Issue 2: Championship Contenders and Star Performers in 2014

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8 March 2014

Who’s yer money on?

If Bernie Ecclestone really wants to encourage the F1 drivers’ championship to go to the wire he should stop messing around with double points in the final round and ensure that the top drivers regularly fight each other for supremacy at the front. F1 is no stranger to single-driver domination – sometimes that is part and parcel of the sport – but F1 badly needs 2014 to be a competitive season. Bernie is right about one thing: F1 is and should be a drivers’ championship. People tune in and turn up to see the best drivers in the best cars battle it out. What would make 2014 a classic season would be regular lead battles between Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel. Those weekends have been too few and far between.

Vettel To Overcome Adversity?

One cannot help but be impressed by Vettel’s relentless consistency. Yes, he’s had the luxury of the best car since 2010 and probably the best (and almost certainly the best-funded) team behind him, but he’s taken full advantage and racked up 38 wins and 44 pole positions at Red Bull Racing. Yet, I have never found him that thrilling to watch. Vettel’s model for success – qualify on pole/front row, establish a lead of 2-5 seconds in the opening laps and control the race from there on in is a great strategy, but it’s not been entertaining. That he and RBR have made this strategy work so often makes them the benchmark in F1. There’s little doubt that Vettel adapted best to the driving demands of the 2009-13 era cars, maximising the effects of the exhaust blown diffuser in a way that team-mate Mark Webber never really achieved. Now that the use of exhaust gases for aerodynamic gain has been heavily restricted, the question is will Vettel be able to adapt so well again? My feeling is yes, not just because of his talent, but also because of his tenacity. Nevertheless, given the current state of the RB10, it will be refreshing to watch Vettel struggle for a while. Adversity really tests a world champion used to success. Just ask Fernando Alonso.

A Resurgent Alonso?

After two brilliant seasons at Renault in 2005-06, Alonso’s stocked dropped in 2007 after effectively being beaten by the novice Lewis Hamilton. He didn’t react too well. His stock recovered after superb performances in 2010 and 2012 in particular when he was able to transcend the technical limitations of his car and keep himself in the title hunt until the final round. Like Vettel, it is his ability to consistently deliver fast-enough laps in succession that sets him apart. But, as impressive a driver as Alonso is, the events of last season revealed increasing friction between him and the Scuderia, most notably around the Hungarian Grand Prix in July 2013. This year is surely make-or-break for Alonso at Ferrari. He can see his time at the pinnacle of F1 ticking away and with the return of high-performer Kimi Raikkonen, Alonso is not the only ‘team leader’ any longer.  He will surely adapt to the demands of the new powertrain, but if the car is not up to scratch (again) where will that leave him? The Ferrari driver may find that instead of chasing Vettel in a Red Bull, he is pursuing Hamilton in a Mercedes…

Hamilton’s Year?

Hamilton entered F1 with a bang in 2007. Few expected the novice to challenge a double world champion let alone almost win the title. Hamilton’s debut must surely go down as one of the most remarkable in the modern era. It is his sheer speed and ability to transcend an under-performing car that mark him out. Hamilton’s swashbuckling style and skills in close-quarter racing make him fantastic to watch. F1 needs drivers like Hamilton to ‘spice things up’. However, as quick as he is, Hamilton has been inconsistent in part due to off-track personal troubles, which were most evident in 2011. His choice to move from McLaren to Mercedes AMG F1 in late 2012 was criticised by many pundits, but McLaren’s disastrous 2013 campaign and his early form in testing indicates that he chose wisely. He will surely be a force in 2014. However, he will have to contend with a strong team-mate.

