2015 Formula 1 preview - Is Mercedes still the team to beat?
Forgive and forget - now that's something that's easier said than done. And the 2014 season of Formula 1 brought to the fore the need for this measure in several different cases. We saw it in the highly publicised spat that involved supposed best friends since they were knee high and already driving go-karts, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. All grown up in 2014, as team-mates and rivals, the pair really went at each other's throats when the championship battle got close. "We've never been friends," "Who said we've never been friends?" "We're still best friends," and a whole lot of other remarks later, there was only one point that was true fact. This was that at the end of the year one of them was world champion, the other wasn't. And there were wounds that had been exposed that they needed to get past and soldier on through another year as team-mates.
2014 also was the year that saw several drivers let down by their teams. Case in point, Sebastian Vettel, who, after managing four successive Formula 1 driver's titles, was none too pleased with the way his Red Bull RB10 fared. It got even worse for the youngest four-time world champion in Formula 1 history when the world began comparing his performance to that of his still younger team-mate, Daniel Ricciardo. Vettel pouted, Adrian Newey and Christian Horner popped the metaphoric pacifier in the Seb's mouth every now and again in the form of an update or two to Suzie (that's what he called his RB10). But there was no catching the Mercs up ahead.
And it's playing catch up with the Mercedes AMG F1 team that's likely to be the theme of the 2015 season as well. Oh, there've been some high profile driver changes as well, what with Seb not being adequately mollified and swapping to red overalls for 2015. Here's what we think you need to watch out for in the upcoming season of Formula 1.
Will the 2015 season of F1 be another silver wash? Well, there are certain facts that point to exactly that. And it's got nothing to do with the fact that Mercedes well and truly decimated the opposition last year, winning 16 of 19 races in 2014. There's also the fact that the team has proved to be extremely reliable during the preseason test sessions. For a team that has already proved how reliable they are to have made sure the opposition knows how reliable they are going to be in 2015 as well, is a tremendous psychological advantage. And in reigning world champion Hammy and runner-up Rosberg, the team has a pair of rather confident drivers. Hammy will be looking to claim championship number three, while Rosberg will be looking to win his first title ever. And if the rivalry drives them to be that much faster, we reckon Toto Wolff and Paddy Lowe will be a pair of happy team chiefs.
No one can accuse Ferrari of not trying hard to get back into championship winning form. The team endured their worst season in Formula 1 since 1993, failing to win a single race in 2014. This, that too with Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen piloting the F14 T. But Ferrari didn't sit idle through the year, choosing instead to change their top management repeatedly in the hopes that things would get better. First Stefano Domenicali was replaced as team principal by Marco Mattiaci, who in turn was shown the door to be replaced by Maurizio Arrivabene. But even the promises of a better 2015 season weren't enough to appease Alonso. And so for 2015, Alonso finds himself replaced by Seb Vettel at Ferrari.
The reason Ferrari were so keen on having Vettel in their roster is because he's meant to be the driver who can revitalise the team, galvanising the entire Ferrari workforce into a well-oiled race-winning and championship-winning machine soon. They're essentially hoping that Vettel will do for the team what Michael Schumacher did once upon a time. And if testing is anything to go by, Ferrari look very fast. Ferrari are, however, rather tight-lipped about their performance, because they believe that their rivals haven't shown their true speed yet. Raikkonen, who had to struggle with the 2014 car, declared that he's happy with the car thus far. Will they be able to take the challenge to Mercedes? Time will tell.
Return of the Rising Sun
Back in 1988 there were a pair of red and white liveried cars that Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost managed to take to race wins in 15 of 16 grands prix held that season. The MP4/4 was an iconic car, powered by an unbeatable engine from Honda, and it is possibly the best example of the McLaren Honda synergy. And now that very partnership is back in Formula 1, although whether or not they can be as successful as they were in the past remains to be seen. The first round of tests at Jerez proved that McLaren and Honda together have a long way to go, with the combination of the MP4-30 chassis and Honda RA 615H Hybrid engine not proving to be the best of the pack. In fact they were off the mark. By a long way. And there's the other big change at McLaren. Kevin Magnussen, who made a big splash when he started the 2014 season with a podium, has been shunted into the role of test and reserve driver for the team. His replacement is the man largely acknowledged as the best of the current crop of F1 drivers.
Fernando Alonso makes his return to McLaren after seven long years, having left the team in 2007 after throwing a fit about the fact that Lewis Hamilton was hogging all the glory and updates too. Seven years ago Ron Dennis and Alonso were two sour-faced men walking away from each other. Seven years hence the big boss at McLaren appears to have welcomed Nando back with open arms. We'll say one thing though. If there's a driver who can drag an ailing car to track positions, and sometimes podiums, it has no business making it to, it is Alonso. In combination with the smooth, cool, collected Button, McLaren has a strong driver line up. Of course, with Alonso sitting out the first round of the championship in Australia thanks to his pre-season testing crash, Magnussen is back in the driver's seat for this one. Let's see how things go.
