Rewind the clock one year and Formula 1 fans and insiders had their eyes (and ears) glued to the greatest shake-up in the technical regulations in Formula 1 history.
Mercedes got it right and the others didn’t. It produced one of the most dominant championship seasons in history, and while the Silver Arrows traditionally romped away to assured victory after victory (and occasional intra-team collision), the rest of the field produced some outstanding racing of its own.
We could use this preview to bemoan the sport’s inability to promote itself properly or contain costs, but that’s a topic for another story.
Instead, let’s fast forward to today, where the attention will most definitely be on the men behind the wheel.
Can Lewis Hamilton join Sir Jackie Stewart as Britain’s most successful F1 driver by equalling the Scot’s three World Championship titles, or will Nico Rosberg avenge his 2014 title defeat and add another trophy to the Rosberg family cabinet?
The off-season driver market has proved to be particularly volatile, with the major changes triggered by four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel’s decision to leave Red Bull Racing and join Ferrari, paving the way for Fernando Alonso to have a second bite at a marriage with McLaren after five frustrating seasons with the Scuderia. Daniil Kvyat was promoted to the senior Red Bull team in place of Vettel to partner the impressive Daniel Ricciardo, while the Russian’s former employer, Toro Rosso, opted for the youngest line-up in history with a pair of rookies in Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr.
Frontrunners Williams kept the same line-up of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas, while status quo also remained at Lotus and at one half of Ferrari, where the underwhelming Kimi Räikkönen remains under the leadership of new team principal Maurizio Arrivabene.
Further down the order, there are brand new line-ups at Toro Rosso, Sauber (Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr), while the reborn Manor Marussia team has scrambled onto the grid with the inexperienced pairing of Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi.
On the engine front, Lotus dropped Renault and picked up Mercedes power units, while Honda finally made its much-awaited return to F1 with McLaren – and that hasn’t been pretty so far…
|3||Daniel Ricciardo||Infiniti Red Bull Racing||Renault Energy F1-2015|
|5||Sebastian Vettel||Scuderia Ferrari||Ferrari (2015)|
|6||Nico Rosberg||Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team||Mercedes PU106B Hybrid|
|7||Kimi Räikkönen||Scuderia Ferrari||Ferrari (2015)|
|8||Romain Grosjean||Lotus F1 Team||Mercedes PU106B Hybrid|
|9||Marcus Ericsson||Sauber F1 Team||Ferrari (2015)|
|11||Sergio Pérez||Sahara Force India F1 Team||Mercedes PU106B Hybrid|
|12||Felipe Nasr||Sauber F1 Team||Ferrari (2015)|
|13||Pastor Maldonado||Lotus F1 Team||Mercedes PU106B Hybrid|
|14||Fernando Alonso||McLaren Honda||Honda RA615H Hybrid|
|19||Felipe Massa||Williams Martini Racing||Mercedes PU106B Hybrid|
|22||Jenson Button||McLaren Honda||Honda RA615H Hybrid|
|26||Daniil Kvyat||Infiniti Red Bull Racing||Renault Energy F1-2015|
|27||Nico Hülkenberg||Sahara Force India F1 Team||Mercedes PU106B Hybrid|
|28||Will Stevens||Marussia Manor F1 Team||Ferrari 059/3 (2014)|
|33||Max Verstappen||Scuderia Toro Rosso||Renault Energy F1-2015|
|44||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team||Mercedes PU106B Hybrid|
|55||Carlos Sainz Jr||Scuderia Toro Rosso||Renault Energy F1-2015|
|77||Valtteri Bottas||Williams Martini Racing||Mercedes PU106B Hybrid|
|98||Roberto Merhi||Marussia Manor F1 Team||Ferrari 059/3 (2014)|
|Test / Reserve Drivers||Team||Model|
|20||Kevin Magnussen||McLaren Honda||Honda RA615H Hybrid|
|21||Esteban Gutiérrez||Scuderia Ferrari||Ferrari (2015)|
|TBA||Raffaele Marciello||Sauber F1 Team||Ferrari (2015)|
|TBA||Jolyon Palmer||Lotus F1 Team||Mercedes PU106B Hybrid|
|TBA||Pascal Wehrlein||Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team||Mercedes PU106B Hybrid|
|TBA||Susie Wolff||Williams Martini Racing||Mercedes PU106B Hybrid|
What else has changed?
