Let’s admit it, the 2013 season was, in many respects, a bit of a bore, but that’s all about to change when the cars fire up at this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, the season opener of what promises to be a fascinating year ahead.
There have been a number of changes to the technical and sporting regulations, as well as a host of changes in driver line-ups and senior team personnel.
We’ll get onto the people piece in a moment, but first, let’s look at the massive change in the regulations. Gone are the 2.4-litre V8 normally-aspirated engines, and in have come 1.6-litre V6 hybrid turbos. It’s undoubtedly the biggest technical revolution the sport has seen since the 1960s.
Put simply, you have a six-cylinder turbocharged engine bolted on to two other power units: one extracts heat energy from dissipated braking energy, and the other channels and stores the hot exhaust gases – both give the cars greater bursts of power over the course of the lap, and will restrict fuel capacity by one-third to 100kg for an entire race distance.
And with just five ‘power units’ (as the entire assemblies will be known) available for the entire season, it places a premium on reliability in a cleaner, greener era of the sport.
Added to this are sweeping changes in the aero regulations, which have sprouted some of the most distinctive looking cars in the field for some time. Granted, none will win a beauty contest, but it will be fascinating to see which of the teams can bundle the entire package together over the course of the season.
There have been just twelve days of pre-season testing in which to iron out the problems – and there have been many! – and there’s a great degree of uncertainty: no one has any real clue about where they sit in the real pecking order. Mercedes clearly won the ‘winter World Championship’, but that doesn’t come with any trophies or points, so it’s really little more than false pride.
No single team will fire up in Melbourne claiming to be fully prepared for the task that lies ahead, and the odds of a high attrition race on the first Sunday’s running are a near certainty. The early races certainly won’t do much for the sport’s aim to be leaner and greener, but it will still be great fun to watch a very unpredictable period unfold in front of us.
But it should also deliver a phase that some of the older-school fans have perhaps been longing for: a genuine battle for men to tame machines and simply finish, rather than relying on exploding tyres, double DRS zones and daft track limit penalties to take all the fun away. Mechanics will rule above aerodynamics for the first time in a long time, and that can only be a good thing.
Of course, there are many challenges still faced by the sport. Costs continue to spiral and that forces many teams to bring on well-funded (as compared to skilled) drivers to help prop up their finances and keep the show on the road. There are continuing questions about the sport’s governance and what will happen if Bernie Ecclestone is thrown in to prison in Germany. Meanwhile, CVC Capital partners continues to bleed the sport dry of what liquidity is enjoys.
Let’s explore a ten key themes in 2014:
At long last, something else to talk about other than DRS and tyre degradation to determine the outcome of a race. Now we can enjoy discussing engine performance, reliability, torque, turbo lag, (fixed) gear ratios and fuel conservation. The new rules will make the 2014 season as much of a cerebral exercise as it will be physical.
It’s not just going to be down to a battle between who has the best car their disposal, but who can think and strategise their way through the race.
The radical new regulations are probably far too complex for your every day fan – we can barely wrap our heads around them ourselves – but one thing everyone will understand is the high probability of some pretty spectacular failures and unusual results in the first few races as the new technology is bedded in.
3. New looks and sounds
The technical regulations have brought about radical-looking, but individually unique Formula 1 designs; it’s been years since all the cars didn’t look like they’d been created using a piece of tracing paper.
And with these news looks covering such complex powerplants, we have some new sounds. The smaller-capacity hybrid units will only rev to 15,000rpm, but as the power delivery alternates between petrol and electrical, fans will expect much quieter – but throatier – engine notes.
4. New leaders
The shuffling of management between the teams have been almost as frantic as the driver market.
Out have gone Ross Brawn (Mercedes) and Martin Whitmarsh (McLaren), while Eric Boullier jumped from the embattled Lotus to McLaren, and he seems to have slotted right into the Woking team’s environment if his new haircut is anything to go by.
