2014 Grand Prix review

A quiet war raged in Formula 1 this year.

Against the muted soundtrack of the new turbo hybrids, the sport fought over its future, the Mercedes drivers fought each other for the title, the teams fought over the financial crumbs from the owner’s table and several of them fought for their survival, two of them losing that fight. In the duration of that war the sport’s commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone fought a bribery charge in a Munich court and Jules Bianchi was left fighting for his life after an incident at Suzuka reminded us that despite 20 fatality-free years, this remains an inherently dangerous sport.

Amid all this conflict F1’s fan base became diffused. Spectator and TV numbers were down for reasons no one could precisely define. Several factors have been suggested: fans like their F1 engines noisy, the enthusiast core had become disenchanted with the increasing artifice (the double points finale being especially unpopular), the sport was failing to embrace new mediums of viewing and therefore losing or failing to attract in the first place younger fans, ticket prices were way too high for times of hardship, the whiff of financial seediness was a turn-off, as was the domination of one team and the consequent dire competitive prospects of the popular Ferrari and McLaren organisations and their drivers – all as the proliferation of competing attractions kicked in hard.

And yet there was some fantastic racing. The closing stages in Hungary – where it was impossible to call which of four drivers was going to come out on top – probably being the showcase. The increased torque and reduced downforce of the cars made watching them in action a joy; the various responses to the technical challenge of a cutting-edge technology where F1 truly led the world were fascinating. This will go down as a momentous season in the sport’s history, even if it’s not yet obvious what it signified. Technically brave and sportingly thrilling it may have been, but commercially it found itself in a mess, unable to feed all its teams as greed and gravity formed a ferocious pull with a dangerous undercurrent. F1 cannot stay in stasis like this. It’s just not clear where it’s all heading.

A quiet row
Australia

The new F1 arrived in Melbourne to a row. Commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone had never wanted these hybrid engines – and neither had his friend Ron Walker, organiser of the Australian Grand Prix. Walker had even formed a coalition of race organisers last year to sing along with him from Ecclestone’s hymn sheet. And yet here was a field full of turbo 1.6-litre V6s with an extra wallop of electrical energy to deliver comparable power and a lot more torque than the 2.4-litre V8s – on two-thirds of the fuel. Energy that previously left the exhaust pipes as noise was now being captured and converted into grunt. But not gelt.

“We [the Australian Grand Prix Corporation] are an entertainment company and we have to entertain the public,” Walker said. “A big part of that entertainment is the F1 noise – and we didn’t get it. When you take the excitement away, you have trouble selling tickets. You have to create demand and part of that is people liking the noise of the race cars… This is not what we paid for.”

Bernie didn’t want the new technology as it inflicted too much extra expense on the teams, which in turn put pressure on F1’s owners (mainly controlling shareholder CVC) not to rape the sport financially quite as much as it is doing – and that wasn’t a message he wanted to take to them. He said he didn’t like the engine noise, and that was the issue around which Walker and his friends campaigned, ironically probably damaging ticket sales of his own event. Doubly ironically, the hybrid formula had been instigated by Bernie’s friend Max Mosley when he was FIA president, a few years after he’d leased F1’s commercial rights to Ecclestone for an extra 100 years. If he hadn’t done that and Bernie hadn’t then sold those rights on – its value over-inflated each time it was resold until it was like an over-ripe peach, in its wake the debris of busted companies that had over-extended themselves through speculative greed – Mr Walker’s corporation wouldn’t need to be paying a fee 500 per cent greater than that when Melbourne first hosted the race in 1996 and people wouldn’t be staying away because of the high ticket prices. Therein is the problem F1 faces globally. Its costs are too high because it’s feeding a financial parasite (CVC and its co-owners), so its prices in turn are too high and that’s causing damage.

Also damaged were Lewis Hamilton’s title prospects before the race even started. So much faster was the Mercedes W05 than everything else it was already likely that his only title rival was going to be team-mate Nico Rosberg – and retiring because of a misfire-inducing crack in a spark plug cover, while Rosberg cantered to victory, instantly put Hamilton 25 points behind. This would come to colour much of his season.

Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull distantly followed Rosberg over the line, but that second place was taken from him later for having exceeded the maximum fuel flow limit of 100kg/hr. It seemed harsh, given that this was the very first race of the new formula and that the FIA-supplied fuel meters had proved troublesome. On the other hand, fuel flow is effectively now the equivalent of the engine’s cubic capacity in terms of the limitation on horsepower. The disqualification stood, but Ricciardo kept smiling. He’d just turned up and seen off the incumbent quadruple world champion on his first drive for the team.

It would become something of a theme.

Kevin Magnussen made a superb debut with third place (later promoted to an official second) for McLaren, but it was a false dawn. Back under Ron Dennis’ leadership following a coup in which Martin Whitmarsh left, McLaren had come up with an aerodynamically compromised design for the second year. Big changes in the aero department were underway.

Rd 1 Albert Park, March 16 2014
1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1hr 32min 58.710sec
2 Kevin Magnussen McLaren MP4-29 Mercedes 1hr 33min 25.487sec
3 Jenson Button McLaren MP4-29 Mercedes 1hr 33min 28.737sec

Fastest lap: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 32.478sec
Race distance: 58 laps, 191.117 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1min 44.231sec

The secrets of fuel usage
Malaysia

This was the home race of Mercedes-Benz’s fuel supplier Petronas, which for this new formula created a very special brew that allowed an engineering advantage to be built into the Mercedes V6 – and from there into the car itself. Hamilton and Rosberg duly delivered a comfortable one-two.

In the closing stages of his winning drive Hamilton, just for the hell of it, burnt off the Petronas he’d saved from his 100kg allocation by unleashing a series of super-fast laps. His had been a virtuoso drive start to finish as he headed home Rosberg by 17.3sec. But in the process of lapping faster, he’d also used less fuel. The Mercedes W05 itself did this relative to most of the competition but Hamilton was able to do it to Rosberg even within an identical car. More than ever before, converting a finite amount of fuel into lap time had become the differentiator of success in F1. Mercedes’ technicalities and Hamilton’s technique had combined to make them the partnership to beat.

Generically the hybrid power units convert about 40 per cent of the fuel’s energy into useable power (compared to about 30 per cent for the previous-era V8s), but the Mercedes clearly managed the odd crucial percentage more than either the Renault or Ferrari. Getting the turbo-compressed air into the cylinders at exactly the right quantity and temperature (and therefore oxygen density) for combustion efficiency was now hugely important; too much air and you risked detonation, too little and you exceeded your fuel allocation. The optimum tended to be very spiky – but not on the Mercedes W05.

Petronas and Mercedes HPP had conceived this engine together from first principles, the motor conceived as much around the fuel’s traits as vice-versa. The aim was to have a fuel and engine that combined made for extremely knock-resistant combustion. The knock (or detonation) threshold (where the combustion process gets out of sync with piston/valve/spark cycle, typically combusting in pockets before the spark has arrived) determines how little fuel you can get away with delivering to the combustion chamber and also therefore how sensitive the engine is to inlet air temperature. The Mercedes did not need its inlet air to be as super-cooled as the Renault and Ferrari. At the regulation maximum fuel flow limit of 100kg/hour (0.0278kg/sec), the Mercedes was relatively unstressed and therefore fairly insensitive to further reduction in inlet temperature. Probably it would have been more responsive to further inlet cooling were the fuel flow rate higher, but at the regulation maximum, its anti-knock properties made it a dream.

The Renault, by contrast, was extremely inlet temperature sensitive. The cooler you could make its air, the more power it delivered; hence its need for much bigger (aerodynamically damaging) intercooler radiators than the Mercedes. The cooler and denser you make the air, the more fuel you have to supply to match. The Mercedes’s very high knock threshold allowed it to deliver much more power for a given inlet temperature and for it to require significantly less fuel. Because the formula limits how much fuel can be used – and puts a ceiling on how fast it can flow – an engine that intrinsically demands more fuel has to be run in a more economical (less powerful) mode. An engine that delivered more power, needed less fuel and was less aerodynamically compromising was created by Mercedes from the fuel, the chemical composition of which was obviously a very closely guarded secret.

