4 March 2014
F1 teams have just concluded the final test before the start of the new season on 16 March 2014.
Peering through the fog to determine the competitive order in F1 in 2014 has been harder than ever. And drawing hard and fast conclusions on relative performance solely on the basis of testing times is usually a mug’s game. There are simply far too many unknowns. Apart from the obvious – we have no reliable data on relative fuel loads of each F1 car when on track – we cannot say with much confidence whether any cars are running under the FIA’s minimum weight limit, what engine maps teams are using on a given run and new for 2014, we do not know whether teams are using the maximum power output from the turbo and energy recovery systems. Judging by the number of problems Renault F1 has had since the first day in Jerez, they have probably not turned up the wick on their powertrain. Mercedes and Ferrari, on the other hand, are more likely to have done so.
However, too many caveats make for rather dull reading. So, at the risk of being a ‘mug’, here are my observations on what has transpired at Jerez and Sakhir in the last few weeks:
1. The Mercedes-powered cars and the Mercedes works team in particular are strong contenders to perform best in Round 1. Mercedes-engined teams (Mercedes AMG F1, Williams F1, McLaren and Force India) have completed the most mileage with generally the fewest number of known reliability problems. In Jerez, for example, Mercedes AMG F1 showed it could run reliably in a benign environment and in Bahrain the car ran almost as reliably but in hotter conditions, which bodes well for the more extreme temperatures of Malaysia. In 2014, reliability is an indicator of performance, unlike in recent seasons when reliability has hardly been a factor because everyone was reliable. In the early races, finishing at all is more likely than ever to be rewarded with points. However, even Mercedes AMG F1 cannot be completely confident of reliability as their gearbox problems at the final test highlight. Nevertheless, they look quick. Of the other Mercedes runners, it is Williams F1 who is showing promise; they have completed the highest number of testing miles (3040) bar the works Mercedes team (3090), but with fewer reliability issues than Mercedes AMG F1.
2. Red Bull Racing is in trouble. Some in the Twittersphere have suggested that the team is sandbagging. Don’t buy it. Firstly, RBR has had little chance to hide performance given their limited track time (only Lotus and Marussia completed fewer laps in testing). Secondly, sandbagging simply doesn’t make much sense in a new formula with the most complex powertrain in F1 history. Mileage is critical. Mileage enables engineers to locate and solve technical problems and confirm whether results from wind tunnels, computational models and the real world correlate or diverge. RBR’s difficulties with overheating components have combined with Renault F1’s software problems to produce a highly unreliable car that cannot run on full power. That the RB10 is overheating is not a huge surprise. For all Adrian Newey’s genius, his uncompromising approach to the aerodynamics of an F1 car requires an aggressive approach to components packaging, which increases the risks of overheating and damage due to vibration. In their earliest iterations, previous Newey designs such as the Red Bull RB2 in 2006 or the ill-fated McLaren MP4-18 in 2003 have suffered similar overheating/cooling issues. Moreover, the Renault powertrain reportedly requires more cooling than either the Mercedes or Ferrari powertrains compounding RBR’s problems further. The upshot is that RBR is going to struggle in the early flyaway races when bringing new parts to the car is harder as the teams are further away from their bases of operations.
3. Works teams have the advantage over customer teams. Mercedes AMG F1 and Scuderia Ferrari have covered greater mileage than their customer teams and appear to be ahead in relative performance. Williams F1, however, might be the exception to this rule. That the works Mercedes and Ferrari teams have the advantage over their customers in 2014 is not a surprise. For example, McLaren and Sauber, as customers of Mercedes and Ferrari respectively, have had to adapt their designs and crucially, aerodynamic packages, to the space and cooling requirements of these power units. Mercedes AMG F1 and Scuderia Ferrari, on the other hand, have been able to integrate their powertrain and chassis designs from the start, which has set these teams up to cover significant testing mileage and will likely pay dividends in early races.
4. After seasons of near irrelevance as a performance variable, testing showed that engines – or powertrains – are back. It’s refreshing that the pre-season commentary and on-track action has focused on powertrains instead of on fast-degrading tyres or the latest aerodynamic tweak as has been the case for too long now. Tyres and aerodynamics will of course still matter, but the spectacle will only benefit from the return of power as a performance variable. A string of reports over the winter have indicated that Mercedes may have a power advantage of between 75-100bhp over Ferrari and Renault respectively. If that’s even half true, it’s significant. It makes the prospect of a Williams or Force India even overtaking a Ferrari- or Renault-powered competitor on the straights without that odious driver aid DRS a realistic one. Furthermore, following their apparently successful race simulations in testing, Mercedes AMG F1 must be confident that their powertrain can produce this power output and meet the fuel flow rate restriction of 100kg per race. I am glad that powertrains were homologated on 28 February 2014 and that an extension was not granted as proposed by Renault F1 (apparently). Why should Renault receive this get-out clause? Mercedes and Ferrari appear to have done a better job than Renault, so they should be rewarded for it, not have their competitive advantage undermined by a last-ditch regulatory change.
The Big Unknowns
The true relative performance picture is the biggest unknown. In particular, the actual difference in lap time between each team. How far ahead is Mercedes AMG F1, if indeed they’re ahead at all? Is the team from Grove about to stage the most dramatic of comebacks? What a story that would be. Is the RB10 as quick as some of the pundits in Bahrain have suggested or is it ‘not fast enough’ as Vettel stated bluntly? What about the Scuderia? Ferrari’s true pace has been hard to read following a low-key testing programme with little or no low-fuel running. Alonso’s public comments have suggested he is unconvinced about the car, but pre-season driver comments are probably not the most reliable of indicators. Throughout their illustrious history, Ferrari has always been about engines, so they should be in their element in 2014. However, they have less experience of hybrid powertrains than Renault and Mercedes and it’s been a while since Maranello has produced any remarkable technical innovations. The recruitment of James Allison and Dirk de Beer from Lotus F1 last year will surely help and they have the best driver line-up of any team in 2014, but we will only know where Ferrari truly stands come Melbourne. The final big unknown that will influence the course of the season is the point when Renault and RBR fix their obvious unreliability. Past experience suggests that Newey manages to cure overheating components quickly and I imagine that the RB10 will be more or less reliable by mid-season. Renault F1 is perhaps a different story. Whilst powertrains are now homologated, changes can be made on the grounds of cost, reliability or safety. However, recent reports suggest that Renault F1 is short on engineering resources following a downsizing a few years ago. Depending on the scale of the problem and given the complexity of the powertrain, it’s not inconceivable that they could spend the rest of 2014 catching up with Mercedes and Ferrari.