Issue 44: F1 2014 Season Review – Part 2 – Surprises of the Season and F1’s Rising Stars

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6 December 2014

This is Part 2 of my 2014 F1 season review. You can find Part 1 here.

What were the surprises of 2014? And who stood out as a potential future world champion?

3. Unrealised Expectations/Surprises of the Season

Cast you mind back to March 2014 and your pre-season expectations. Hamilton would out-qualify Rosberg. Of course. Sebastian Vettel will show Daniel Ricciardo how to drive a Red Bull. Naturally. Ferrari and McLaren will rise again in 2014. Seems reasonable. And engines would fail left, right and centre. Yes, it’s new technology and pre-season testing had been far from straightforward.

Many of us ‘knew’ the above statements to be true or at least almost certain to be true in 2014. I believed the first two without question. I also thought Ferrari would do better than they did. I was less convinced about the projected rate of powertrain failures because F1 engineers have a proven ability to solve technical problems fast.

Rosberg is quicker than Hamilton over a single lap

It’s surprising then that Rosberg scored 11 poles to Hamilton’s seven. There are multiple reasons for this: Rosberg simply did a better job in Q3, e.g., Abu Dhabi, mechanical failures prevented Hamilton from competing in two sessions, namely Germany and Hungary, and Hamilton made errors on key laps; Austria and Britain stand out. It might also be the case that Hamilton set his car up intentionally for the race on some weekends while on others, he was less than comfortable on the brakes, a key aspect of his speed. Then there was Rosberg’s ‘incident’ in Q3 at Monte Carlo, which ended any pole challenge from Hamilton.

In some ways, I was glad that Hamilton had to find a way past Rosberg in many races. We got to witness Hamilton hunt down and make overtakes to secure victories. It meant for compulsive F1 viewing.

A four-time world champion gets beaten by a new team-mate

Why didn’t Vettel beat Ricciardo? Surely there was no driver on the grid able to compete with a fresh four-time world champion. Step up Ricciardo. The Australian drove his heart out. I’ll come back to him later. Let’s focus on Vettel here. Why did he not live up to expectations? In short, it was his failure to adapt his driving style to the demands presented by this new breed of F1 cars that best explains Vettel’s failure to get on top of his car and on terms with his team-mate. The German struggled to get his RB10 into the corners in the way he had been used to in the days of the exhaust-blown floor. He also struggled with finding a good feel on the brakes due to the new brake-by-wire systems for 2014. And compared to his team-mate he was harder on his tyres. All of this added up to a big surprise. I thought he would be one of the drivers most likely to adapt to 2014. Yet, along with Raikkonen, Vettel was one of the strugglers. There was no questioning the German’s dominance in 2011 and 2013 particularly, but can he win in a car not designed by Adrian Newey and without the aid of an exhaust blown diffuser?

Ferrari and McLaren went winless for the first time in 34 seasons

2014 was significant for Ferrari and McLaren. Five years had gone by and no titles. This year was a chance to redress that, especially in Ferrari’s case. Like Mercedes, they were the only other team to manufacture their chassis and engine under one roof, a potentially big advantage. And they had plenty of cash and resources to throw at their 2014 car. While McLaren would in all likelihood be powered by the best engine. Well, 2014 was significant for these legendary teams: it was the first season since 1980 in which neither had won a Grand Prix. Staggering stuff given their past dominance. Why the failure (again)? There are the obvious reasons:

McLaren’s current aero department is clearly not up to the job of developing a championship-winning chassis. Ferrari’s problems with wind tunnel correlation in recent seasons have been well-documented too. While in 2014, Ferrari produced undoubtedly the worst engine, at least in driveability and fuel consumption terms. These grandee teams have been left trailing Red Bull and now Mercedes aerodynamically. But, I think these are symptoms of problems that run deeper.

There is something wrong with the way McLaren and Ferrari have gone racing recently. Sure, they have good people, but do they have enough of the best people? Is McLaren’s environment too corporate? Ferrari’s too political? Anecdotal evidence suggests so. However, Ferrari has always been political, but has won despite this. Moreover, Ferrari has been successful in F1 when producing road cars before, so it’s unlikely to be a divided focus that’s costing them now either. I think Mark Webber hit upon something last year when describing the reasons for Red Bull’s success. He said that Red Bull functions like a big Formula 3 team. Key decisions get made quickly by a handful of people at the top. As a result, Red Bull is nimble. They solve problems quickly. Could the same be said for McLaren with its matrix management structure and system-led approach or Ferrari with its politics and hierarchy? I doubt it. There’s no doubting Ferrari or McLaren’s racing ethos or heritage. But the way they go racing now is in question. Their route back to the pinnacle of F1 entails hiring more of the best brains as well as deep operational and structural change, if not some cultural change. That doesn’t happen inside a couple of seasons.

