2015 Formula 1 Preview: Hamilton’s to Lose? or Formula 1’s to Ruin?
I’m sitting over breakfast at my local spot in Newtown working out how to construct a preview to the 2015 Formula 1 World Championship, granted not your typical morning task. Located close to the University of Sydney, Newtown is a melting pot for the young, academic, artistic, and homosexual communities of Sydney, pretty much everything that I am increasingly not, so it’s little wonder that my breakfast does not consist of only two poached eggs, but rather a mixture of polenta, fetta, and heirloom tomatoes presented in a fashion, the pleasure of which is surpassed only by its taste… the folks at Brewtown are on to something here and the line out the door shows I am not the only one that knows it. It may be a lose connection but perhaps the issue of popularity is what may define the 2015 Formula 1 season, a year that may well instigate the need for swift changes to the formula of the future.
At the risk of sounding derisive, 2014 was an experimental year for Formula 1, the kind of year that a driver like 17 year-old Max Verstappen is about to embark upon with Scuderia Toro Rosso, the Dutch driver’s meteoric rise into the highest form of motorsport after one season of open-wheel racing even surprised the FIA, whose super license requirements did not stipulate an age limit for prospective applicants. It does now. Verstappen in 2015, like Formula in 2014, can test the limits of his ability, take chances against the walls in the knowledge that the carbon fibre kiln will be running well into the Faenza sunrise. There will certainly be days in 2015 when Verstappen is nowhere, but enough days in which he is more than somewhere to keep heads turning long into the 2016 season. Verstappen will be joined by Renault Formula 3.5 champion Carlos Sainz Jnr. and the son of twice world rally champion Carlos Sainz. At 20 years of age it is staggering to think that Sainz will be the senior driver at Toro Rosso, but with vastly more racing experience than his Dutch team mate, the pressure will be on the Spaniard to lead the team throughout the season. Barring a calamitous season, both drivers will be driving for Toro Rosso in 2016.
So that’s effectively the rookies out of the way, because while they may occupy the pre-season pages, the story of the opening races of the 2015 season may well be dominated not by what is on the track, but by how many off it are watching what is on it. Despite 2014 pre-season testing in February being dominated by discussion of the new V6 turbo hybrid engine note, many in Melbourne were left shocked not only that the engine noise had diminished, but even mystified as to why. The fact is that many Australians attend the Grand Prix largely for the atmosphere and little else, not all will be staying up to watch the Bahrain Grand Prix at 11:00pm three weeks later. With the Australian public now well aware of how Formula 1 now sounds, it will be very interesting to see how many turn up to talk over it. If attendance in Melbourne is notably low, expect attention to quickly shift away from this years season and quickly towards implementing regulations to enhance the current hybrid formula. Perhaps that is what 2015 will be all about, making changes for the immediate future of Formula 1 without making this years season feel like the Russian Grand Prix, in that everyone knows it’s not right but still puts up with it anyway.
The possible distraction off track for 2015 is the proposed introduction of wider tyres and an increase in the power of the new engines to over 1000bhp for 2017. At present the engines have 850bhp (take off 10% for the Ferrari). Encouragingly, these changes have been endorsed by current non-executive chairman of the Mercedes F1 Team and three-time World Champion Niki Lauda, who believes the current cars are too easy to drive, as evidenced by the practice performances of Max Verstappen. In an interview with Autosport magazine, Lauda has stressed the need for Formula 1 cars to be harder to handle at the limit and for new drivers to be slower because they are wary of pushing them to the limit. If I may, it would almost appear as though Lauda is advocating for Formula 1 cars that are scary to drive, and in turn, exciting to watch. Finally!! Since the introduction of restricted aerodynamics in 2005 Formula 1 has embarked on a mission to make Formula 1 unattractively safe, how ironic that it takes a driver that was moments from death in a Formula 1 accident, to advocate for cars to be more powerful and harder to drive. It will take something very special for 2015 to not be dominated by the introduction of new regulations for the future. So how does it look?
A form guide for the future in Formula 1 is often dictated largely by the past and if the past is anything to go by Lewis Hamilton will be romping to his third Formula 1 World Championship in 2015. Hamilton’s two key faults in 2014 were his errors in qualifying and his cars unreliability. With regulations remaining stable for 2015 and comfortable in the knowledge of its performance advantage, Mercedes will be looking to improve its reliability record in 2015. Should the Mercedes prove to be bulletproof in 2015, there are few teams that will consistently challenge them over the course of a twenty round season. Where Hamilton just needs to iron out his errors in qualifying, his team mate Nico Rosberg needs race pace, a predicament that may require the German to alter his driving technique. Not easy but essential. If Rosberg does not change something in the way he drives or sets up his car in race trim, his tally of 5 wins to Hamilton’s 11 in 2014 may well look quite good compared to what lies ahead.
BUT… and it is one big BUT.
