The big questions of Formula 1 2015

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Questions, questions and no definitive answers; that’s what makes this time of year so intriguing. Months of toil by thousands of exceptionally clever brains just to create a car a little faster than before – faster, each team hopes, by a bigger amount than those it’s competing against. Then the subterfuge of testing, the muddying of the waters as different programmes and agendas play out, no one quite sure what the other is doing. We’ve framed a few of the more obvious pre-season questions and included some from a distinguished selection of former racers – as step-off points for discussion and to give a feel for how F1 is poised on the eve of the world championship’s 66th season

Mercedes
White-hot favourites

In 2014 there were two major design and engineering challenges – hybrid engines and swingeing aerodynamic restrictions – and Mercedes was the only team to conquer both. Consequently its campaign was devastating. Historically, an advantage so big usually carries winning momentum for another year at least and, furthermore, some of the limitations designed into the Ferrari and Renault engines are effectively frozen. Mercedes is therefore the overwhelming pre-season favourite.
Although Honda is believed to have incorporated the front compressor engine technology and Ferrari the single lower front suspension arm – two features at the heart of the W05’s aerodynamic excellence last year – Mercedes’ tweaking of a proven concept has the team in confident frame of mind. At the time of writing, only one pre-season test had taken place, at Jerez, where the new Merc W06 pounded around for lap after relentless lap, heavily fuelled, and making no assault on the low-fuel headline times; the sure mark of a team relaxed about its pace.
There’s a small question about how the new nose regulations might have impacted, as tech director Paddy Lowe explained: “It’s had an effect on car performance. It’s one of the big setbacks that had to be overcome during the winter. It remains to be seen if other people took more of a hit on that, because that’s the nature of regulation changes; they can hurt some more than others.” But it would be surprising indeed if the Mercs were not still heading the field come Melbourne.

Martin Brundle’s question:
“Can Ferrari, Renault and Honda at least reduce the gap to the Mercedes power unit?”

The early rumours suggest Honda and Renault will begin the season with around the same power as Mercedes enjoyed last year and that Ferrari may have slightly more than that. But if the heat rejection figures supplied to the Mercedes customer teams are any guide, then Merc has found an extra 50bhp of its own, so it looks like the others will still be playing catch-up.

Knock resistance is the key to this formula and much of Merc’s 2014 engine advantage stemmed from its mastery of that. The more knock resistant, the more explosive the combustion can be, the more heat will be produced, delivering greater electrical energy through the ersH, meaning better driveability (as more of the electrical power can be devoted to filling in the ‘holes’ in the power delivery) and better fuel consumption. It also makes the engine less sensitive to the temperature of the incoming mixture, allowing the intercooler to be smaller.

Mercedes grasped this more fully than either Renault or Ferrari and worked particularly closely with fuel supplier Petronas to maximise knock resistance. A lot is going to depend upon the efforts of Shell, Total and Mobil in closing that gap, as well as the best tactical use of the engine development tokens that are now allowed to be used through the season.

Renault’s 2015 power unit features a redesigned combustion chamber and exhausts, a new compressor and upgraded energy recovery system including a new battery able to deal with more severe usage. Despite the power increase, the cooling area requirement remains the same, suggesting a different trade-off between mechanical and electrical power. Mercedes was first to discover that, under this formula, creating a little more heat in the exhausts can bring greater gains in electrical power than the losses incurred in mechanical power – with its systems, at least. Because of the greater power-generating capacity of the Mercedes electrical systems, they could make more use of any extra heat generated from combustion than the Renault and Ferrari units.

As such, the optimum trade-off between mechanical and electrical power came at a higher exhaust temperature with the Mercedes – allowing it to have an exhaust design that retained a little more heat, and which was aerodynamically better into the bargain.

Renault’s points of redesign and its lower cooling-to-power ratio suggest it has followed Mercedes’ lead. Ferrari and Honda will almost certainly have arrived at the same understanding – and now it’s about chasing gains based upon that philosophy.

Has F1 entered the ‘Hamilton era’?

Although the deal was still to be done at the time of writing, Lewis Hamilton is expected to extend his Mercedes contract beyond its current term, which expires at the end of this year. But even assuming he does the obvious and re-signs, it’s difficult to envisage him forming a truly deep partnership with any team, the sort Sebastian Vettel had at Red Bull, for example, or Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, relationships that were the bedrock for fantastic success. Hamilton – like Alonso, in this respect – is a tiger who hunts alone, who delineates his own performance from that of the team. On the one hand he’s incredibly hard upon himself, on the other he’s ready to go where the fastest car is at the drop of a hat. Right now that’s Mercedes, but in asking the question of whether we are finally poised for the ‘Hamilton era’ of F1 that was widely expected after his sensational rookie season of 2007 – and which got ambushed instead by Vettel and Red Bull – such eras tend to be the products of symbiosis between team and driver, and Hamilton just isn’t the sort of guy that will delve down deep into a team’s fabric. He just isn’t made of the stuff that would allow him to be a cog in a wheel.

Yet neither is he a dominant personality, one who could use and direct the inspiration his talent elicits from those inside the team, to make it vibrate to his frequency. His speed and charisma potentially give him that power – but he’s not the sort of calculating, self-centred tough cookie he’d need to be to fulfil that potential.

