So what do we know?

The sun has set on pre-season testing c/o James Moy Photography

The sun has set on pre-season testing
c/o James Moy Photography

This time next week I will be touching down in Melbourne for the start of a Formula 1 season, the anticipation for which I have rarely felt. It’s not just going to be the first day back at school. Nor the first day at a new school. It’s going to feel like the first day at a new school in a different country, speaking a whole new language. It is a veritable voyage into the unknown… and I can’t wait.

We always say you can’t learn much from testing, but that’s not altogether true. In past years, laptimes have been a not blind science. With reliability reaching almost bulletproof levels, yes sandbagging occurred, but more often than not we would arrive in Australia with a pretty good handle on who was where. And when laptimes didn’t give the clues, we could always rely on body language to gauge general confidence.

For 2014, Formula 1 has undergone one of the largest technical regulation shifts ever seen. Winter testing has not run smoothly for a single team, and not one of them will be departing for Australia in anywhere near confident mood. To us, as fans, and to those of us fortunate enough to make our careers narrating the sport to a global audience, this is manna from heaven.

So after 12 days of pre-season testing, what do we know?

Even the Toro Rosso looks good from certain angles c/o James Moy Photography

Even the Toro Rosso looks good from certain angles
c/o James Moy Photography

First of all, yes the cars look weird and they sound weird. But after ten minutes you don’t really notice anymore and you start to appreciate what they now are. In profile, you don’t notice the silly noses. That will mean more to those at the tracks than watching on TV as I imagine most televised shots will still have a three quarter or head on element, but really, they’re not as offensive as the still photographs suggest.

As for the sound, no its not as raucous. It’s quieter, but I would say rather interesting. There’s something of a sweet high note, with almost sci-fi whooshes, whizzes and pops under braking as the energy recovery and turbo can be heard well above the noise of the Internal Combustion Engine itself.

And what of that Power Unit itself, from the ICE to the ERS and turbo? You are going to hear voices this season that decry the new technology as being the anathema of Formula 1. But to them I say this: the brain trust in the sport has produced in 18 months what it would normally take road divisions a decade to perfect. The creases will be ironed out, the issues will be solved and you will get used to the sound. Revel in the technical genius that has created such an incredible development in the harnessing of energy and the delivery of power.

These engines are producing so much torque, drivers are wheel spinning up to fifth gear. Check this out from the twitter account of Auto Motor und Sport’s Tobias Gruner, comparing Massa’s fastest lap from testing in Bahrain Vs Rosberg’s pole lap from last year.

Screen shot 2014-03-04 at 17.38.04

Look at the top speed. Massa took 19.2kph more out of his Mercedes engine in testing through the speed trap. And, if the stories are true, we’re still not seeing the Mercedes power units cranked up to 100%. The only reason the laptimes are slower is because the teams and drivers can’t yet get the power down. There simply isn’t the mechanical grip to do so. And all this power is coming from a brand new engine whose capacity is smaller than the free bottle of Coke you get with your take-away pizza. Think about that. It’s incredible.

Right, what else do we know?

The balance, as far as engines go, looks like this. If you have a Mercedes you have every reason to be confident. If you have a Renault, you don’t. And if you have a Ferrari you don’t really know where you are, but it’s looking better than if you had a Renault.

While there are no such things as certainties in racing, we can say with some confidence that Red Bull Racing are as close to panic as they have been in half a decade. Their car is not reliable, and when it is it isn’t fast enough. Some estimates put them two months behind their rivals. When asked by my colleague from Sky Sports News Rachel Brookes in Bahrain if the team was designing a B Spec challenger for 2014 given their struggles with the RB10, Christian Horner failed to deny it. Things really are that bad.

A familiar sight in testing for Red Bull Racing c/o James Moy Photography

A familiar sight in testing for Red Bull Racing
c/o James Moy Photography

This is great news for Formula 1. It means the benchmark team of the past four years will not have things its own way and will have to fight like it has never fought before to retain its world championships. It means Adrian Newey is fallible. It will be a test the likes of which the team is yet to endure, one which some quarters would argue they are overdue and of which they are only too deserving. A reality check, if you will.

From a driver’s perspective, it will give us an opportunity to see how Sebastian Vettel copes with a car which is not the best, nor even we think in the top three… possibly even top five. He hasn’t been in that position since he drove for Toro Rosso. His team-mate however has all too recent knowledge of such a plight.

For Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing’s woes could not have arrived at a better time. It takes the almighty and arguably crippling pressure off his shoulders as he beds himself in at his new team. Rather than being thrust straight into a pole and win shootout with his 4-time champion team-mate, Dan will be part of a team pulling together to get on top of its greatest challenge. The Australian is used to having to pull rabbits out of hats. Seb isn’t used to fighting for scraps. Dan is. For Red Bull Racing, even making Q3 could be an achievement. With expectations so low, Ricciardo will have time to adjust to his new surroundings and shine.

