercedes, the car did win last season, driven by Nico Rosberg, so the car did have the pace to be a winner too)
5 PAST CHAMPS, STILL IN THEIR PRIME, IN 5 DIFFERENT CARS
That was the most Champions ever that lined up on one grid, but they were not all at their peak. Michael Schumacher was no longer in winning form and had not won a race since 2006. Of the cars that started the 2012 season, two of the past champions - Kimi and Schumi - were sitting in cars that had not won recently, and had not won in the previous season. And two of the other past champions, Hamilton and Button, were sitting both in those silver color McLarens, having to share the best efforts of that illustrious team. This season we have an unprecedented situation, where 5 past champions are still so much in their prime, they have won in the previous season. And each of those 5 past champions sits in a different car - and most astonishingly, each of those 5 cars has won at least one race in the previous season, and get this - over the past 7 years, each of those 5 cars has won a championship! (this, allowing for the legacy of the team and the re-naming of the teams, so I am counting the Renault championship of 2006 for the Lotus team of today, and the 2009 Brawn championship for the Mercedes team of today, as both were essentially just renamed and taken over teams with the same facilities and essentially the same staff)
There has never been a start to any season, where five world champs lined up in five separate competitive cars, where each of the 5 champs was still in winning form. This promises us hopefully the most fiercely competitive season ever - and Melbourne gave us a foretaste of that, as that race had 7 different drivers leading that race at some point in time. But lets examine the drivers and teams just a little bit, to see how incredibly, tantalizingly close this seems to be for 2013. Lets take these in the order they entered Formula 1
JENSON BUTTON, McLaren, 1 Championship, 15 Race Wins from 2006, age 33
Jenson entered the F1 level in year 2000 and didn't win his first race until 2006. He had uncompetitive cars early in his career, had the miraculous 2009 season to finally win his championship when everything came perfectly together for the Brawn team, but then Jenson used his champion status to jump to one of the big teams, and for the first time ever drove for one of the classic true giant manufacturers in F1, McLaren, the second-winningest F1 team of all time. There Jenson partnered Lewis Hamilton, another ex-Champion and far younger than Jenson, somewhat in his shadow although the two were incredibly close for a 3-year period, Button winning 8 races for McLaren and Hamilton winning 10 races in the same time. And during these three years Hamilton didn't finish any of the three in the final top 3 of the season, while Button was the runner-up to the championship in 2011. Is Button at his game? has one at least two races in each of the past 4 seasons since 2009 and won three last season including the season-ending race in Brazil.
I think it fair to say, nobody really calls Jenson Button the fastest world champion who ever was. Fast he is, yes, but not the fastest guy on the track, not really on any day. What Button is, is wily, old, experienced, calculating and opportunistic. He is a master of the changing conditions, most of his most memorable races were ones with rain and/or safety car incidents. If the season was one with an overpowering dominating rival team, like say Red Bull or Ferrari, then Button is not the guy you want as your top driver at McLaren. But if the season is one with many teams contesting for the win, and at any one race, a small mistake can kill your chances, you want someone with a very steady disposition, who thinks long term, and is very calculating. Thats Button. And when that one opportunity arises to be the first to switch from the all-wets to the intermediate tyres, that'll be Button who suddenly sprints away from everyone else and steals another victory.
What Button knows and the team knows, is that this is already an older man nearing the end of his fastest years in racing. But Button also knows, his early years were in backmarker cars. Then when he finally got his big chance at McLaren, there was always the child prodigy Lewis Hamilton there to gain team favors. This is the first time ever that Button truly owns the McLaren team, this is his year to make the most of it. Button has an exceptional opportunity to seize one more championship this year. And while the pre-season testing and the qualifying and the race itself at Melbourne clearly showed the McLaren is not the fastest car at the start of the season - McLaren is one of the few teams you want to be in, that year when the year starts with a slow car. They are winners at McLaren, they will fight very hard, very long, with a very large team, to make that car faster. And now Button can have the car revised and fine-tuned to the way he wants his cars (the driving styles of Button and Hamilton were quite 'opposite' so usually if the McLaren was perfect for one driver, it was badly drivable for the other). I can't rate Button the favorite for this season, and by early form, neither can I rate McLaren. But if your car turns out slow at the start, no other team can do bigger miracles than McLaren - and at McLaren, I cannot imagine any other driver more suited for steady, confident 'lets keep improving, lads' mentality than Button, who can appreciate the small gains per race, and keep a positive outlook towards the second half of the season. Some others in this set of 5 champions might simply quit when the car starts off the season as bad (Kimi...) or complain bitterly (Alonso, Hamilton) or not know how to react to such a situation (Vettel...). Button knows that in a season like this one, reliability and consistency, scoring points regularly is a way for a slower car to win the season, much like how Finland's first world champion, Keke Rosberg won against faster cars in 1982, when Keke only managed one win in the season but was the most consistent point-scorer. Button does have his chance.