As for how Hamilton could maximise this advantage, it was to do with how brilliantly adept he is at maintaining momentum into a slow corner even with a bit of entry oversteer. The more momentum that is retained, the less acceleration is required on exit and the less fuel is demanded. By the halfway stage of the race in Sepang Hamilton had used 47.7kg of his 100kg allocation, compared to 49.3kg for Rosberg – who at the time was 12sec behind.

Chemicals and neurons were at the heart of what had unfolded here.

Rd 2 Sepang, March 30 2014
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1hr 40min 25.974sec
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1hr 40min 43.287sec
3 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull RB10 1hr 40min 50.508sec

Fastest lap: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1min 43.066sec
Race distance: 56 laps, 192.878 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1min 59.431sec

Tectonic plates shift beneath Ferrari
Bahrain and China

A man under big corporate political pressure was concealed beneath the dazzling smile for the waiting photographers as Luca di Montezemolo climbed from the back of the limo, cocooned from Bahrain’s ongoing unrest by air-conditioned luxury and a barrage of tanks and police lockdowns around the outlying villages. Nothing much had changed in the kingdom since the Arab Spring uprising of three years ago; its own citizens were still being oppressed – killed or imprisoned for having the temerity to protest at their lot. The West still looked the other way, given Bahrain’s strategic importance in ensuring Saudi Arabia’s oil flows in the ‘right’ direction. But a lot was changing in Montezemolo’s world.

For every notch of Ferrari’s gradual competitive decline from the glory years of Schumacher and Brawn, so the pressure mounted tenfold upon the boss. This was a particularly bad year to be presiding over any under-performance from the glittering diamond in the crown of Fiat-Chrysler’s portfolio as preparations were made to launch the corporation on the Wall Street stock exchange. The prancing horse had become just a halo brand in a game of marketing and commerce. But a horse whose limp prevented it from prancing beamed across all those millions of screens every couple of weeks wasn’t much of a halo, wasn’t helpful to the money men.

As Fiat’s Sergio Marchionne and John Elkann turned their gaze towards Maranello with irritated question marks on their faces, Montezemolo will have felt the grip of fate tightening around him.

The new formula certainly hadn’t helped Luca’s cause. Ferrari’s response to it had been to create a car, the F14T, with the emphasis skewed towards aerodynamic performance – its weak point of the past few years – even at the expense of engine power. While Mercedes was busy embracing the challenge of the new formula from a long way back – it had a single-cylinder prototype running in 2010 – Montezemelo ineffectively campaigned against it. He was still campaigning against it now, albeit maybe only to deflect attention away from the form of his cars, which had qualified fifth and ninth and which in the race would fall steadily backwards from there, humiliatingly overtaken as their poor fuel efficiency and brutal power delivery was heavily punished.

“This is a formula for taxi drivers,” he said to the bustling arc of sound recorders surrounding him in the desert heat, “and we are seeing no overtaking, just driving around making the fuel last.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth and onto the web than the Bahrain Grand Prix unfolded into a terrific scrap for victory between the W05s of Hamilton and Rosberg, with a superb series of exciting battles in their wake and lots of overtaking – mainly of the Ferraris. Montezemolo’s chauffeur was summoned a few laps before the end. As he headed for the airport, the pressure and embarrassment must have been off the scale. This couldn’t go on, but things were spiralling out of his control. In the aftermath he ordered his loyal lieutenant, team principal Stefano Domenicali, to fire engine chief Luca Marmorini. Domenicali – who’d agonised when he’d had to carry out a similar Montezemolo directive against designer Aldo Costa a few years earlier – refused and handed in his own resignation instead, depriving Montezemolo of a vital control arm. What he also lost was the possibility of Adrian Newey and/or Mercedes engine boss Andy Cowell joining the Scuderia, for they had been liaising through Domenicali. As the blame culture played out before them, it was suddenly very easy to say, ‘No, thank you’. Fiat lost no time installing Marco Mattiacci as Domenicali’s replacement.

Montezemolo was allowed to present it as his idea but the reality was that Fiat now had its own man on the inside and a lever was being placed beneath the president.

Mattiacci, formerly head of Ferrari North America, highly rated within the corporation but unknown in F1, was present in Shanghai ostensibly as new team principal. He looked on as Alonso took third, a long way behind Hamilton’s winning Mercedes. Rosberg was again runner-up, albeit a much more distant one than in Bahrain where he’d been potentially faster but could find no way past.

On lap 52 at Turn Four, Hamilton’s defence had breached what Rosberg deemed acceptable. Thus was signalled the beginnings of Mercedes hostilities that would unfold over the season. It was always going to occur given that they were head-to-head for the sport’s ultimate prize.

Rd 3 Bahrain, April 6 2014
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1hr 39min 42.743sec
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1hr 39min 43.828sec
3 Sergio Pérez Force India VJM07 1hr 0min 06.810sec

Fastest lap: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 37.020sec
Race distance: 57 laps, 191.530 miles
Pole position: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 33.185sec

How Mercedes succeeded where rivals failed
Spain

Red Bull turned up at Barcelona fully armed. The most debilitating of the Renault power unit’s problems had been sorted, Total had devised a new fuel reckoned to be worth 0.15sec per lap and there were further development tweaks to the amazing RB10 chassis. Yet Mercedes waltzed to another Hamilton-Rosberg 1-2 that was, if anything, its most dominant yet. The pattern of the season was confirmed. Up until Barcelona, there was the possibility that with a fettled Renault behind it, the Red Bull would prove Mercedes-fast. It wasn’t. This was a championship battle destined to be fought out exclusively between Hamilton and Rosberg. The former’s fourth consecutive victory finally edged him into a narrow points lead over Rosberg, who’d won just once – emphasising just how costly that failure had been for Hamilton in Melbourne.

The best technical brains at Viry and Maranello, multiple world championships behind them, had fallen well short of Mercedes in meeting the new challenge. The Renault, as well as needing a lot of intercooling as recounted, suffered enormous pre-season problems with excessive heat around the ers-H and a tendency for the ers-K to rip itself out of the crankcase. There was a suggestion of dyno correlation problems that didn’t come to light until testing.

As with all three engines, the Renault was designed to have the turbo spinning even when not under load, maintaining a constant boost pressure of about 3.5 bar and any excess heat produced could be converted into electrical energy and stored in the battery. When under load the excess could be fed through the ers-K direct to the crankshaft, with no regulation limit. The Renault excelled in the efficiency of its energy recovery once it was sorted, even exceeding Mercedes in this respect. But the Mercedes simply had a lot more power from the combination of its engine and a bigger compressor, mounted as it was up front, out of aerodynamic harm’s way.

The Ferrari had neither good power nor efficient energy recovery and would typically have fewer laps with full power available than either the Renault or the Merc.

But it wasn’t only the W05’s engine. Near-identical units were in the back of the Williams and Force India, after all (McLaren’s engine was the same, too, but the team was contracted to run on a fuel other than the Petronas around which it had been designed, initially costing it as much as 40bhp). The W05 was also aerodynamically a match even for the Red Bull, though it had been achieved in a different way.

