So, you should, by now, have a plan for the weekend. If you don’t have Sky, you will have to butter-up a chum who does. And if you haven’t cleared your diary for Friday, do so now. You will be up all night and therefore useless to your employer/teacher/partner/children. The F1 kicks off at exactly 01.30 GMT this Friday morning, and you will not want to miss it. We are, folks, less than 48 hours away from what might be the most compelling season of grand prix motor races in nearly 30 years. Here’s why.
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Ten reasons to watch F1 in 2014
It's impossible to have any idea of what will happen this season
Literally. People who should know reckon anything could happen when the lights go out at 06.00 on Sunday morning. Red Bull’s Christian Horner has said a Mercedes one-two by two laps is on the cards, Ferrari’s electronics supplier meanwhile believes it is possible not a single car will finish.
The new single-seaters (1.6-litre V6 turbos, with complex and vital energy recovery systems) are still bamboozling even the smartest minds in F1. Minds like Adrian Newey, who has yet to find a way to get Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel’s title-defending RB10 working reliably for any longer than 20 consecutive laps. And even the most reliable car - Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes W05 - is far from bullet-proof. In between the two, no team has delivered anything close to absolute reliability and speed.
The new cars need DRIVING
The reliability issues every team has suffered means the drivers are still actually learning how to drive these cars. And they are complex hybrids that deliver 60 per cent more torque than the 2.4-litre V8s, but need fuel-managing to deliver the parallel 30 per cent improvement in efficiency.
What we do know is that 500NM of torque is going to demand the kind of visible car control we have not seen in long time. Modifications to the rear wing and an exhaust exit way behind the diffuser means not only less downforce, but less heat around the rear of the cars, which in any case now feature smaller rear brake discs. Getting heat in to the rear tyres was a problem across the test. So that’s huge torque, less downforce and less grip. That means lots more sideways action. Which is a good thing.
Vettel won't be in any position to win (for a little while, at least)
Unless Red Bull are pulling off the bluff of the century, they are having deep problems with the new RB10. It’s a beautiful looking car as you might expect, but it seems Newey has taken too many liberties with Renault’s V6, and especially its requirements to cool the charge air.
Simply put, it runs too hot, hence the unedifying sight of the dominant team in F1 for the last four years cutting holes in the sidepods of its car during testing. As a team, Red Bull is some 3000km behind Mercedes, Vettel some 2000km behind Nico Rosberg.
Across its four teams (Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Lotus and Caterham), Renault is 10,000kms behind the Mercedes teams. Those teams and their drivers have run race distances and qualifying simulations, Red Bull isn’t even close. No wonder Daniel Ricciardo said this morning that a points finish is the best the team can hope for. Red Bull’s Helmut Marko meanwhile has described the situation as disastrous and suggested if the team didn’t sort it quickly, it could lose Vettel.
The new engines are straight out of science-fiction
There is nothing else out there quite like the new F1 power units. Pat Symonds, Chief Technical Officer at Williams, told us as much last week.
While we are used to seeing turbos replacing swept capacity in new cars from the likes of AMG, the so-called MGU-H (motor generator unit-heat) which converts heat energy from downstream of the turbo into electricity is almost unique. And vital. Without it, the new 1.6-litre V6s do not have enough four star (only 100kgs remember) to get to the end of the race.
The MGU-H drives through an evolved version of last year’s KERS unit, now renamed MGU-K. Together they can store the equivalent of 160bhp in the battery, which can be deployed over 30 secs each lap. But the MGU-H is considerably more efficient than that, and is effectively ‘always on’, driving through the MGU-K ensuring the ‘500bhp’ quoted for new V6s is more than a little conservative.
The new cars may be a little heavier at 690kg, but the powertrains have somewhere north of 700bhp. And they sound great. Not crazy like the higher-revving V8s, deeper and less piercing and, under braking, like nothing you have ever heard.
Qualifying will actually be exciting this year
Qualifying on Saturday, like the race on Sunday, starts at 0600. So you will have no chance to lie-in at all this weekend. And it will be the first time we’ll really get to see the pace and the relative pace of the 2014 field.
Fears from the first test in Jerez in January that the new cars were not fast enough were soon allayed when, in the second test in Bahrain, they were quickly on the race pace of the 2013 Grand Prix, and eventually less than a second off the pace of the pole lap. This, remember, with significantly less downforce at the rear (where there is no lower beam wing and absolutely no diffuser blowing) and at the front (where the wing is narrower). And Pat Symonds told us he believed teams were sandbagging in Bahrain, although maybe not as much as in previous years.
