Oz Grand Prix – What we now know

So the F1 season took flight today with the first Grand Prix of a 19 race calendar at Albert Park, Melbourne won by Nico Rosberg. While the race was interesting it wasn’t a classic (but definitely worthwhile viewing) but we like the teams have had some questions answered.

1. Mercedes are out in front

Mercedes would of had a 1-2 finish were it not for reliability issues with the engine of Lewis Hamilton’s car, Nico Rosberg calmly pulled away at over a second a lap on Daniel Ricciardo after the saftey car. Whether anyone can catch them up remains to be seen and pace will vary a lot race track to race track this season but the Silver Arrows is the car to be driving at the moment.

2. Red Bull aren’t as far behind but still have attitude issues

Daniel Ricciardo finished 2nd on the road but was disqualified after the team refused to follow FIA advice on the fuel rate being used in the car. While the meters have been troublesome all weekend the team failed to both change it on Saturday evening and to reduce their flow rate during the race on advice from the FIA. Sebastian Vettel had a sick engine and after managing 5 laps had to retire, however by lap 25 he’d left the paddock all together. Its a far cry from the man who famously took time during the off season to go and chat to people at Pirelli about their tires. However the car looks good and they seem to be in that front pack of McLaren, Ferrari and Williams.

3. Williams Pace is real

Williams would of finished better if Kobayashi’s brakes hadn’t failed at the first corner and ploughed him into Felipe Massa and if Valteri Bottas hadn’t tagged the wall causing the first safety car. Despite the Finn’s mishap he fought through the field to finish 5th after dropping way back showing the car is working well and should be competing for podiums this season.

4. McLaren are back on form

Despite a poor second test the McLaren looks to be on the pace especially in race trim were after penalties both cars would of finished on the podium. Kevin Magnussen looks right at home as an F1 driver leading home the effort from the Woking squad ending their drought of podium finishes.

6. Lotus are in deep trouble

If Red Bull surprised us with their reliability, pace and ability to catch up the Lotus team did the opposite. After qualifying plumb last and the car failing to go round corners at speeds the safety car would baulk at the team managed around 2/3rds of the distance in the race. They’ve still not completed a race distance with either car and have a heap of work to do.

7. Still no idea about the young teams

Failures brought an end to both Caterhams during the race and issues at the start hampered Marussia (with Chilton starting from pit lane and Bianchi starting 8 laps later). Qualifying showed us nothing more than they are faster currently than the Lotus – it may not be the dream move forward they were both hoping for.

8. The cars are more reliable than first feared

After all the doom and gloom and Jerez people were frantically flicking through the rule book to find out what would happen if no cars finished in Melbourne. However possibly aided by a cool Autumn evening only 7 cars succumbed to the new power plants (Massa retired from an accident with Kobayashi and Bianchi while counted here was still running at the end) leaving us with 14 classified finishers which in years gone by would of been considered high!

The F1 Rookies of 2014

With Formula 1 having its largest rule shake up in decades we expected many of the teams to retain their drivers for this season, however the silly season produced a game of musical chairs that left only Mercedes and Marussia with the same drivers as in 2013. The movement was prompted by the retirement of Mark Webber and Ferrari finally losing patience with Felipe Massa and hiring Raikkonen from cash strapped Lotus to try and improve their constructors standing. That said there are still 3 fresh new faces to follow this year over the 19 race calendar:

Kevin Magnussen

Kevin Magnussen the 2012 Formula Renault 3.5 series champion replaces Sergio Perez at McLaren to be the first rookie at McLaren since a certain Hamilton quietly joined in 2008. The Dane is the son of former F1 driver Jan Magnussen and has looked like he could certainly improve on his father’s career tally of 1 point. In testing the youngster has impressed many watching by jumping in the car and getting on with it, he could well prove to be a World Champion but its early days and the pressure is most certainly off.

However he has build a solid junior career and been with McLaren for a few years in their junior programme. He battled hard with fellow McLaren driver Stoffel Vandoorne (who finished 2nd and will race in GP2 this year) and Red Bull youngester Antonio Felix Da Costa (3rd) to claim the championship and has been richly rewarded. There were strong rumours that McLaren had tried to place him in a smaller team for this season but failed to find him a drive leading to them to dispose of Sergio Perez after a year and go for the young Dane in the main team. He will need to prove himself and quick to make sure he stays at Woking.

Daniil Kyvat

Many eyebrows (and spell checkers) were raised when Toro Rosso announced that Russian GP3 driver Daniil Kyvat would be joining the Red Bull junior team to replace the recently promoted Daniel Ricciardo. He was chosen over Antonio Felix Da Costa who was loosing his battle to beat the McLaren young drivers in Formula Renault 3.5 and Carlos Sainz Jr who was also racing in GP3. Both men had more experience but the decision may yet be vindicated as after his signing the Russian 19 year old romped home to the GP3 title in his rookie year taking pole, win and fastest lap in the last two feature races of the year and followed it up with solid drives in F1 tests/practices.

The more you look into the Russian you realise that he is a super talent and stands to do better than any of his country men before him in the premier class of motorsport but will he fall foul of the Red Bull curse? While the Red Bull young drivers program is a shining example of what to do to bring on young drivers the real question has always been is it the time to do it? The 19 year old has only had 4 seasons of open wheel racing under his belt none of which has been in a category that people consider to be the rung below F1 (E.G. GP2 or FR 3.5).

There’s great potential but I wonder if it will be a bit too much of an ask for him to jump from GP3 straight to F1, while Valterri Bottas did it he was nurtured by Williams with plenty of test outings. Kvyatt had just got his super license by Brazil last year.

