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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.