KIMI RAIKKONEN, Lotus, 1 Championship, 20 Wins since 2003, Age 33
Kimi had a rapid rise from a midfield car (Sauber) to top cars (McLaren, Ferrari, Lotus) and started winning in only his 3rd season. Kimi, the Iceman, is a pure race driver, perhaps the fastest man of the field, but a driver who hates the other stuff of race drivers like working with mechanics to improve the car, or doing the publicity work or even talking to the press (or even talking on the car radio to his mechanics - 'leave me alone, I know what I am doing' Kimi famously said on the radio last year when winning in Abu Dhabi). He won his championship in 2007 for Ferrari but also finished second in the Championship twice, in 2003 and 2005 for McLaren both times being in contention going into the final race of that season. The tiniest bit of luck could have Kimi listed as the three-time world champion, not one-time.
What Kimi wants is a pre-set car that is blisteringly fast, if so, Kimi will go and win with it for you. If the car is not fast enough, he pouts and becomes bored with the race. If Kimi senses he has chances, he can play very steady and has achieved incredibly reliability - last season he was the only driver to finish every race and score points in 19 of the 20 races. But in 2009, when he knew his time at Ferrari was coming to an end, Kimi was erratic, and made mistakes and had lots of crashes.
Many were unsure about Kimi's comeback last season, as we witnessed the troubles Michael Schumacher had in his attempt at a comeback. But Kimi did pull off the sole win last year at Abu Dhabi, and ignoring the 2 seasons he was out of Formula 1, Kimi has been winning at least one race in every one of the past season's he's driven in F1 since 2007, including now this, the first winner of the 2013 season. Also note, that while Kimi only won one race last season, he finished the season at third most points.
If Kimi was uncertain of the decision to join former Renault team, now renamed Lotus for last season, for his comeback to F1, that decision has been vindicated fully by this first-race victory in Melbourne. The one win last season was no fluke (it was a lucky win) but Lotus ie Renault ie Benetton is a team that has mercurial years of magnificently fast cars, or mediocre cars. As Kimi was heard after the race now in Melbourne, he told his team, 'I said the car was fast'. He should know. And when you put Kimi in a fast car, he can be unstoppable. What is more typical Kimi is, that he can nurture his tyres and make them last longer than most rivals, and then what is more typical Kimi is, that near the end of the race, he will let loose and blast off the fastest lap of the race, no matter what position he might be racing for. Kimi just loves to drive very fast. So while Lotus (ie Renault ie Benetton) is not the biggest team, they seem to have produced a fast car for this season, perhaps not the fastest, but fast enough to give Kimi the motivation to get the most out of the car.
And then the magical stuff. Kimi's pattern is very curious odd years/even years. In odd years (2003, 2005, 2007 etc) he wins lots and challenges for the Championship or wins it (2007) but in even years he barely wins anything. Last season, 2012, an even year, Kimi finished third. This is another odd year, 2013..
FERNANDO ALONSO, Ferrari, 2 Championships, 30 wins since 2003, Age 31
Fernando Alonso is considered by many to be one of the greatest drivers ever. He's the winningest of the five Champions we have on this list with 30 race wins. Alonso's career nearly didn't happen as his first sason in 2001 was with the slowest of the backmarkers at that time, Minardi, and Fernando didn't get a seat to drive in 2002. But the sharp eyes at Renault had spotted the talent in Alonso and gave him his second chance in 2003 when he stunned everyone winning one race in what was a mid-field car. Then Renault had its typical moments of brilliance and Alonso was in the right place at the right time to capitalize. His two championships were won at Renault in 2005 and 2006, but he's also finished second in the championship twice driving for Ferrari, including last season.