The power to succeed

Why didn’t more engines fail in 2014? At the first race, we were told that if half the grid finished it would be surprising. 14 out of 22 cars finished in Melbourne. Moreover, the data for powertrain and gearbox failures in races only shows a decline in failures throughout the season (see chart below), but with the hint of an upward trend towards the end of the season, as I predicted in Issue 27. This upward curve at the tail end of the season might have been steeper had we not finished with two fewer teams on the grid, despite Caterham’s participation in Abu Dhabi. I felt at the beginning of the season that the failure rate would initially be higher than in the previous V8 formula given that the teams were racing with entirely new technology. However, I didn’t expect the failure rate to be as high or remain high for as long as pre-season predictions had suggested because of the extraordinary ability of F1 engineers to solve reliability problems fast. Success on the track depends on it. The upward trend towards the end of the season is not surprising either given that the last of everyone’s allotted five powertrains for the year was going to be near the end of its life and some would fail under the strain. Some drivers such as Vettel and Daniel Kyvat were forced to take sixth unit.

Reliability

A privateer comes racing back

I will end on a positive surprise: Williams. What a joy it is to see them competitive again! They pushed Mercedes hard in qualifying in many races, famously securing the front row in Austria. And they were the only team to even vaguely challenge Mercedes on race pace, again they were within 10 seconds at the flag in Austria. They even beat a Mercedes (Bottas fended off Hamilton for second place in Germany). Who’d have thought it would be this good in March 2014?

The secrets of their success? Hire two great drivers, design a low-drag chassis that is also well-balanced in high-speed corners and of course, be powered by Mercedes.

If I had one criticism, it is that Williams didn’t make the best use of their car’s potential early on in the season; there were a few operational failures and the car tended to suffer from high rear tyre degradation. But still, a great year!

4. A Glimpse into Future Rivalries: F1’s Rising Stars

Which new or up-and-coming driver impressed you most in 2014? Of the rookies, Kyvat and Magnussen both put in reasonable, but not sparkling performances for Toro Rosso and McLaren respectively. What about Jean-Eric Vergne’s stellar end to the season? He deserves to keep an F1 drive, surely. Yet, none of these drivers strike me as future world title contenders.

However, one cannot fail to be impressed by Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas. They were top draw in 2014. They comprehensively out-raced their more experienced and illustrious team-mates. They were searingly quick and they produced some great overtaking moves. They are at the very least future world championship contenders if not champions in waiting.

Cold Steel

Move over Kimi, Valtteri is now the top Finnish dog in F1. Blink and you’ll miss Bottas he’s that quick. If you’re ahead of him on track, he slice right through you like a knife through butter. Bottas is one hell of a talent for the future. He is one of a few drivers I would happily pay to watch race live. This year, I went to the Italian Grand Prix instead of the British Grand Prix and in doing so I missed Bottas cut his way through the field at Silverstone after a poor qualifying. He was brilliant that day. What I like about him is his speed and racecraft, in particular his ability to overtake. It was at Silverstone that he made some of his best moves of the season.

Don’t get me wrong, in my praise of Bottas, I do not mean to overlook Felipe Massa. 2014 was surely his best season since 2008. He is rejuvenated after leaving the Scuderia. It’s great to see. However, he was beaten by a better driver over the season. Yes, Massa did have some bad luck, think Canada, but he also took pole in Austria and was on the podium in the final two races, finishing ahead of Bottas. However, over the season, Bottas’ average finishing position was 5.5 compared to 7.3 for Massa. The Finn clearly had the upper hand.

The Smiling Assassin

What one Australian couldn’t achieve in five years of trying, another Aussie took only a season to do: beat Sebastian Vettel. In doing so, Ricciardo greatly enhanced his own credentials and led many to question those of his team-mate. Behind that broad smile and chirpy exterior there lies a formidable competitor, gritty and determined. Those are two qualities that I admire most in racing drivers: fight and will to win. Ricciardo’s Hungarian Grand Prix sums up the value of these traits: the Australian made his first stop on Lap 23. A few laps later after falling to sixth place he said to his engineer: ‘We can win this race’. At the time, I thought, no way, you’re up against two Mercedes. But come his final stop, he was there behind Alonso and Hamilton and on fresher tyres. They couldn’t hold him off. The lead and the victory was his. And while the Australian was winning, his team-mate was spinning, rather awkwardly. Hungary summed up the contrast at Red Bull this season better than any other race.

Speaking of comparisons, Ricciardo managed to qualify on average in 6.2 position on the grid and finish on average in 3.7 position. This compared to Vettel’s average start position of 7.8 and average finish position of 5.0. A big difference. However, this doesn’t really show the manner of Ricciardo’s margin. Take Abu Dhabi, for example. Both drivers started from the pitlane. Ricciardo finished fourth, Vettel in eighth. But Ricciardo was over 30 seconds ahead of Vettel at the flag. Now that is impressive.

2014 was not just about the battle between Hamilton and Rosberg. It was the year that Ricciardo and Bottas truly announced themselves to F1.

Can’t wait for 2015!

@TheWheelspinner

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