Despite halving the fuel limits, reducing the engine capacity – and, as a side effect, the decibel level – the sport’s powers that be did an appalling job of promoting how the teams had adapted to the new regulations. The discontent from the losing teams and a sector of upset fans was allowed to become a cacophony.
Added to that, the adjustment to the new regulations was proving to be a massive financial strain for all but the manufacturer-backed outfits. Marussia and Caterham both went into administration (the latter never to return), while the likes of Sauber, Lotus and Force India all felt the pinch as they were forced to stretch their dollars further.
Yes, the wholesale technical changes introduced last year provided plenty of upheaval, the off-season saw comparative stability. That being said, there were quite a few changes to the technical and sporting regulations.
Ferrari and Renault – who’d both done a poor job compared to Mercedes in adapting to the regulations – managed to successfully argue for an unfreezing of the power unit development until the end of February, giving them valuable extra time and resources to try and catch up some lost ground. That was of course, assuming Mercedes would do nothing to improve an already mighty powertrain…
Each car has had its powertrain limit reduced to 5 for the entire season, but the FIA has softened its stance on grid penalties for changing out these components. A complete change will no longer incur an automatic penalty, but rather, the punishment will be cumulative based on the individual component(s) changed.
Another change is that grid penalties which cannot be fulfilled in one hit will no longer be rolled over into the next Grand Prix; rather, the impacted driver will serve a time penalty during their first pit stop.
The minimum weight of the car/driver combination was upped by 1 kilogram to 702kg (without fuel), while further design changes were enforced to afford better head protection for drivers after Jules Bianchi’s sickening accident in Japan last year.
The biggest design change to the cars was in the form of the further lowering of the noses and the FIA’s insistence that this be done as a single sweeping design. Gone are the unsightly ‘anteater’ nose designs which sullied last year’s grid.
The controversial and unpopular ‘double points’ finale has been dumped after just one use, while the equally horrid standing restarts concept was also ditched.
Team Preview: Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team
The Brackley squad got the 2014 regulations almost spot on and was utterly dominant last year, winning 16 of the year’s 19 races and claiming eleven 1-2 finishes. It was a fait accompli that its drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, would lock out the top-two spots in the championship, although there was plenty of tension along the way as each sought to wrest the upper hand from the other.
The team had the development of its new F1W06 well under way before the end of 2014 and hit the ground running when pre-season testing began. Hamilton, Rosberg and reserve driver Pascal Wehrlein clocked up an incredible 6,119km of on-track mileage – the equivalent of just over 20 Grands Prix race distances! – over the twelve days of pre-season testing in Spain, with Rosberg posting the fastest overall time of the field, ominously on Soft Pirelli tyres.
That would undoubtedly put the Silver Arrows in the pound seats to kick off the 2015 championship season in fairly dominant fashion, and if the team’s management can do a better job of controlling its drivers and allowing them to fight fairly on the circuit, then another exciting intra-team scrap awaits.
Hamilton was the better racer while Rosberg proved to be quicker over a single lap, but in the end, both proved very closely matched. Expect more of the same in 2015; the title winner will again come down to who is mentally the tougher.
What we’ll like: The inevitable clashes on and off the track between Rosberg and Hamilton
What we won’t: The whingeing from whichever driver isn’t winning
Team Preview: Infiniti Red Bull Racing
After a bruising 2014 campaign where the team fell from dominant leaders to bit players, Red Bull Racing took an aggressive approach in the off-season with a reshuffle of its technical ranks and a delayed build of its 2015-spec car, the RB11.
The car, according to team principal Christian Horner, will help close the gap to Mercedes and should deliver the team a few more wins than the three brilliant results achieved by Daniel Ricciardo last year.
Launched with a striking ‘dazzle’ test livery, the last-minute build of the car was all too apparent in the opening pre-season test, where the RB11 mustered just over 700 kilometres on the track – a big chunk was minus a front win after Daniil Kvyat managed to knock the only one off.