So with neither the beatific calm that would allow him, Mika Häkkinen-like, to sink into the team’s fabric and maximise all it has to offer, nor the commanding presence that would give him a Senna- or Schumacher-like command and control of his environment, he is what he is: just an incredibly gifted racing driver, but with emotions sparking and dancing. As such, it’s difficult to envisage him ever being able to take hold of an era and make it his own; too much will always depend upon circumstance. But for as long as Mercedes provides him with a car that’s even halfway good, he will always be a contender, will deliver his usual blend of audacity and drama, playing to the crowd but also playing to himself – being the sort of driver he’d most admire as a fan.

It’s very different from the sort of hard-headed mercenary make-up behind most of those who have ever created their own era of F1. He’s plenty tough enough to deal with racing’s challenges, but that toughness isn’t welded to a systematic approach that would allow him to dictate his own destiny – because he simply isn’t wired up in that way. His team boss Niki Lauda was. Niki genuinely likes Lewis and has occasionally stepped in to offer advice, but he knows that ultimately we can only be who we are, and in something as intense as F1 those natural traits will always be defining.

Does Rosberg have what it takes to strike back?

As the stronger driver in what’s likely to be the fastest car, logically Hamilton is the 2015 champion-elect. But with Lewis, who knows? Such is his mercurial, emotionally driven nature. Changes in his personal life have in the past impacted negatively upon his season and he’s had another this winter. Although in Nico Rosberg he faces the same team-mate he beat 11 races to five last season, that’s no guarantee of anything. Nico did incredibly well to outqualify Hamilton in 2014, the only team-mate ever to have done so over a season, and aside from his natural speed he did it through being more analytical in how he got the car to work for him. His progress through a race weekend is more systematic, his driving style actually less flexible than Hamilton’s and his work directed to moulding the car around that style rather than vice-versa. This quest for the perfect car builds to a crescendo on his final qualifying lap and often that’s enough to put him ahead of Hamilton on the grid.

But come the imperfection of the race – degrading rubber, changes in car balance as the fuel load comes down, different behaviour from the tyres with variation in track temperatures etc – Hamilton’s more improvisational style, adapting to whatever the car wants to do, going with it, comfortably accommodating it into his rhythm, usually makes him the better, faster race driver. His ease with a car moving around beneath him also plays its part in him being naturally more economical; he invariably uses less fuel than Rosberg and in the hybrid formula that translates to more power. Those requirements remain in play for 2015.

There was an undefinable, but real, shift away from Rosberg within the team after the events of Spa last year and only towards the end of the year did those bruises begin to fade. They’ll likely be gone by the start of this season. Furthermore, Rosberg is more likely to find improvement in his own performance than Hamilton – that deeper analysis again. He’s more than intelligent enough to realise he’s in the midst of the defining years of his career and will be digging especially deep, looking for the psychological advantage. Essentially though, this title is Hamilton’s to lose.

What would it take for Mercedes not to win this title?

Probably only a vastly improved Ferrari, Red Bull or McLaren (but only one of them) built around a dominant number one driver. If, say, Ferrari really has found 80bhp over the winter – as informed sources suggest – and it begins the year only 30bhp down on the Merc, and that deficit becomes less as they use up their development ‘tokens’ to make further changes, and its car is aerodynamically comparable, and neither the Red Bull nor McLaren is quick enough to get between them regularly, and Sebastian Vettel can dominate Kimi Räikkönen while Hamilton and Rosberg take points off each other and that leads to some sort of pressure crisis causing Hamilton and Rosberg to clash… then yes, Mercedes might lose the title. That’s a lot of ifs, though.

Failing that, the powers-that-be might find a politically motivated re-interpretation of a regulation with which to rein the team in… Cynical? It’s happened before. Consider Renault’s mass dampers in 2006. Or any number of ‘clarifications’ aimed at Red Bull over the past few years.

McLaren
Pace explosion or ticking time-bomb

Double intrigue here. Will Honda’s return help put McLaren on the top step of the podium after two winless seasons? And just how will Ron Dennis and Fernando Alonso gel second time around?

It’s faintly ridiculous that a team of McLaren’s size, resource and stature should have been winless for so long; clearly something was going very wrong. Rosberg’s problems at Montréal last year revealed that the McLaren’s aerodynamic shortfall to the Merc was the equivalent of about 160bhp.

When an aero department delivers something like that, given the facilities and budget at McLaren’s disposal, it’s not unreasonable that heads roll – and they did; three layers of them at the beginning of last year. So the new chief of aero Peter Prodromou, having left Adrian Newey’s side, presided over a whole new team of aerodynamicists in the creation of this car. It’s certainly very different to previous McLarens and unsurprisingly much more like recent Red Bulls. In plan-view it is Red Bull-tight at the rear end, with an extreme pinched-in ‘coke bottle’ section and carries Red Bull signatures in its front wing design and rear cooling exits. It’s a pretty fair bet that it carries Red Bull’s aero philosophy and its former secrets, surely one of the motivations for recruiting Prodromou in the first place. So if it’s aerodynamically as good as a Red Bull, all it needs in order to be very quick will be a competitive power unit from Honda.