And we probably have Ron Dennis to thank for that. The former team principal staged an internal bloodless coup and took back control of his McLaren team, in a move that is sure to polarise opinions. Whitmarsh was a lovely bloke, but perhaps not ruthless enough to get the job done. Dennis – despite his inability to master the English language – will set about to sort out the team’s fortunes in an interim year before it takes on Honda power. He also needs to find that desperately-needed title sponsor…
5. New drivers
Three new boys are hitting the grid and all will provide us with some very interesting stories. McLaren have drafted in Kevin Magnussen, who will be out to achieve what his father Jan couldn’t by actually delivering in Formula 1. Toro Rosso have brought in Russian teenager Daniil Kvyat, who is fresh from winning the GP3 Series championship but is already showing a maturity belying his tender 19 years of age. And then there’s Marcus Ericsson, a GP2 veteran but still largely unknown. Just who comes out on top in that battle will be interesting.
Ugh, double points, personalised numbers and a trophy for pole position are all appalling ideas, but perhaps the arrival of the new regulations will prove to be enough of an advent to render these gimmicks as redundant as they are stupid.
7. Intra-team battles
The intra-team fight within Mercedes and Ferrari will be one of the biggest talking points in 2014. With the Silver Arrows keeping its line-up of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, you have a pair of young, hungry operators.
At Ferrari, it’s a battle of the sport’s elder statesmen: Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen. Alonso is growing increasingly sick of the team’s inability to deliver him a third title, while Raikkonen will be looking for redemption after a (latterly) troubled period at Lotus. It’s the first time in ages that Ferrari has pitched two drivers against each other on equal terms, and neither will want to come out the loser in that scrap.
In terms of the other pairings, there’s less balance. It might be horribly unpatriotic of us not to throw our weight behind Daniel Ricciardo as he moves into Mark Webber’s old seat at Red Bull Racing, but the set-up there is clearly geared around Sebastian and the absence of denials from the team simply makes it all the more obvious. Daniel is going to have to deliver a few stand-out performances early on to swing the momentum back his way.
8. Williams: seeking redemption?
For the first time since its BMW-powered days, Williams exits the pre-season looking like a genuine front-runner. It’s a welcome change after an appalling 2013 campaign, but the team has made the right moves in the off-season: taking on Mercedes engines and not fighting Pastor Maldonado’s exit were certainly the shrewdest so far. Valtteri Bottas is grossly underrated and the return of Martini as a major sponsor (albeit for a rock bottom price) is also welcome.
Signing Felipe Massa is – in our minds – questionable. Having spent the years since his Hungary accident in no man’s land, there were surely better drivers on the market who the team could have drawn into its roster. But the Brazilian comes with bucketloads of experience and, on the surface at least, is showing plenty of hunger and a desire to prove his detractors wrong. We would be delighted to eat this humble pie.
9. Lotus: Survival mode?
The Lotus F1 Team enters the 2014 season with a lot of rebuilding required. It lost its star driver, its team leader and a chunk of experienced staff, who all quit their posts amid rumours that the team’s finances were a complete mess. The predicted investment from the mysterious Quantum group (predictably) never arrived, and – despite a stunning looking car – it’s had barely any mileage courtesy of Renault’s early-season reliability woes.
It’s an absolute nightmare situation for Romain Grosjean – my personal ‘Driver of 2013’ – to find himself in, but if ever he needed to be tested to see if he could come out intact, this is the situation.
And there’s an irony in Pastor Maldonado’s arrival, leaving the mess that was Williams to find himself in (potentially) an even deeper hole at Lotus. He may claim that it was the best move for his career, but only time will tell.
10. Kamui’s comeback
So he might be shuffling around – for the moment – in what looks like to be another back-of-the-grid effort from the Leafield team that even he’s described as worse than a GP2 Series car, but Kamui Kobayashi is back on the grid.
That he gave up a plum gig in Ferrari’s GT team and used a few million in fans’ publically-raised funds to buy a seat at the team speaks volumes for the hunger of the diminutive Japanese driver.
There’s no denying his spirit of his bravery – or probably the fact that the advent of DRS destroyed his unique selling point: his banzai style of overtaking. Let’s hope that the CT05 gets up to speed quickly and he can showcase some his enormous talent.
All of those topics will be covered at length on RichardsF1.com as the season gets underway, but for now, let’s enjoy going back to racing. We certainly can’t wait!
Images via Renault, Sutton Images and XPB Images