Alonso is the consumate modern champion, a thinker in the car, an opportunistic overtaker, a brilliant defensive driver when needed, a master of wet conditions, and good at nurturing a car with mechanical trouble. More than that, he works with his mechanics and helps the team improve the car. He is very vocal and profuse in thanking his team and motivating the team, kind of the anti-Kimi if you will. Alonso is often compared to Michael Schumacher (7-time champ and winningest F1 driver of all time) in this style of being the complete modern thinking driver. I also like to think its in the style of Alain Prost, the Frenchman four-time world champion and second-winningest F1 driver of all time, who was called the Professor.
Alonso is hungry. He was hired to Ferrari to win championships, replacing Kimi. He has won races - 9 in the three seasons since he arrived to the Scuderia and twice finishing second, but he hasn't delivered the championship. Ferrari is the winningest team of all time in Formula 1. They want and expect the title. And having been in contention into the last race of the season last year, Alonso can taste his third title. The Ferrari this season is strong to start with, he starts the season already a few points ahead of his strongest rival, Vettel at Ferrari's strongest rival Red Bull, and no doubt, Alonso thinks this is finally his year at Ferrari. Again, it doesn't hurt that Massa suffered a team tactical error to fall far behind in the first race, so Alonso can safely be considered the team leader right from the start - Ferrari always operates best when it has a clear primary driver and supporting driver, no matter how much this may sting Massa in his heart.
Finishing second, Alonso the calculating 2 time champ would probably have said, with no hesitation, if forced to nominate who of the five would he prefer to win if he can't win in Melbourne himself, he'd have said yeah, give it to Kimi at Lotus. Lotus would be the 'weakest' of the big 5 in Alonso's mind and that as long as Vettel and Hamilton were behind him, Alonso could take his second place finish at Melbourne as good as a victory. No wonder he was smiling honestly for his second place. Alonso knows his car is fast, Vettel and the Red Bull is not invincible this season, and Kimi's win was mostly due to good strategy - not that the Lotus is inherently faster than the Ferrari. If given a fair fight for the full season, Alonso knows he has the biggest garage of the winningest mechanics with the most humongous development budget behind him. This is why he wanted to become a Ferrari pilot. This is his season to make the dream come true.
LEWIS HAMILTON, Mercedes, 1 Championship, 21 race wins since 2007, Age 28
Lewis has never known anything other than a top-tier car in Formula 1. He joined the circus in 2007 as a McLaren junior team driver and started off at the McLaren and had the most successful rookie season ever, including his maiden win that season. He's known nothing other than McLaren in his whole driving career up until this year, 2013, when he sat into the Mercedes team car. Last year Hamilton won 4 races for McLaren finishing the season at fourth. He has won at least two races every single season he has raced since he started in F1 in 2007. In addition to his Championship in 2008, he finished second in 2007 with a chance to win going into the final race.
A naturally gifted driver, unafraid to take chances, great at overtaking, and able to pull more out of a car than it deserves to give - of the five World Champions on this list, each of their championships by the other four were won in a season when the car won the manufacturer's championship. So Vettel's three championships, Alonso's two, Button's one and Kimi's one championship were all won in a year when their car was the fastest. But Hamilton's world championship in 2008 for McLaren was won in a year when the Ferrari won the constructor's championship as the fastest car. Lewis is raw talent and immense driving capability and is definitely able to pull more out of a car than it reasonably is able to deliver.
Hamilton had become increasingly disgruntled at McLaren, openly vocal about the team often and his motivation could not have been at its peak recently. Definitely this year, had he still be sitting in the McLaren, he would not be a happy camper the way the McLaren speed is behind other rivals. So Lewis switched to join Mercedes, a risky move but he must feel, just comparing pre-season form and the qualifying and race performance, that a move from McLaren to Mercedes was the right move for this season, 2013. That cannot hurt his motivation. He also was close at McLaren to Ron Dennis who used to lead the team, but after Ron Dennis left, Hamilton's loyalty seems to have diminished too. What he now has, at Mercedes, is Ross Brawn, the smartest team boss perhaps that ever was, and definitely the wiliest pit boss. Lewis had seen his share of team tactical cock-ups at McLaren before, he should find Ross Brawn a team boss more to his liking in the style of Ron Dennis. And then there is his team mate. Lewis had a notorious season with Alonso feuding all season with the Spaniard when both drove for McLaren. Then he had a cordial but not too friendly relationship with fellow Briton in Button. But Hamilton's best friend on the circuit is Nico Rosberg, who is there at Mercedes. Now that after Melbourne and Nico's retirement, Lewis starts the season with a huge points lead over his friend and team mate, it is rather easy for Lewis to claim team leader position within the team - and an arrangement Ross Brawn prefers with his drivers all the way back from when he was the team boss to Michael Schumacher and team mates at Ferrari.