Best of all, the format for qualifying has changed to ensure Q3 - now extended to 12 minutes - delivers. Drivers will now start the race on the tyres they used in Q2, not Q3, and an extra set of tyres will be made available to the ten cars that make it through.
The big battle part one: Fernando versus Kimi
It’s been a long, long time since Ferrari had two world champions on its books. Over sixty years, in fact, since Alberto Ascari (1952 and 1953) and Guiseppe Farina (1950) raced together for the Scuderia. In recent years the policy has been to have an explicit number one, and when that number one was Michael Schumacher it certainly paid off: five back-to-back world championships from 2000-2004.
Since then there has been just one: Raikkonen in 2007. Famously, of course, Kimi proceeded to lose interest and was replaced by Alonso who, although he has come close, has not been able to beat Red Bull in four seasons. Ferrari, somewhat uncharitably, made it clear it believed Alonso had had his chance and rehired Raikkonen as equal number one. There hasn’t been a rivalry like this since Prost and Senna.
So far, the two have been able to keep out of each other’s way, Alonso having the upper hand in testing. This weekend however one will beat the other first in qualifying, then in the race. It will be fascinating to see whether Kimi can keep his motivation or Alonso his cool, should either find themselves behind…
The cars may look a little odd, but at least they're individual...
While we don’t think we’ll ever get used to the look of the latest Caterham, we’re not sure we’ll have to: plenty of teams are already making changes to their probosci.
In fact, we’re not as offended as we once were by the appearance of the 2014 F1 cars. The McLaren MP4-29 was always a looker and now it’s painted in Martini colours, the Williams FW36 is extremely easy on the eye. Red Bull’s ‘keel nose’ was an elegant solution, as was Mercedes’.
The Ferrari F14-T remains a little odd looking, but it is amazing how quickly we have become accustomed to even that. By the time you switch off on Sunday, we’re betting you won’t give a damn and will instead, like us, just be relieved there’s more than paint and race-numbers to tell the field apart.
The Williams comeback is for real. And sponsored by Martini
After eight days of testing in Bahrain (following on from four in Jerez) Felipe Massa recorded the fastest overall time of the winter; 1min 33.258secs, just under a second short of Nico Rosberg’s 2013 pole time. Team-mate Valtteri Bottas covered the highest number of miles of any driver across the second part of the Bahrain test. In fact, across the entire off-season, Williams’ mileage was beaten only by the Mercedes ‘works’ team.
It would seem switching to Mercedes (away from Renault) has proven to be just the latest in a series of smart moves from Sir Frank and daughter Claire Williams. There is a very real sense that the team might just be back where it was in the 1980s and ‘90s. With a technical staff re-built under the direction of Pat Symonds, some key hires including Massa and his former race-engineer Rob Smedley, and a proper budget thanks to Martini, Williams might just challenge at the very front this year. That would be a very welcome sight indeed, we’re sure you all agree.
There are three rookies in F1 this year. Swede Marcus Ericsson in the Caterham, Russian Daniil Kvyat in the Toro Rosso and in the McLaren, Kevin Magnussen. If any of them is going to make his mark on the sport, we think it will be Kevin.
Although the apparent pace of the McLaren MP4-29 appeared to fade as the Bahrain test dragged on, Magnussen’s willingness to rag from it every last drop of speed from the get-go was in no doubt: he ended up a second quicker than Jenson Button.
The real greats start proving it from the moment they get their break in F1: Prost, Senna, Schumacher, Vettel. Magnussen’s instant pace in the 29 car qualifies as proof, although he will need to show it over a race weekend, and can McLaren give him the equipment to do so? Unlike his predecessor (and potentially also his teammate), we think he might just have enough talent to score big even in a less-than-perfect car…
The big battle part two: Hamilton versus Rosberg
Although Lewis Hamilton did not destroy Nico Rosberg in 2013 by a margin that his retainer suggested, it’s interesting that it’s still Nico fancied for the win in Australia, not Lewis.
Sure, Rosberg took two wins to Hamilton’s one last year, but Lewis was surely on course to win the British Grand Prix until that tyre let go. And Hamilton scored five poles and 13 top five finishes, against Rosberg’s three and nine. Rosberg also has the reputation as the more cerebral and the more adaptive racer; he’ll find the car easier to understand, and dwell on ‘feel’ issues like the new brake-by-wire arrangement. Hamilton is the all-out racer, who famously struggled with Mercedes’ brake compound all last year.
But Lewis is also in the form of his life, having enjoyed a quiet winter skiing and growing his hair. He’s hungry, it’s seven years since he stormed on the scene in Australia, and he knows one world title is not commensurate with his talent. He might not get a chance like this again and he’s not going to let anyone, least of all Nico Rosberg, stand in his way.