Two key features of the Mercedes – the front-mounted compressor on all of the Mercedes motors and the W05’s single lower front suspension arm with a wishbone forked end – came together aerodynamically ahead of the sidepod to gift the car a serious performance advantage. The new aero restrictions of 2014 – narrower span front wing, the loss of the rear lower beam wing, no exhaust blowing of the diffuser, smaller rear wing – were swingeing. The beam wing that used to join up the airflow between the diffuser exit and rear wing to give a cascade effect was gone, so getting enough airflow to the rear to compensate was almost as challenging as being able to get decent front downforce by creating effective vortices between the front tyre and sidepod now that the tyre was more in the way. With the front wing’s extremities now only halfway across the width of the tyre, getting the air to flow around there to put the vortex in the right place was hugely difficult (and the main reason why McLaren reckons its MP4-29 wasn’t quick, for example). The W05 deleted the second arm of a conventional wishbone ‘V’ and instead had just a single piece with a forked end. This helped put the vortex back where it had been under the old regs (when the flow off the front wing wasn’t so blocked by the tyre) and hence gave the car good front downforce – but without compromising the airflow to the rear. It allowed the W05 to forgo the narrow gap between the nose’s underside and front wing neutral section used by other cars (such as the Red Bull) whereby a diffuser effect is created that generates front downforce but at the expense of blocking flow to the underside and rear of the car. On the Merc that gap was bigger than on any other, so it had plenty of rear downforce to balance out the good front end. The front-mounted compressor allowed much neater plumbing than on the more conventional rear- compressor Renault and Ferrari motors. This facilitated the W05’s compact and uncluttered sidepods. This in turn enhanced the speed of the flow coming through the vortices created from the front wing to give better airflow to the rear. Conceptually, it was beautiful.

The benefits of the good rear downforce on both the Merc and Red Bull were magnified by the traits of the 2014 Pirelli tyres. Much more conservative with compounds than in the past, after the PR calamity of exploding tyres in 2013, the minimum pressures allowed had been increased as an extra precaution. This made the working tread area of the rear tyre effectively the wrong shape, taking load over a much narrower section of tread than it was originally designed for. Together with the increased torque and reduced downforce, it made the rears even more the limiting factor than before – and any increase in rear downforce was a big help.

As usual, the Red Bull got its rear downforce from supremely tightly waisted rear bodywork between the cockpit and rear wing. But, also as usual, this was quite draggy – especially for an engine that struggled to punch the car through the squaring resistance of the air as speed increased. Around this most aerodynamically demanding of tracks Daniel Ricciardo’s RB10 finished third – 49sec behind Hamilton.

Rd 5 Catalunya, May 11 2014

1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1hr 39min 42.743sec
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1hr 39min 43.828sec
3 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull RB10 1hr 40min 06.810sec

Fastest lap: Sebastian Vettel Red Bull RB10 1min 28.918sec
Race distance: 66 laps, 190.825 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1min 25.232sec

The steeliness in Rosberg
Monaco

In the ninth year of Nico Rosberg’s F1 career he had finally found himself in a championship-calibre car. But of the first five races his team-mate had won the latter four – and in the one race that Rosberg had won, Hamilton had not been around to contest it. The German was in danger of being cast firmly in the number two role at just the moment he’d finally been gifted a number one car. He had to do something.

The streets of Monte Carlo have long been a Rosberg speciality and he had every reason coming into the weekend to be bullish about turning the tables. Free practice and the opening two qualifying sessions suggested it was going to be extremely close between them.

On their first Q3 runs Rosberg aced his team-mate by a scant half a tenth. He had provisional pole and the choice this weekend of the running order. He elected to go first. Getting crossed up into Massenet and again out of Casino messed up the first sector of his final lap and it was highly unlikely he’d be able to improve – therefore making him super-vulnerable to Hamilton finding that 0.059sec gap on his own final run.

It almost certainly wasn’t a pre-conceived plan, but Rosberg’s locking up into the Mirabeau escape road, triggering yellow flags that cost Hamilton the possibility of improving, probably secured him pole. Which in turn – Monaco being Monaco – effectively ensured him the win. This indeed was how it panned out the following day, Rosberg leading home Hamilton and a closely following Ricciardo to edge back into the championship lead.

Was it deliberate, a split-second but fully informed decision in reaction to his messing up those two consecutive corners against a backdrop of a steely conviction coming into the weekend that he absolutely had to reassert himself? The stewards could find no firm evidence with which to condemn him. But it was highly suspicious regardless – as was the way the car appeared just to be following his flailing on the steering as he braked, rather than him correcting any waywardness.

“Of course it was deliberate,” said one rival, almost admiringly. “But he’s never going to tell us. He doesn’t need to, does he?” If this was an accurate assessment, then it at least showed a ruthless core in Rosberg that many had suspected wasn’t there – and which could be an effective weapon against a supremely gifted, albeit occasionally naïve rival.

Rd 6 Monte Carlo, May 25 2014
1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1hr 49min 27.661sec
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1hr 49min 36.871sec
3 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull RB10 1hr 49min 37.275sec

Fastest lap: Kimi Räikkönen Ferrari F14T 1min 18.479sec
Race distance: 78 laps, 161.879 miles
Pole position: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 15.989sec

The resurgence of Williams
Canada and Austria

With the undeniable assistance of a Mercedes power unit, Williams was enjoying what was looking increasingly like a renaissance. The FW36 was low-drag, powerful and well balanced. It lacked the ultimate in downforce so wasn’t a serious Merc W05 rival, but there were days when it was the next fastest thing out there. If Mercedes should at any time slip up, Williams should have been in line to pounce. Mercedes did stumble at both Montréal and on F1’s return to Austria, but still Williams failed to win.

In Canada Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo took his first Grand Prix victory as the beneficiary of the Mercedes’ overheating brakes and in Austria Rosberg used the W05’s superior race pace to prevail despite Williams’ Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas locking out the front row.

It would have been marginal, but with the benefit of hindsight each of those were probably winnable races for Williams. Had Massa’s wheel gun not stuck at his first pitstop in Canada, he wouldn’t have been trying to fight his way past one-stopping Sergio Pérez in the closing laps and wouldn’t then have got involved in a heavy accident with the Force India. But even without the wheel gun problem, the timing of Felipe’s first stop was such that he was about to be undercut by Ricciardo. The FW36 was the fastest thing on track though, with far greater end-of-straight speed than the gutless and draggy Red Bull, so it may have been that Felipe could have passed it later in the race and so been first to benefit from the Mercedes woes. Alternatively, a little more tactical bravery could have got him in early enough at the first stops not to have been undercut by Ricciardo – though with Massa’s appetite for rear tyres there was a natural concern about the remaining stint lengths this would have created.

The Merc’s problems had arisen from overheating of the control electronics that act as the brain for the energy-boosting electrical systems. Montréal’s long straights and slow corners induced heavy electrical loadings on a hot day and when the system shut off it immediately denied the W05s the extra 160bhp stored in the battery and, more damagingly, forced all the rear braking to be mechanical (rather than partly through torque reversal from the ers-K). This was way beyond the duty cycle for which the tiny rear discs had been designed and they quickly overheated. It proved terminal for Hamilton, but not for Rosberg.

Hamilton uses more rear bias and partly it was to do with that. But it was also about competitive paranoia. As Lewis had closed on Nico on the eve of the stops he’d been advised to move his brake bias forwards.

Not understanding the nature of the problem (the team didn’t want to transmit it over the airwaves to rivals), Hamilton thought it might be a ploy to keep him from undercutting ahead of his team-mate and ignored the request. A lap after pitting, his rear brakes fried themselves completely, boiling away the brake fluid to put him out. Rosberg’s brakes never quite crossed that fatal temperature threshold as he adapted his driving to take the strain off them and despite the 160bhp loss he continued in the lead lapping remarkably quickly (at about the same pace as a fully healthy Mercedes-powered McLaren). It was a quite brilliant improvisation and he lost the lead to Ricciardo only two laps from the end. By keeping his cool he’d allowed his brakes to do the same. The day before he’d used that cool – and Hamilton’s desperation to be on the pole he felt was vital to give him the wins he needed to overcome that Australia retirement – to take pole with a car prone to locking up on the super-soft tyres as Lewis had over-committed.