Should we expect Honda wins in its first year?

Certainly the Japanese manufacturer has been very aggressive in its approach to the scaling and packaging of the power unit. Dennis has also made mention of some unique technology within. Although the motor made a stuttering start to its test programme, Honda is joining the game a full year after the other three manufacturers and so teething troubles aren’t surprising. It would also be unsurprising if it turns out to be fast. Honda was one of the pioneers of hybrid technology in road cars and there is a lot of in-house expertise – and that was one of the defining advantages Mercedes had over Renault and Ferrari.

They are the reasons it could be good. Honda’s critics would argue that the last good F1 engine it made was about 25 years ago and that its more recent efforts in the V10 and V8 eras were never among the best.

So take your pick. Success for this combination relies on two sleeping giants returning to form, but that probably makes it sound less probable than the reality. There are very good reasons to believe the team’s aero deficiencies have been fixed and that Honda will have a strong grasp on the hybrid technology. What is certain is the financial commitment made by the company is vast – and sourced largely from the R&D budget of one of the most R&D-driven entities in the world. There might be a few bumps along the way, and the partnership can feel justifiably angry that the FIA has decreed fewer development tokens than the other three engine manufacturers (on account of the restrictions they had to comply with in their first year), but it is surely not unrealistic to expect race victories.

Have the scars of ‘last time’ really healed between Ron and Fernando?

Ron Dennis and Fernando Alonso are truly remarkable men. But deep down, each considers the other a bastard. They accept, though, that right now they need what the other can give them. Competitive need trumps all and old resentments can be brushed aside. It was, after all, eight years ago that Dennis broke his assurances to Alonso that he’d be joining McLaren as number one, seven-and-a-half since Alonso threatened to use the contents of his laptop to drop McLaren in the mire in its industrial espionage case if Ron didn’t find a way of giving Alonso’s title campaign priority over Lewis Hamilton’s, seven since McLaren cancelled the remaining years of Alonso’s contract.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. A $100 million fine, the stripping of the points that would have won McLaren the ’07 constructors championship, the further multiple-million penalty of losing its share of the prize money that position would have brought, the placing of the team on probation for a further three years, the crucial part that played in the ousting of Dennis from the team in the wake of 2009’s ‘liegate’ affair, the strain ‘Stepneygate’ and its fall-out put upon McLaren’s relationship with long-term partner Mercedes and the part that in turn played in Mercedes going off to do its own thing, the necessity for McLaren to buy out Merc’s shares and replace it with a comparable engine partner, Dennis’s staging of an internal coup to wrest control of the team back from Martin Whitmarsh… Which brings us back to now, after a very bruising and expensive seven years.

Then there’s the effect it had on Alonso’s career. The enforced return to a Renault team on the downward slide, being there to be caught up in Flavio Briatore’s notorious Singapore 2008 ‘race-fixing’ scandal, the move to a Ferrari team that never properly replaced its powerhouse of Ross Brawn and Jean Todt, the further frustration of there not being any suitable slots for him at the teams that had come to take the place of McLaren and Ferrari at the top of the pile… Bringing us back to now after a very bruising seven years.

“Everyone has moved on and certainly I am mellower,” said Dennis a few weeks ago. “I think Fernando is more mature.” Alonso, speaking at the MP4-30’s launch, said, “I was happy with everything I have done apart from 2007. I didn’t achieve or deliver the best of myself. So now, some years later, you are more mature, you learn things, you understand things you didn’t know at 25 years old.”

Thus McLaren has the guaranteed, relentlessly competitive fury of the phenomenon that is Alonso, so there can never be any question of how much of any deficit is car, how much driver. In turn Alonso has a place at the only top team left after cutting ties with Ferrari, finding no place at Red Bull and with his manager Briatore having failed in his summer bid to engineer an exchange between him and Hamilton that would have seen Fernando at his preferred berth of Mercedes.

Will this marriage of convenience last beyond 2015?

So everyone’s moved on, mellowed out and matured? Yeah, right. Dennis and Alonso are two extreme personalities – even by the standards of F1. They find themselves back together partly because their post-split partners – Hamilton and Ferrari respectively – couldn’t live with them either. It would be difficult to make up two characters whose natural traits more rub up the other the wrong way – Dennis the controlling autocrat, Alonso the proud, fiercely independent warrior. They are both smart and mature enough to understand this at an intellectual level. But viscerally, when the competitive strains that are part and parcel of the sport are applied?

Only success could anneal that strain; long-term, repeated success. Will the marriage last beyond this year? Almost certainly, yes. Because going in, Alonso knows that it would be unrealistic to expect the McLaren-Honda partnership to be at anything like its full potential in its first year. But going forwards from there, any systemic barriers to success could place inordinate strain upon a relationship that can never be anything than brittle. Just as with Hamilton, the natural traits of the personalities will always come out under the strain F1 imposes on its participants and it would be naïve to believe otherwise.

This relationship’s viability requires both parties to understand, accept and work around the immovable elements of the other’s personality. But it also needs the fuel of success.

