Australian Grand Prix-view – How big is Merc advantage?


race start abu dhabi sunday 2014Winter is coming…what do the Stark’s know? The only season that matters is starting this week with the Australian Grand Prix marking the beginning of the 2015 Formula 1 season.

After a year of Mercedes domination last year it’s highly unlikely that we’ll see anything other than Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg as the primary title contenders but the battle throughout the field could be one of the most compelling in memory even if the title fight will inevitably come down to the intra-team battle at Mercedes.

Status quo to remain

lewis hamilton abu dhabi sunday 2014 (14)Hamilton showed last year that he is now capable of winning when he has to and his late season form was ominous for the rest of the grid. Rosberg showed that he has the talent and temperament to challenge for a title but there is a clear feeling within the paddock that the German’s window of opportunity to claim a title has now closed. Rosberg finds himself in a very position to what Mark Webber was in ahead of the 2011 season.

The year before Webber had come tantalisingly close to winning the title, a crash in the wet Korean Grand Prix costing him the crown, and with his teammate, Sebastian Vettel, having won the title Webber was never able to find the momentum or internal support to mount another serious title challenge. Rosberg showed he has the ability to be a champion but the failure to win the title may have irreversibly shifted the balance of power inside Mercedes to the other side of the garage.

lewis hamilton nico rosberg abu dhabi sunday 2014The battle between the Mercedes teammates was enthralling last year with the politics and embitterment towards each other overflowing  at times, notably Monaco and Spa, and it will be very interesting to see how the dynamics change throughout this season. Hamilton now has a sense of maturity and confidence that comes from proving that he’s the superior driver and knowing that when he has the car as he wants it he proved unbeatable last year.

Rosberg won five times last year but when it mattered at the end of the season he had no answers for Hamilton despite having the pace over a single lap in qualifying more often than not. Hamilton’s ability to outfox Rosberg on race day was one of the surprises of last year. Many expected the challenges of the new regulations to play directly into Rosberg’s favour but instead Hamilton sacrificed qualifying speed to ensure that he had a more useable car with a bigger operating window come race day.

nico rosberg abu dhabi sunday 2014 (11)For Rosberg however the key will be the lessons that he learned from last year and using it as motivation for the coming season:

“This will be my sixth year with the team and we’re getting stronger with every season,” said Rosberg. “We had a good winter but it’s never straightforward. You always have challenges to overcome and there’s nothing for certain, so we have to keep pushing. Personally, I have focussed on pushing myself even harder for the rematch with Lewis. In the end, it comes down to who can put the best season together overall and  I have to make sure it’s the other way around this time. Having said that, my team-mate is just one of many strong competitors who I have to beat if I want to be World Champion, so I’m just focused on being the absolute best I can be. I now know the feeling of winning races and I intend to do a lot more of that – but I also know the feeling of not winning in the end and I don’t intend to repeat that experience. It’s a huge motivation for me and gives me even more determination for 2015.”

lewis hamilton abu dhabi sunday 2014 (1)After a winter spent consolidating, and likely extending, their advantages it’s impossible to look past Mercedes winning the title and given what Hamilton achieved at the end of the season he rightly starts as the title favourite. Rosberg needs to show that he can improve upon last year and winning some early season races-and crucially beating Hamilton wheel to wheel, man to man-will be the key for his title fight.

As far as Hamilton is concerned however the momentum from last year has clearly given him an extra spring in his step even if he is keen to stress that his rivals have been working hard throughout the winter:

lewis hamilton monaco race 2014 (1)“At this point in the year you don’t really know what to feel as a driver,” said Hamilton. “You’re impatient to get back to racing but, at the same time, you never know what a new season will bring. Testing gives you a basic idea of whether the car feels good or not but, beyond that, it’s anyone’s game to win. The team have been working incredibly hard through the winter and it was great to see everyone in the factory before I left for Melbourne.

“I’m sure the competition will be close and we should get exciting racing with plenty of battling for position – which is great because that’s what I love doing and that’s what the fans love watching. There are many good drivers out there and all of them want to win.”

Best of the rest?

valtteri bottas abu dhabi saturday 2014 (4)Answers on the back of a fiver if you can pick the winner of the “Best of the rest” crown in 2015. Mercedes will once again lock out the top positions in the championship but with Williams, Ferrari and Red Bull all having had strong winters there’s likely not a lot to pick between the trio as they start the new season.

The fight will come down to who can develop their car the best but at the moment Williams look very strong. The team have committed to being less “risk aversive” in 2015 and will look to take advantage of their package more often than they last year when they were crippled by consistently being in a much stronger position than they had become accustomed to over the last decade. Now though Williams looks poised to win races and fight at the sharp end on a consistent basis.

