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Midfield Monitor
Christine

Christine became an avid follower of Formula One after getting a taste of the action way back in 2003. Today, you'll find Christine putting her experience to good use as writer and producer of the news show F1Minute, and editor of community F1 site Sidepodcast.

Narrowing the field // The 2013 season creeps closer, with a midfield set focused on improvements

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Mercedes in F1 test at Jerez
Credit: Mercedes AMG Petronas

2013 heralds a diminished entry list, with HRT no longer present and correct in the F1 paddock. However, if recent form is anything to go by, Caterham and Marussia will continue their backmarker roles with Toro Rosso slipping neatly in as the third slowest team. With qualifying now spitting out the six slowest cars after each event, it doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to figure out how the first twenty minute session is going to go each week.

Thankfully, the midfield still features four teams, all with their own goals and unique challenges. It is on those four teams that we will focus, but who will they be? As we head into the final four days of pre-season testing, there doesn't seem to be an awful lot of change from 2012. There's only so much can be read into the testing times, particularly as the tyres weren't behaving as expected, but for now, we're looking at the same names we wound up with last year.

Last out the gate

Williams left their launch late, ending up as the final 2013 contender to pull the covers off their new car. They spent four days in Jerez running the old machinery, and with the lack of tyre data to be gathered due to the overly abrasive surface at the Spanish circuit, the team must be running a bit short on pre-season information.

The tyre-swapping dance is one of the most crucial parts of a Grand Prix these days

They have given both Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas plenty to do in Barcelona so far, spending a full day focussing on pit stop practice. Making the most of a rainy day, they brought the race crew in and had both drivers circling the track without setting a lap time, instead diving into the pits at every opportunity. The pit lane isn’t somewhere Williams have had major issues over the past year (if you don’t count a post-race fire in Spain), but as the tyre-swapping dance is one of the most crucial parts of a Grand Prix these days, getting some practice in and upping the speed of the performance can only help.

Although Pastor is a race winner, and has been with the team for two full seasons now, his fiery attitude and high number of incidents make it feel as though Williams are entering this year with a dearth of experience. They have far more faith in Bottas than they ever did in Senna, announcing that the Finn was barely like a rookie to them, which in turn puts the pressure on Valtteri to perform.

The win in 2012 is going to be an extremely hard result to match this season, but Williams will just need to keep the upward trajectory to have a successful year. They’re still in recovery from some difficult seasons, and now navigating through some high profile personnel changes with the departure of Toto Wolff to Mercedes, so expectations have to be realistic.

Who’s on first?

Force India have managed to keep attention on their driver lineup for much longer than you would ever have thought possible, simply by keeping the identity of their second driver under wraps. Actually, it's not even that they are being mysterious, the team seem to have no sense of urgency in signing anyone up. Adrian Sutil and Jules Bianchi were both present and correct at the test in Barcelona last week, apparently both in line for the seat alongside Paul di Resta.

All speculation points to Bianchi getting the drive, and that Sutil is only there as a negotiating tactic, but we’re not going to know for sure until Force India finally reveal all. Di Resta has been at great pains to say that this drawn out process of confirming the 2013 team isn’t affecting him at all, and in any other circumstances I would think he was bluffing. However, Paul has also made it quite clear he wants up and out of the Sahara team as soon as possible, so it probably doesn’t make any difference who he is up against this year. He has one goal and that is to drive his way into a better car.

Paul di Resta climbs into his Force India F1 car
Credit: Sahara Force India Formula One Team

With all the attention on who is inside the cockpit, it’s easy to forget that Force India have launched and are running a brand new car. As with most of the machinery for 2013, the VJM06 is an iteration of its predecessor, which would suggest that it’s going to be a routinely midfield car which doesn’t live up to the overly optimistic hopes of Vijay Mallya. The driver distraction doesn’t actually cover up ongoing financial concerns at the team, and it may be time for some good results to help secure the future of Force India.

Out with the... young

Sauber are facing a completely fresh start this season, with Sergio Pérez off to challenging times at McLaren, and Kamui Kobayashi left on the shelf for 2013. In comes Nico Hülkenberg, making that desired escape from Force India. It’s a switch from one midfield team to another, but the German knows that Sauber have the potential to make the podium and from there it’s not a massive leap to start winning.

Alongside him, the very fresh-faced Esteban Gutiérrez who has just one task for the year and that is to learn. He’s been test driver with the team for a while, but doesn’t have masses of experience in the car itself. For Gutiérrez, it’s head down and try to soak up as much as he can during the year.

That leaves Sauber in a slightly disappointing position, considering where they left off at the end of last year. With several unexpected but well-deserved podium positions, an emotional team looked like they had the makings of a package that could be moulded into something special. To a degree, it's back to the drawing board again for this year, but there’s no reason Hülkenberg can’t lead the team onto the podium again - if he can live up to the promise.

The frying pan, the fire

I never thought the Midfield Monitor column would ever have cause to talk at length about Lewis Hamilton, but as we head into the 2013 season, Mercedes are the top of the midfield pile and they have a brand new British driver on board. The extensive experience that Michael Schumacher brought with him is gone, but instead Mercedes find themselves with a surprisingly motivated Hamilton.

They're heading into their post-Schumacher era with another controversial but exceptionally talented driver on board

The leap from McLaren to Mercedes has been, and will continue to be, talked about at length, but from the team’s point of view, this is the first step towards some really important future changes. The new regulations in 2014 are going to help Mercedes considerably, and they are heading into their post-Schumacher era with another controversial but exceptionally talented driver on board.

Let us not forget about the consistency provided by Nico Rosberg, now with a race win under his belt, and a desire to match the most talked about driver in current Formula One. The team have work to do to get where they want to be, but are starting to get everything in place to make that happen. Their early testing was marred by technical difficulties that cut several day's running short, but they seem to have recovered from that now - and as we know, Lotus weren't too affected by their difficult pre-season last year.

The only fly in the ointment is the management shuffles that hang over their heads - is Ross Brawn in or out? When will Paddy Lowe join the fun? Is Toto Wolff just one boss too many? These questions and many more should be answered during the coming season, and it’s going to be fascinating to watch it all unfold.

As the cars are a rolling version of their predecessors, all predictions have the order of performance starting very much like it ended last season. That gives us four fascinating teams to watch, and a great battle for midfield supremacy as the racing gets going next month. It all could change at the first race in Australia, and we could see front runners pushed down, or backmarkers making huge strides. Or it could be a carbon copy of 2012. Either way, with the season we just had, and the potential in the season to come, it’s going to be brilliant.