How will Jenson Button cope with Alonso as his team-mate?

In extracting the most from an ill-balanced car there are none better than Alonso and few worse than Button. But if the car is good the game suddenly becomes very interesting – for Button and for us.

Button will cope just fine either way; it’s more about how Fernando might cope with Jenson if the car is quick and well balanced.

Ron Dennis has been swift to point out that Alonso this time around made no demands about internal team status. “Quite the contrary,” said Ron, “he said he accepts equality.” Alonso has almost certainly said this in the swashbuckling certainty that he can handle Button on his own terms, that he doesn’t have a repeat of the Hamilton ’07 situation on his hands. But it’s too easy to under-estimate JB. On a good day, in a car with a front end that’s planted and a rear that’s progressive, his finesse can find limits out of bounds even to Alonso. And in conditions of changeable grip, where it’s all about feel rather than reflex, there is no one as fast – as even Hamilton found out on occasion (China 2010, Brazil 2012).

Furthermore, Button’s competitive psyche is surely underscored by a resentment of the assumptions made by Dennis about his level relative to Alonso, the way Ron went out of his way to bring Fernando back to the fold, leaving Button out to dry while he decided if he wanted him or not. There’s history here. From early in Button’s F1 career Dennis was routinely dismissive of his talents and, when he retook control of the team, he inherited him as a Martin Whitmarsh signing.

As the recruitment of Alonso played out and the choice had to be made between Button and Kevin Magnussen, so Dennis favoured the latter. McLaren shareholder Mansour Ojjeh, meanwhile, opposed that view. Dennis, not feeling sufficiently strongly about it to fight, relented. With that backdrop, it’s easy to imagine Button’s sky-high motivation to prove the boss’s perceptions wrong. But for that to mean anything, the MP4-30 needs to be fast and benign. If it is, the Alonso/Button competition could become the story of the season.

Red Bull
Time to soar again?

When F1 was all about aerodynamics and the engine freeze had ensured approximate power parity, Red Bull came to rule the roost. But the moment the governing body began talking about a change of engine formula, so the team’s dominant position was threatened. There had long been the niggle of dissatisfaction with Renault and, as the V8 era gave way to the hybrid V6s, Red Bull knew it was going to be in trouble as Renault simply did not take the new formula as seriously as Mercedes and initiated its programme about a year later. When that change coincided with even tighter aerodynamic restrictions, technical chief Adrian Newey began losing interest. Part-way through last year, team principal Christian Horner suddenly had a double challenge on his hands – a horsepower shortfall and Newey considering a Ferrari offer. In the midst of all that, Newey’s number two of 14 years, Peter Prodromou, accepted a McLaren offer.

In the circumstances Horner has played a blinder. He’s been instrumental in bringing Ilmor’s former chief Mario Illien – regarded by many as the Adrian Newey of the engine world – on board as a consultant to Renault Sport, has played his part in getting the engine development rules freed up and kept Newey from going to Ferrari by offering him a roving special projects role. His response to Prodromou’s departure was to re-hire his former team leader of aerodynamics Dan Fallows – who had recently left on gardening leave after accepting a McLaren offer before Prodromou – and promoting him to chief of aero. This involved a tug of love between Red Bull and McLaren for Fallows: it was eventually resolved by waiving Prodromou’s gardening leave (thereby allowing him to be instrumental in the conception of the Red Bull-like McLaren MP4-30). Meantime Newey, having spent time in the Himalayas clearing his head, is now prowling the pitlane again…

Has Newey really taken a back seat?

This is entirely in Adrian’s hands. His new role allows him to be as involved as he wants to be. Part of the special projects role envisaged was a Red Bull road-going supercar, triggered by Ferrari having piqued his interest by offering him a road car project. Those who know Newey well are adamant that, once he understands the wave upon wave of legislation required in creating a road car, he will rapidly lose interest and concentrate once more on F1. As it is, he feeds into the technical group of the F1 team that is overseen by chief designer Rob Marshall. There seems an inevitability he will be drawn in to the development challenges of the new RB11 by his technical fascination, emotional investment and deeply competitive spirit. After all, one of the ways Horner succeeded in getting him to join the team in the first place was by agreeing he could work a three-day week and Newey made that arrangement obsolete after the first three days…

Can red bull give Daniel Ricciardo a tilt at the title?

“Mercedes has a very strong power unit, estimated at about 60 extra horsepower at the end of last season,” said Newey just before the launch of the RB11. “Renault is working very hard at eliminating that deficit, but power units have a very long lead time… This year will really be about continuing to try to move forward and reduce the deficit that we suffered at times last year.”

But though Renault has improved a lot, with Merc’s gains reputed to be in the order of 50-60bhp (worth more than 0.5sec per lap), Red Bull is potentially as far away on power as ever – at the start of the season, at least. The RB11 looks to be an even more aggressively packaged car than its predecessor, but it’s not going to overcome such a power deficit. As such, any Ricciardo title campaign would seem to depend primarily upon something going badly wrong at Mercedes. It’s not in Red Bull’s hands – at least until Renault can get to within, say, 20bhp (around 0.2sec) of the Merc.