It was a similar story in Austria qualifying. Again the W05 didn’t like the super-softs, again Hamilton was more desperate than ever for pole given that Montréal had left him a further 18 points behind and again he made a crucial error, spinning at Turn Two and lining up ninth. Rosberg’s final lap was compromised by the Hamilton yellows, leaving him behind both FW36s.

Had it been Bottas leading the first stint rather than harder-on-the-rubber Massa, it might have been possible to have made the stops early enough not to lose places to the two Mercs – laying the foundation for a Rosberg-Hamilton 1-2 – and still have enough tyre life left for the remaining stints. But with Massa ahead it would have been hard on him to have deliberately engineered his team-mate to undercut past. It all came back to a small but crucial error Bottas had made on his final qualifying lap that had gifted Massa pole. Then again, the W05 retained an overwhelming pace advantage on race day and Rosberg might well have leapfrogged to the front at some stage, regardless of Williams’ strategy.

While these two races highlighted a certain strategic conservatism at Williams, technically it was operating at a far higher level than in the recent past. Pat Symonds’ technical leadership had imbued the aero team with better process and the recruitment of Rob Smedley as performance engineer brought further solid structure. That said, the acquisition of Mercedes power flattered it against the Renault and Ferrari powered opposition and the loss of blown diffusers – something with which the team had always struggled – was a further help.

In Canada, concurrent with Red Bull’s first victory of the season, came the news that Adrian Newey was stepping back from F1. The design genius had been within an ace of signing up with Ferrari but had been tempted back to the fold by the promise of designing a Red Bull road car. From Red Bull’s perspective it at least prevented him being used as a weapon against it and secretly the team hoped he’d be unable to leave F1 alone once he’d settled.

Rd 7 Montréal, June 8 2014
1 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull RB10 1hr 39min 12.830sec
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1hr 39min 17.066sec
3 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull RB10 1hr 39min 18.077sec

Fastest lap: Felipe Massa Williams FW36 1min 18.504sec
Race distance: 70 laps, 189.686 miles
Pole position: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 14.874sec

Rd 8 Spielberg, June 22 2014
1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1hr 27min 54.976sec
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1hr 27min 56.908sec
3 Valtteri Bottas Williams FW36 1hr 28min 03.148sec

Fastest lap: Sergio Pérez Force India VJM07 1min 12.142sec
Race distance: 71 laps, 190.773 miles
Pole position: Felipe Massa Williams FW36 1min 08.759sec

The flawed genius of Lewis Hamilton
Britain

All Hamilton needed to do on his final Q3 lap of Silverstone was keep Rosberg behind him. Nico had started that lap right upon his team-mate’s gearbox (because it was marginal whether he could cross the line in time to begin the lap before the chequer) and so could not have lapped significantly faster than Lewis and would almost certainly have been slower, stuck as he would have been in his turbulence.

Instead, after making a small lock-up error early in the lap, Hamilton abandoned it – and allowed Rosberg through to take advantage of a drying final sector that was 4sec faster than it had been. Four others also breezed past Hamilton to demote him yet further down the grid. Upon realising the magnitude of what was a very basic error of logic, Hamilton was mortified.

But race day was dry and Hamilton was in the mood to make amends. He’d already made up a couple of places – including a wheel-rubbing pass on Sebastian Vettel – when the race was red-flagged a few corners in to repair barriers destroyed by Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari. This boosted Hamilton to a fourth place restart and from there he made short work of the McLarens to go second – just 5sec behind Rosberg. With an offset tyre strategy after the first stops, Rosberg got underway again on the option, Hamilton on the hard. It was expected that this would allow Rosberg to pull away in the middle stint of a two-stop race. Instead, Hamilton began closing him down hand over fist, driving with thrilling exuberance to take full advantage of how the high track temperatures had allowed the harder tyre to come into its own; the cat was chasing the mouse and the crowd began to stir. They were denied the dramatic pass, but not the result. Rosberg suffered a gearbox glitch and was forced to pull off. Victory took Hamilton to within sniffing distance of Rosberg’s points lead.

Hamilton’s qualifying faux pas was the third in three events and this time came not from over-striving but under-thinking.

The brilliance of his race drive just underlined what a flawed diamond he remains, even into his eighth year of F1. But he lights up the sport as only a few have ever done.

Rd 9 Silverstone, July 6 2014
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 2hr 26min 52.094sec
2 Valtteri Bottas Williams FW36 2hr 27min 22.229sec
3 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull RB10 2hr 27min 38.589sec

Fastest lap: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1min 37.176sec
Race distance: 52 laps, 190.262 miles
Pole position: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 35.766sec

Bernie and the Germans
Germany

F1 played host to a much-reduced crowd at Hockenheim, though it had sold out in Canada, Austria and Britain. Maybe it had something to do with the German news reports carrying regular updates of Bernie Ecclestone’s court case in Munich. He stood in the dock accused of having bribed the German banker who was now jailed for accepting a bribe from Ecclestone (if that sounds bang to rights, you’re not a lawyer).

This dated back to 2005, when private equity company CVC purchased F1 from the creditor banks that ended up owning F1 following the collapse of the Kirch media group. Kirch had over-extended itself in buying the sport for the ludicrous sum Bernie had requested at the time (about seven times what he paid when FIA president Max Mosley granted him the commercial rights until 2110, when Bernie, protected by his Faustian pact, will be 181 years old). The jailed banker insisted the bribe had been to ensure the banks sold to Bernie’s buyer of choice (CVC). The prosecution maintained Bernie had a preference because CVC would retain him to run the business (sorry, sport), whereas other potential buyers might not.

The prosecution became ever less confident of its ability to prove this as Bernie continued to insist the payment had not been a bribe, but a blackmail payment to prevent the banker causing Ecclestone problems with the British tax authorities. A few weeks after the German GP, the court used a peculiarity of German law to offer Ecclestone the opportunity of settling the case financially while implying neither guilt nor innocence. Bernie paid $100 million and left court a free man. Meanwhile the banker still resides in jail, judged guilty of having received a bribe. Not of having demanded and received a blackmail payment. Funny old world.

The few Germans that turned up to watch their home race got to see a German driver (Rosberg) win in a German-badged car. He was aided immeasurably in this by Hamilton’s qualifying brake disc failure, which had pitched him into the barriers and left him 20th on the grid, 19 places behind Rosberg.

This was the first race of the FRICS (front-rear interconnected suspension) ban: it slowed everyone by a couple of tenths but made no noticeable difference to the competitive order.

Rd 10 Hockenheim, July 20 2014
1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1hr 27min 54.976sec
2 Valtteri Bottas Williams FW36 1hr 34min 03.703sec
3 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1hr 34min 05.094sec

Fastest lap: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1min 19.908sec
Race distance: 67 laps, 190.424 miles
Pole position: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 16.540sec

Daniel Ricciardo, the season's revelation
Hungary

Daniel Ricciardo had entered the lion’s den smiling. Did he realise what he was taking on? Sebastian Vettel had ruled the Red Bull team by the force of his will and brilliance ever since joining five years earlier. Ricciardo had been quick in the Toro Rosso over the previous couple of years, but this was surely an altogether different scale of challenge. Yet by the time we arrived in Hungary he was narrowly ahead of the four-time world champion in qualifying, 21 points in front in the championship and had already taken his maiden Grand Prix victory.

Ricciardo had been quick and incredibly composed from day one. He had a knack of always doing exactly the right thing, of being in just the right place, delivering the maximum result of which the car was capable on the day. His driving has a beautifully smooth, high-momentum precision that is less visually dramatic than Vettel’s but – in these cars at least – usually proved quicker. Crucially, it’s also way easier on the tyres. Ricciardo can habitually get more laps than Vettel from a set of rubber, even while driving faster. He’s often able to optimise strategies that simply aren’t available to Vettel. Seb didn’t smile so much this year. Daniel was smiling even more than usual.