Lewis has to look at McLaren thinking 'I got out just at the right time'. He knows the Mercedes team is big, he no doubt has heard the corporate spin that after their maiden win last season (considering Mercedes return to F1, obviously they won grand prix races decades earlier) now Mercedes wants more and dreams of a title - this is the right time to be at Mercedes, a team on the rise. And if you give Lewis Hamilton a reasonably competitive car - and don't mess up his chances with moronic team tactics - Ross Brawn is your man to ensure that doesn't happen - this is a good team for Lewis. Often when Champions change teams they do very well in the first year at the new team wanting to prove themselves - this all bodes well for Lewis Hamilton's year 2013 in Formula 1. Like LL Cool Jay raps, 'Don't call it a comeback, I've been here for years..'
SEBASTIAN VETTEL, Red Bull, 3 Championships, 26 race wins since 2008, Age 25
The youngest of the five champions and the one with the most championships, Sebastian Vettel may end up being the greatest of this set, and might even one day finish his career thought of as the greatest driver of all time. Blindingly fast, opportuninistic and clever driver, he's pushed slow cars to outperform in his first years in F1 and then when given the fastest car of the pit lane, he's delivered now three championships in a row. At age 25, it is almost certain, that Sebastian is still learning and improving, a frightening prospect. Now after three years of nearly clockwork winning driving the fastest car of the paddock, its easy to forget, that he was able to pull that miracle win for the backmarker team Toro Rosso at the Italian Grand Prix in 2008 - their one and only win ever, including counting back time to decades as the backmarker team Minardi. Vettel is the real thing. Of this set, Alonso may well have the career that one day is considered one of the greats. Kimi may be one of the flashiest and most memorable drivers but won't ever rack up the numbers to hit the top. Lewis just might, he's young enough, but I think his performance was given a favorable light by always driving a fast car for a big team. But Vettel - I do think he's the only one in this group who will be at the end of his career be in debates of the greatest driver of all time, against primarily Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher.
Since Vettel joined Red Bull in 2009, and at that time Red Bull was not considered the best team, more of a mid-field team, he has won at least four races every year, won the championship three times and finished second the fourth time. Of the 96 races contested since he joined Red Bull, Sebastian Vettel has been the winner 25 times (including now Melbourne the first race of 2013). Another 19 times he has stood on the podium. And this is even more impressive, when we remember that his team mate, Mark Webber has been no slouch, snatching 9 victories in the same car. On some other teams, those wins would have been given by team orders to Vettel but Red Bull Racing run by Christian Horner is run on the principles of fair racing and thus Vettel has often seen his biggest rival of the race - stealing wins and podiums - being his own team mate.
I like Vettel and admire the talent and love seeing a true legend at his prime. But I love racing more, and after Vettel established the record for youngest 3-time champion ever last season, enough is enough. I truly hope we have anyone else than Vettel winning the championship this season. But you can't just shut this guy down. Even in this race, where the Lotus team won with a superior strategy, and Vettel's second place was taken by Alonso due to Ferrari's clever tactics - Vettel finished third. That is just the luck of the draw, this was a damp condition race and luck was not on his side today. He had pole position with his team mate Webber beside him, meaning the Red Bull car was easily the fastest of the grid. If you can't win the first race, then that is the best comfort you can possibly have as a past Champion, that you have the fastest car of the start of the season. I have no doubt that Vettel will be in the hunt for this title all through this season come what may.