Will Daniil Kvyat become the ‘new Daniel Ricciardo?’

It will be interesting watching Ricciardo in his new role, as the team’s senior driver. The way he demolished the Vettel legend at his first attempt was perhaps the biggest surprise of 2014. His driving has a beautiful, high-momentum smoothness, a little like Button’s but more robust to changes in the car’s balance, one that is very kind to the tyres. His racecraft is fantastic, as exemplified by the dramatic pass he made on Alonso in Austin, and pretty much every call he made during the season, whether in traffic or strategically, turned out to be right. It was as if he could do no wrong.

But for this season he faces a new challenge from the other side of the garage. Can Daniil Kvyat do to him what he did to Vettel? Certainly the 20-year-old Russian can drive; he has phenomenal car control and a full-on aggression that’s reminiscent of Robert Kubica a few years ago. But if there was one aspect where he didn’t progress much last year, it was in his tyre management. He habitually took too much from them too early, compromising both his stint durations and his speed. If he continues in this way at Red Bull, he will be dominated by Ricciardo in the races. If he can adapt and learn from Danny and it becomes simply a contest about who can drive faster, then we have a fascinating duel.

Ferrari

Damon Hill’s question:
“Resurrection after the crucifixion? Or holy relic?”

A president, two team principals, chief of engineering, chief designer, chief strategist, engine chief – all fired in one season. Oh, and the number one driver left, short of his allotted contract…

Hastened by the hybrid formula and the commercial pressures from the money men as the parent Fiat-Chrysler group and Ferrari itself were readied for the stock market, this blood-letting drew a line under the progressive decline of the Scuderia since the dominant days of Schumacher. This is ground zero.

Early testing suggests the SF-15T is a night-and-day improvement over its mediocre predecessor, though with everyone else improving too that might not mean much. It has a lot more power (as much as 80bhp more it’s said, which if true would have it within maybe 30bhp of this year’s Merc), its harvesting efficiency (which last year was awful) is vastly better and Jerez testing suggested that it has greater downforce and better grip.

If there is an upturn in the team’s form it would not be surprising, for the SF-15T is the first Ferrari over which gifted technical director James Allison had a direct influence. But this car would have happened anyway – and its form will not necessarily have anything to do with the big managerial changes. Even if it is more competitive, it’s not necessarily a pointer to the team’s future progress.

Longer term Ferrari needs a structure like that of its glory days, when Ross Brawn and Jean Todt between them kept top management from interfering. When Fiat’s Sergio Marchionne acquired control a few months ago and appointed Maurizio Arrivabene on the sporting side, Brawn was offered the role of team principal. He made a number of stipulations – all amounting essentially to a hands-off policy from the top – which Marchionne, a man who likes to be obeyed, could not accept. That’s a worrying signal for the future.

Allison needs to be left to rebuild, on his terms and without added pressures and interference from senior management. Recruiting a technical director of his calibre and then compromising how he works would be crazy and it’s to be hoped that Marchionne is not about to repeat the latter-day errors of Luca di Montezemolo’s presidency.

That will probably decide whether the team is resurrected or becomes, to borrow Damon’s phrase, a holy relic.

Has Sebastian Vettel made the biggest mistake of his life?

No, absolutely not. As a super-intelligent guy, he’s played his situation perfectly. Never before in his F1 career had he experienced what it was to have a team-mate regularly outqualify and outrace him. He responded in the car by trying like crazy, but that just made the problem worse, increasing his tyre degradation. When it was clear he just wasn’t going to solve the Ricciardo problem, and with Ferrari insistently tugging at his sleeve, he made the switch while his market value was still high. Another year of being beaten by Daniel and the top offers would have dried up. To recognise this, rather than fight it, shows a rare self-awareness in a driver.

Having recently become a father, and with four world titles behind him, perhaps his perspectives are changing. Looking to the future, three years on a Ferrari salary will add up to substantially more than he’s earned in his seven previous years of F1. If the team should improve during this time and he can again win some races – which he surely will – it’s a fantastic bonus. But could he make Maranello his own, team up with the key people there to repeat what his friend Michael Schumacher did after arriving from Benetton? It’s difficult to envisage. Michael arrived there as an all-conquering phenomenon with an air of invincibility and that very definitely played its part in the place marching to his beat. Once that shield has slipped, as it has for Seb, can it ever again be put in place?

Is there any way back to the front for Kimi Räikkönen?

If the SF-15T has a good, planted front end there’s no reason why Räikkönen couldn’t once more be the significant force he was in his Lotus years. But the dazzling driver we used to see at McLaren is almost certainly a thing of history. That driver hasn’t actually been turning up at every race since 2005; even in his 2007 title year with Ferrari he was often ordinary.

At the end of this contract, the big money days will almost certainly be over for Kimi. He retains the craft in his hands, but the desire in the heart doesn’t seem to be there. It would be great to be proved wrong about that, to see him turn the clock back. But to do that, you need to really want to.

Williams
Ready to win again?