Over the previous few seasons Vettel had developed a way of extracting the maximum from the unusual traits of a blown-diffuser car, very comfortable with the sort of twitchy oversteer that helped with the direction change, then standing on the throttle, using the enhanced rear downforce to halt the usual penalty for that quick direction change. With the lower downforce of the 2014 cars and their absence of exhaust blowing, any aggressive change of direction inevitably meant the slide continuing after the direction change and losing at least as much lap time as had just been gained upon turn-in – and taking more from the rear tyres. It wasn’t all that surprising that Seb initially didn’t get on so well with these cars, but it seemed odd that he couldn’t quickly come to master a new technique. But Ricciardo also had better luck than Sebastian in 2014. The timing of the safety car in Hungary, for example, transposed their prospects and laid the foundation for Ricciardo’s last-gasp victory.

That safety car had also disturbed what would otherwise have been a serene start-to-finish victory for Rosberg. But even with that disturbance, if only he could have passed Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso rather than being stuck behind it for many laps, he could still have won this race. Hamilton – who started from the pitlane after his car this time caught fire in qualifying before he’d even recorded a lap – gratefully took the present of the safety car. It wiped his 33sec deficit to the lead off the board and allowed some supreme racecraft upon the restart to bring him onto Rosberg’s tail. He later showed Rosberg how you went about overtaking Vergne, with an immediate, stunning outside pass that kept him in contention for the win. The two Mercs were on different strategies and as Hamilton fought Fernando Alonso and Ricciardo for possible victory, he received the somewhat surprising request to move aside for Rosberg coming through on his fresh tyres but needing to stop again. Both were potentially race-winning strategies and backing off would not only have cost Hamilton valuable time to the Ferrari and Red Bull but might well have allowed Rosberg to beat him, too. So he declined, said that if Nico could get himself within DRS range then he’d let him past, but that he wasn’t backing off. It was an entirely appropriate response to a message the team later admitted should never have been delivered.

Nico for some reason never did get within DRS range, even though he clearly had the pace to have done so.

Rd 11 Hungaroring, July 27 2014
1 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull RB10 1hr 53min 05.058sec
2 Fernando Alonso Ferrari F14T 1hr 53min 10.283sec
3 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1hr 53min 10.915sec

Fastest lap: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 25.724sec
Race distance: 70 laps, 190.531 miles
Pole position: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 22.715sec

The big ramifications of a small incident
Belgium and Italy

Rosberg had not liked the ‘resolution’ of the team as it reviewed the radio controversy of Hungary post-race. The management had adjudged the call to have been a mistake and no such instructions would go out to the drivers in future. Rosberg was irritated; had lost 10-11sec in Hungary lapping at Hamilton’s old-tyred pace and felt aggrieved the team hadn’t insisted his team-mate move aside, given that they were on different strategies. Hamilton said at Spa he found Rosberg’s reaction amusing. They’ve raced together since they were competitive team-mates in karts in 2000; they each know the foibles of the other. With the world championship at stake, of course, there was competitive gamesmanship.

After Rosberg lost the benefit of pole at Spa to Hamilton off the line, he was in a far from conciliatory state of mind. As far as he was concerned this niggle went right back to lap 52 of the Bahrain race, when he had a run on Hamilton around the outside of Turn Four. Rosberg was not quite completely level by around three-quarters of the way through the turn when Hamilton began to edge him out, forcing him to back off and concede. “That was unacceptable,” said Rosberg over the radio immediately. Unacceptable in Rosberg’s own code, perhaps, but precisely where in the corner it is permissible for one driver to start leaning on another is not defined in the rules.

A driver must leave at least a car’s width of race track for his rival (the race track being defined as having at least one wheel inside the white line defining the outer edge) but the rest is nebulous; intuitive, of-the-moment split-second decisions that will vary from corner to corner, situation to situation.

Hugely irritated, Rosberg had used his engine in qualifying mode without permission in the last few laps of Bahrain, trying in vain to pass. When Hamilton was next under pressure from Rosberg – at Barcelona – he had used an unauthorised engine setting in response. Then came the Hungary radio call. All these things coloured Rosberg’s belligerence at Spa – enough to leave his nose there as ahead of him Hamilton went to take up his line at Les Combes on the second lap. What unfolded was a minor incident with huge ramifications. Hamilton’s tyre was punctured, Rosberg’s wing damaged. Ricciardo picked up the pieces to take a second consecutive victory, Rosberg salvaging second, Hamilton forced to retire. There was thunder on the faces of the Mercedes management. Seeing a 1-2 go up in rubber smoke and front wing debris did not sit well and neither Toto Wolff nor Niki Lauda held back from expressing their views that they held Rosberg responsible. The drivers were summoned to Brackley a few days later where a riot act was read and Rosberg reluctantly agreed to put his name to a statement accepting most of the blame. Internal sanctions were applied, believed to have been a six-figure fine. It was an unprecedented way for a team to react to a driver fighting his corner against a team-mate and it seemed to take some of the spirit out of Rosberg subsequently.

The stunning post-Spa form of Hamilton was partly because he’d stopped making so many qualifying errors and his car had stopped breaking so often, but also it was to do with a somewhat detuned, chastened Rosberg.

At Monza he took the lead in the early laps after Hamilton’s pole-sitting car developed a start-mode glitch but no sooner was Hamilton upon him than Nico locked up for a second time approaching Retifilio and took the escape route to avoid flat-spotting – this handing Hamilton a lead that he rarely lost virtually for the rest of the season.

Rd 12 Spa-Francorchamps, August 24 2014
1 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull RB10 1hr 24min 36.556sec
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1hr 24min 39.939sec
3 Valtteri Bottas Williams FW36 1hr 25min 04.588sec

Fastest lap: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 50.511sec
Race distance: 44 laps, 191.415 miles
Pole position: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 2min 05.591sec

Rd 13 Monza, September 7
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1hr 19min 10.236sec
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1hr 19min 13.411sec
3 Felipe Massa Williams FW36 1hr 19min 35.262sec

Fastest lap: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1min 28.004sec
Race distance: 53 laps, 190.587 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1min 24.109sec

Corporate monkeys, pirates of chance
Singapore

The speculation that had been bubbling since Bahrain regarding Luca di Montezemolo’s future as Ferrari’s president had reached fever point by Monza. He was staying, he insisted. He was going, said the jungle drums. Two days after Monza Fiat’s Sergio Marchionne said of Montezemolo: “It’s the same for him as it is for me; we serve the company. When the company has a change of plan, or if there is no longer a convergence of ideas, things change.”

A day after that, Luca’s departure was confirmed. He and Fernando Alonso – not always close buddies – had embraced each other particularly warmly in the Ferrari garage. Fernando had reason to feel well disposed. Montezemolo had asked if he could give Fernando anything as a leaving present and the driver had responded that he’d like a change made to his water-tight contract that would allow him to leave at the end of this year if he so chose. Luca told him to consider it done. Fernando would not necessarily have to serve out a contract that ran until the end of 2016.

Marchionne was now the nominal head of Fiat, his protégé Mattiacci the de facto chief as the events post-Bahrain finally played themselves out. A couple of months earlier, Mattiacci had answered a question about Alonso’s future at the team with: “It is not my job to please Fernando Alonso.” It was an interesting hint of hostility towards his star driver. In his fifth season at the Scuderia the Spaniard had despaired of ever winning a title there and had been scouting around at Mercedes, Red Bull and McLaren. There was no vacancy at Red Bull and none at Mercedes until at least 2016. McLaren though was keen to do a deal – to recruit the driver from whom it had split after just one heavily controversial season in 2007 and Fernando’s quickly withdrawn blackmail threat to Ron Dennis. Competitive need can make for unlikely bedfellows. This time Fernando wanted a one-year deal, McLaren wanted more. Alonso began to reason he’d be better staying at Ferrari for an extra season than taking himself out of a future Mercedes equation through a long-term McLaren deal.