5 RIVAL RECENT-CHAMPIONSHIP CONSTRUCTORS
Like I said, this is an uprecedented season. Never before have 5 champions lined up in the same season, still so well in their prime that each had won at least one race just the season before, and each sitting in a different car, each of those cars, that had just won at last one race just the season before. And each of these five car constructors had delivered at least one drivers' world championship in the past 7 years. And with none of the cars having two champions in the same car, potentially demanding conflicting opposite development of the same car during the season (or stealing points from each other). Lets consider them in the order of the number of their lifetime drivers' championships
MERCEDES, Hamilton and Rosberg, 3 Championships (2 as Mercedes in 1950s, 1 as Brawn), 21 wins (10 as Mercedes of which 9 in 1950s and 1 in 2012, 8 as Brawn, 3 as Honda, 0 as BAR..)
The glorious Mercedes racing name from the 1950s and their silver arrows is not a legacy to this team in any way, but of course with Mercedes taking over the Brawn team, they of course used their old name. This team traces its roots to one of the winningest teams of all time, Tyrrell, which had 1 world championship in 1971 and a total of 33 race wins. Tyrrell eventually was sold to British American Tobacco (BAR) which then raced some years as a midfield and backmarker team with no wins. Then Honda took over and as Ross Brawn was hired over from Ferrari to run the Honda team, it started to recover and achieved 3 wins but no championships. Then the one emergency year 2009 when Honda pulled out at the very last minute from F1, leaving the team on the brink of bankruptcy, Ross Brawn bought the team, named it after himself, and promptly went to win 8 races and the drivers championship with Jenson Button and the constructor's championship for Brawn. But immediately for the next season, he sold the team to Mercedes. It would take Mercedes two years of no luck until their maiden win in the return, last year 2012 when Nico Rosberg go what was also his personal maiden win in Shanghai.
Ross Brawn is considered the smartest team boss on the pit lane and by a long mile the best tactician on the pit wall. He has immense budgetary support from Mercedes, eager to turn last year's first win into a series of wins and a challenge for the championship now for 2013. What Ross Brawn is very good at also, is to drive his team to improve on what may have been a poor start in terms of the car. This team is one not likely to give up early on the season.
Mercedes brought Michael Schumacher back from retirement to his comeback attempt three years ago, that did get Michael onto a podium only once, finally last year. As Nico Rosberg had proven, the car was capable of winning, but Michael was no longer the man of unnatural speed. It was a noble comeback attempt, and no doubt Mercedes benefitted greatly having the greatest living German driver in their car for three years, especially as a young new German (Vettel) was taking a lot of press attention in an Austrian racing team (Red Bull). But I do believe that Mercedes was actually capable of more, had Nico Rosberg had a fully capable 'young' world champion on his side, like he has Lewis Hamilton now, rather than the old champ who is no longer at his best. So in some ways, Mercedes team true performance the past few years hasn't been seen in its fullest. It has kind of underperformed. Expect that to change now with Hamilton in his first season, both Lewis and Mercedes want to prove to themselves that this was the perfect marriage.
If this was one of those seasons where one team runs away with it from the start, Ross Brawn and Mercedes would not be the type of team to throw good money after bad, they'd cut their losses early and start to work on next season's car. But, as it seems we'll have one of the tightest-fought seasons ever, it helps that you have the skills of Ross Brawn and his team, and the backing of Mercedes, and the commitment they have to Lewis Hamilton - a driver known to complain if the car is too slow. I expect Mercedes to keep improving the car, and that means, it might be mighty-fast by year-end. And who do you want in a mighty-fast car at year-end? Lewis Hamilton hungry to prove his one championship was no fluke.
RED BULL RACING, Vettel and Webber, 3 World Championships, 35 race wins (34 as Red Bull, 0 as Jaguar, 1 as Stewart Racing)
Red Bull is the current champion three years in a row. The team run by Christian Horner has its cars designed by the most talented F1 designer of today, Adrian Newey - who had penned Championship-winning cars for Williams (Mansell, Prost, Hill and Villenevue) and then at McLaren (Hakkinen twice). And now at Red Bull Vettel's three championship-winning cars. Newey's cars have won 80 races in the past two decades. If you are the sitting world champion, no, three-times-in-a-row reigning world champion, and the youngest 3-time world champion of all time, and you have the best car designer creating your cars, this is a recipe for being a favorite under any possible circumstances.