All up, it managed considerably less track mileage than Mercedes, but way more than it achieved with the awful new Renault power units last year, so that has to be some measure of progress at least.
The team kept its cards very close to its chest, and of all the teams, it’s perhaps the most difficult to gauge exactly where it stands in the pecking order. The optimistic are suggesting it should head the ‘best of the rest’ charge, while the more nervous seem to think the RB11 will struggle to get out of the midfield.
The loss of a rather demotivated Sebastian Vettel shouldn’t play too heavily against the team, although it must be said that young Daniil Kvyat will never have the charm of the man he replaces. The young Russian is still a little rough around the edges – judging by his pre-season driving – and will need to adapt quickly now that he’s in a top team.
He’s paired against the outstanding Daniel Ricciardo, who was the only non-Mercedes runner to finish atop the podium in 2014. The Australian didn’t put a foot wrong last year, delivering some outstanding aggressive drives throughout the year. Expect more of the same in 2015.
What we’ll like: The promise that comes with a much more reliable Renault power unit; some stellar overtaking from Daniel Ricciardo
What we won’t: The anticlimax of the ‘in season’ livery after being dazzled in pre-season testing; the two ‘Dannys’ (as they will no doubt be called by David Croft)
Team Profile: Williams Martini Racing
After a stellar recovery year where it finished third overall in the Constructors’ Championship standings, Williams must build on 2014 and make a return – consistently – to the winners’ circle.
Healthcare magnate Brad Hollinger purchased a larger stake in the team, while behind the scenes there were also a number of changes in the team’s technical department under Pat Symonds. This should both strengthen its engineering line-up and also how it approaches its race strategy, something which was sometimes sorely lacking in 2014 as it threw away a number of better race results.
The timesheets suggest that the FW37 sits a similar margin off the pace of the Mercedes’ as its predecessor and it should head the ‘best of the rest’ charge, although it might face a tougher test from Ferrari in that battle.
The team has stability in its line-up, with both Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas in its two cars, while Susie Wolff will again provide support behind the scenes and have a pair of FP1 outings. Both lead drivers need to win: Massa’s desire will be to stave off the critics that suggest it’s time he hangs up the keys; while Bottas will want to tap into the potential that everyone can clearly see he has in abundance.
What we’ll like: The continued resurgence of ‘Team Willy’; the odd tantrum from Massa
What we won’t: After a promising 2014, where is the injection of new sponsors?
Team Profile: Scuderia Ferrari
Ferrari’s 2014 season harked back to a time in the team’s history over 20 years ago: just two podium finishes and more sackings in its management and engineering teams than you could poke a stick at.
A rotting fish stinks from the head first, and regardless of the praise that had been heaped on the brand’s flamboyant chief, Luca di Montezemolo, his time was long since up. After five fruitless seasons, it was no surprise that a frustrated Fernando Alonso finally packed up and left the cockpit as well.
Engineering-wise, there were a number of other shake-ups: chief engineer Pat Fry, chief designer Nikolas Tombazis, and tyre specialist Hirohide Hamashima all went; in came a number of appointments under Technical Director James Allison. Even the team’s former design ace, Rory Byrne, has been tempted out of retirement in Thailand to come and give some advice.
The arrival of former Philip Morris executive Maurizio Arrivabene will mark the team’s third Team Principal in less than a year, but already the change seems more apparent. The chain-smoking Italian has promised greater fan engagement and a serious push to encourage cost containment; even he seems to have realised that Ferrari’s sense of entitlement has outstayed its welcome.
The team showed it wasn’t immune to the sponsorship crunch in its decision to hire Esteban Gutiérrez onto its reserve line-up, while it bolstered its ranks with the arrival of Toro Rosso outcast Jean-Éric Vergne. The presence of the two should make Kimi Räikkönen nervous, particularly if the Finn doesn’t start picking up the pace and faring well alongside new teammate Sebastian Vettel.
