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Testing Wrap: Red Bull, McLaren, Lotus, Mercedes Look to Produce Compelling 2012

JEREZ DE LA FRONTERA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 12:  Red Bull Racing test team manager Tony Burrows looks on in the garage  during day three of winter testing at the Circuito de Jerez on February 12, 2011 in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Paul Gilham/Getty Images
James RossiCorrespondent IMarch 5, 2012

It seems as if it was only yesterday that Mark Webber dashed across the line to record his solitary victory of 2011 at the back of November. Yet after reviews, previews, Christmas, New Year and three preseason tests later, we are now just over a week from the start of what promises to be an utterly thrilling 2012 Formula One season.

The clever bet for 2012 would be Red Bull and their wunderkid, Sebastian Vettel, after a dominant 2011. Yet with the concept on which their dominance was built having been outlawed for this season, designers were forced to produce something else to topple the reigning champions.

Off-throttle diffuser blowing (pumping exhaust gas over the diffuser to produce extra downforce) has now been banned, which has resulted in slower testing times and more unpredictable handling. Combined with the higher degrading Pirelli tyres, which were introduced last year, this should theoretically produce more combative racing. 

Testing is notoriously difficult to read into, with teams attempting different setups, with differing fuel loads and various tyre compounds. However, eagle-eyed observers trackside have concluded who is likely to be heading the field and who is not over the course of the three preseason tests. 

With such a fundamental rule change for 2012, a shake-up of the order would not be surprising, but according to well-informed paddock sources, Red Bull and McLaren have both looked ominously fast.

Both are reported to handle excellently in all conditions. McLaren especially have seemingly rid their car of the downforce weaknesses of 2011, with Lewis Hamilton reporting that the car feels very stable through the long corners of the Circuit de Catalunya. 

Can this man be stopped from winning a third world championship?
Can this man be stopped from winning a third world championship?Clive Mason/Getty Images

However, the dark horse this year could turn out to be Lotus. With returning Kimi Raikkonen and GP2 champion Romain Grosjean at the wheel, the E20 has proven to be at the top of the time sheets in every condition.

Even more encouragingly, the long-run pace of the French/English outfit has stunned onlookers, with times comparable if not slightly better than both McLaren and Red Bull. Many consider Raikkonen to be one of the fastest drivers Formula 1 has ever seen, with potential that remained unfulfilled throughout his 'first' career. 

One name missing from the list of potential Grand Prix winners is Ferrari. Despite accusations of bluffing, the Maranello marque has already re-engineered the exhaust configuration of the F2012, much like McLaren did last year immediately prior to the first race.

Paddock insiders have noted that the car appears to be outlandishly inconsistent, with very narrow set-up parameters. Understeering when heavy, oversteering when light. 

With such a big, last-minute change, Ferrari have left themselves plenty of development work to do prior to the Australian Grand Prix. After an indifferent 2011, this season could see serious pressure mounting on team principal, Stefano Domenicali.

A run of seasons without success and a seemingly disorganised outfit harks back to the mid-1990s era when Ferrari were accused of being too Italian, an organised mess. 

Along with Mercedes, who suffered an incredible 3.3 seconds of performance drop off over 10 laps, which is up to a second more time loss than that exhibited by Red Bull and McLaren on their race simulations, Ferrari desperately need to bounce back. 

The German manufacturer, on the other hand, has at least shown inherent speed. Over short stints, the W03 has impressed with consistently quick times. Ross Brawn has admitted that Mercedes has improved markedly from the midfield pace it was only capable of last year.

Will 2012 be a successful final year for seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher? Will he stay on post-2012?

After Adrian Newey and Sebastian Vettel's brilliance last year, it appears as though the competition has increased. Come Melbourne, we could be in for a colossal fight. One mistake in qualifying could set a driver back 10 positions on the grid. 

Bring on 2012!

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