Hamilton vs Rosberg/Alonso vs Raikkonen

As much as I’d like to see Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton duel at the front, it is the intra-team battles at Ferrari and Mercedes AMG F1 that are the real mouth-watering prospects in 2014. I expect a close battle between Hamilton and Rosberg. Many pundits have said that 2014 will suit Rosberg better than Hamilton. Rosberg is indeed fast, consistent and by all accounts, an intelligent racer. I rate him highly and have done for some years. However, a couple of things suggest to me that Hamilton is likely to have a better time of it at Mercedes in 2014 than he did last season. Firstly, the W04 was not designed with Hamilton in mind. However, he will no doubt have had an input into its successor, the W05. Secondly, testing reports have indicated that Hamilton has experienced better braking feel with this season’s car compared to last year. This is significant because braking feel is very important to his ability to get the maximum from the car. However, it is at Ferrari that I expect real fireworks. The return of Raikkonen to the Scuderia presents Alonso with his biggest intra-team challenge since 2007. On his day, Raikkonen is more than good enough to beat Alonso, but would Alonso be willing to support Raikkonen if it was the Finn gunning for the title instead? Raikkonen will not care about Alonso’s desire for the sort of favouritism that he enjoyed when Felipe Massa occupied the second Ferrari. What’s even more intriguing is that both drivers have had a falling out with the Ferrari management recently and it will surely not take much aggravation to reopen old sores. Ferrari is not afraid of firing top drivers either having sacked Alain Prost in 1991 after he compared his Ferrari 643 to a ‘horrible truck’. Keeping Alonso and Raikkonen satisfied will be a significant managerial challenge for Team Principal Stefano Domenicali. Driver management will no doubt be a factor at Mercedes AMG F1 too. And this is one of the many areas where I think the team will miss Ross Brawn. Ross exuded nothing but calm authority over the pit-to-car radio in 2013. In the Malaysian Grand Prix, for example, Ross spoke and the drivers obeyed (unlike at RBR). This despite Rosberg’s pleas that he be allowed to pass the ailing Hamilton. Paddy Lowe – Brawn’s replacement – is no doubt talented, but Brawn had almost two decades of experience of managing big personalities.

Who’s My Money On?

I’ve so far inferred that the 2014 champion will either be driving a Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull. However, picking a winner is tough. Nevertheless, I’ll (cautiously) stick my head on the block and say Lewis Hamilton. I still rate him ahead of Vettel as the quickest driver in F1; he generally gets the maximum out of the car underneath him and he’s proven that he can adapt to fuel and tyre management demands. He’s also a world champion and in probably the best car in 2014. However, if one or more of the following developments occur I think it will hurt (but not necessarily end) Hamilton’s chances of becoming 2014 world champion:

1.Rosberg adapts significantly better than Hamilton in 2014 (entirely possible).

2.Ferrari produce a car as good as or better than Mercedes at Melbourne (testing would suggest they won’t, but Ferrari has been hard to read).

3. Hamilton suffers from further off-track personal troubles (who knows).

4. RBR and Renault F1 fix their reliability problems sooner than expected AND their car is about as quick or quicker than the Mercedes (I doubt this will happen before mid-season given the complexity of the cars).

5. The Mercedes is less reliable than their testing performances have shown (only Melbourne and beyond will tell us this).

The scenario I fear is that Hamilton and Rosberg (or Alonso and Raikkonen if Ferrari have got their act together) spend most of the season taking points of each other only for Vettel to steal the title at the final round. With RBR’s current troubles that might seem unlikely, but this scenario would not be unprecedented. In 1986, Williams drivers Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet fought a closely matched season-long battle with the best car at their disposal only for McLaren’s Alain Prost to snatch the title. RBR’s proven rate of in-season development and Vettel’s undisputed no.1 status in the team suggests to me that a run at the title later in 2014 is not inconceivable.

The Young Pretenders

Away from the championship battle, there are several drivers who I think will perform strongly. Nico Hulkenburg at Force India is fast and consistent and can mix it with the best as he showed in the 2013 Korean Grand Prix. Why is he still not in a top car? I rate Valtteri Bottas at Williams F1 very highly too. I first saw him race in-person in GP3 at Spa-Francorchamps in 2011 when he simply blew away the competition on his way to the GP3 title. His performances at Williams F1 last season suggest that that was no flash in the pan. Think qualifying at the 2013 Canadian Grand Prix, for example. Of the rookies, a lot has been made of Kevin Magnussen. McLaren reportedly assessed his simulator results to be significantly better than those of Sergio Perez last year and Magnussen’s winter testing performances created a buzz in the paddock. However, simulators and testing is one thing, racing another. Finally, although not a ‘young pretender’, what odds are there on a rejuvenated Felipe Massa in 2014? Freed from the pressure cooker at Ferrari and installed as the lead driver at Williams F1 in seemingly a strong car, the early indications are he’s in for a good year.

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