Marcus Ericsson

Caterham is host to the final rookie of 2014, 23 year old Swedish driver Marcus Ericsson who was spotted when racing karts at 9 years old. The Swede wasn’t on any ones radar until Brazil when it popped up that he was talking to Caterham that weekend in the paddock. Ericsson has had average GP2 results with 2 feature wins (Germany 2013 & Belgium 2012) along with a sprint victory (Valencia 2010). His championship standings over the past 4 years show a steady improvement – 17th, 10th, 8th and 6th suggesting he possibly reached GP2 a little too early in his career. However a feature win in Spa aside there is very little to pick Ericsson out from the crowd so one would have to assume (and Caterham have alluded to it) that he brings with him a decent wad of cash.

He’s up against another driver who didn’t have a fantastic GP2 career in Kamui Kobayashi (Although he did win the 08/09 GP2 Asia Series), however the Japanese racer has shown that he has what it takes to overtake in F1 and is a strong fan favourite who has won his place on the grid through gutsy performances after Toyota pulled out leaving him without backing in 2010.

Unfortunately we’ve seen far too much of this driver selection over the past few years in F1, drivers with middling GP2 results but large wallets snapped up by teams to help fund them (and its always been so but just very so over the past few years). But at least this season Caterham have paired him with an established and popular name on the grid – hurrah!

F1 finishes Pre-season as we gear up for an interesting 2014

The tyre’s are cooling off in the pits and the lights are being shut-down at the Bahrain International Circuit as F1 finished its last day of pre-season testing before the first Grand Prix in Melbourne in two weeks time. The story hasn’t changed much during this second test in the desert with Mercedes powered teams all looking comfortable with Williams and McLaren both running their test engines past their mileage and into failures (this is useful to do as there are only 5 engines per driver this season so knowledge of how far they can push these new power plants is key). Ferrari look solid but with only 3 teams running the engines this year they are behind on mileage, but Marussia got up and running fairly well and were able to post competitive times alongside a good number of laps.

The real headaches are for the Renault powered teams of Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Lotus and Caterham – all of whom have suffered awful reliability and a lack of overall power during pre-season. Lotus have had to end every day early and Red Bull failed to complete a lap on Saturday with defending champion Vettel behind the wheel. The big question will be can any of them get their cars to last for 300km at full speed and even if they do these 4 teams are sorely behind on development work on their cars.

But none of the power plants are without their issues as all teams (Williams aside) have had serious failures during this test and the number of cars over the line in Melbourne could make for interesting reading. Historically we remember the season opener of being a low finishing race with a few drivers getting brain fade after the long break combined with cars that aren’t all sorted out. This hasn’t been the case since 2009 with the engine freeze meaning car internals have remained pretty static apart from tiny new gearboxes that were developed to get the rear as small as possible. Additionally Im really excited to see these new cars with the huge amount of torque they produce being raced in anger and the real possibility of drivers getting it wrong. Despite reports to the contrary I believe these cars will need better drivers to pilot them.

As for who is where its so hard to say, I think Mercedes are definitely pre-season favourites but Ferrari and McLaren have been keeping their cards close to their chest. Im pretty sure McLaren have spent most of this test doing simulator correlation work as they are the team that trusts the system the most. Furthermore if Renault sort out their issues I’d expect Red Bull and Lotus to be back up at the sharp end of the grid. Finally it will be interesting to see where Caterham and Marussia end up and whether they’ve managed to move closer to the performance of the established teams. The young teams joined in 2010 a year after the last technical overhaul in 2009 and never looked like catching the field and ended up taking pay drivers, doing battle with themselves and remaining pointless. Personally I would of liked to have seen the FIA tender for teams to join for this season so they don’t lose ground to the current field.

Switching to racing of the two wheel variety Ducati finally confirmed that they will be racing under the open specification for the 2014 season. Moto GP has modified the CRT class to become the main class named “Open” and have dropped the claiming rule. Teams entering bikes in this class will get 24 litres of fuel, 12 engines, 120 tires per rider for unrestricted testing (excluding tracks 15 days prior to their race weekend), softer tyres and no engine homologation but will have to run the spec ECU.

This leaves Yamaha and Honda as the only two marques racing their bikes in the newly christened “Factory Option” specification. This allows them to run their own software on the ECU but they will only get 20 litres of fuel, 5 engines which are now homolgated for the entire season, no testing apart from official in season events and no softer option tyre. Ducati have made the move to allow them to develop their bike throughout the season as they don’t have to freeze their engine for the year now.

However Magneti Marelli who make the new ECU hardware for the entire series previously made Ducati’s unit and there was quite a stir when a huge update arrived in Malaysia during testing. The update was so large and comprehensive that none of the teams ran it as they didnt have to work on their bikes and understand this huge new upgrade. Only thing was, the header to one of the files was labelled “Ducati Motor Company”. There’s nothing in the rules to prevent Ducati letting Magneti Marelli use their software as long as all the open teams get it.

But despite not using the upgrade Aleix Espagaro was consistently at the top end of the time sheets using his new open Yamaha bike. This likely prompted Ducati to make the switch seeing that riders could really be competitive using the open specification. The question now remains will Suzuki who are due to return next year enter in the open class (they delayed their entry this year to work on porting their software to the new spec ECU) or as a full factory entry. If Suzuki do choose to go open it could well be the death knell of the Factory Option as the open specification would have 3 full factory teams in their ranks (Aprilla and Ducati)