With the last of the pre-season Formula One tests now fading into memory, and teams and drivers converging on Melbourne for the first race in another season of merry-go-round politics and on-track action, the sport is almost unrecognisable from that we left in Brazil three months ago. Yes, Mercedes were expected to be frontrunners. Yes, Marussia and Caterham are still bringing up the rear end of the field – just. But what is happening inbetween these teams is anyone’s guess, with testing still a notoriously unreliable indicator of true pace. It’s safe to say the Mercedes-engined teams have stolen a march on their rivals at Renault, while Ferrari inhabit a strange ‘no-man’s land’ somewhere between the two dominant engine powers of modern F1.
The V6 Turbo era has well and truly kicked in, giving F1 a new soundtrack. Narrower front wings and new energy recovery systems, married to the ever-unpredictable Pirelli tyres means it could be the most topsy-turvy season since the last rule changes were implemented in 2009. And then let’s just not mention the new face of the sport – ‘those’ noses – shall we?
Who Will Win?
Mercedes came out the box strongly in Jerez, despite a minor mishap for Lewis Hamilton on day one forcing a rethink on nose mountings they ploughed deep into their testing programme and were hammering out long runs and race simulations before others (I’m looking at you, Lotus) had even turned a wheel in anger. Nico Rosberg was the first to turn heads, posting 96 laps on day two and Hamilton building on his team-mate’s success with another 62 the day after, putting the Silver Arrows some way clear at the top of the mileage tables. Rosberg’s 91 before lunch on Friday dumfounded other teams as they struggled to get to grips with their reliability and by the end of the week the F1W05 already looked set for Melbourne. By the time the Bahrain tests came around others had caught up (notably McLaren and Williams) but Mercedes continued to exhibit the frightening reliability of a metronome. Day Two of Test One in Sakhir brought the first signs of issues, when Rosberg experienced glitches that kept him in the garage; however it also brought updates, the first of any team to do so and continued to follow that trend right up until the final day of testing despite gearbox problems that crept in as the car increased mileage.
Williams are not exactly on a par with Mercedes, but very much closer and deserving of huge credit for taking the new rules by the scruff of the neck and transforming themselves back into an apparent front-running team. They had a dire 2013 by their own admission, but testing started on a promising note when Felipe Massa took fastest time in the changeable Friday conditions at Jerez. Another top time for the Brazilian on the penultimate day in Bahrain followed by a challenging performance from Valtteri Bottas on the final day really put the spring back in their step, although there still appears to be a sizeable gap – around four or five tenths at least – to pace-setters Mercedes. It was the right time to change driver – Maldonado out in exchange for the experienced and fast Massa – and the right time to change powerplant from Renault to Mercedes. Williams will be ideally placed to win should Merc falter in Melbourne.
McLaren, Ferrari and Force India share a common middle ground – with Ferrari perhaps a little behind – and will be scrapping over the heels of Merc and Williams if the race is straightforward. Of these three, McLaren have the most to prove after the debacle that opened their season in Melbourne last year, and in Jenson Button they have a proven multiple Australian Grand Prix winner. Kevin Magnussen is capable of providing the spark needed to push the 2009 World Champion to that higher level where he is virtually untouchable.
Alonso and Raikkonen need no introduction, yet most of the focus this weekend may well sit on their shoulders and the expected fallout from such a clash of titans. While Raikkonen is not one to give in to fits of emotion, Alonso’s fiery desire to remain unchallenged team leader – so evident in 2007 – may well resurface and cause fireworks in what is already an unpredictable season. The car, the F14T, is not yet on a par with the Merc and Williams offerings and is skittish and difficult to handle into corners, an isssue solveable with the careful application of aero but currently a major stumbling block to the F14T achieving victory in Australia.
Force India enjoyed a headline-grabbing final test in Bahrain and seem a team reinvigorated over the winter with the hope of new reg opportunities combined with a young and dynamic driver line-up of Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez eager to taste podium champagne. Over a season you would favour Hulkenberg to make the difference and overpower the Mexican but, as previous seasons have shown us, at the first race anything is possible and it could well be Perez who claims the team’s first podium since the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix.
Sauber, struggling with braking problems, seem the most ill-prepared of the teams running Mercedes or Ferrari power units and thus probably won’t make an impact in Australia. How much the loss of Hulkenberg will stunt their progress across the season has yet to be seen, though Adrian Sutil remains a safe pair of hands easily capable of decent points when they are on offer. Lotus and Toro Rosso stand little chance of seeing the chequered flag in Australia going on testing form, while Caterham and Marussia may well run below their maximum power output in a bid to take advantage of a predicted high retirement rate.
Melbourne retains the season-opening slot it has held since 1996 (barring 2006 and 2010) and again, F1 could do little better when searching for such a carnival atmosphere to begin the year. Of the current driver crop it is Jenson Button who has enjoyed the most success here, winning in 2009, 2010 and 2012 for Brawn GP and McLaren – he has also triumphed in wet/dry conditions, something that could help him significantly with rain forecast for Sunday after dry days on Friday and Saturday. Kimi Raikkonen has tasted champagne twice before here (2007 and 2013), while Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton have all taken a win apiece (2006, 2011 and 2008 respectively).
Mercedes are expected to lock-out the front row of the grid barring any problems, such is the current superiority of the F1W05, while Williams, McLaren, Ferrari and Force India should line up close behind. The ace in the pack, and a team quite purposefully ignored in the section above, is Red Bull; where exactly are they?
The RB10 is generally acknowledged as a superbly designed car; you would expect little else of Adrian Newey, but it has also proved highly unreliable and prone to sudden overheating issues. With the wick turned up, a new rule allowing drivers in the top ten shootout to change tyres for the race (designed to prevent the boycotting of Q3 seen over the last two/three years) and Sebastian Vettel behind the wheel, the RB10 could easily challenge for pole position. Finishing the race is where the points are though, and it will likely be a race of attrition for both Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo to ensure a finish (preferably in the points) is achieved. Lower temperatures on Sunday should do something to ease the overheating issue, but seeing a Red Bull on the podium at the end of the race remains a forlorn hope for now.
Again…Who Will Win?
With so many factors – car performance, tyre longevity, fuel management, ERS deployment and DRS use – affecting the outcome (not to mention a sprinkling of rain) you would be foolish to predict a winner with any assurance. One thing is for certain – no-one is certain of success this weekend.
And that’s what makes F1 2014 such an exciting beast.