Yes, Pat Symonds put some engineering and process discipline back into Williams last year, helped give it back its belief, moulded it into a proper F1 team again rather than the sometimes shambolic entity it had become. But that was not the biggest contributor to its remarkable transformation in form; that was the Mercedes power unit. Five of the eight teams that had beaten Williams in the 2013 constructors championship were competing against it in 2014 with up to 60bhp less than that enjoyed by Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas. That was the real foundation. Its dry qualifying lap deficit to the works Mercedes averaged a chunky 0.9sec – the sort of gap that might accommodate two or three teams in an era of engine parity.

All that said, the team made great strides and it was fantastic to see it back near the sharp end. With the confidence of running near the front for a season, the team was vastly better operationally by the end of last year than at the beginning. If it can hit the ground running this time, that could quite feasibly be enough for the odd victory.

Can the team take the next step?

Getting from there to regular, merited wins, of turning up at tracks in expectation, rather than hope, as in the team’s great days, is a very demanding step. Realistically, Williams probably cannot do that on little more than half the budgets of the most extravagant, manufacturer-partnered, teams. Wouldn’t it be thrilling to know that, secreted within the car’s elegant contours, was a new technical trick that was going to give it an advantage over its bigger-budgeted rivals? Unfortunately, the dead hand of the rule book has made such innovation all but impossible.

Just how good is Valtteri Bottas?

Pat Symonds talks about ‘when’ Bottas is world champion rather than ‘if’. Similar comments pepper the conversations of many who have worked with him. But it’s easy to understand the slightly mystified reactions that generates in some – for his personality, just like his driving, is neither showy nor aggressive. But at this stage of his career all he is doing is soaking up the detail, mentally logging it all, honing and perfecting. In the second half of last season he was on the podium as a matter of routine and finished three places and 52 points ahead of team-mate Felipe Massa. In a front-rank car those routine drives would be victories.

He arrived in F1 direct from GP3, in a team lacking technical leadership or an experienced lead driver to measure himself against.

He set off in several wrong directions but the arrival of Symonds and, later, Massa gave him his bearings. Like his manager Mika Häkkinen, he deflects any potential distractions by saying little. Totally uncontroversial, he smiles politely and gets on with applying himself; there’s not much swash to his buckle, and that applies in the car too – until you look at the times and the consistency and marvel at the way he can make the tyres live. He’s now just waiting for the car.

It says much for Massa’s spirit that after four seasons as Alonso’s Ferrari foil he could bounce back the way he did at Williams and often shade Bottas. The sparkle of his pre-accident performances was much more regularly on show here than at Ferrari. While he will always remain prone to lapses and inconsistencies, he’s a great asset to Williams. Expect him to be around here for another couple of seasons at least.

Toro Rosso
Rookie heaven or hell?

A couple of years ago, talking with Helmut Marko about the decision he and Red Bull faced in replacing Mark Webber, I ventured that promoting Daniel Ricciardo from Toro Rosso was a much more exciting option than simply plugging-in the known quantity of Lotus-era Kimi Räikkönen. “Yes, but this is the Red Bull team we’re talking about,” he replied. “It’s very serious. We cannot get it wrong.” It was in fact team owner Dietrich Mateschitz that pushed for Ricciardo – and the revelation duly unfolded. That has given everyone involved much greater confidence in the junior driver programme and this time around, when Vettel indicated he was thinking of moving on, there wasn’t any hesitation in promoting the rookie Daniil Kvyat to the senior team. That wave of confidence has swept through the programme, with a super-fast turnover of talent – which can sometimes be harsh – and rapid promotions for those showing the right stuff. Sixteen-year-old F3 driver Max Verstappen wasn’t even on the programme, but his performances against some of the guys who were convinced Marko that Jos Verstappen’s boy was something special.

“He’s an exceptional talent that comes along only once in decades,” gushed the notoriously tough-to-please ex-BRM racer.

Johnny Herbert’s question:
“Is Max Verstappen too young to be an F1 driver?”

In Melbourne the 17-year-old will become the youngest Grand Prix driver of all time. It will be another four years before he can even drive his own Ford Fiesta hire car from the airport there.

The cliché goes ‘if you’re quick enough, you’re old enough’ and in his karting and junior car racing career he certainly looked fantastically quick. Because he’s so much younger even than previous teenage F1 drivers (by a couple of possibly crucial years), there’s naturally a concern about whether he’s mentally mature enough to handle the stresses of F1. But the guy has lived in and around racing all his life. When he first pops up in the top 10 qualifiers or races hard and without error in the points, the noise about his age will hopefully disappear.

We can then get on with assessing whether he really is the shining new talent of his generation – as many who’ve observed him in the lower categories attest – or just yet another very quick driver.

“He’s like Ayrton Senna,” insists Marko, “and in such a case you must not look at his age… In his mind he is more like 22. He has been racing professionally since he was four years old. We expect him to be competitive straight away. We are not playing the lottery. We know what we are doing.”

Will Carlos Sainz Jr live in Verstappen’s shadow?