And it was at this stage in their relationship that Alonso reminded Ferrari just what he was bringing to the party with a brilliant drive around Singapore’s streets. Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes won, overcoming an inopportunely timed safety car that required him to pit and rejoin behind Vettel’s Red Bull with only a few laps remaining. Rosberg had effectively gone out before the start, a short in the electrics within the steering column rendering his various wheel-mounted controls inoperative. But in many ways Alonso was the star.

The street circuit had allowed him to transcend the car’s natural level and he came within a briefly locked wheel of out-qualifying both Mercs. As it was, he started fifth but was soon second and would likely have stayed there were he not caught out by the safety car, which dropped him to fourth, behind the Red Bulls and with not enough spare fuel to launch an attack. As usual he had completely eclipsed team-mate Kimi Räikkönen. The seasonal score would go on to read 17-3 in Alonso’s favour and 106 more championship points. Alonso was getting around the car’s limitations – a weak front end, poor traction, tricky braking – in a way that was out of reach to Räikkönen, who looked a pale shadow of his former self.

Alonso had been asked his opinion on the radio restrictions that took effect from this race. “Not much, really,” he replied. “We have never used the radio for driving instructions.” This was at the nub of what the restrictions were all about, a development from the FIA’s Charlie Whiting that was surely to be rejoiced at. Hearing teams other than Ferrari advising their drivers to “try turning in earlier, making a shallower apex and getting earlier on the power,” and such – stuff that lies at the very heart of what makes one driver quick, another less so – had always been galling. It was not an inspirational thing to hear Nico Rosberg say: “Feedback on my driving, please.” As Bernie Ecclestone said: “People don’t want the drivers to be robots.” Quite. Initially the ban – something that Motor Sport recommended in its manifesto earlier in the year – covered all aspects of operating the car. When it was realised that this was not achievable with the current systems, it was reduced to specific driving advice. The full ban is due to come in next season.

Alonso stands as the shining example of an old-school warrior, the very antithesis of a modern ‘employee’ driver. That is inspirational. But Mattiacci, the corporate man now running the team, thought otherwise. He felt he needed full control and that Alonso was preventing this. So post-Singapore, the pair met. Alonso believed he was going to negotiate a contract amendment that would allow him to stay for just one more year. It seems that wasn’t Mattiacci’s agenda. At all. A close associate of Alonso reports that he left the meeting in a rage, calling his boss a ‘son of a bitch’. Within days Red Bull confirmed that Vettel was leaving – headed for Ferrari.

When Mattiacci offered the paperwork for Alonso to exercise the option to leave at the end of ’14, the clause that Montezemolo had arranged as a present, Alonso – apparently advised by his management that the boss was surely bluffing – signed. At which point Mattiacci added his own signature and said, “We’re done,” or words to that effect. Cue Alonso’s fury. That wasn’t quite all, though; one day after the season ended, Mattiacci would be gone, too, replaced by long-time Ferrari ally Maurizio Arrivabene from Philip Morris.

Rd 14 Marina Bay, September 21 2014
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 2hr 00min 04.795sec
2 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull RB10 2hr 00min 18.329sec
3 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull RB10 2hr 00min 19.068sec

Fastest lap: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1min 50.417sec
Race distance: 60 laps, 188.749 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1min 45.681sec

The Bianchi tragedy
Japan

In the Thursday FIA press conference at Suzuka, Jules Bianchi was asked how he felt about being in the mix for a 2015 Ferrari drive. This was a couple of days before the ‘Vettel leaving Red Bull’ story broke and Jules replied: “I feel ready. I have been working for that since I joined the [Ferrari] Academy, at the end of 2009. After nearly two seasons in F1, I feel ready for that. It looks like the logical step…” Seventy-two hours later he was on a life-support machine.

He’d been having a strong season with Marussia and at Monaco had driven a quick and combative race to earn the team its first points – putting Marussia ahead of both Sauber and Caterham in the championship for constructors, potentially a £25 million lifeline for the team – if it could stay around long enough to claim it. Whenever a bigger team or two had slipped up in Q1, Bianchi was inevitably there to sneak through. In the four events from Silverstone to Spa he did this three times. At Suzuka he was up against a much-improved Marcus Ericsson in a Caterham with a simplified brake-by-wire system that finally allowed him to feel what the car was doing under braking and corner entry. With nine laps to go Bianchi was fighting hard on a damp track, his intermediates were very worn, darkness was descending, the dry line within the wet patches becoming increasingly hard to see. Adrian Sutil crashed his Sauber at Dunlop, a tractor was sent into the gravel trap to retrieve it under double waved yellow flags. Bianchi lost it at the same place as Sutil and hit the back of the tractor at about 120mph. Those bald facts pose many questions about future lessons, but no one involved was breaking procedure. It was a horrible confluence of circumstances.

Hamilton was comfortably leading Rosberg when the red flags brought things to a close, but no one was in much of a mood to talk about the race afterwards.

Rd 15 Suzuka, October 5 2014
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1hr 51min 43.021sec
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1hr 51min 52.201sec
2 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull RB10 1hr 52min 12.143sec

Fastest lap: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1min 51.600sec
Race distance: 44 laps, 158.579 miles
Pole position: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 32.506sec

Propaganda and penury
Russia and USA

After many years of failed attempts, finally Russia got its place on the F1 schedule with a somewhat bland Valencia-like circuit on the former Olympic site of Sochi. Coming before the American Grand Prix in Austin, it made for an interesting juxtaposition on the calendar. On race day in Sochi Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt sat with President Putin like two lap dogs, underlining the political propaganda aspect of this event’s existence and bringing to mind Mussolini’s presence in the Italian races of the ’30s. Putin’s patronage – and a vast fee – had made the race happen and, as with Bahrain, F1 happily allowed itself to be used as a political football by vowing to ‘keep out of politics’. Russia’s current pariah status in international diplomacy was blandly ignored as Lewis Hamilton equalled Nigel Mansell’s British record of 31 GP wins. It was pretty much guaranteed once Rosberg flat-spotted his tyres seconds after taking the lead at the first turn. It is not recorded what discussions the Malaysian government held about having state-owned Petronas livery on the Mercedes here when the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17 in Ukraine in July was still such a very raw subject.

Low tyre degradation and perhaps a continuing hangover from Japan ensured this was the least lively race of the season.

There was black irony in the fact that Marussia, after five seasons of on-the-brink survival, made it to its owner’s home race (with only one car) before falling into administration. This came just days after Caterham had done the same, reducing the Austin grid to 18 cars. Sadly, the fate of the two minnow teams was not a surprise. They’d entered the sport under Max Mosley’s proposal of a £40 million budget cap, a promise that could not be met. Upon Mosley’s departure the new teams were never made to feel particularly welcome and were essentially squeezed out financially by the iniquitous income share Ecclestone had agreed with bigger names. Coupled with how much income was leaving the sport and the tripled costs of the hybrid power units, F1 was now resorting to financial cannibalism.

“There is too much money being distributed badly – probably my fault,” said Ecclestone in Austin. “But like lots of agreements people make, they seemed a good idea at the time. If the company belonged to me I would have done things in a different way because it would have been my money. But I work for people who are in the business to make money… I would tear all the contracts up, take all the money, pay all the teams’ debts.”

It was tempting to think Bernie was applying pressure to have CVC sell F1 back to him – at a knock-down price, of course; which may have been why the subject of engine noise came up again. It was hard to think of any other reason why Ecclestone should be creating negative publicity, in America of all places. It wasn’t too surprising that before the season ended it looked as though the European Commission would investigate the sport’s income distribution.

Regardless of the thin grid, Austin remained a high spot, a great, independent venue promoted properly. It’s held not for political capital but as a private enterprise and is well attended. Even so, it struggles to turn a buck and its long-term future remains far from certain – another horrible indictment of F1’s business model. Hamilton gave the crowd a good show, chasing down and passing pole-sitting team-mate Rosberg to extend his consecutive victory tally to five, his seasonal total to 10. Ricciardo was masterful in mugging Alonso and the Williams pair to emerge third.