2014 Dark Horses c/o James Moy Photography

2014 Dark Horses
c/o James Moy Photography

But while the multiple championship winning benchmark of the 2010s is on the back foot, the team that was doing all the title winning over two decades previously looks to have finally turned a corner back towards the front of the field. Williams could not have timed its switch to Mercedes engines from Renault power more perfectly. With Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas they have an experienced lead driver with a new lease of life and a youngster seen as a world champion in waiting. The team has the strongest technical department it has known for many a year. It has a raft of new and lucrative sponsors, including the worst kept secret of 2014, the return of Martini and their iconic livery as title partner (to be unveiled in London on Thursday.)

Its car is reliable. It is fast. There is every reason to think Williams could be the dark horse not just for race wins, but possibly even the title in 2014. In a season in which focus will be placed on the Power Unit and the recovery and use of energy, Williams Engineering’s offshoot Williams Hybrid Power looks set to be a tremendous feather in the team’s cap.

While Force India and McLaren also look strong, Williams is by far the strongest Mercedes customer team. But if Williams is to take the plaudits in 2014, it must take on and beat the factory Mercedes squad and this will be no easy feat. As we depart for Australia there are no two ways about it: for the first time since 2009 and its former guise as BrawnGP, the boys from Brackley are the dialed-in favourites.

It is all smoke and mirrors right now, but in Bahrain I heard talk that the team was nowhere near running at 100% and had a second and a half in hand. I had a brief word with a source at the team before I left testing. He laughed, winked and replied, “A second and a half? Not quite that much.”

Merc are undoubted favourites c/o James Moy Photography

Merc are undoubted favourites
c/o James Moy Photography

While the team won’t be drawn on exactly how big their advantage is, there are some who believe it could be even greater than the 1.5 seconds bandied around at testing.

From what I understand from a high level independent source after testing had finished, the reality could be even more astonishing. If the data adds up as he believes and the factory Mercedes team was able to run their cars at 100%, right now they would win every Grand Prix not by a few seconds but by two clear laps.

Two. Laps.

So long as their reliability holds up, his feeling was that Mercedes AMG won’t need to go anywhere near showing their hand in the early races. They should be able to use the season to slowly build confidence and reliability and just as everyone thinks they’ve caught up, Mercedes can turn it up and blow everyone away again.

The reason for this is the team’s superior grasp not only of the engine but, just as with Williams, an incredible handle on energy recovery and its usage. This will be the key in 2014, and right now Mercedes has the edge.

So does Mercedes AMG really have such a huge advantage? Can Williams truly fight for wins? Is Red Bull really in trouble? I honestly don’t know.

Next week we will learn who stands where at the start of one of the most eagerly anticipated F1 seasons in a generation.

Who will be smiling in Melbourne? c/o James Moy Photography

Who will be smiling in Melbourne?
c/o James Moy Photography

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32 thoughts on “So what do we know?

  1. Hi Will. Why can’t you even think that situation could be different, in favour of a smaller gap for Ferrari?

    • Hello mate. What do you mean? That Ferrari’s gap to the top might not be all that much? From testing I’d agree, but I don’t think we’ve seen the full hand from anyone yet…

      • Hi Will. I think he’s asking because you said “right now they [Mercedes] would win every Grand Prix not by a few seconds but by two clear laps.”

        Great read, by the way. Thanks.

  2. The thought of the cars lining up for Q1 is giving me goosebumps! Even if the Mercedes power unit is the strongest, I am looking forward to the season and seeing what smart teams like Red Bull and great drivers like Alonso can accomplish.

  3. Will, I agree that this season will be awesome. Here we go into the unknown. It is my hope and the hope of all F1 fans that this years campaign will not turn into an economy derby. If it does the sport will be ruined.
    Have the race distances been at real race speeds? Were the race distances with 100 litres of fuel? Do we have any kind of idea how long it took to run a full race distance? Is it comparable to last years race?
    I guess these questions will get answered soon. Bring on OZ.

  4. I can’t help thinking you may have underplayed the size of McLaren’s role in the early season races. Same PU as the Benzes, fine young charger in Magnussen, and Button seems like a man who understands winning at Albert Park better than anyone. But like you said, a fascinating start to the season, at the very least. Cya next week.

    • Agreed mate. But strong start to testing did not lead to adequate gains comparatively over second and third test. Not looking bad and I’d thought easy top 2 in early running. Now not so sure.

  5. Will – I love your optimism for the new season and I’m excited for 2014.

    I would disagree with you on one point though – that the Red Bull troubles are better for Dan Ricciardo than if RBR were still on top. A top team struggling is never a happy place to be and if the Red Bull is breaking down or not operating fully, it will be a lot harder for Dan to get up to speed and to focus on becoming a part of the RB team.

    I use the example of Perez at McLaren last year. I wouldn’t second-guess their decision on driver choices, but you can’t help feeling that with a more competitive car there would have been less internal ructions and he may have settled into the team easier.

    • Agreed, I can’t see how Daniel Ricciardo’s position would benefit from a bad car.