Another ‘son of’, Sainz Jr was one of those Red Bull juniors leap-frogged by Verstappen’s recruitment. Only the defection of Vettel and the resultant promotion of Kvyat created a Toro Rosso seat for the Spaniard. It’s a tough gig, with all the hype surrounding his team-mate. He has to ensure he’s not mere cannon fodder for the legend-in-waiting and that’s going to test his character. If he doesn’t convincingly meet that challenge, the system will spit him out. The Formula Renault 3.5 champion of last year, he’s done enough to make his case for a place on the F1 grid – but now it’s about to get really difficult.

The rest

Mark Webber’s question:
“How many teams will be on the grid after 12-14 races?”

The chickens are coming home to roost for F1’s greedy business model. Lotus, Force India and Sauber – good teams, with a proven record of success over a long period – are in various degrees of financial stress. Once the private equity company owning the sport has had its chunky share of the vast F1 revenues and the big teams have been provided with the huge sums needed to feed their over-size facilities, there’s not enough left for those independents forced under duress a few years ago to agree to a meagre share. If all three went out of business this season, we’d be looking at 12-car grids…

Lotus is probably in the least critical shape, with the Venezuelan oil money that comes with the fast but wild Pastor Maldonado. It was scoring wins as recently as two years ago and on track it looks certain to bounce back from an awful 2014 with a car that was fundamentally flawed in its aerodynamics. The E23 is a much more conventional-looking machine, is newly powered by Mercedes and is driven by what some believe to be the fastest driver on the grid in Romain Grosjean.

If this team could ‘do a Williams’ it would be a real feel-good story.

The new Sauber, driven by two guys bringing multiple millions but who are each worthy of a place on the grid, has looked good in testing – with better aerodynamics and a lot more power than last year from its Ferrari power unit.

Force India didn’t make it to the first test as the delayed build resulting from late payments took its toll. Nico Hülkenberg, aggressive, fast and error-free, is in danger of slipping through the cracks as a potential multiple Grand Prix winner that never got the breaks. More worrying still would be an entire team slipping through the cracks…

Stefan Johansson’s question
“How will all the stakeholders in F1 find a way to make the business model work?”

Formula 1 stands at a crossroads – and doesn’t appear to have a clue which direction it should be taking. Its ownership structure and financial arrangements are incompatible with the times. Teams are going out of business and now even the German Grand Prix is under threat, unsubsidised and unable to sell enough expensive tickets to pay the ludicrous hosting fee. Even Bernie Ecclestone, back on the F1 board after his Munich adventure, seems to be running out of ideas. The sport either needs to be savagely pared back to make it viable for independents once more, or made more appealing to the big manufacturers who can afford it but are currently not in it – and one of the barriers to that could be the very presence of Bernie.

But in between the silent electronic transfer of the multiple millions, every couple of weeks or so some fascinating racing is expected to break out.

2015 circuit guide

Melbourne, Australia
March 13-15

Atmosphere? Check. Proximity of a vibrant city? Check. Track running around the fringe of a picturesque lake full of black swans? Check. If they staged all 20 rounds of the championship in Melbourne, very few would complain.

A four-day event with non-stop action on the ground (some of it commendably historic) and in the air.

A perfect curtain-raiser and long may it remain so.

Sepang, Malaysia
March 27-29

Rarely listed as a great venue in the manner of Spa or Suzuka, but a modern classic with a wide surface that permits improvisation and often creates entertaining racing. Now in its 17th year, but still struggles to draw a decent crowd.

A hospitable nation deserves better. Local 3pm start (for the benefit of European TV) is madness, because risk of storms means there might be no racing to watch at all.

Shanghai, China
April 10-12

The race finally seems to be catching on, after a slow start. The track has some good elements, but will never be steeped in character because the facility is simply too vast to feel intimate. Shanghai is a fascinating city and the Grand Prix has become a little less remote since the completion of a rail service twixt hub and track. That also spares you having to use local taxis: they’re cheap, but frequently terrifying.

Sakhir, Bahrain
April 17-19

Last season’s intra-team Mercedes battle cast the race into a fresh light – as did the night-time schedule. Sundays are the local equivalent of Mondays, hence many people were unable to attend an afternoon race because they were too busy selling oil (or aluminium, another local delicacy). The fact remains, though, that the circuit is awash with tiresome slow- to medium-speed corners, many of which remain beyond the attending public’s view.

Barcelona, Spain
May 8-10

Rarely promotes exciting racing, but as a stage on which to appreciate the art of an F1 car it has few peers. One or two of its high-speed sweeps have been diluted, but many remain. The circuit is easily accessible for Europe-based fans, there’s a train service from the city and Barcelona is a wonderful place simply to watch the world go by. Be warned that Spaniards traditionally eat late, so some restaurants won’t be ready if you wander in at 8pm.

Monte Carlo, Monaco
May 22-24

The slowest circuit on the schedule, but gives the impression of being the quickest. Proximity embellishes the sense of speed – and this is the perfect illustration. You can’t really race here of course – it was hard enough when drivers raced tiny cigar tubes with a wheel at each corner – but just book a hotel in Nice or Menton, take a train to the principality and relish the spectacle. The world’s most glorious anachronism.

Montréal, Canada
June 5-7

Shows how a good Grand Prix should be. The whole city embraces the event, it draws a massive crowd throughout the weekend and the circuit’s tight confines are unlikely ever to be modernised because it’s surrounded by water. Good things, all. The combination of low downforce and heavy braking makes cars skittish, driving errors aren’t unknown and regular safety cars make the whole thing an unpredictable delight.