The restructuring within the team has taken time to get the most from it but now they have two strong drivers and a car that is clearly capable of putting the cat amongst the pigeons at a lot of races. In Valtteri Bottas the team has one of the very best drivers on the grid and Felipe Massa showed last year that while he isn’t as fast as Bottas he can still put his car into position to be a regular podium challenger this year.

felipe massa abu dhabi saturday 2014 (2)Last year Williams was let down by a lot of operational mistakes with pitstops and strategy clearly their major bugbear but having had a largely trouble free winter, that included a day devoted to pitstop practice, it looks as though they are now ready to maximise their potential.

Ferrari have been galvanised over the winter by the arrival of Sebastian Vettel and a much more competitive and predictable car has also ignited a spark within Kimi Raikkonen and the Prancing Horse looks much stronger than the lame version that appeared so often last year and left many wondering if the most humane thing was just to put the drivers out of their misery on the starting grid.

The new car looks to be everything that last year’s car wasn’t…namely competitive. Raikkonen has spent the winter smiling and in a contract year he knows that it’s imperative that he can compete with Vettel and show that he still deserves to be on the grid. Last year’s debacle at Ferrari did a lot to leave Raikkonen under pressure but it’s worth remembering just how competitive he was in the Lotus and that speed hasn’t disappeared overnight, it was merely hidden by a car that he was never able to get comfortable driving.

kimi raikkonen abu dhabi friday 2014 (5)The Finn has been usurped by Bottas for the moniker of “Flying Finn” but underestimate Raikkonen at your peril. In many ways he’s not the driver he used to be and he won’t every reach the consistent excellence of earlier in his career but he’s still a rapid driver when he has the car as he wants it and with new car offering him the front end feel that he’s always needed he could spring some surprises.

Vettel struggled last year for Red Bull. He was a shadow of the driver that dominated Formula 1 for four years and he was ultimately made dispensable by Red Bull because of Daniel Ricciardo’s consistent excellence last year. Vettel is in the unique position of being a four time World Champion who the paddock is still unsure of just how good he is. Armed with the best car at Red Bull he was unbeatable but last year’s struggles went some distance to arming the naysayers with plenty of ammunition against the German.

The move to Ferrari was motivated, as much as anything else, by Vettel’s need to prove to the field just how talented he is. Anyone that doubts his speed and talent is foolish but last year also showed, just as did the early races in 2012, that Vettel was the only man who could get the complete maximum out of the previous regulations. With a double deck diffuser Vettel’s unique driving style was able to generate downforce whereas last year’s regulations, and the early 2012 season offering from Red Bull, would not allow him to drive as aggressively and his form suffered dramatically.

kimi raikkonen monaco saturday 2014 (8)Last year Ferrari was hampered, to put it mildly, by a poor engine but this year the power unit seems to have made major strides forward and the team should be in position to battle for second in the championship.

Red Bull was another team that struggled because of a poor engine in 2014 but Ricciardo was still able to win three races and show just how good a driver he is. The next step that the Australian has to take is to prove that he can back up such a strong season with another top three finish in the Drivers’ Championship. Last year he was the unknown but this year he’ll be the target that Bottas, Vettel and Raikkonen will all be aiming to scalp.

The culling of senior figures last year was both unprecedented at Ferrari but crucially very necessary in reducing the fat from a bloated organisation. Losing senior figures is always a traumatic time for any organisation but at Ferrari the team are clearly revitalised with the team now moving forward in a new direction with Vettel as their long term leader rather than Alonso.

Kimi-Raikkonen-Melbourne-Friday-2014-(6)Whether this is an upgrade will be a major question mark hanging over the team. Alonso has long been viewed as the most complete driver on the grid and his ability to consistently get the most from his package has made him one of the sport’s all time greats…however his inability to add to his two titles with Renault has led to obvious questions about his ability to win more titles. Regardless of the machinery at his disposal and the disadvantages caused by this being in position to have won three more titles and adding none to his resume is a clear validation for Ferrari axing him in favour of Vettel.

What can McLaren achieve?

jenson button kevin magnussen abu dhabi sunday 2014After a difficult season last year McLaren have traded in Mercedes power for Honda…and had a disastrous winter. Unable to complete any meaningful mileage on most days of testing the Woking squad are starting the season with two hands tied behind their back.

The engine has been a major issue thus far with Honda beset by niggling problems. It’s a similar predicament to what we saw from Red Bull last year but it’s going to be impossible for McLaren to have anywhere as much success this year.

With a car that would struggle to get down to the chip shop McLaren will have to hope that Honda can solve their ills early in the season and then the team can look to start developing the package. Early indications are that the car is quite well balanced but with Alonso unable to start the season because of his controversial Catalan crash in testing the challenges have been never ending for McLaren so far in 2015.

fernando alonso jenson button abu dhabi press conference 2014 (2)The new car has clear potential with the times from Barcelona proving that it is faster than last year’s car, inspite of the engine problems, and with a fully restructured technical team the signs are that long term the team should be much stronger. However this will help little in the early season. The ace in the hole for McLaren will be Alonso once he gets back to full fitness from his concussion and while their’s is clearly a marriage of convenience there’s no reason to suggest that it can’t be a happy marriage long term.

