Season of change kicks into gear
Expect a lot of drama as most of the leading names in F1 venture into the unknown, writes David Kennedy
The 2014 Formula One season is all about change. But it's also about adapting to that change. The opening race in Australia this morning will give us a pretty good indication of who is prevailing in that delicate art.
The M word is a favourite on everyone's lips. Will Mercedes be masterful in Melbourne? Thanks to the introduction of the most radical array of technical rule changes in the history of the series, anything can happen.
Almost half a century has passed since the FIA binned 1.5 litre engines, doubled the maximum engine capacity and caused a revolution in the pecking order at the top in Formula One which helped seal the reputations of Jim Clark, John Surtees and Graham Hill.
Last year's 2.4 litre V8 engines, which produced 750bhp with another 80bhp available for six seconds a lap from the KERS battery systems, have been pensioned off and are being replaced by tiny turbo-powered V6 1.6 litre motors, mated with two extra energy recovery systems available throughout the race. This ERS contributes an additional 160 horsepower for a substantial part of the lap.
They're less powerful but way more energy-efficient, at least when they work. While Renault have had their problems, it appears Red Bull have contributed to the issues by not making proper allowances in their design for the heat they generate.
Just as 1966 was a new dawn for motorsport's premier league, 2014 is set to see a shake-up in the grid order in ways beyond the experience of all but the most venerable of F1 team staff. The FIA's desire to drag motorsport into a new era of ecological responsibility has led to radical new engine and ERS rules. Not everyone is up to speed.
Not in his wildest nightmares could Sebastian Vettel have imagined such a torrid winter testing programme as he and his Red Bull team have endured in preparation for the defence of the title.
Vettel's new Red Bull Renault RB10 barely left the garage all winter as his squad wrestled with the demands of trying to integrate their incredibly complicated new power unit into a chassis that design genius Adrian Newey had taken to the maximum and beyond. The new power unit regulations – calling them engines isn't enough anymore, they're that different – have caused headaches for every design team on the grid and not everyone has been able to solve some major issues.
Red Bull won't take long to close the gap although Vettel's 'unbeaten in a race since last July' record may well fall today. Daniel Ricciardo, who replaced fellow countryman Mark Webber, will relish performing in front of a partisan crowd.
Red Bull failed to manage a single race distance simulation in any of the three major four-day tests at Jerez and Bahrain, and have barely scratched the surface in tuning their car to the new aerodynamic regulations as they fought simply to get some laps done.
Their sibling didn't fare much better. Toro Rosso are left regretting the switch from Ferrari to Renault power for 2014 – at least for the time being – while their nearest challengers Lotus missed the first test in Jerez altogether and struggled to get running when they did appear.
They went closest of all to a trouble-free winter programme thanks to a power system that seems to tick the boxes for performance and reliability. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg are thus presented with a golden opportunity to deliver.
The battle between team-mates is likely to provide one of the most intriguing sub-plots. But they'll be up against stiff competition in the form of the unlikely pairing of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen.
The once-great Williams team haven't won a world championship since 1997 and spent 2013 languishing in the expensive anonymity of midfield but a judicious switch to Mercedes power and some radical surgery in the team engineering structure could be about to catapult the team to the front and possibly even into title contention.
Felipe Massa, ousted at Ferrari, has an excellent opportunity for instant revenge having replaced Pastor Maldonado and, partnered by swift Finn Valtteri Bottas, the Grove outfit have a quick and experienced driver line-up that could well deliver their iconic new title sponsor Martini a very early dividend not to mention a sweet cocktail of success. Poor old Maldonado must rue the number 13 he carries this season which seems to reflect his woes.
McLaren, too, endured a dreadful 2013, their first winless season in seven years and the first since 1980 when they have failed to score a podium finish. Back in 1981, Ron Dennis took over the reins of the floundering team and history repeated itself this winter as the McLaren boss returned from exile to oust team principal Martin Whitmarsh and breathe some life into his ailing squad. Eric Boullier, who worked miracles at Lotus last season, has been hired to assist in this task.
Jenson Button, one of the more astute drivers on the grid, has a new team-mate in Kevin Magnussen. The swift Danish hotshot will be hoping to make more of his McLaren opportunity than his father Jan did in a one-off outing back in 1995.
Can it really be getting on for eight years since Alonso's second title success? Back then it looked like the Spaniard would dominate F1 for years to come but his Ferrari team have failed to offer him the consistently quick machinery capable of offering a long yearned-for third title.
Alonso lobbied hard for the retention of Felipe Massa as his team-mate but Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo believes bringing their last title winner, Kimi Raikkonen, back into the fold will create the ideal spark to get the best out of everyone at Maranello. But critics say that decision would account for one of the reasons why 2014 may be Di Montezemolo's last with Ferrari.
Signs from testing suggested Ferrari lagged behind the Mercedes teams in outright pace but had enough reliability to accumulate points in the early races. A 19-race championship offers the well-funded teams plenty of scope for improvement as their engineering departments churn out upgrades.
That development potential doesn't extend to the power units, though, as the new rules dictate that the specification is frozen after winter testing ended. Some dispensation might be leveraged for the floundering Renault units but Ferrari and Mercedes are locked into their specification which, as it stands, looks to suit the silver arrows better than the prancing horse.
Of the other squads, Force India had a particularly strong winter thanks to a superbly efficient engineering structure, the must-have Mercedes power and final drive assembly, and drivers of the calibre of Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez. Wins are far from beyond the bounds of possibility for them.
Sauber have Ferrari engines but seem likely to wallow in midfield with Pastor Maldonado and Esteban Guttierez on the driving strength while Marussia's supply of Ferrari motors trumps Caterham's Renault's in the battle of the minnows.
There have been suggestions that the less powerful 2014 cars are less demanding to drive on the limit but the extra torque provided by the ERS systems combined with turbo lag not experienced by F1 drivers since the 1980s should quell those grumbles. In fact, the drivers who can match intelligence and experience with raw pace are most likely to prosper in F1 2014-style.
Drivers with a sensitive right foot and an ability to manage the dizzying array of systems on their steering wheel control units while steering their brutal beasts at sense-altering speeds will be the most successful and that is as it always was, and always should be, in the world of F1.
The latest grid of F1 cars are certainly ugly ducklings viewed from an aesthete's perspective, but they'll be elegant swans if they deliver the sort of drama that keeps the title in question all the way to Abu Dhabi in November. But, as we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Bernie Ecclestone is preparing to battle against incarceration as he defends charges of bribery and embezzlement in a German court in April. The trial is expected to last at least six months. F1 will lose its commercial compass as the 83-year-old is preoccupied elsewhere.
And finally, a thought for Michael Schumacher whose chances of recovery are still unknown. The seven-time world championship remains in a coma following his skiing accident. It's beyond comprehension that the man who dominated one of the most dangerous sports in the world for almost two decades, should be visited by such cruel fate and left in a limbo that's the stuff of nightmares.
Although in F1 it's 'business as usual', everyone is hoping he'll make a full recovery and return to the F1 paddock in a management job with Mercedes.
Sunday Indo Sport