Red Bull Ring, Austria
June 19-21

Reintroduced in 2014 – presumably because Bernie had forgotten that Austria is in Europe. Might not compare with the wonderful old Österreichring, from whose fragments the current circuit is carved, but still a good place to watch and attracts a boisterous crowd in the manner of old. And where else in the world (apart from perhaps Croft) can you find cows and racing cars in adjacent paddocks? Welcome back…

Silverstone, Britain
July 3-5

Once stood accused of looking like a building site, which it didn’t. The facilities have since been modified to accommodate the wishes of Mr Ecclestone… and the consequence is that parts of it do now look like a building site. Separate paddocks (quite literally in different counties) have taken away some of the traditionally vibrant atmosphere, but at its core this remains a glorious challenge.

Somewhere, Germany
July 17-19

It should be the Nürburgring’s turn to stage the event, but it doesn’t have a contract. Bernie says the race will take place at Hockenheim again, but last time we looked that seemed to be news to the circuit management. Mercedes has two world titles, Sebastian Vettel is in a Ferrari and nobody can sell tickets? The obvious answer is to jack the cars up and return to the Nordschleife…

Budapest, Hungary
July 24-26

As with Monaco, this isn’t necessarily a great location for racing… but it is a great location. Budapest is a captivating city, with fantastic heritage and culture. Budget flights are plentiful and so are reasonably priced hotels. The circuit offers fans some terrific, elevated views: even if the race is a bit rubbish, you’ll almost certainly have a great weekend.

Spa, Belgium
August 21-23

Excuse us while we dig in the superlatives cupboard… A modern track that echoes the spirit of its increasingly distant forebear. Loved by drivers and swamped by enthusiasts from most parts of Europe. Between Francorchamps and the circuit entrance, there is sometimes an HGV trailer that Dutch fans convert into a temporary living room, complete with chairs, TV and, mostly, beer. It has the most interesting spectators, as well as many of the sport’s best corners.

Monza, Italy
September 4-6

This is a great part of the season, with two traditional classics back to back – and a contemporary classic on the horizon.

A pleasing counterpoint to the clinical sheen of some newer venues, with many a crumbling wall and a lingering sense of the mild disorganisation that was once our sport’s stock in trade. Take a stroll across the old banking and dream, by all means, but wherever you perch you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the dual senses of occasion and history.

Marina Bay, Singapore
September 18-20

A hit from day one and a success story that other modern fixtures can but envy. The lap is long and technical – and the 8pm start provides no protection against the oppressive heat. One of the toughest assignments of the campaign for both performers and public, who are pretty close to each other (even more so than in Monaco). At some points fans can stand within a metre or two of the concrete blocks that define the layout.

Suzuka, Japan
September 25-27

Awkward to access unless you happen to live in the Mie Prefecture, but the effort is ever justified – not least for the atmosphere. Facilities were upgraded a few years ago, but the track remains as it was – high on commitment and with a low tolerance threshold for those who stray. Memories of Jules Bianchi’s 2014 accident are painfully fresh, but Suzuka remains a symbol of our sport’s essence.

Sochi, Russia
October 9-11

Some tracks borrow styling cues from others that have gone before – and there’s nothing wrong with that so long as you derive inspiration from Spa or Suzuka. It seemed an odd choice, though, to create something reminiscent of the now-defunct Valencia street circuit…

Austin, United States
October 23-25

America has been blessed with some choice F1 venues, not least Watkins Glen and Long Beach, but this is perhaps best of all. It boasts a wide variety of corners and significant elevation changes (a good view for fans, then), but is also close to an engaging city that has live music flowing through every bar window. Wonderful, in a word.

Mexico city, Mexico
October 30-November 1

A modified version of the modified version of the track that hosted Mexico’s first world championship Grand Prix in 1963. Located in a park to the south-east of Mexico City, it was dropped from the calendar after 1970 (because spectators and dogs were prone to sit too close to the track’s perimeter), reappeared from 1986-1992 and is best remembered for Nigel Mansell passing Gerhard Berger around the outside of the banked Peraltada curve in 1990. Sadly, in this iteration the great corner is no more. We assume the track’s vicious bumps will be gone too.

Interlagos, Brazil
November 13-15

F1’s conspicuous wealth has always been an uncomfortable fit alongside São Paulo’s shanties – and remains so, despite recent changes that have improved living conditions around Interlagos. The track itself is as good as any on the schedule – fast and short, with several passing opportunities. We keep hearing that a new paddock is imminent, but its cramped conditions have always been a pleasing ’70s throwback. There’s no razzmatazz here, just cars and a terrific circuit. What more do you need?

Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi
November 27-29

Forever tarnished as the only circuit to host a double-points F1 finale. Suffers, too, because the developer spent too much time on a multi-coloured luminescent hotel roof (solving a non-existent problem) and not enough creating a track on which drivers could easily race. A few cute adverse cambers cause cars to go light and slide around, but that doesn’t exactly make it Suzuka.

Simon Arron

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