And yes, in qualifying for Melbourne, the Red Bulls of Vettel and Webber locked out the front row. They are sitting in the fastest car. Yes, the Lotus team made the better race strategy and on that gamble they won the race by a brilliant drive by Kimi. And yes, Alonso benefitted from Ferrari's sudden and unanticipated early tyre-stop as a tactical move, who took second. Even with these strategic and tactical setbacks, Vettel stood on the podium as third. Lotus was not able to use their strategy to put two drivers ahead of Vettel, and Ferrari with its tactics, wasn't able to do that with two Ferrari drivers either. All in all, if you have the youngest and perhaps fastest driver, driving the fastest car, designed by the winningest car designer ever.. that is why Vettel can honestly smile that Australia started ok. Not perfectly, but he is already in the hunt for his fourth title - and in all honesty, he has to be considered the front-runner. But Red Bull is not the biggest team and Vettel has perhaps the strongest team mate in Webber challenging him on a team where team orders will be resisted until the very end of the season.
LOTUS, Raikkonen and Grosjean, 11 Championships (7 as the original Lotus not affiliated with this team, 2 as Renault, 2 as Benetton, 0 as Toleman), 126 wins, (1 as the current Lotus in 2012, 73 as the other Lotus from 1954-1994; 35 as Renault, 27 as Benetton, 0 as Toleman)
Lotus similar to Mercedes has taken a classic F1 name but the team is different. This team is the descendant of Toleman, via way of Benetton (2 championships with Schumacher) and Renault (2 championships with Alonso). While the legendary Lotus team was one of the winningest teams of all time, this newer Benetton-Renault-Lotus is no slough either. It last won a championship as recently as 2006 and that year it won both the drivers' and constructors' championships, so compared to McLaren - McLaren hasn't won a constructors' championship this millenium, its last one was with Mika Hakkinen's first championship all the way back to 1998.
The Renault team got into trouble with its outspoken team leader Flavio Briatore got into all kinds of trouble for trying to fix a race and was banned from F1. In the aftermath, Renault seeked to rebrand and got enthralled in another mess with a fight over the Lotus brand with the 'other' Lotus team that now is called Caterham. The ensuing turmoil meant that the team wasn't fully focused on perfect performance in the past few years. Nonetheless, this team called Lotus today is essentially the Reneault/Benetton team that is known for pushing the envelope with regulations, seeking advantages, and for a relatively modest-sized major team, produces either frightfully fast cars or mediocre cars. Last year they showed momentary brilliance teasing with Kimi leading some races but it wasn't until Abu Dhabi, where with a good dose of luck, they snatched their first win as this newly rebranded Lotus team. This year looks like its time for frightfully fast once again and the team spirits must be enthusiastic after Kimi said that the win was easy, one of his easiest ever, with such a fast car. If you know some of the other teams have bigger budgets to develop their cars more this season, its good to start already as one of the fastest.
MCLAREN, Button and Perez, 12 World Championships, 182 race wins.
The second winningest F1 team of all time and the second biggest in terms of budgets, staff and resources, McLaren is always a contender. But recently they have not produced quite the fastest cars. Its back to 2008 when they last had a world champion, and that year, Lewis Hamilton won while McLaren did not win the Constructors' Championship. We have to go back all the way to 1998 to find the last time McLaren won the Constructors' Championship (and had another Drivers' championship, 1999 for Hakkinen again where another team won the constructors').
The team has somewhat the appearance of a ship that is leaking if not sinking, they lost Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes, are going to lose their lead sponsor Vodafone at the end of this year, and their technical director Paddy Lowe will depart to Mercedes after this season (and has been reassigned as his loyalties are no longer certain). So McLaren is somewhat in turmoil. What you prefer under such circumstances is that your driver pairing is secure and not adding to the pressures and pain. Having Button now for the first time ever in his long career the undisputed number 1 driver of a top team, is a good start. His young team mate Sergio Perez is a good understudy not about to rock that boat for Jenson. And Button's personality is just about perfect for this season. Not perfect condition - but ones that can still work out. He's the eternal optimist and opportunist, he can make the best of this situation, which in turn will help motivate the big team that most of all needs now stability and confidence.