While Seb Vettel was being all pouty about the fact that Suzie wasn't as fast as she ought to have been, there was another man grinning broadly and smartly stepping onto the podium on more than one occasion. In fact, so consistent was young Daniel Ricciardo, that he managed to make it to third place in the driver's standings, overshadowing Seb good and proper. And for the 2015 season of Formula 1, it is the Honey Badger (Ricciardo thinks of himself as this docile woodland creature who can get very angry if threatened) who will lead Red Bull's charge. He might be young and he might not have a championship under his belt, but he still looks likely to do the best he can with the RB11, a car that isn't quite ready yet according to team principal Christian Horner. What Horner will have to watch out for, however, is whether the pairing of Daniel Ricciardo and his even younger team-mate Daniil Kyvat will work. They need drivers who can help them develop the RB11 and take the challenge to Mercedes and Ferrari. Well, Ricciardo's aim will be to do enough to prove that he can someday be Australia's second Formula 1 world champion, something Mark Webber tried so hard to achieve but wasn't able to. As far as Red Bull is concerned, Ricciardo is the lead driver. He's already proved he's fast. Is he world champion material though? That's a question only he can answer. Provided, of course, the Red Bull he is piloting in 2015 is up to scratch.
Will he, won't he?
Williams came back from a dismal 2013 season and managed to show that though they were the only real privateers on the grid, they had everything going for them to challenge the bigger teams, some of whom even had a whole lot more money. The Martini-liveried car, with Mercedes power, managed to drop a few jaws in the Formula 1 paddock, with Valtteri Bottas taking five podium finishes, and team-mate Felipe Massa making it onto the podium thrice. And while Bottas has long been hailed one of Formula 1's future stars, in 2014, thanks to a resurgent Williams team on the whole, we saw once again the Massa of yore. And in testing ahead of the 2015 season, Massa and Bottas were both consistent. Bottas is insistent that he will take the challenge to the Mercedes duo, who really are the benchmark for everyone else on the grid. Let's not forget that leading the Williams charge is Pat Symonds, that canny old F1 strategist who believes he has it in him to lead another F1 team to another world championship title. We're not sure that 2015 is the year that the team will claim this title. But they certainly will be strong contenders.
Young and younger
If Toro Rosso hadn't snapped Max Verstappen right out of the cradle and plonked him in a Formula 1 car when they did, then there's a good chance that the driver would have to wait a long while before he got his big Formula 1 break. The son of Jos 'the boss' Verstappen, Max impressed everyone by taking ten wins in his maiden car racing season in 2014. He might have only finished third in the European Formula 3 Championship, but it was enough to ensure that he'd got his foot in the Formula 1 door before the FIA settled on 18 years as the minimum age a driver needed to be in order to make it into the F1 fold. Max, at 17 years and 166 days, will be the youngest driver to start a Formula 1 race, beating Jaime Alguersuari by close to two years. Helmut Marko has said he sees in Verstappen the sort of greatness he once saw in Ayrton Senna. And that's a lofty comparison to make. There are a whole lot of hopes riding on Max's shoulders. Partnering him at Toro Rosso is Carlos Sainz Jr, son of legendary WRC champion and Dakar winner, Carlos Sainz. He comes to Toro Rosso at the age of 20, with the Renault 3.5 championship title under his belt. But there's being fast and winning titles in other single seater series and then there's Formula 1. It isn't just the racing that's difficult. There is the need to work with the team and develop a competitive racecar for the season and for future seasons too. And there's soaking in all the pressure of Formula 1. We've seen drivers struggle with this in the past - Magnussen is one. Romain Grosjean is another. Toro Rosso has always gambled with very young drivers. Now's the time they really will be hoping that the gamble pays off.
Then there's also...
All smiles here are Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg, even though Force India missed the first test session at Jerez. 2015 will be tough
Speaking of drivers who've had a tough time at the very beginning of their Formula 1 careers, it's hard not to think of Romain Grosjean. Grosjean in his first stint in Formula 1 wasn't too successful. But he took a couple of years off from the highest echelon of single-seater racing, racked up other championships including a commanding GP2 title, and then managed to make an F1 comeback. After a disastrous 2012 season where Grosjean was banned for causing a multi-car pile up at the Belgian GP, the Lotus driver shaped up rather well. In 2013 he managed to take six podiums. Unfortunately though, his growth in 2014 was stemmed because the hybrid Renault engine in the E23 just didn't work the way they wanted it to. Eighth place was the best that he could manage last year. And in 2015 he'll be hoping to put all of that behind him. As will also his team-mate Pastor Maldonado, who back in 2012 even managed to win a Formula 1 race - remember the Spanish GP where he held Fernando Alonso at bay?
A matter of Force
There are two other drivers who will be hoping to break their winless streaks in 2015 (other than Grosjean, we mean) - Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez. The Mexican driver has scored four podiums in his Formula 1 career, while Hulkenberg hasn't made it to the podium a single time. Whether their time will come, and whether it will be in the 2015 season of Formula 1, and whether it will be behind the wheel of a Sahara Force India car, we cannot tell. Having missed the first test session of 2015, Force India is considerable behind the other teams in terms of testing mileage. And while we're convinced of the tremendous potential of Hulkenberg and Perez, we're not holding our breath.
We've saved the most surprising bit of information for last. Sauber had a drab 2014 season, from their on track performance to their livery. But in 2015 the team has impressed. After Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel, it was rookie Felipe Nasr who took third spot on the timing sheets, with Marcus Ericsson fifth at the first round of testing at Jerez. There is a faction in the paddock that believes Sauber won't be up there when it comes to race pace. They could well be right. But we also believe that 2015 could be the year that sees Sauber slowly and steadily resurrect itself. And should this happen, we'll be happy to cheer them on. The C34 looks sharp. But good looks won't help Sauber all through. They need solid results to help them put behind forever their only winless season in F1. And now that it is confirmed that Giedo van der Garde won't race for them at the Australian GP after all, Sauber can get on with it then!
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