Formula 1: The Rising and Falling Stars of the First 2 Races

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistMarch 28, 2012

Formula 1: The Rising and Falling Stars of the First 2 Races

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    The 2012 FIA Formula 1 World Championship has got off to a cracking start.

    There are a number of reasons I say that, but the major factor for me has been the unpredictability.  Good practice pace hasn't necessarily meant good qualifying times, and good qualifying times have certainly not translated into unbeatable race speed.

    Rain or no rain, it's unlikely anyone thought Fernando Alonso would win the Malaysian Grand Prix.  No one could have expected that Pastor Maldonado would go so well in Australia. 

    And Sebastian Vettel, last year's dominant champion, is probably as surprised as anyone that he and Red Bull are struggling to perform well in qualifying. 

    Two races isn't much to go on, but already several drivers have gone up in the eyes of observers.  Others have gone down slightly.

    As we wait for the Chinese Grand Prix, let's look at which men have seen their stock go up or down after the first two rounds.

Up: Michael Schumacher

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    It's very nearly 20 years since the last significant rise in Michael Schumacher's stock.  The German was widely considered the best overall driver in the sport from 1994 until his retirement in 2006, and throughout that time, he rested on a plateau.

    His reputation fluctuated, but his ability and place in the sport was never in question.

    Now it's 2012, and after two mediocre years, he's suddenly looking a changed man, especially in qualifying.  Fourth in Australia was at the time his best starting position for Mercedes, and he followed it up with third in Malaysia. 

    On both occasions, he outqualified teammate Nico Rosberg—something he managed only three times in the whole of 2011.

    We haven't yet seen him have a clean race—a gearbox failure led to retirement in Melbourne, and a first-lap incident with Romain Grosjean left him playing catch-up in Sepang.

    Admittedly, he didn't play catch-up very well, but he's still looking a better driver now than he did at the end of last season.

Down: Nico Rosberg

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    To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.  Isaac Newton wrote those words (well, he wrote actioni contrariam semper et æqualem esse reactionem, but someone was good enough to translate it) in the 17th century, and they seem well-suited in the 21st to describe the dynamics within Mercedes.

    Michael Schumacher has gone up.  Nico Rosberg has gone down.

    In 2010 and 2011, Rosberg appeared to have the measure of his older teammate.  Far superior on Saturdays, he also scored more points in the races and was generally viewed as the top man in the team. 

    That's hasn't been the case in 2012.  Rosberg hasn't delivered the goods in qualifying or in the races.

    As the opening slide said, two rounds isn't much to go on—especially the overtaking-lite Australia and a wet-dry Malaysia.

    But it's all we have, and one would probably back Michael to finish ahead of Nico in China.

Up: Pastor Maldonado

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    Finding a positive comment about Pastor Maldonado last year was somewhat akin to looking for a needle in a field full of particularly large haystacks.  Then-teammate Rubens Barrichello praised the Venezuelan's qualifying pace, he did well in Monaco and that was pretty much it.  Kind words were hard to spot.

    But after just two races of 2012, even his most vociferous critics are being forced to admit that maybe—just maybe—he isn't as bad as they said he was. 

    And he hasn't even scored a point yet.

    His beautiful drive (until Lap 58) in Australia came somewhat out of the blue, and he comfortably outdrove his teammate, Bruno Senna.  The crash on the final lap was pure driver error, but forgivable.

    In Malaysia, few drivers did as badly through the pit stops as Maldonado.  At the early rush to change onto wets, he dropped from seventh to 14th.  Changing back to intermediates after the restart put him down to 19th.

    Pastor had crept back up to 10th before another race was ended just a few miles from the chequered flag—this time due to an engine failure.

    Two above-expectation performances.  No one is saying he's the next Michael Schumacher, but he's certainly gone up in the eyes of many fans.

Down: Kamui Kobayashi

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    Kamui Kobayashi burst into F1 in 2009, taking sixth place in his second race and immediately becoming a fan favourite for his cavalier approach to overtaking. 

    He was quickly dubbed the brightest Japanese talent F1 has ever seen.  He almost certainly is, but little pride can be taken from that—despite a great aptitude for the engineering side, Japan has never produced a top driver.

    But it was a start, and Kobayashi continued to impress throughout 2010 and 2011.  Though his aggressive style was curtailed a little, he remained one of the most interesting drivers to watch.

    Sadly, 2012 hasn't been his year so far.  Less-experienced teammate Sergio Perez has taken all the plaudits at the opening two races, and Kamui—despite a sixth place in Australia—is in danger of being overshadowed.

Up: Bruno Senna

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    Bruno Senna received almost as much criticism as Pastor Maldonado in 2011.  Accused of trading on his famous name, few drivers started 2012 as low as Bruno.

    He didn't do especially well in Melbourne, where he was clearly second-best to teammate Maldonado in qualifying and the race.  The Venezuelan found pace the Brazilian could not.

    Senna's race in Malaysia started badly.  He dropped to 24th and last after losing his front wing on the opening lap, and another poor race seemed to be on the cards.

    But Bruno put in an excellent comeback drive, showing genuine pace in the changeable conditions on his way to a career-best sixth place.

