March 9, 2015
The Circus is back in town: 2015 Formula 1 preview.
Winter is over, this week end F1 will be back after a testing period that turned out to be, shall we say... newsworthy? Maybe not all for the right reasons, discussing Fernando Alonso physiology mostly, but that helped disguise major issues the series will grapple with in the next couple of seasons.
2015 will see only nine teams on the grid. It may be 10 if Manor, the ex Marussia team, somehow shows up to be a moving chicane in Australia. As of today it's still not official or certain.
This is a problem. Teams have always come and gone from the series but there is something quite sad about just 18 cars on the grid of what is supposed to be the pinnacle of motorsport.
In the cat herding world of F1, some are calling for the Briatorefication™ of the series: who cares what the cars are, people don't know any better anyway. They just like shiny sponsor decals and drama. Ecclestone proposed just that, quoting Flavio in saying it's not about sport, it's about entertainment.
Flavio and Bernie might have a point, most fans spend quite a pit of time complaining about "boring races," and cars looking ugly and sounding like vacuum cleaners.
Bernie also raised a more interesting point about waste and it's a shot leveled at the FIA: the "green lie" of F1. Billions spent on developing hybrid engines while the series plants a carbon footprint comparable to a medium sized army traveling around the world.
On the other hand, there is little doubt the road car market has changed, almost every major sports car manufacturer has introduced the hybrid turbo models that are required to satisfy the marketplace's thirst for power while meeting ever more stringent fuel consumption and emission regulations.
There are marketing results as well, Mercedes has spent billions but it fundamentally changed its image in the last 5 years, from boring car of the middle aged to maker of bonkers, uber-desirable sports cars, often wrapped up in unusual shapes (like wagons).
It's no surprise then manufacturers are loath to take up Bernie on his "arrive and drive" spec car model. What manufacturers are afraid of is that the option of winning by investing more will be taken away. Bernie and Flavio go too far in that direction but it is the right direction, for entertainment, yes, but also for the sport.
2015 will also see more issues with classic race venues being wiped from the calendar. Already we have the German GP still not a definite this season but there is a real chance the Italian GP might be off the calendar in the near future. Business is business but can you imagine an F1 without the Monza crowd? I can't.
But forget all that for a moment. Friday will be circus time so let's take a look.
Mercedes AMG Petronas.
If you held out any hope for a wide open season after testing, forget it right now. Mercedes did not go for lap times for most of the session, they went for miles, lots of miles. They went for race pace and it was crushing and when, on the final day they slapped on the soft rubber and the qualifying setup, everyone sighed. Whatever they are putting in their engines, it's still seconds ahead of the field.
What could go wrong? Hamilton and Rosberg could get in each other's way again. Hamilton's contract negotiations could cloud things up. That's about it.
Hamilton is the heavy favorite to repeat.
Best of the rest? Certainly the team that made the biggest changes and the biggest step forward with the car in testing. New driver, new designer, new manager and, most important, a team that looks to have turned the page and looking forward to this new chapter.
As much as we loved Fernando, he had become an albatross around Ferrari's neck. Everything was about him and how Ferrari was holding him back. It's true Ferrari failed him, it's also true he never let anyone forget it. A coincidence the moment he's gone, Ferrari's performance picks up? Perhaps but the suspicion is that in five years he was never able to lead the team in the right development direction.
Ferrari has little to lose, the biggest risk is to Vettel if he were to be out shined by the same Kimi who had been comprehensibly trashed by Alonso.
Mercedes engine and a good chassis, Williams looked good in testing. My money is on Bottas to be be the leading force of the team. Massa has speed and experience but, Felipe "baby" still has that fundamental flaw of being a driver who is fast only when the car is right.
Difficult year for Red Bull: Newey is distracted, Vettel is gone, the team has blamed Renault for not producing a good enough engine while Renault is not happy with the return it's getting from F1 and is actively shopping for a team to buy. There is a bit of an identity crisis for the team.
Daniel Ricciardo was the breakout star of 2014 but he did so in relation to a demotivated and possibly distracted Vettel. He's a star but not yet on the level of a Hamilton, Alonso or Vettel so this in a way moves the team down a notch. Kvyat is nowhere near the natural, likable personality Daniel is. but he is fast. There might be some conflict there.
And now the bad news:
Toro Rosso is fielding two children, neither with any F1 experience. Sauber has two drivers with mixed minor formula results. Force India has two good drivers but no money, Lotus has Maldonado and McLaren has a car they have inexplicably not been able to successfully mate to a working engine. Add to it a star driver with amnesia and really they have nowhere to go but up.
Bring it on!