The questions of Melbourne

And so, the wait comes to an end; in just under a week’s time the first grand prix of the 2014 Formula 1 season will have drawn to a close and we will have got to know the first winner of the year – and it only takes a glance over the three recent winter tests to understand the significance of the top step of the Australian podium to whoever claims it, and likewise – their rivals. Because, although every start of the season brings along its number of uncertainties, the Melbourne grid 2014 will be ridden with question marks – let’s take a look at the main ones.

How many cars will finish the race?

This dramatic question was posed even before the Jerez test in January, but still remains a key talking point across the Formula 1 board.

Flaming cars - like the Catergam CT05 - have quickly become a common sight during the 2014 winter testing. Photo by Sutton Images.

Flaming cars – like the Catergam CT05 – have quickly become a common sight during the 2014 winter testing.
Photo by Sutton Images.

The reliability issues the teams have been experiencing ever since the unveiling of their 2014 challengers have made it impossible to establish who, if anyone, will be able to see their car run all the 58 laps without experiencing an engine or breaking failure, or a computer issue turning the whole Energy Recovery System (ERS) on its head and rendering the turbocharger useless – not to mention the adjustment of new Pirelli tyres, which, although designed as more durable, have also caused a few headaches already this year.

The all new and most complex regulation requirements for Formula 1 cars to date have posed a litany of problems ahead of all teams without exception, resulting in some of them missing out on whole afternoons of testing or even days (read: Lotus, who only began running from the second test, in Bahrain). The truth lies in the numbers: in 2013 the total mileage covered by the 11 teams over the 12 days of testing was 31,032 – this year only 22,975.

So, at the centre of the biggest question mark ahead of the Australian GP is the consensus that every team stands the chance of claiming the chequered flag – even if it was simply by managing to bring their car to the finish line in one piece.

Mercedes and Williams who ran the most mileage will be better prepared for Melbourne than Ferrari, claims team-principal Stefano Domenicali. Photo by Scuderia Ferrari.

Mercedes and Williams who ran the most mileage will be better prepared for Melbourne than Ferrari, claims team-principal Stefano Domenicali.
Photo by Scuderia Ferrari.

Who is the favourite?

As the sunset fell on Sao Paulo on November 24, 2013 and Red Bull were wrapping up their fourth consecutive double-championship, the debate about the potential of the upcoming season to overturn the team’s dominance had already started, but few people gave it much gravitas. Red Bull, and Sebastian Vettel specifically, had proven on many former occasions that they can still come out victorious in the face of diversity.

The picture has put a smile on many faces - but no one believes Red Bull misery is going to last. Photo source: Planet F1

The picture has put a smile on many faces – but no one believes Red Bull misery is going to last. Photo source: Planet F1

No wonder then that their pre-season testing has been dubbed “disastrous” and photos of the German champ pushing his stunning new machine back to the garage were eagerly shared by F1 staff and media alike. The team only managed 1063 miles of running, placing them just ahead of Marussia and Lotus – with the latter one having missed out on whole four days after all. Out of this Vettel did 162miles  – by comparison to the distance setter of the winter period, Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg’s 554.

Currently Mercedes are quietly called favourites, following successful race and qualifying simulations, and having closed the winter testing at the top of the leaderboard for mileage, and yet they are quick to admit they still fear reliability issues as the W05’s performance started to drop in the final Bahrain days. “My car is not 100% ready yet,” Rosberg said. “We might be in a better position than some other teams, but we need to get to the end of the race, so that’s a big challenge.”

McLaren, who after a wonky start in Jerez seemed to have picked up ground running fastest laps early in the testing, disappeared in the shadows once more in February with Jenson Button being quoted saying the car is “further behind than expected”; the tone is echoed by Lotus’ Romain Grosjean who bluntly admitted the team is simply not ready for Melbourne and called on his squad not to treat Australia as another test session.

