New era, new technology, new challengers


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As many regular readers will testify, I like making predictions. I was always planning to write a blog about what I would think would happen in the 2014 Formula 1 season, especially as it’s been pretty obvious to guess over the last couple of seasons. However, for the first time in a long time, pre-season testing left me with absolutely no idea of what to expect going into the first race last weekend.

Testing sessions are’t generally a good indicator of what will happen come the first race, although they give a rough outline of who looks good and who doesn’t. A good example comes from 2012 – Ferrari were exceptionally slow all through testing and many experts were suggesting that they had built an awful car. They were proved right, despite Fernando Alonso’s sensational win in Malaysia, but that was more down to the weather and the fact that an exceptional driver was at his absolute best. Going on the data from the three tests, it did look as though both Mercedes and McLaren were the favourites to win in Australia. This wasn’t due to outright speed however; it was more because they were the teams whose cars completed the most laps.

With a whole host of new technology being introduced for 2014, including new engines and energy recovery systems, it was always going to be a challenge for the teams to get their cars up to speed by the start of the first test. However, come the end of the third test, some teams seemed to have made no improvements whatsoever – Red Bull and Lotus barely left the garage, whilst Force India and Toro Rosso caused more stoppages than in a Real Madrid-Barcelona game. Although Mercedes and McLaren were fast, they suffered their fair share of problems, whilst Williams looked good but no-one could really tell how this would transfer into a race scenario. Only one thing was certain – no-one knew what was going to happen come the 16th March.

The race itself was intriguing and, in some ways, it was like F1 had taken a step back in time, especially when Max Chilton stalled on the installation lap and team-mate Jules Bianchi doing the same just a couple of minutes later, leading to an aborted start. This just added to the excitement of the spectacle, although the lack of frantically waving arms was a slight disappointment. This was the signal, however, the Formula 1 was not going to follow the same tedious, Red Bull-dominated pattern of the last few years.

Not only was the sport entering a new era, but drivers were as well. Not only would they have to handle the enormous accelerative power of the new engine, the question marks around reliability and yet another new set of tyres provided by Pirelli, many needed to impose themselves and set a solid platform down. The rookies did this well – Kevin Magnussen showed the maturity and composure well beyond his age and experience to claim a thoroughly deserved podium on debut; Daniil Kvyat proved he is more than just a sponsorship package by becoming the youngest man to ever score point in Formula 1 and Marcus Ericsson showed strongly before being forced into retirement. Valtteri Bottas, in his second season, also put in an extremely strong showing and, if it wasn’t for a puncture caused by him hitting the wall, could have pushed Alonso and Jenson Button ahead of him.

More experienced drivers, however, weren’t so impressive. Kamui Kobayashi’s return to the sport lasted less than 10 seconds after he ploughed into Felipe Massa, perhaps being too keen to re-establish himself as one of the world’s best. Massa, now of Williams, was unlucky to not make it round the first corner as he could have scored decent points, but his petulant reaction to the accident – calling for Kobayashi to be banned – harked back to the days when he seemed to moan about every little incident and won him no fans. Kimi Raikkonen was also disappointing – perhaps being caught up in the Kobayashi-Massa incident damaged his car, but the Finn showed little fight throughout the race and looked content following the Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Verge for most of it.

But what of the ‘big guns’? Jenson Button, although beaten by his team-mate, overcame a difficult qualifying session on Saturday to finish fourth and further prove that McLaren are back in with a chance of podiums and victories this year. Fernando Alonso finished a place behind him yet was barely noticeable. He showed greater pace than Raikkonen but was nowhere near the front-runners, suggesting Ferrari aren’t quite at the level of their closest rivals. Still, at least they got both drivers into the points, something both Red Bull and Mercedes couldn’t achieve.

There was a startling symmetry with the fortunes of both teams – their supposedly strongest drivers both failed to finish due to engine problems while their less-fancied team-mates dominated at the front. The similarities stop here, though, as it was clear to all that Mercedes are going to be the team to beat, at least at the moment. They carried on their strong showing from testing, with Lewis Hamilton securing pole position on Saturday. The British media have been extremely optimistic about the Hamilton’s chances this year, so his unceremonious retirement after two laps will have dented their flame. It was clear the Brit was struggling as soon as the race began, with team-mate Nico Rosberg and Daniel Ricciardo streaming past him, but it wasn’t until later in the lap when Magnussen easily passed him that it was clear something was up. Mercedes will still be extremely happy with their weekend, though, as Rosberg was unchallenged all race and won by nearly half a minute. Their sponsors may not be as happy due to the limited coverage time as a result of his Vettel-esque dominance, but it was certainly a marker that the German isn’t here to help Hamilton win – he wants to emulate his father and win a World Championship.

Although the new era of Formula 1 may have created a new dominant force in Mercedes, Red Bull should definitely not be discounted. However, it is a surprise that it wasn’t the four-time champion Vettel proving this but his new team-mate Ricciardo. The Australian had a superb weekend, silencing all those who suggested he was only hired to help Vettel win another title. He was faster than him all weekend and coped brilliantly with the difficult qualifying conditions, finishing next to Hamilton on the front row, whilst Vettel didn’t even make the final session. Although he will be disappointed to have let Rosberg past at the start, Ricciardo would have finished second at best anyway as his car just wasn’t as fast. The way in which he coped when Magnussen was chasing him down was exemplary and the complete opposite to the way Vettel coped with Button’s late charge at the 2011 Canadian GP. If Red Bull can get him a quicker car, I firmly believe that Ricciardo can match or even beat his team-mate this season.

That’s what makes his disqualification even more disappointing. He drove his heart out all weekend, being quick whilst also maintaining reliability, yet he seems to have been let down by his team. Although they dispute the claims that they were using more fuel than allowed and that the sensors were dodgy, the current evidence seems pretty damning. This detracts from what was a superb performance from their driver. Still, at least he got to celebrate on the podium in front of his adoring home fans.

Going into the next race I still think it’s impossible to predict what will happen. Will Mercedes and Red Bull have sorted their reliability problems? Are McLaren and Williams both back in contention or was Australia just a one-off? Will Lotus have a fully running car? And, perhaps crucially, what will the weather do? All I know is that, whatever happens, it’s going to be one hell of a race.

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