For Jenson Button Australia will mark a step into the unknown as he starts his 16th season in Formula 1:

“We know the city and the circuit well, what is more of an unknown is how we will fare in the MP4-30,” said Button. “McLaren-Honda has been working incredibly hard over the winter, and although we would of course have liked to cover more miles in Jerez and Barcelona, I can definitely see a difference in the car from the first day to the last. The team’s commitment to development and improvement, both in Woking and in Japan, is astonishing, and despite some tricky days in testing, we are seeing definitive progress. The car is a solid base which gives me optimism that we will get there, we just need patience.

jenson button abu dhabi saturday 2014 (5)“Melbourne is always a fascinating spectacle: nobody quite knows where they’ll be in comparison to their rivals, and even though the other teams are now in the second year of the turbo era, all of the development from last year has been done very much behind the scenes, so I don’t think anyone has quite shown their full hand yet. The race at Albert Park will be a huge learning curve for us, but I’ll be working flat-out with my engineers to get the car set up as best we can, and together, we’ll fight right until the last moment to get the most out of the weekend.

Force India and Sauber chase Torro Rosso

nico hulkenberg abu dhabi saturday 2014 (2)Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez combined to score points in 26 starts last year but such a strong rate of return will likely be impossible for the team this year. Having missed most of the winter testing, the new car was only delivered for the final three days of the winter, the challenge for both drivers will be to try and finish races and take advantage of problems for other teams until Force India can deploy their first major upgrade of the season at the Monaco GP in May.

The cash strapped team has had to request an advance on their FOM payments so that they could take part in testing but long term it’s unlikely that we’ll see significant financial issues for the team and with Hulkenberg, criminally underrated by the top teams, they have one of the most consistent drivers on the grid and a real wild card at races when the car is working well. If the car is fully reliable, and early indications in testing point to this, Hulkenberg will score points.

daniil kvyat abu dhabi friday 2014 (1)Toro Rosso has two teanaged rookies with famous fathers for this year but nepotism was far from a motivation for the team to hire Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz. Verstappen has been immensely impressive in testing with the Dutchman running mistake free and fast throughout the winter and the speed with which he has eased into Formula 1 shows just how mature he is. Sainz, on the other hand, has had a couple of shunts in testing but the Spaniard is a resiliant driver and one that shouldn’t be underestimated just because he was passed over by Kyvat and Verstappen for the Toro Rosso drives in the past.

Arguably the best reality television in the world would be if a couple of small cameras were placed in the Sauber garage throughout this weekend. Giedo van der Garde has won court cases in three countries to show that he is legally a race driver for Sauber but the Swiss team are thus far completely unwilling to grant the Dutch driver a return to Formula 1.

Australian courts rejected the team’s appeal saying that the original verdict was completely valid and that Sauber must provide a car to van der Garde otherwise they will be held in contempt of court. Having their cars impounded is not out of question and this black mark on the team and the sport will fester throughout the season with van der Garde likely to have to fight through the local courts at numerous races to prove that he is a race driver for the team.

Giedo-van-der-Garde-Monaco-2013-(2)Where this leaves Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr is open to interpretation. Both drivers also have signed contracts with Sauber and brought ample cash to the table to offer stability to the team but one will sit on the sidelines this weekend, and likely for numerous races. The Sauber soap opera will continue throughout the year.

Setup challenges for Albert Park

nico hulkenberg abu dhabi thursday 2014Track evolution is key at Albert Park. Once the running starts the grip improves dramatically with more and more rubber being put down and the racing line being cleared up. The weather this weekend is for showers over the weekend so after each shower the track surface will be cleaned and drivers will have to start the process of “rubbering in” the track surface. This will lead to greater wear on the tyres and will obviously play a role in how teams set their cars up over the weekend.

From a driver’s perspective Nico Hulkenberg offered his thoughts on the track:

“T here are plenty of interesting corners,” said the Force India driver. “If I had to pick my favourite part of the lap I would choose the section between turns nine and twelve in sector two – the slow chicane leading to the straight and that fast left-right combination. It’s a track with a few good overtaking spots – turn three and 13, the right-hander after the back straight, come to mind. A lot depends on how the tyres are degrading because being on different strategies can open up new opportunities. Having good downforce is essential and is the main priority when setting up the car.

Rob Smedley, head of performance at Williams, also gave his view on racing in Melbourne:

“Melbourne is always a really interesting race as there are so many unknowns,” said Smedley. “There are always a few surprises as the competitive pecking order is established. As it’s a street circuit the grip will develop and improve throughout the weekend. The car starts off with a lot of understeer on the dirty circuit and later in the weekend the rear tyres can become the limitation. In the cooler conditions the front tyre graining can be an issue too so we need to have done our homework on both scenarios for the race. We have been testing at circuits that don’t play fully to the strengths of the FW37 so we are looking forward to the first few races which should suit the FW37s characteristics more.”

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