      Just ask Sebastien Bourdais how much fun it is to compete against Sebastian Vettel in a mid-field car. Or Mark Webber how much fun it is regardless.

      Still, Daniel’s move will almost guarantee he’ll end his career a GP winner, so that’s a good thing. (Right, Misters Trulli and Kovalainen?)

  6. Wow, what a great article. I was pretty stunned at the point where you said that Mercedes could be 2 laps per race up on anyone else. If that’s true then… I have no words. It means that if they can get a good reliability, then W05 may beat MP4/4 in terms of season dominance. Would love to see that, but I’d also love to see Magnussen win a WDC… or Massa.

    It seems that no matter what happens it’s going to be a story for the ages, this season. Can’t wait to witness this first hand.

  7. Great recap and forecast. I too, believe Williams will be the one to watch – lot of positive vibrations! This will be one of the best seasons in many years (unless the double points insanity comes into play… and how can it not?!)
    Looking forward to the NBCSports team coverage again this year… any changes to YOUR tech or sporting regs?

  8. If this is the year that Caterham/Marussia finally get their first points, who do you think comes out on top, or even scores first? The MR03 is much faster, but the CT04 is more reliable.

  9. If the merc is better because of its energy recovery system, then the same is used in FI also. Do you think FI were sandbagging or they were really 2 seconds off to Mercs and Wills ?

    • I don’t see that sandbagging would come into play this season, at least at this stage. The teams have not been able to run with the new aero and engine regulations, so they would gain nothing from not trying to make gains.

    • Yeah. They didnt do any low fuel runs. They didnt use DRS. They didnt set times when the track is optimum. They are 6th in the straight line speed, which is great strength of FI in past season. I dont think they have shown their full hand. They focused on reliability. And they have 2 good drivers. I dont think they will be able to beat Mercedes. But i think there is certainly more to come

  10. I can’t believe Merc were not running the engine at 100% to find it’s limits and find reliability holes…. They may have been running with higher fuel loads than necessary, plus I read they had a ton of extra electronics in the car mainly for monitoring the PU which will be removed for racing. Even at the first test LH was saying he was spinning the wheels up in 5th at a time when they probably did have the engine wick turned down.

  11. Really interesting points Will. I really hope that all the teams haven’t shown their full cards as yet and Mercedes are not that far ahead… A tight championship with a few teams involved is what the sport needs after frankly too many years of a single team advantage.

    These KPH stats are quite fascinating. It’s been a long time since cars were hitting 330kph+ unassisted, which may now be the norm on most medium downforce circuits. And I wonder if this alone will result in a change in strategy from the teams, which would involve more team-mate drafting, much like Alonso and Massa at Monza, in qualifying.

    Do you think we will see teammates pairing up and taking turns to draft, in the name of saving fuel, to open up later in the races? It could be quite detrimental to racing if this is the case, as the incentive to race would be removed, and then you’d see late race charges… which would be exciting, but not if everyone is applying the same logic…

    Do you have any idea what the maximum KPH could be unassisted vs. in the tow of another?

  12. Hello there. If mercedes truly have such a big advantage, surely this means they have recovered all the downforce from the aero changes (if not a bit more). Is this likely to be the case, or is all of the teams large advantage drawn from their engine superiority?

  13. Thanks so much for the read, Will. I have to say that you’re echoing almost exactly what I was feeling from everything I’ve been able to gather. The great unkown is who’s on the cusp of fixing one “little” issue that suddenly makes them competitve but even so, the Silver Arrows just look to solid…and confident. The body language says it all.

    • Ecclestone did say 90 million viewers tuned out last season during Vettel’s dominance. Staged preseason drama. Impossible for a brain trust to go bust.

      • I was one of them. I’ve become a fanatical F1 fan, but I honestly got in the habit of falling asleep trying to watch the last 4-5 races as they were so predictable and boring.

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  15. Will, I don’t know how an F1 fan couldn’t be giddy as a school girl over the start of the season. This is the first time in (I’m tempted to say decades) years F1 has been leading edge technology. As you say, litre and a half, “Coke” bottle engines producing 400hp per litre, hooked to 160hp electric engines powered by the vehicle using the energy…it’s stunning. The 2014 rules formula has produced a field of cars that are completely individual; 11 teams and 11 completely different concepts. When was the last time that happened?

    For years now the auto industry has been stifled by my generations (baby boomer) desire to remain in the Shelby era of thinking. As a result we have devolved and are content stuffing bigger and bigger V8’s in revivals of our youth (Camaro SS, Challenger RT, Shelby’s, Hemi’s, huge muscle car reproduction parts industry) to the determent of the next generation. When BMW produced their turbo engine in ’80 we believed that by now that’s the way engines would be built; you would have a 1.5l, 400hp engine and a 6 speed gear box (today it should be 10 speed auto or real cvt). Maybe the new direction of F1 will help change thinking on what’s possible.

    Best of luck on the season.

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