After a hopeful start McLaren has fallen behind the competitors in the winter testing once more, Button thinks. Photo by: Martin Rickett/PA

After a hopeful start McLaren has fallen behind the competitors in the winter testing once more, Button thinks.
Photo by: Martin Rickett/PA

Among all this pessimism Williams has been looking surprisingly strong, with Felipe Massa having topped the timesheets at the final test in Bahrain, which also rounded off the winter testing’s second-best mileage by the team of just 50 miles behind Mercedes. and that having only caused only one red flag during the whole period – contrasting with seven by Lotus and Sauber each.

At the end of the day, however, Red Bull competitors agree that the Milton Keynes outfit and their engine supplier Renault will sort out its issues soon enough – and when they do they will be very difficult to compete with.

Has the show lost its spark?

With the scale of the new regulations finally materialising the question of Formula 1’s attractiveness as the most exciting sport in the world has been brought up to the forefront. Some decisions that have been made to boost the competitive appeal of the discipline have caused an outrage among the teams and fans alike – starting with the ugly car nose designs resulting from updated safety regs and culminating in the double-point system for the final race in Abu Dhabi. The feel of the races themselves was also put into doubt with the expectation of smaller turbocharged V6 engines lacking the roar and bite of their normally-aspired V8 predecessors – a fear that seemed confirmed in the first days in Jerez, but waved off as the testing progressed.

Listen here to how the V6 engines by the four manufacturers (including Honda from 2015) sound:

The speed of the new packages was difficult to measure as the teams scarcely used the new powertrains to their full capacity, but the drivers who managed some throttle-heavy runs on the straights said they could feel the cars’ potential. The new ERS system with a doubled electric motor size from last year to 12kW is expected to offer an energy boost for as long as 30sec per lap. The 760 bhp package explains the addition of the eight gear to the F1 chassis box for the first time; and while the 100kg of fuel per race limit might lead some teams to curbing the pace and betting for a more cautious cruising style, they might just as well opt for the complete opposite – after all, the previous few years have given us some examples (Red Bull and Mercedes to suggest but a couple) when teams just got away with ultra-light tanks.

Lotus is not ready for Melbourn, claims Grosjean - is the sport prepared for his pairing with Maldonado, however? Photo by: Andrew Hone/Getty Images Europe

Lotus is not ready for Melbourn, claims Grosjean – is the sport prepared for his pairing with Maldonado, however?
Photo by: Andrew Hone/Getty Images Europe

The new qualifying rules might boost the viewing numbers on Saturdays, as the times of sessions are due to change (Q1 cut down to 18 mins to add two extra minutes to Q3 allowing enough time for two runs in the final leg) and the drivers are set to run the race on their Q2 tyres (as opposed to current rules of keeping Q3 tyres for the race) a move to avoid tyre preservation strategies in the final stint. Additionally, the new pole trophy might work as an extra incentive for teams not to “sit-it-out” in their garages until their absolute limit.

And, of course, we should not forget about the drivers, who will certainly contribute to a spike in the sport’s popularity – at least for the first few races. It will be interesting to see how the new pairings for this year: Alonso-Raikkonen, Vettel-Ricciardo, Button-Magnussen or Grosjean-Maldonado pan out; whether Massa can bring the all new Martini-Williams livery to the front of the grid and whether Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg will benefit from remaining a unified pairing amongst this chaos. Not to mention the fact that eyes of everyone will be following closely one young German champion to see whether he can ultimately prove his greatness by winning against all odds.

Williams impressed in the final stages of winter testing - can they keep it up in Australia? Photo by: Williams Martini Racing

Williams impressed in the final stages of winter testing – can they keep it up in Australia?
Photo by: Williams Martini Racing

Undoubtedly, the sheer multitude of changes brought into the 2014 season will make the first races of the year an intriguing spectacle. It’s rather unlikely that Melbourne will provide definite answers to all, if any, of the above questions… while it might just create some new ones.

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