It’s all change as the new Formula 1 season kicks off. Here’s the new stuff you’ll need to get your head round.
1 The re-nosed cars
“This is a beautiful car,” said Jenson Button, unveiling his drive for the 2012 season, the McLaren MP4-27, “but many you see will not be.” No idle swipe – a rule change concerning crash safety means that every manufacturer, excepting McLaren, has had to adopt a garish “step nose” on the prow of their new-season cars.
Compare it to a human nose-job in reverse, all those once sleek snouts given unsightly kinks. “Ugly-looking,” admitted Red Bull engineering guru Adrian Newey of his team's new RB8. “Very strange,” said driver Felipe Massa, whose Ferrari, the F2012, looks from unflattering angles like a big scarlet multi-tool. McLaren have somehow worked around the rules to maintain a classic conk. What have they figured out?
2 The shifted allegiances
It’s been an off-season of furious team-name tweaks. Last year’s Team Lotus are now Caterham F1 Team, with Renault shimmying in to become Lotus F1 Team; meanwhile an influx of Russian loot means Virgin Racing rebrand as Marussia F1 Team, and Mercedes GP become Mercedes AMG to render shop-loads of team merch redundant if nothing else. Driver-wise, the biggie is the return of Kimi Raikkonen, signed to Lotus F1 after a two-year break overturning rally cars.
True, Raikkonen might actually be the most unengaging interviewee in all of sport (he makes you long for the wit and wonder of an ATP roundtable, pine for a post-javelin pow-wow at a minor athletics meet) but he recorded some seriously impressive times in testing and should figure on podiums. Elsewhere the charismatic Bruno Senna joins a Williams team desperate for a successful year after an atrocious 2011. Bruno’s uncle Ayrton was driving for Williams at the time of his fatal accident in 1994, but almost two decades on, says Bruno, the family are “super happy” for a Senna be back in league with Frank Williams’ storied team.
3 The deepening rivalries
At grid-front, the only goal will be to beat Red Bull’s all conquering child-warrior Sebastian Vettel as the 24-year-old German chases his third consecutive championship. If McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton can get over last year’s unsanctioned demolition derby with Felipe Massa (the pair collided four times in nine mid-season races) he'll challenge, as will Fernando Alonso, who rose above the name-calling about his unsexy new Ferrari to put in threateningly zippy times in testing.
A proper calendar-length tussle between the three would be the ideal after Vettel practically wheel-spun his car and reversed to the title, unopposed, in 2011. Behind, watch Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Riccardo – unofficially auditioning, they say, to replace Vettel’s Red Bull teammate Mark Webber should the 35-year-old retire at the end of the season.
4 The changed channels
A deal between BBC and Sky means competition will be shared across British schedules for the first time, with Sky showing everything on a new dedicated channel and the Beeb slimming its package to feature 10 of the bigger grand prixes... It's meant an 1849-like rush of talent away from the Corporation, with commentator Martin Brundle and trackside reporter Ted Kravitz hurriedly leaving for Sky, joining there former Sky Sports News darling Georgie Thompson who'll front coverage.
Sky will also debut a new pit reporter, Natalie Pinkham, this 32-year-old a wise poach from BBC 5Live’s radio squad. Randomly, Pinkham used to play girls-school hockey with Thompson. “We both loved a good tackle,” Pinkham tells Esquire, “which has set us up well for life in a man’s world.” Pinkham's true test won't come during interviews with the congenitally flirtatious Jenson Button, nor the ever cheerful Sebastian Vettel, but rather when it's time to get the Master of the Monosyllable, Kimi Raikkonen, to open up. What she's planning? “Vodka,” says Pinkham, which might just work.
5 The bonus track
Turkey, in 2012, has had its race bumped for a new US grand prix to be staged in November at the purpose-built, £190m "Circuit of the Americas" in Texas. (Notable features: a corner sequence designed in homage to Silverstone, and an ominously sited state-of-the-art medical centre.) Before that, if all goes the way of F1 president Bernie Ecclestone, there’ll again be a Bahrain grand prix in April.
The event was postponed last year due to massive civic upheaval, with watch groups, this year, begging the sport not to return while the country remains so troubled. “We would prefer it if they’d didn’t take part [here],” said the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “I doubt that F1 can be a success in a country where serious abuses have been committed,” said Human Rights Watch. “We’ll be there!” said Eccelstone.
Natalie Pinkham is a reporter for Sky Sports F1 HD, which is now live
Words by Tom Lamont