Rd 16 Sochi, October 12 2014
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1hr 31min 50.744sec
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1hr 32min 04.401sec
3 Valtteri Bottas Williams FW36 1hr 32min 08.169sec

Fastest lap: Valtteri Bottas Williams FW36 1min 40.896sec
Race distance: 53 laps, 192.467 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1min 38.513sec

Rd 17 USA, November 2 2014
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1hr 40min 04.785sec
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1hr 40min 09.099sec
3 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull RB10 1hr 40min 30.345sec

Fastest lap: Sebastian Vettel Red Bull RB10 1min 41.379sec
Race distance: 56 laps, 000.000 miles
Pole position: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 36.067sec

Double top
Brazil and Abu Dhabi

Rosberg’s second place in Austin had ensured the title could not be decided until the double-points finale in Abu Dhabi. Even if Hamilton won in Brazil and Rosberg non-scored, Nico could still take the title with the 50 points that were on offer in the desert if Lewis retired. Two rounds remaining, and the man with just four wins was still in contention when his rival had won 10, underlining what a potential mockery the double-points idea made of the sporting contest. Another idea that seemed good at the time, perhaps?

Rosberg in fact won in Brazil, Hamilton losing time with a spin on his in-lap while trying to leapfrog ahead on worn tyres. They headed to the finale with Hamilton 17 points in front. In qualifying Hamilton again made a pressure error with a lock-up, again on the super-softs just as in Montréal and Austria – and it allowed Rosberg to take a potentially crucial pole, his 11th of the season (to Hamilton’s seven). But that wasn’t actually the biggest news of qualifying. The Red Bulls were thrown to the back of the grid after they were found to have front wings deliberately engineered to flex.

A leaf spring within a camouflaged shroud was discovered within the outermost flaps. It was a good old-fashioned cheat rather than the more usual subtle interpretation of wording. Vettel and Ricciardo would be starting behind even the Caterhams, which had come back from the dead (for one race, at least) courtesy of a crowd-funding initiative by the administrators.

On race evening Hamilton scalded into an immediate lead and never looked back, Rosberg bogging down and later being slowed by an ers failure. Britain had its first double world champion since Jackie Stewart in 1971.

As forklifts packed up the trucks into the night, the sport had many questions to ask, as did the teams floundering so far in Mercedes’ wake. McLaren, with an MP4-29 that struggled for front downforce from a flawed aero concept, held onto fifth place in the championship for constructors, just edging out Force India (which got most of its points early in the season, before the development war accumulation). In its favour Force India had the Mercedes engine, gentle tyre use and a balanced driver line-up in Hülkenberg and Pérez. Against it was an unfeasibly narrow set-up window.

The Renault-powered Toro Rosso was on average a quicker qualifying car than the Force India, but operational errors and a less potent engine meant the team scored 125 fewer points. Teenage rookie Daniil Kvyat was exceptionally talented but needed to make progress with his tyre usage. Jean-Éric Vergne, a hard and committed racer, provided Kvyat with a good benchmark.

A weak Ferrari power unit did not help Sauber’s aerodynamically flawed car. Lotus’s Renault-powered E22 was conceived around a twin-tusk nose and a very different aero philosophy for the front and underbody. It simply didn’t work, especially in yaw or in slow corners where the steering lock was significant. Romain Grosjean’s big talent was thus wasted just as his career had been on the point of take-off.

Mercedes was better prepared, thought more deeply, had better ideas and generally took the new hybrid formula more seriously than any other as an engine manufacturer, dovetailing perfectly with how the Brackley side of the operation had matured into a top team, the whole process and the integration between the two having been overseen and guided by Ross Brawn. That he was sitting on a river bank fishing when the glory unfolded should not detract from the crucial part he played.

He has now won world championships with four different teams over a 20-year period. In some ways, 2014 was just another Newey vs Brawn season, such as we’ve seen regularly since 1994. The difference being that Brawn’s team this time had a massive power advantage on its side – though he can take some of the credit for that too.

Such was the advantage of the engine that it was only a matter of time before Ferrari and Renault began campaigning for more freedom to develop their own units during the season in future. They should perhaps be careful what they wish for, because any freeing-up of development would apply to Mercedes too… In fact, so one-sided was the season that there was a genuine concern about whether the technical regulations have effectively engineered a Mercedes advantage. After Mercedes predictably blocked the Ferrari/Red Bull ‘unfreeze’ initiative, this was the fear behind bizarre talk of another new engine formula for 2016 with twin turbos and standardised ers! It came from within Ecclestone’s enclave and was duly espoused by Christian Horner in Abu Dhabi. It was madness and surely only a bargaining position to assist with pushing the ‘unfreeze’ through. This is the sort of chaos that ensues when the governing body surrenders its hold on the sport’s technical direction, just as it did on the commercial side all those years ago.

Look at the price F1 is paying now.

Rd 18 Brazil, November 9 2014
1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1hr 30min 02.555sec
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1hr 30min 04.012sec
3 Felipe Massa Williams FW36 1hr 30min 43.586sec

Fastest lap: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1min 13.555sec
Race distance: 71 laps, 190.083 miles
Pole position: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 10.023sec

Rd 19 Abu Dhabi, November 23 2014
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1hr 39min 02.619sec
2 Felipe Massa Williams FW36 1hr 39min 05.195sec
3 Valtteri Bottas Williams FW36 1hr 39min 31.499sec

Fastest lap: Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull RB10 1min 44.496sec
Race distance: 55 laps, 189.739 miles
Pole position: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 40.480sec

FIA F1 Drivers World Championship
1 Lewis Hamilton GB Mercedes 384
2 Nico Rosberg Ger Mercedes 317
3 Daniel Ricciardo Aus Red Bull-Renault 238
4 Valtteri Bottas Fin Williams-Mercedes 186
5 Sebastian Vettel Ger Red Bull-Renault 167
6 Fernando Alonso Spa Ferrari 161
7 Felipe Massa Brz Williams-Mercedes 134
8 Jenson Button GB McLaren-Mercedes 126
9 Nico Hülkenberg Ger Force India-Mercedes 96
10 Sergio Pérez Mex Force India-Mercedes 59
11 Kevin Magnussen Den McLaren-Mercedes 55
12 Kimi Räikkönen Fin Ferrari 55
13 Jean-Éric Vergne Fra Toro Rosso-Renault 22
14 Romain Grosjean Fra Lotus-Renault 8
15 Daniil Kvyat Rus Toro Rosso-Renault 8
16 Pastor Maldonado Ven Lotus-Renault 2
17 Jules Bianchi Fra Marussia-Ferrari 2
18 Adrian Sutil Ger Sauber-Ferrari 0
19 Marcus Ericsson Swe Caterham-Renault 0
20 Esteban Gutierrez Mex Sauber-Ferrari 0
21 Max Chilton GB Marussia-Ferrari 0
22 Kamui Kobayashi Jpn Caterham-Renault 0
23 Will Stevens GB Caterham-Renault 0
24 André Lotterer Ger Caterham-Renault 0

FIA F1 Constructors World Championship
1 Mercedes 701
2 Red Bull 405
3 Williams 320
4 Ferrari 216
5 McLaren 181
6 Force India 155
7 Toro Rosso 30
8 Lotus 10
9 Marussia 2
10 Sauber 0
11 Caterham 0

Top ten drivers of the year

10 – Felipe Massa
Massa’s old chirpy spark was much more evident this year. The move to Williams and away from Ferrari servitude suited him well. He even managed to add to his tally of poles, six years after his last one. For such an experienced old hand, he could still make the occasional blunder – like forgetting to deploy his DRS just as he had Vettel lined up in Montréal – and his racecraft wasn’t always flawless, but he was irrepressible on track and invigorating off it. He was quick enough to keep a new talent like Bottas on his toes and was very impressive at Singapore, a track that has always suited his attacking style but to which the FW36 was ill suited. He delivered what was surely the best result possible with fifth.
His style remains a little unsubtle and heavy rear tyre wear occasionally compromised the strategies available to him, but it was great to see him back at close to his best.