What is idiomatic for McLaren, year after year, is if their first car is not the fastest, they are not going to abandon the season. That is why McLaren is the second winningest team of all time, they persist, they keep fighting. With that, its very typical for McLaren drivers to have a slow first half, and came on fire in the second half of the season. For example Lewis Hamilton had such a season in 2009, when in the first 9 races he did not make the podium even once. In the remaining races he stood on the podium 5 times including 2 wins and finished the season in 3rd place. Similarly in 2004 Kimi went 10 races without a podium but then in the last 8 races stood on the podium 4 times including one victory. This team does not know the word 'quit' and if you're Button, nearing the end of your best years, and feel you want one more chance at a second championship, if you can't have the fastest car at the first race, this is the team you want to be in.
FERRARI, Alonso and Massa, 15 Drivers' Championships, 219 race wins.
Ferrari, the prancing horse, is the winningest team in F1 history. It has the biggest budget and biggest staff and lives and breathes a culture of winning. It last won in 2007 when Kimi drove for the team, and after Alonso took over after Kimi left, in the last 3 years, Ferrari's Alonso came second twice to Vettel in the drivers' championship. They love Alonso not only for being a fellow Latin-blooded cousin, but one who speaks Italian, and is generous with praise when the team does well. Alonso is hard-working and willing to spend countless hours with mechanics to help develop the car (something Kimi was not prone to do, but the team was accustomed to, as Kimi's predecessor Michael Schumacher was known for this).
Some years the Ferrari Grand Prix car is not very competitive and the team is known to stop development of the car early, to start work on the next season. That would be devastating for Alonso after how close he came last season. No worry about that, the Ferrari was fast in pre-season testing and clearly in qualifying and race-form, in Melbourne, it was one of the fastest on the grid. That is good enough for such talent as Alonso who can strech the capability of the car beyond what it was supposed to do. And that means Alonso and Ferrari will be in contention all season, meaning the team will keep investing in the car, developing it ever further.
The luckiest break Alonso got in Melbourne, however, was how the team treated Massa, on a tactical blunder, that dropped Massa who was at the time faster than Alonso and on a strategy that would have given him a better finishing position, to far back into the pack, so Massa finished behind Alonso and not even on the podium. I cannot imagine that Ferrari, even as the team is known for preferring one lead driver, would have punished Massa for leading the race and doing this deliberately. But Alonso benefitted from team tactics that specifically hurt Massa and swapped their position, something Alonso had not been able to do on the racetrack. What it does to Massa, is demoralize him and introduce severe doubts that the team is treating him unfairly. And it sets Alonso up as the clear team number 1 driver right from the start, something Alonso will now be able to capitalize on and hold, with a car this good to begin with.
NEARLY PERFECT ORDER FOR THESE DRIVERS
So. We have 5 champions in 5 different cars. Each champ has won last season. Each car has won last season. None of the champions faces a rival champion in the same car. This is a near-perfect season for the ultimate contest. But there is still a bit more. Look at the finish of last season.
2012 Drivers World Championship Top 5
1 - Vettel, Red Bull
2 - Alonso, Ferrari
3 - Raikkonen, Lotus
4 - Hamilton, McLaren
5 - Button, McLaren
Then look at the Constructor's Championship Top 5
1 - Red Bull
2 - Ferrari
3 - McLaren
4 - Lotus
5 - Mercedes
These five drivers are not only personally still at their peaks of their driving careers, each winning at least 1 race last season, but these 5 champions were also the five fastest drivers of the season. Same for the five cars, yes, all five cars won at least one race, but the five cars also were the five fastest cars last season.
And yes, it still suggests Vettel and Red Bull are the clear favorites, Alonso and Ferrari the obvious contenders. But... Kimi did win the first race, Lotus is on an ascendancy. Mercedes had been underperforming the past few years it may have hidden strengths that now are unleashed with Lewis Hamilton. McLaren is not the strongest but Button now has the team to himself and has a season to mold that car with all the McLaren resources, he may well end the season with the fastest car perfectly suited to his driving style.
This could be the ultimate racing season in Formula 1 history that could well go into the final race with 5 drivers from 5 separate cars mathematically capable of still winning the championship. Wouldn't that be awesome.
Go Kimi! Go Lotus!
PS welcome to F1 our newest Finnish driver, Valtteri Bottas driving for Williams who was the highest ranked rookie finishing 14th. May your driving career be long and prosperous with many wins and a championship before you retire.
And may the gods of motor racing find it in their hearts to bring Heikki Kovalainen back to F1, a proven race winner whose career didn't deserve to end so quickly.