    And it might have removed a few doubts about his ability too.

Down: Paul di Resta

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    Paul di Resta had a very good first season in F1.  He was beaten in the final standings by teammate Adrian Sutil, but as rookie seasons go, he settled in well, and great things were expected of him this year.

    But he hasn't seemed very impressive so far.

    Though Nico Hulkenberg isn't a poor driver by any stretch of the imagination, he'd missed a whole season and was the new guy at Force India.  Di Resta was favourite to gain an edge in the early part of 2012. 

    And in fairness, he does have a slight edge.  He's also brought the car home in the points at both races.

    It could be that I was hoping for too much, and that he isn't doing as badly as I might think.  Or that Hulkenberg has settled in and found his feet faster than expected.

    But whether it's a fair assessment or not, it just seems that di Resta's performances so far—especially with so many other men putting in first-rate drives—haven't been quite where they should be.

Up: Mark Webber

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    Mark Webber ended 2011 with victory in the Brazilian Grand Prix, but it didn't fool anyone.  The Australian had a miserable year, struggling to even score podiums as Sebastian Vettel—in the same car—drove away into the distance, a dominant champion.

    Webber couldn't qualify well, he couldn't start well and more often than not, he couldn't race well.

    But 2012 has seen a revival of sorts.  Mark leads the Red Bull qualifying battle 2-0, and has pretty much matched Vettel lap-for-lap in the races.

    Without question, a better start for Webber than most would have expected.

Down: Sebastian Vettel

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    Last year's dominant force has been anything but dominant in 2012.

    Outqualified twice by teammate Mark Webber, Vettel has found the Australian much closer during the races than he might have expected.  The 2012 Red Bull isn't putting him where he wants to be, and he's having to fight for podiums.

    The angry and unnecessary outburst he directed at Narain Karthikeyan after their collision (people never make mistakes, right Sebastian?) suggests he's feeling the pressure and isn't at all happy with his season so far.

    A driver doesn't lose all his ability overnight, and he'll certainly be back to winning ways before long.  But for now, he's struggling.

Up: Sergio Perez

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    "Going up" doesn't quite do justice to the current direction of Sergio Perez's reputation.

    Starting 22nd and last in Australia, he was up to 12th by the end of the first lap.  After the safety car period, he found himself in seventh and held off a queue of faster cars on his way to an impressive eighth.

    What Perez did in Australia was good, but his performance in Malaysia was simply sensational.

    An early gamble to change to wet tyres early paid off handsomely, and Perez found himself among the leaders when the race was stopped on.  As everyone moved to intermediate tyres after the restart, Perez was able to leapfrog Lewis Hamilton for second.

    As the track dried, the young Mexican began to reel in leader Fernando Alonso, cutting an eight-second gap to nothing in the space of nine laps.

    An inexcusable delay in bringing him in for slicks left Sergio to do it all again, and do it he did.  A first race win looked on the cards until he fell back again, this time because of a small but crucial driver error at Turn 14.

    But second place, having shown mastery of all weather conditions, was still an exceptional result. 

    One great drive doesn't turn someone into the new messiah, but let's not be too cautious and sensible.  There's no harm chucking rational thought aside and giving the kid a giant dollop of hype—he's earned it.

    If Perez can build on Malaysia, he won't be at Sauber next year.

Down: Team Radios

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    I couldn't think of another driver who has seen their stock fall noticeably, but I could think of a thing.

    The standard of the team radio snippets we receive during the weekends seems to have plummeted.  Some make perfect sense, but many are little more than garbled, indecipherable muttering. 

    I'm sure they were much easier to understand last season.

Up: Kimi Raikkonen

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    Few doubted that Raikkonen would return with all the ability he had before he left, but question marks remained over his motivation and—after two years away—his race fitness.

    Qualifying 18th after an error in Melbourne and receiving a five-place grid penalty in Sepang might have given him good reason to sulk.  But Raikkonen put his head down and got on with it, putting in two very good drives.

    Fans who remember 2008 will have been delighted when he set the fastest lap towards the end of the race in Malaysia.

    The Lotus gives away a bit in qualifying to McLaren, but it looks at least as quick—maybe quicker—in race trim.  Add in the Finn's talent, and it's a formidable package.

    Kimi is back, and if Lotus ever get a "normal" race, he looks more than capable of adding to his 18 wins.

In Closing...

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    I couldn't think of anyone else worthy of a slide—do let me know if you think I overlooked anyone.

    Felipe Massa has been quite frankly dreadful at the opening two races, but he was already trading on the penny index.  By contrast, his teammate, Fernando Alonso, has been exceptional—but we already knew he would be.

    Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button have produced the sort of performances we'd have predicted. I did expect Heikki Kovalainen to have a slightly greater edge over Vitaly Petrov, but not much.   

    The men driving for Toro Rosso, HRT and Marussia haven't raised or lowered any eyebrows thus far.  Romain Grosjean has barely had time to wear the stickers off his tyres, and Nico Hulkenberg has looked close to where I thought he'd be.

    After back-to-back races to kick off the season, it's a three-week wait for China.  The Shanghai circuit has a tough act to follow.

    Follow me on Twitter if you wish, @JamesNeilsen

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