F1 season preview: It all starts here

WebberAust13THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE MARCH 12 ISSUE OF MOTORSPORT ILLUSTRATED NEWS. READ MORE HERE.  

It took just 12 days – and the most significant technical overhaul to Formula One in decades – to completely overturn the sport’s recent form book early in 2014.

Three four-day pre-season tests at Jerez in Spain and in Bahrain showcased the new 1.6-liter V6 turbo engines with significantly enhanced energy recovery systems that will power the sport this season, and the move away from the tried and tested normally-aspirated V8s that have been a staple of F1 since 2006 appears to have dramatically changed the pecking order.

All-conquering squads have become also-rans, mid-grid teams have seized their opportunity to run towards the front, and reliability as much as speed will be the story of the early part of the season.

What’s in store for the 11 teams and 22 drivers that will embark on the first of 19 Grands Prix in Australia this weekend? Read on.

Red Bull Racing
Winning four straight drivers’ and constructors’ championships with ostensibly the same set of regulations made Red Bull wary of the change to the new-look V6-powered formula for 2014, and that trepidation was well-founded after the team laboured through a wretched pre-season punctuated by unreliability and lack of pace. In 12 days of testing, neither Vettel nor new signing Ricciardo was able to produce a single on-track stint of more than 20 laps, the equivalent of one-third of a race distance. The RB10 has shown occasional flashes of speed in the pre-season, but overheating woes and the unreliability of Renault’s engine have seen the car in the garage as much as on track. Red Bull will get it right eventually – it has too many resources and the brilliance of both Vettel and chief technical officer Adrian Newey to languish for too long – but the early races figure to be an exercise in damage limitation. A gloomy Vettel said that “just getting to the finish would be a success” ahead of the season-opener in Melbourne, a modest goal for a driver who won the final nine races of last season.

Mercedes
Without doubt, Mercedes were the stars of the pre-season. The W05 came out of the box showing impressive speed and reliability, and Rosberg was the first driver to complete a race simulation ahead of the season, comfortably completing a full Grand Prix distance at Jerez in January. Mercedes completed 3089 miles of pre-season testing – almost three times more running than Red Bull managed – and despite some teething problems creeping in late in the final test in Bahrain, many felt Hamilton’s second-fastest time of that test could have been better but for a couple of mistakes on his hot lap with brand-new tires. Which of the two Mercedes’ drivers can take the advantage over the other will be one of the sub-plots of the season; while the cool and calculating Rosberg is perfectly suited for a new formula where tire and fuel management as much as pace is key, the more emotionally-driven and brilliantly reflexive driving style of Hamilton will produce results through sheer force of will.

Ferrari
While we’re on the subject of intra-team driver rivalries … Ferrari decision to pair two world champions for the first time since Alberto Ascari and Giuseppe ‘Nino’ Farina 60 years ago is a change to its usual policy of a clear number one driver and a subservient number two, but it’s a radical step that needed to be taken for the Scuderia to halt the Red Bull juggernaut of recent seasons. Raikkonen will do what Raikkonen does – turn up, drive, say little and avoid as much of the politics as he can – while Alonso will be his typically emotional, calculating and combative self. Ferrari spent as much time searching for reliability as showing speed in the pre-season, and the F14-T looks to be a solid base from which the two former champions can launch a title tilt. The early races – where simply making the finish could be decisive with so much unreliability predicted before the teams can regroup back in Europe from round five in Spain onwards – could show the wisdom of Ferrari’s approach as it bids to win its first title since Raikkonen’s 2007 success.

Lotus
It’s hard to imagine anyone would have felt worse about the pre-season than new Lotus signing Pastor Maldonado. After a messy divorce from Williams last year, where he sensationally accused the team of sabotaging his car at the US Grand Prix, Maldonado and his hefty budget from Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA went to Lotus, which seemed a good move after the team that sports the most striking livery in F1 finished 2013 so strongly. But the all-new formula for this season has caught Lotus out, and Maldonado had to ruefully watch Williams become one of the standouts of pre-season testing as his new team floundered. Lotus missed the Jerez test altogether as its new E22 chassis featuring a striking twin-tusk nosecone wasn’t ready, and in the final Bahrain test, the team completed the fewest laps while its drivers were anchored to the bottom of the timesheets. A repeat of Kimi Raikkonen’s victory in Australia last year is a pipedream, and Grosjean conceded as much after the final test when he said “it would be nice to get a few points” in the opening races.

McLaren
The only way is up for McLaren, which endured its worst season since 1980 last year when it failed to record a single podium finish. Plenty of off-track changes – including the return of Ron Dennis to a more active role and the departure of team principal Martin Whitmarsh – stole the headlines over the off-season, but McLaren found themselves in the spotlight for the right reasons when the MP4-29 debuted at Jerez, the car featuring an innovative rear suspension and looking both quick and reliable from day one. Progress seems to have plateaued since, however, and Jenson Button bemoaned the car’s lack of downforce in the final test in Bahrain, something that doesn’t bode well for the start of the season. It’s hard to imagine McLaren having another campaign as barren as 2013, and in Button and exciting second-generation rookie racer Kevin Magnussen, the team has an ideal combination of an experienced cool head and an eager-to-please debutant that should work harmoniously in propelling the team back to where it belongs.