At the beginning of the year the FIA acknowledged that a loophole existed in the engine homologation regulations for the 2015 season. Where engine manufacturers were required to have their designs completed and submitted by 28 February 2014, the regulations for this season did not make specific reference to a deadline, simply that it be in 2015. Desperate for greater opportunity to develop their considerably under-performing power units, Ferrari and Renault were quick to suggest that this technicality allowed for them to develop the permitted areas of their power units throughout the course of the 2015 season rather than at the start. The FIA, no doubt well aware that any opportunity to grant the engine manufacturers more development time could ensure closer competition this season (and out of fairness of course), allowed for the interpretation to stand. While at first saying this interpretation didn’t apply to Honda as it would have to abide by the 28 February 2015 deadline as did other manufacturers the previous year, the FIA was quickly persuaded by the Japanese engine manufacturer only weeks later. What this all means is that engine development in 2015 will be ongoing throughout the season on each of the 32 areas of the engine as specified in the regulations. Each team can only bring an engine with changes to each area once, the change only being confirmed once it is used on a car during the race weekend. What many will be hoping is that Mercedes have no more tricks up their sleeve and that Renault and Ferrari, now aware of some of the key developments in the Mercedes engine, will be able to make greater gains in performance. This means that what we see in Melbourne may not be what we see in Monaco, and Monza, and Mexico.
Frankly, the whole situation is simply tiresome, as Formula 1 attempts to promote innovation within it’s sport within regulations that they imposed, but for which all participants appear keen to abandon, as they stifle the very innovation and competition upon which the sport came to exist. What may well emerge from 2015 is a continual bickering between teams over what parts of an engine have been developed at every race weekend. Put simply, the ability for the FIA to police the changes made to engines throughout 2015 would appear to rely greatly on the honesty of teams instructing the FIA, and as we all know, when it comes to F1 teams seeking to increase their cars performance, none of them can be trusted.
With time now on their side, can Renault, Ferrari and Honda make genuine in-roads into the performance advantage of the Mercedes? If Mercedes dominance is to be thwarted in 2015 the challenges are likely to come from either Red Bull, Ferrari, or Williams. It will come from Red Bull if Renault’s engine improves, it will come from Ferrari if James Ellison’s first car for the prancing horse is a success, it will come from McLaren if Honda masters the new formula, and it will come from Williams if incremental improvements can be made both in and around the cockpit, but as Clive James once stated “If is F1 spelt backwards” and it’s why we wait anxiously to see where the 66th consecutive season of the world’s premiere motor racing category takes us, both on and off the track.
Mercedes to be the best car but not to achieve as many one-two finishes as last year (12). Challengers to the Mercedes’ will come from Red Bull yet again and it will be a challenge that will come from closer in their mirrors, but it will be Valterri Bottas in the Williams that will pose the biggest threat to Mercedes’ dominance. Overall though it’s Hamilton for the drivers and Mercedes for the constructors titles in 2015.
What to look out for in 2015
1. Spectator Attendance
Are the new engine regulations reducing the attractiveness of Formula 1 to the paying public? Australia and Malaysia will provide a telling answer to the sports regulators.
2. The return of the Honda turbo
Honda return to Formula 1 for the first time since 2008, for the first time with McLaren since 1992, and for the first time with a turbo charged engine since 1988. Can the engine manufacturer reclaim their reputation in the ’80s for building the greatest turbo charged power plant in motor racing or will it be a year-long game of catch up. Early signs point to the later.
3. Alonso at McLaren
And you thought Raikkonen back to Ferrari was a strange choice, what Villeneuve to Sauber in 2005 perhaps? They have nothing on the return of Fernando Alonso to McLaren. The Spaniard, who successfully brought about McLaren being fined 100 million dollars in 2007 after the team decided not to provide him with number 1 status over Lewis Hamilton, has been welcomed back to Woking to have another go. Should the car under perform as there is every possibility it could, the dynamic within the team will quickly become the focus.
4. Kvyat v Ricciardo
Can the young 20 year-old Russian take it to the form driver of the Formula 1 field? If so, expect further criticism on the relative ease of driving the current cars to rear its head.
5. Vettel at Ferrari
Will the first James Ellison designed 2015 Ferrari transform the Scuderia? Will Sebastian Vettel cope with a machine that may well be even more inferior than the Red Bull RB10?
6. Mexican Grand Prix
Before we get excited about whether the first Mexican Grand Prix will be a success we must first ask whether the race will even get under way? Look to hear further updates on construction progress throughout the early part of the season.
7. Max Verstappen
Can a 17 year-old succeed in Formula 1? I never thought I would be provided with a real-life example to support the answer to that question but come the Australian Grand Prix we will and no matter which way it goes the answer will have a big impact on Formula 1.
8. Formula 1 Regulations For the Future
Shhhh!! We are trying to watch the race!! What… 1200bhp engines? Wide tyres?
Breakfast task complete. Time to let others enjoy. What do you think will be the big issues in 2015 and who will take out the grandest prize in world motor sport? Comments always welcomed.