History is being made in 2012. For the first time ever, the F1 grid contains six past World Champions. This elite group includes the winners of every title going back to 2000, the first of Michael Schumacher's successes with Scuderia Ferrari.
That statistic alone suggests we're in the midst of an intriguing season, and with some technical rule changes giving the designers extra food for thought over the winter, it's tough to predict how the competition will play out at the front of the field.
The early races may not have given the true picture of how things will look come the U.S. GP in Austin in November, such is the pace of development these days. This year, the addition of an in-season test—at Italy's Mugello in May—will give teams a proper chance to hone updates before the European season starts.
The big technical change for 2012 is the FIA's clampdown on blown exhaust diffusers. All teams used this technology last year, with varying degrees of success, but now exhausts cannot be used for aerodynamic effect and have to point away from the vehicle's floor and diffuser. Together with engine mapping restrictions, this has robbed the best exponents of this black art—notably Red Bull and McLaren—of a significant amount of rear grip.
Last year's Red Bull RB7 was designed around the blown diffuser. It's a little premature to suggest that RBR has lost the "unfair advantage" that made it all but unbeatable last year, but the consensus is that we might have a more level playing field in 2012.
All the teams now have greater knowledge of the and that may close things up. For its sophomore season, Pirelli has shrunk the performance differentials among its compounds to make tire choice less clear cut.
The 2012 cars certainly look different. The FIA has demanded a lower nose in an attempt to make cars safer in T-bone accidents, but because the maximum chassis height is unchanged most teams have opted to make ugly "steps" to bridge the gap. One exception is McLaren, whose aerodynamic philosophy has traditionally demanded a lower chassis and whose preferred nose height already met the rules.
At first glance, the entry list doesn't suggest much change, as the top four teams—Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes—head into a third season with exactly the same driver lineups. But the battles within those pairings will be fascinating.
At Red Bull, the question is whether Mark Webber can return to his 2010 form and give Sebastian Vettel a hard time, at least on occasion. At McLaren, the Lewis Hamilton versus Jenson Button contest will continue to enthrall, Button having comprehensively outscored his teammate last year. However, Hamilton generally had the upper hand in qualifying, so if he gets his head together, Lewis could bounce back.
At Ferrari, Felipe Massa has to climb out of the slump he's been in for the past two seasons and push Fernando Alonso. If he doesn't, the Brazilian will almost certainly be dropped for 2013, creating a prime vacancy at Maranello. The Italian team has taken some risks with its new car, the first created under British Technical Director Pat Fry, and it may take time to get the best out of it.
The product of a stellar new technical squad, the Mercedes chassis is expected to be much better this year. It will be fascinating to see how the now 43-year-old Schumacher fares against teammate Nico Rosberg, especially if the car moves them toward the front of the grid.
This year, however, Schumacher has been edged out of the limelight by Kimi Räikkönen, the 2007 World Champion returning with the rebadged Lotus outfit following a two-year hiatus in rallying and (briefly) NASCAR trucks. Early testing suggested that the former Renault team has created a good car, but Räikkönen will be pushed hard by his teammate, GP2 champion Romain Grosjean.
In other changes, Red Bull protégés Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne have been installed at Toro Rosso, while Bruno Senna has a chance to show if he is really made of the right stuff with Williams—the only team to have switched engine suppliers over the winter, with a move from Cosworth to Renault. Nico Hulkenberg has replaced Adrian Sutil at Force India, and veteran Pedro de la Rosa has landed a seat with HRT.
Meanwhile, two of the youngest teams in the field have new identities—the Lotus team of 2010–11 has become Caterham, while Virgin has morphed into Marussia.