Issue 13: Early Season Surprises in 2014

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7 May 2014

‘The value of (accurate) information is in proportion to how surprising it is’.

My boss is known to have uttered this sentiment on more than one occasion in the last couple of years. I agree with him. Well, on this point at least. The surprising, unexpected and unpredicted is almost always of value and is certainly interesting. So what has surprised about the 2014 F1 season so far? Five things stand out for me:

1. The over-achievement of Daniel Ricciardo

We all knew that the Australian was quick. His qualifying performances alone in 2012 and 2013 whilst driving for Red Bull’s finishing school, Toro Rosso, told us as much. Though, Ricciardo did not always convince with his racecraft as team-mate Jean Eric Vergne got the edge over him enough times for some pundits to conclude that Ricciardo was perhaps not the next Sebastian Vettel. However, Ricciardo has started 2014 with a bang. He’s proven his speed, consistency and shown he can fight his way up to the front (well, to best of the rest) from the midfield. He’s out-qualified and out-raced Vettel three times in four attempts. In Issue 2 on WheelSpinF1, I said I expected Vettel to enjoy undisputed no.1 status at Red Bull, but Ricciardo has waltzed in and turned that assumption on its head. Brilliant. That is what sport should do. The interesting question is why has this happened? The most obvious reason is that instead of over-performing in a midfield car, he now performs strongly in a front-running car, so his success is more apparent. However, that reason alone cannot explain why he has compared so well to Vettel to date. Judging from what I’ve seen of Ricciardo on track as well as his post-race comments, I think the answer comes in three parts:

(1) Ricciardo has been used to driving a car lacking in downforce and driveability. Now he’s driving a car that produces all the downforce in the world. That must feel great. It must also give the Australian the confidence that an F1 driver needs to push a car to its limits.

(2) He has the full backing of the entire Red Bull team. Something his predecessor did not enjoy.

(3) Vettel is toiling, which leads me to my second surprise of 2014.

2. The struggles of Sebastian Vettel

It all went swimmingly for Sebastian for a few years. His chief rivals (Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso) struggled in average cars. His team-mate offered only occasional resistance. He mastered the technique of maximising cornering speeds by taking full advantage of the exhaust blown diffuser and did it far better than anyone else. Then the rules changed. And the tyres changed. However, the greatest F1 drivers adapt. In Issue 2 on WheelSpinF1, I said I thought Vettel would be one of the first drivers to adapt to the new demands presented in 2014. Yet, that’s not how it’s turned out so far. On track, Vettel toils. Out of the car, he cuts a frustrated figure. However, he’s not even experiencing a bad car, like Hamilton and Alonso have endured. He’s just not yet got on top of a good car. Why is this? Trackside reports and public comments by Red Bull indicate that the German is struggling to get the front tyres to grip in the way he wants. As a result, Vettel has not been able to achieve the corner-entry performance he’s looking for. If this is the case, it will mean he does not have the confidence to attack the corners as he did in recent seasons. Some setup refinements at the front of the car by Red Bull together with the incremental addition of more overall downforce is likely to enable Vettel to push the car in future races. Nevertheless, the advantage that Vettel created for himself in maximising the exhaust blown diffuser better than the rest of the field is now gone. Therefore, driving to a level that the RB10 is capable of, rather than what its predecessors could achieve, will be critical if Vettel is to get back on terms with his team-mate.

3. The perennial under-performance of McLaren and Ferrari

They are iconic Grand Prix racing teams each with rich histories. One is a great of F1, the other a true legend. Together, they have won 403 races and 24 F1 World Championships. However, what’s surprising is that this season is now the sixth consecutive year where neither McLaren nor Ferrari have mounted any serious constructor’s challenge to either Red Bull or Brawn GP/Mercedes. Yes, Fernando Alonso offered a driver’s title challenge in 2010 and 2012 and since 2009 McLaren and Ferrari have won 32 races between them. So, it’s not that they’ve been unsuccessful. However, what is unavoidable is that they have fallen from the pinnacle of F1. This has happened to both teams before in the modern era; Ferrari from the mid-1980s until the late 1990s and McLaren in the mid-1990s. However, they’ve always responded, Ferrari more comprehensively than McLaren it must be said. 2014 was setup perfectly for Ferrari to return to the front: they were one of only two teams that would produce a powertrain and chassis under the same roof, they have one of the largest budgets and probably the best driver line-up. McLaren, although a customer team, would have what seemed to be the best powertrain on offer. Both have been left trailing again, especially McLaren.

What factors explain McLaren and Ferrari’s under-performance since 2009? Firstly, it must be remembered that Ferrari and McLaren were locked in a title fight right until the final race in 2008, which undoubtedly meant that their 2009 cars did not receive the requisite research and development time. However, ever since then, McLaren and Ferrari have always had a deficit to Red Bull, primarily. Given the freeze on engine development from 2009-13, the nature of the deficit has been aerodynamic. I think that Adrian Newey and Red Bull simply moved the aero development game on and neither Ferrari nor McLaren could catch them. Ferrari’s recent aero problems have been well-documented: a lack of correlation between wind tunnel results and on-track performance together with little evidence of aerodynamic innovation in recent seasons. McLaren at least innovated with the F-duct device in 2010, but each season after that McLaren seemed to use a different design philosophy to produce their cars, unlike at Red Bull where continuity in design was obvious and improved upon each season. In 2014, both the F14-T and MP4-29 are lacking in downforce, while Ferrari’s powertrain is reportedly heavier compared to the Mercedes and its components less well-integrated.

4. Daniil Kvyat

I’ve yet to mention the young Russian on WheelSpinF1. I’ll correct that oversight now. To say that he’s been impressive is probably an understatement. Although ‘K-Mag’ at McLaren stole the limelight in Round 1, for my money, Kvyat’s been top of the rookies so far in 2014. He’s brought his Toro Rosso car home in every race, scoring points on three occasions. This also included outracing and out-qualifying his more experienced team-mate once. Not bad for a driver with only four seasons of single-seater racing behind him (that’s two fewer seasons than Magnussen). Kvyat’s performance is even more impressive given that he is driving in the most technically complex version of F1 ever. This was supposed to be the year when experience counted for more. Not in Kvyat’s case. It’s early days of course, but Kvyat appears to have added consistency to his obvious speed on graduating to F1 in 2014. And in my view, that is a strong indicator that the Russian is the real deal.

5. Unreliability back in F1 in 2014. Not a bit of it…

In my first issue on WheelSpinF1, I said that I expected reliability to return as a performance factor again in F1 due largely to the complexity of the new powertrains. Mechanical failures – and plenty of them – were a given. However, after the first four races, it’s not really turned out that way. Yes, there have been more retirements or non-starters due to mechanical issues in 2014 (15) than in 2013 (6) and 2012 (8), but 15 mechanical retirements so far in 2014 is far fewer than had been predicted before Round 1. Some doom-mongers confidently told us to expect half the field (11 cars) to fail to finish in Melbourne alone. So, why has the reliability rate in F1 been better than expected? I think the answer is a combination of a couple of factors. Firstly, I wonder whether the three powertrain manufacturers designed their new power units a bit conservatively given the complexity of the technology. This would offer a greater chance of reliability. Of course, Mercedes has been at least one step ahead of Ferrari and Renault but then they spent longer in the research and development phase so perhaps could afford to be bolder. Secondly, and more importantly in my opinion, the high reliability rate witnessed in the early races is a function of the extraordinary capacity of F1 teams and their powertrain partners to deliver very technically complex products on time and operating largely as intended.

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