The new SF15-T arrived and ran pretty reliably in pre-season testing. After both drivers headed the timesheets in Jerez, the car seemed to be found wanting on the Circuit de Catalunya’s quicker sweeps – that suggests that the team’s target of at least two race wins will remain a dream for now.
The team looks to be on an upward trajectory, but frankly, we’ve all been writing that for a number of years and have never been right. Parent company FIAT is demanding success; Ferrari simply has to start winning and winning regularly.
What we’ll like: Kimi Räikkönen vs Sebastian Vettel will be the most fascinating intra-team battle on the grid
What we won’t: The polemics when the team, inevitably, doesn’t win
Team Profile: McLaren Honda
McLaren’s last race win came in 2012, and as much as team boss Ron Dennis might want to talk up his squad’s chances of returning to victory lane, that is not going to happen in its reunification year with Honda power.
Sure, everyone knows how potent a Honda engine can be and the MP4-30 might look like a tidy package – although were are the sponsors? – but the early days of the project have been nothing short of disastrous.
The signs were ominous when the Honda hybrid motor was first fired up at the end of last season: the 2014 McLaren and its new engine didn’t even last four laps around Abu Dhabi before the thing blew up, and it’s a theme that has continued in 2015 pre-season testing. The car has averaged just 145 kilometres’ on-track running per day – that’s less than half of the next worse team (Lotus), while it has only out-lapped the new Force India (which only ran for two-and-a-bit days, and did so faultlessly).
There have been countless problems tied to the new Honda power unit, and then the cherry on top came when Fernando Alonso had his accident and was subsequently ruled out of the Australian Grand Prix due to his injuries. Kevin Magnussen will take the Spaniard’s place and be keen to prove the team was wrong by dropping him instead of sending Jenson Button out to pasture – quite how much he’ll be able to prove before the MP4-30 breaks down again remains to be seen.
It seems an awfully long time ago when McLaren and Honda partnered to decimate the field by winning 15 of the 1988 season’s 16 races. When – or even if – the two can achieve something similar again will be one of the most intriguing aspects of the coming years.
What we’ll like: The return of Alonso and Honda
What we won’t: Why keep the Mercedes-associated livery? Where are the sponsors? Reliability (or lack of it)…
Team Profile: Sahara Force India F1 Team
Speaking of trouble, look no further than Force India. The team had a meagre two days’ pre-season running with its new VJM08, altohugh it must be said that the new car was exceptionally reliable, which has to give the team some comfort.
The great shame is that the lost pre-season time will be almost impossible to recover – let’s not forget Lotus’ diabolical campaign last year – and it will place the team’s designers and engineers under great strain over the early rounds, which will probably be used as extended test sessions.
The word from insiders is that the reason for the delayed launch of the new car was that its suppliers had literally held the cars’ parts to ransom until they were paid all of the debts from the 2014 season.
The new car is a development of last year’s quick and reliable machine, which saw the team claim a brace of points early in the season before running out of puff and ultimately being overhauled by McLaren for fifth place in the Constructors’ Championship standings.
What we’ll like: A striking new livery scheme and a brace of Mexican sponsors (here’s hoping they pay)
What we won’t: Concerns over the team’s financial health just won’t go away…
Team Profile: Scuderia Toro Rosso
It was a tough 2014 campaign beset by (often self-made) reliability problems, Toro Rosso finished a lonely seventh in the Constructors’ Championship – miles behind Force India, and just clear enough of the execrable Lotus E22 not be a threat or be threatened.
The team had set itself the task of finishing sixth in the Constructors’ standings and fell lamentably short of that goal. With Daniel Ricciardo having moved to Red Bull Racing, it was up to Jean-Éric Vergne and new boy Daniil Kvyat to strut their stuff. When the cars finished (which was rather rare), it was Vergne who scored more points, however it was Kvyat who grabbed the limelight and earned a promotion to Red Bull Racing when Sebastian Vettel decided to jump ship to Ferrari.
After three rather underwhelming seasons, Vergne was shown the door, leaving Toro Rosso starting another season with an all-new driver line-up. Both worryingly and excitingly, it’s a pair of rookies: Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr.