9 – Nico Hülkenberg

Hülkenberg’s most impressive drives were in the first half-season, when the Force India was at its most competitive and his hard-charging style could get it in places that embarrassed some bigger teams. As the development dollars told and the car dropped from the pace,
it relied more heavily for results upon its easy tyre usage – and Hülkenberg was unable to maximise this trait as effectively as team-mate Sergio Pérez. There was little doubt he had the edge in speed over the Mexican, but better strategies were often out of Nico’s reach because he was so hard on the rear tyres – though it was a trait he worked to improve. In Australia he was impressive in running fourth for his first stint. In Sepang he gave the bigger teams a similarly hard time, Red Bull and Ferrari having to compromise their strategies to those ahead in order to keep him behind.

8 – Sebastian Vettel

For someone who perfected the counter-intuitive art of extracting everything from blown diffuser technology, it was puzzling how the champion failed to adapt in a more conventional car.
It wasn’t so much that Ricciardo could often as not shade Vettel in qualifying; the telling trait was how much more he took from the rear tyres than his team-mate, an area in which Seb had always excelled. At Spa Ricciardo passed him, pulled away at 0.5sec per lap and made his rear tyres last longer. It looked that way, too – Vettel’s car much more urgent upon turn-in, sliding for longer and using more track at the exit. Seb was trying like crazy – yet still it wasn’t happening.
He was unlucky a few times and the difference in pace between them wasn’t as great as stats make it look. But the fact remains that he was outperformed in his own territory and has chosen to move on, his reputation definitely dented.

7 – Jenson Button

Button drove as well as ever this year, but a second season in a mediocre McLaren left him struggling to maintain his career. When Alonso fever took hold at Woking, Button was rather left out in the cold, his future depending upon whether sufficient extra sponsorship could be generated to pay him. Smart tactics on the hoof gave him great results in Australia and Japan and only a strategic team blunder cost him a podium in Brazil, a reminder to McLaren of just how good he can be. His racecraft was of a very high order, as seen in attack in Montreal - where he made up two places in one extended move – and defence, as he fended off Alonso in a faster Ferrari at Silverstone. His weak point remains an over-sensitivity to rear-end nervousness, but in a Mercedes he’d have been fighting for a world title. He’d love to go head-to-head with Alonso; the outcome would not be the walkover many would expect.

6 – Valtteri Bottas

Bottas came of age during his sophomore season, by developing into a fully rounded world-class performer with no apparent weaknesses. He wasn’t quite that at the beginning of the season, when sometimes Felipe Massa’s speed could induce him to over-drive. That was quickly corrected and into the second half of the year he was usually the cutting edge of Williams’ attack. Blended with his natural speed is a fantastic feel for tyres that has the engineering team reaching for the superlatives – and it was a particularly valuable skill with this car at times. Total composure is very much at the core of his performances, his dimmer switch turned way down low and allowing him to absorb pressure effortlessly. With a combination of natural speed, mental strength and general smartness it’s difficult to conceive that he will not be winning Grands Prix sooner rather than later.

5 – Nico Rosberg

It was almost as if there were two Nico Rosbergs; the smart, feisty performer who forced his way onto Lewis Hamilton’s radar and led the title race for much of the year – and the chastened post-Spa driver who for a while looked like a number two. Up until the Spa aftermath he’d responded to the opportunity the Mercedes W05 represented with a pummelling consistency, unerringly good set-up calls and mental strength. Any time Hamilton went faster, he came back out more determined. If his Monaco qualifying incident was deliberate, it was much cleverer than Schumacher’s had been in 2006. He was at his most impressive in Montréal, where no team-mate had ever qualified close to Hamilton. Rosberg’s speed made Lewis crack and in the race his discipline kept his brakes alive. The Spa incident was insignificant in isolation, but a total game changer. Something in his relationship with the team was damaged in that moment and couldn’t be repaired.

4 – Romain Grosjean

Given that he was unable to do much with the dog that Lotus provided, it might seem eccentric to place Grosjean so highly. But in years to come, when he is able hopefully to pick up where he left off at the end of 2013, it will seem ridiculous to have placed him lower. He could probably have done more with the cars of all those placed below him than they did – and that’s justification enough. People at Pirelli swear he’s the fastest thing they’ve ever seen... Going from a podium car to one that sometimes struggled to get out of Q1 occasionally led to his frustration boiling over, but his driving remained flawless. The car was half-reasonable only in Spain, where he qualified fifth and ran ahead of the Ferraris until the engine played up. The man who was consistently able to take the fight to Vettel in the second half of 2013 is still in there, ready to resume when circumstance permits.

3 – Lewis Hamilton

Only Hamilton’s mid-season qualifying errors keep him from a better placing than third. The rest of the time he was at his brilliant best, a conjurer of extraordinary things, a driver who knows that his number one asset is an ability to lap faster than anyone else when all is right with his world. The supporting qualities to that are not always flawless and Rosberg was good enough to get under his skin and inside his head – and frequently found a better set-up direction. But even when Rosberg was actually faster – Bahrain, Barcelona – Hamilton’s defences were unbreachable, albeit sometimes just the right side of the letter laid down in the regs. His qualifying errors came in response to digging yet deeper, knowing he had to beat Rosberg many times in order to overcome his 25-point loss from the first race. Eventually, he just relaxed into his groove and allowed it all to come to him.

2 – Daniel Ricciardo

Ricciardo at Toro Rosso was always fast, could very often turn an eyebrow-raising qualifying lap. But when Red Bull signed him as Mark Webber’s replacement it was not totally convinced of his racecraft. Did the fact that his finishing positions at Toro Rosso rarely match those of qualifying simply reflect that he had transcended the car over one lap? Or did it signify a trait within him? It took the gamble – and boy did he pay it back.
He began the season with the biggest pressure imaginable. Not only did he have it all to do in laying down his marker in a top team for the first time and against a quadruple champion team-mate, but it came at his home race where the pressure of expectation was huge. Yet he was perfect all weekend, outpacing Vettel and splitting the Mercs in qualifying, then driving a flawless race to second. It didn’t really matter that the result didn’t count. His Button-like smoothness and precision came without Jenson’s over-sensitivity and that high momentum style was not only usually faster than Vettel’s in these cars, but much easier on the tyres. Then there was the racecraft, the confident and creative overtaking. And even on the rare occasions when he’d had a bad day, the big smile was never far from the surface. That could only have increased the psychological pressure on his team-mate.

1 – Fernando Alonso

Alonso remains utterly magnificent and in 2014 was arguably at the height of his powers, albeit in the most uncompetitive Ferrari he’d driven. An enigmatic character, he absolutely believes in his own legend and has the need and ability to live up to it each time he climbs into the car. The most convincing facet of his many qualities has always been how much he can coax from a less than perfect car and unfortunately for him the F14T meant that skill was often needed. The way he got around the car’s many limitations, bullying its reluctant front end by manipulating the weight and somehow miraculously maintaining good momentum, chivvying the car onto its tippy-toes for lap after relentless lap, left Kimi Räikkönen dazed and out-psyched. The building frustration of feeling just how well he was driving as the competitive decline of the team continued meant he found it impossible not to verbally decouple his performance from that of the car – a trait that did not sit well with the management. His huge reputation meant any throwaway comments carried weight, creating waves that were not at all to Marco Mattiacci’s taste. For all his skills in the cockpit, Alonso doesn’t glue a team. He is eight points away from having five F1 titles and that would be a fair reflection of his standing, yet it’s feasible he will one day retire with just two.