Force India
Force India’s all-new driver pairing features two men who finished in similar territory in last year’s drivers’ championship, but who came away from 2013 with decidedly different reputations. Hulkenberg was routinely brilliant for Sauber in the back half of last season, hauling a mid-grid car well inside the top 10 on several occasions, and it was only his lack of financial backing and his size in an era where saving every scrap of weight counts that stopped him from getting a drive with a better team. By contrast, Perez found the lights of McLaren a little too bright, and after being signed as the next big thing in 2012, he was ejected back into the midfield mix a year later. Force India looks to be a team to watch early in 2014: powered by Mercedes, it produced several stellar performances in pre-season testing, and the VJM07 looks to be kind on its tires, which bodes well for race performance and opens up strategic options other teams can’t utilise. Expect Hulkenberg in particular to be a sneaky chance of a first career podium in the early races; whether Force India can remain at the sharp end as the likes of Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren inevitably develop their cars faster remains to be seen.

Sauber
Sauber spent much of last year nibbling around the lower end of the top 10 for points until Nico Hulkenberg’s late-season surge, and a similar fate looks to be in store for the unassuming Swiss squad in 2014. Only four teams completed more distance in pre-season testing than Sauber’s 2509 miles, and that figure could have been better but for a chassis problem in the first Bahrain test requiring some hasty revisions before the final pre-season hit-out. Veteran Adrian Sutil will race for a team other than Force India (nee Midland and Spyker) for the first time, and will be a solid performer who will maximise what the C33 can offer, but little more. Esteban Gutierrez had a predictably up-and-down rookie campaign in 2013, but a late-season seventh place at Suzuka showed that the young Mexican hasn’t lost his speed. Paired with the experience of Sutil, Gutierrez should continue to improve this year, but it’s hard to see Sauber advancing much further than last year’s seventh in the constructors’ standings.

Toro Rosso
While the driver pairings of Hamilton/Rosberg and Alonso/Raikkonen will get plenty of attention for their chemistry as much as their results, another intriguing intra-team squabble is shaping up at Toro Rosso. Jean-Eric Vergne was passed over by Red Bull when it was seeking a replacement for Mark Webber, the world champions instead choosing Vergne’s teammate Daniel Ricciardo. The Frenchman has showed an admirably pragmatic attitude since being shunned by the sport’s best team, but that could all change if his tenure at Toro Rosso becomes shaky as the year progresses. Much of Vergne’s longevity in the sport depends on his rookie teammate; Kvyat earned a full-time drive on the back of winning last year’s GP3 title and two impressive displays in Friday practice at the US and Brazilian Grands Prix, and the youngest driver in the sport displays a maturity that makes you forget he’s still a teenager. If Kvyat can outshine Vergne, the Frenchman’s mood could darken rapidly. Like all of the Renault-powered teams, Toro Rosso had a reliability-plagued pre-season, which would leave team principal Franz Tost and senior management pondering what might have been if they’d stayed with Ferrari powerplants rather than aligning themselves with Red Bull’s ‘A’ squad.

Williams
Without a doubt, Williams was the feel-good story of the pre-season. The switch from Renault power to Mercedes engines – just before the French manufacturer ran into all sorts of problems with its four teams – was undoubtedly fortuitous, but Williams’ stunning pre-season form isn’t all about the power the drivers have under their right feet. The one upside of Williams enduring the worst season in its storied history last year was being able to turn its attentions to the new-for-2014 car earlier than most, and the results have been evident – at the final pre-season test in Bahrain, Felipe Massa was fastest, teammate Valtteri Bottas fourth-fastest, and the FW36 racked up a test-high 438 laps, 36 more than the next-best team (Force India). The marriage of experienced chief technical officer Pat Symonds and a new set of regulations shouldn’t be downplayed, and Williams’ stunning new livery evokes memories of the old days of F1, a time when this was one of the sport’s powerhouse teams. Massa looks rejuvenated after eight years at Ferrari, while Bottas has the temperament to capitalise on being near the front.

Marussia
In a time of unprecedented change up and down the pit lane, Marussia has chosen to stand pat over the off-season. Only Marussia and Mercedes have elected to retain their 2013 driver line-ups for a second successive season, and in Jules Bianchi, the team has a driver who has proven he can make the most of the rare opportunities back-of-the-grid teams have to shine – the Frenchman’s 13th in Malaysia last year was enough to give it the edge over fellow minnow Caterham in the constructors’ championship. Max Chilton has been retained as much for his consistency (he finished all 19 races in 2013, the only rookie to be a classified finisher in every race in his debut season) and cash as his speed, but continuity in the face of such chaos in the sport could be of benefit to the Russian-owned, British-run squad. Marussia looked solid in its debut test outings running the Ferrari engine for the first time, but fighting for crumbs left on the table by the sport’s bigger teams looks to be its destiny once again this season.

Caterham
By contrast to its main rivals at the tail-end of the field in Marussia, it’s all change at Caterham for 2014, with GP2 graduate Marcus Ericsson joining ex-Sauber and Toyota driver Kamui Kobayashi in an intriguing line-up. A shake-up was needed if Caterham was to rebound after finishing last in 2013, and with Caterham Group co-chairman Tony Fernandes making noises that he’ll withdraw from the sport if performance doesn’t improve, time is of the essence for the squad run by team principal Cyril Abiteboul. Pre-season testing produced a clouded picture: while Caterham managed more laps than any other Renault-powered team, its pace looked to be some way off that of Marussia. Any early-season points – the first for the team since it entered the sport as Team Lotus in 2010 – will be the product of persistence rather than performance, and ensuring reliability will be a focus. Ericsson is the first Swede to drive in F1 since Stefan Johansson in 1991, while Kobayashi, sidelined last year after being released by Sauber at the end of 2012, will be one to watch with his penchant for attempting overtaking moves others wouldn’t contemplate.

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