In years gone by, the dawn of a new Formula One season used to be a time of excitement and anticipation. The thought of great drivers going head to head in the most powerful and expensive machines on the planet brought water even to the mouths of camels. The season’s traditional Melbourne curtain-raiser this Sunday has come in slightly under the radar however, not least because of some damaging bribery stories in the off-season concerning the world’s shortest man, Bernie Ecclestone. Some say Formula One has become boring. To a certain extent, I can agree. If I’m totally honest, over the past few years, I tend to watch the first few laps of a race, have a nap, then wake up in time to see Sebastian Vettel spraying champagne over scantily clad women to the music from Carmen – often the most exciting point (for me at least) of the weekend. But this year, all is set to change with a raft of new regulations in the sport. Pre-season testing has suggested that the dominance of Red Bull, which has brought them the driver and constructor championship double for the past four years, may well be over.
Of the many new changes introduced, there are two of great significance. Firstly, the front nose and wings have been lowered and narrowed, as has the rear wing. The exhaust now has a single, central exit point which means it cannot be used for aerodynamic advantage. These changes combine to make it harder for the teams to create downforce, and thus grip, for the cars. Red Bull have been the masters of this over the past four years.
The other significant change will be more likely heard than seen, by the viewers/listeners at least, as the high pitched wail of the V8 engines synonymous with F1 has been replaced by the low growl of a highly turbo charged hybrid V6 motor. This grumble will be punctuated by whines and whistles from the turbo and new ERS (energy recovery systems). The ERS systems utilise complicated hybrid technology to put at the disposal of the drivers large boosts of horsepower which they can unleash for large periods of each lap, a big step up from the KERS systems of last year. Many will mourn the loss of the epic V8 sound, which certainly added to the atmosphere of F1. But in this age of austerity and economy, F1 must retain some relevance, and development in hybrid engine technology will doubtless ripple down to the commercial vehicles of today and tomorrow. This year’s challenges therefore will prove to be about reliability and fuel management, where last year was all about tyre wear, which are still made by Pirelli, but with stronger compounds to avoid the punctures and blow outs which at times ruined last year’s racing.
So let’s have a look at the contenders:
RED BULL: simply put, Renault, who supply their engines are extremely behind in their engine development this year, meaning Red Bull have had a torrid pre-season. They failed to complete more than 20 or so ‘hot laps’ all winter and suffered from major reliability issues. However, with their experience and money, don’t be surprised to see them come good as the season progresses, but will it be too late? Fingers crossed then we don’t see that smug twat Vettel on the podium any time soon.
FERRARI: The team from Monza have had a quietly impressive, if not spectacular winter testing. In Fernando Alonso and the world’s coolest man – Kimi Raikkonen they have arguable the best driver combination. They look set for one of their strongest seasons for a while.
MCLAREN: After having one of, if not the worst season in their history last year, McLaren will be looking to bounce back. Powered by the formidable Mercedes engine, they have been very good in pre-season. We know all about former world champion Jensen Button’s credentials, but his new team mate, Danish rookie Kevin Magnussen has caught the eye with some serious pace. Ron Dennis’ re-appointment as Team Principal is also a significant move.
MERCEDES: Look to be the pace setters this year and Lewis Hamilton’s eye brow raising decision to join them from McLaren is looking justified as Mercedes appear streets ahead of many teams in terms of car development. They were fastest in 11 out of 12 testing sessions this winter, and with an increasingly maturing Hamilton behind the wheel, they look to be the team to beat.
BEST OF THE REST:
F1 heavyweights WILLIAMS have not had the best of times in recent years, but have looked very sharp so far this winter, especially with the experienced Felipe Massa behind the wheel. The top teams may be seeing a lot more of them in their wing mirrors this season.
As previous years have shown, it’s difficult to predict too much from pre-season testing. But one thing seems certain: as reliability has been such an issue for every team managing these regulation changes and complex new engines, it won’t be surprising to see only half the field finish the first race this weekend in Melbourne. As far as I’m concerned, it’s about time the field was blown wide open and I’m very excited about the forthcoming season, which promises much entertainment. You never know, I may even manage to stay awake for a whole race…..
Alex Sprague (Guest blogger and part-time F1 expert)