The Renault-powered STR10 – designed under the stewardship of James Key – has run reliably in pre-season testing and already sported a number of upgrades, which both drivers have expressed confidence in.
Of the two rookies, Verstappen has been the more impressive as he prepares to debut as the youngest Formula 1 driver in history. Sainz has proven to be quick but erratic – as evidenced by a few spins and crashes – but you’d rather he was doing that in pre-season testing than in an actual Grand Prix.
After failing to claim sixth place last year, team boss Franz Tost has set the lofty target of bagging fifth place in the standings in 2015. To call that highly ambitious would be a masterstroke of understatement.
What we’ll like: The youngest driver pairing in history
What we won’t: Can the team every truly stand on its own two feet when it’s little more than an incubator for its big brother?
Team Profile: Lotus F1 Team
After having the ugliest car in 2014, Lotus has certainly won in the beauty stakes with its sharp-looking, Mercedes-powered E23 Hybrid. The black-and-gold car looks and runs quickly, and if pre-season testing is any indication, it is making serious strides towards recovering from its embarrassing campaign last year.
The car didn’t have the smoothest of baptisms in Jerez, but once the field moved to Barcelona for the final eight days, the car showed promise at the hands of Pastor Maldonado and Romain Grosjean, who bobbed to the top of the timesheets thanks to some glory, low-fuel, Super Soft tyre runs when many other teams were concentrating on race performance. The final pre-season test ended early, however, with Maldonado suffering a worrying brake failure…
With stability in its line-up, a much healthier sponsorship income and an ever-expanding team of technical staff, things are looking up for Lotus. Wins look unlikely at this stage, but it should be a consistent points’ finisher at the very worst.
What we’ll like: A striking design, stability across the board, the switch to Mercedes power
What we won’t: How long til ‘Crashnado’ sticks it in the fence or up-ends another driver?
Team Profile: Sauber F1 Team
Perhaps one of the bigger pre-season surprises has come from the Sauber camp, which has gone some way to exorcise the shocking memories of its 2014 campaign – where it failed to score points for the first time in its history – by running reliably with its new C34.
The car features a brand new livery thanks to the major cash injection from Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr’s backers, and both drivers popped up towards the sharp end of the timesheets in the opening test at Jerez with some Super Soft tyre runs.
When things switched to Barcelona, the car looked a little more nervous at the rear and it didn’t quite set the timesheets alight. That being said – aside from the odd niggle and a stupid collision between Nasr and Williams’ Susie Wolff on Day 1 – it was outstandingly reliable, clocking up the second-highest pre-season test mileage behind Mercedes.
The signs look good for a recovery of sorts, although with two pay drivers on board it must be said that this is the team’s least inspiring driver line-up. The biggest concern will be who is actually going to drive in Melbourne, with former driver Giedo van der Garde seeking a last-minute injunction to be allowed to race despite having never sat in the car.
What we’ll like: A brand new colour scheme and a much-needed injection of cash, a return to the points looks on the cards
What we won’t: An underwhelming driver pairing, questions over who will actually drive
Team Profile: Manor Marussia F1 Team
Quite what should be expected from the Manor Marussia team is hard to expect, but by some miracle the little team had extricated itself from administration and raised enough funds to get to Melbourne with modified versions of its 2014 cars, ahead of launching a 2015-spec machine later in the year.
The outfit has had a number of obstacles – not least of which being the Strategy Group blocking the team’s original request to use an un-updated version of its 2014 machine – but it has somehow pulled through, brought on a new management structure and signed its former reserve driver (and one-time Caterham debutant) Will Stevens to pilot one of its machines.
That deal comes with some much-needed cash, and it was little surprise to see the team confirm the equally well-heeled former European F3 champion Roberto Merhi to drive its second car.
With a year-old engine and chassis, and two very unproven drivers, don’t expect Marussia to do any better than languish towards the back with the unreliable McLarens in the opening races. The simple fact that the team is here should be enough cause for celebration.
What we’ll like: It’s survived and it’s here!
What we won’t: The shocking intransigence of the other teams; it really will be surviving on a hand-to-mouth existence for the moment
Images via Red Bull Racing, XPB Images