Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel will be chasing their fifth, successive, Constructors’ and Drivers’ Formula 1 World Championship titles in the 19 race season which begins in Melbourne on 16 March.
Here then, an analysis of the prospects of the 11 teams due to line up on the Albert Park grid for the 2014 season-opening Australian Grand Prix
Red Bull Racing (Renault)
1 – Sebastian Vettel (Germany)
3 – Daniel Ricciardo (Australia)
Vettel ended the 2013 season with nine wins in a row but a 10th in Melbourne already looks unlikely. Red Bull’s engine partners Renault have been beset by testing issues and the champions have done far less mileage than theirMercedes and Ferrari-powered rivals. Neither driver has done a full race simulation so far. Despite that, the car looks quick and has plenty of potential, but reliability will be key. Red Bull’s chances depend on how quickly they can fix the problems. Vettel will be even more the main man, with Australian Mark Webber departed and replaced by compatriot Ricciardo, who is quick but has yet to stand on an F1 podium. He must learn the ropes and score consistent points, if the car allows him to.
GP247 Prediction: Champions will suffer as a result of the lack of readiness of engine partner Renault, but once the problems are sorted they will be right up there winning races. Vettel versus Ricciardo will be interesting, the German will either trounce the Aussie into oblivion early on, or we will be treated to a great inner team rivalry. But this is Vettel’s team and they will be doing everything possible to bag a fifth title and that means throwing their significant resources at their predicament, while other teams can only hope that the resolution to their problems comes later rather than sooner. But the fact is that an F1 World Championship without an up to speed and potent Red Bull team cheapens the allure of the big prize.
Mercedes AMG Petronas (Mercedes)
6 – Nico Rosberg (Germany)
44 – Lewis Hamilton (Britain)
The early championship favourites. The driver line-up remains the same but there is change on the management side, with Ross Brawn relinqushing the Principal role and off fishing somewhere in the Scottish Highlands. Toto Wolff and Paddy Lowe are running the team in tandem. Mercedes should be setting the pace, at least in the early races, and have plenty of testing laps in the bag. Will Rosberg get the better of Hamilton? The German will be helped by a less aggressive style and strategic nous. Hamilton has raw speed and sheer talent in abundance but that may count for less in a ‘fuel-saving’ formula likely to reward smoother driving.
GP247 Prediction: Likely to be hard to beat early on in the season by virtue of their power unit being the benchmark early on in this new turbo era, while the W05 appears to be a solid race car. Most intriguing will be the Hamilton versus Rosberg contest, although they are friends and have been for some time, both going wheel to wheel in championship winning cars is likely to test that friendship to the limit. But one of them could well be world champion come the end of the year, the big question is which one?
Scuderia Ferrari (Ferrari)
14 – Fernando Alonso (Spain)
7 – Kimi Raikkonen (Finland)
Brazilian Felipe Massa has departed and Finn Kimi Raikkonen has returned, to form a line-up of champions, one of two ‘roosters’ in the same hen-house. The partnership will be watched closely for signs of sparks and disintegration. Ferrari have told both drivers that “the team must come first” but neither will be happy to be behind the other. The car and engine package has looked solid in testing but with plenty of work still required. Alonso, now in his fifth year at Maranello, is hungrier than ever for success. Ferrari are looking like title contenders again, car permitting.
GP247 Prediction: It’s been dubbed a relationship of Fire and Ice – by their own team. Arguably the biggest sideshow of the entire season will be the Alonso versus Raikkonen battle. Ferrari intend the pairing to deliver world titles, and their experience is probably the biggest factor in the thinking behind the decision to pair the duo. With a strong car they will win many races as there are no shrewder drivers on the grid, provided that they can survive in the red hot furnace that is Ferrari. At this stage Alonso is skating on thin ice at Maranello with much to do to patch up the damage done last year with his loose tongue – something that will not afflict tight lipped Raikkonen, who has been welcomed back like the prodigal son by the team whose last title was won thanks to him.
13 – Pastor Maldonado (Venezuela)
8 – Romain Grosjean (France)
There have been big changes at Lotus, with Maldonado joining from Williams to partner the established Grosjean while Principal Eric Boullier has jumped ship to McLaren. Expect plenty of frustration from Maldonado if the car turns out to be worse than the one he left behind in Grove. The team had financial problems last year which affected development and some key staff members have left. The new car has an innovative ‘split’ nose but the team have done less testing than others and are way behind on mileage. With money tight, it remains to be seen how Lotus fare as the season goes on, but they are likely to slip down the pecking order.
GP247 Prediction: Potentially the most volatile pairing in the history of Formula 1. Grosjean got his act together in 2013 and on several occasions was the only one to niggle Vettel. This is an important year for him to entrench himself as the team leader and score that elsusive first grand prix win. Maldonado needs to be calmed and Lotus have the credentials to reign in and tame drivers – Grosjean being a good example – if this can be done the Venezuelan is immensely fast and if he can temper all this with consistency he too will be a force to be reckoned with. If the headline grabbing E22 is anything like it’s predecessor, then the Enstone outfit could be celebrating wins this year. Now all they need is for Renault to get their engine to work properly.
22 – Jenson Button (Britain)
20 – Kevin Magnussen (Denmark)
The only way is up for former champions chasing their first constructors’ title since 1998 and back under the overall leadership of a even more serious version of Ron Dennis. Last year was dismal, without a podium finish in what was by any measurement their worst season since 1966. Button, feeling the loss of his ever-present father who died in January, is the most experienced driver in F1 and will be expected to lead the team and add to his win tally. Magnussen, 21, could be another Lewis Hamilton in the making. His speed is evident, the racecraft yet to be fully assessed.
GP247 Prediction: Big year for both veteran Button and rookie Kevin Magnussen. Button endured a torrid 2013 in the woeful MP4-28 and did not outshine Perez, although the latter got the boot. Magnussen is a Hamilton style McLaren protege who will be going for the jugular. Button will win this duel on the psychological front no doubt, thus the young Dane’s only real option is to outperform the 2009 world champion on track. An interesting contest which could be made more interesting if they have a race winning package at their disposal, which by all accounts – in the light of what was seen at Bahrain – they do.
Sahara Force India (Mercedes)
27 – Nico Hulkenberg (Germany)
11 – Sergio Perez (Mexico)
An all-new line-up of sorts, given that Hulkenberg is returning after a year at Sauber. The German is highly-rated but is physically one of the biggest (and heaviest) drivers, which could count against him. Perez joins after a difficult year at McLaren and has a reputation to restore. The Mercedes engine is a clear asset even if the car is no beauty. If top teams suffer reliability problems, then the podium should be within Force India’s reach, at least early on. A first win cannot be discounted, such is the degree of uncertainty about how the new regulations will pan out.
GP247 Prediction: Interesting pairing, although the prevailing ‘wisdom’ in the paddock is that Hulkenberg should make short work of Perez, but the Mexican knows that he is fighting for survival in Formula 1 and after his McLaren adventure will be a far more mature driver. Hulkenberg continues to mark time before a big team gives him a top drive and thus may struggle with motivation, raising his game only when seats appear vacant in the big teams. The Silverstone based outfit are long overdue a first podium, and this year with Mercedes power, it may well be in their destiny.
99 – Adrian Sutil (Germany)
21 – Esteban Gutierrez (Mexico)
A rookie last year, Gutierrez now represents continuity. Sauber will expect more consistency from him now. Swiss-based Sutil brings experience from Force India and is looking forward to the challenge after spending all of his career to date at one team. Money, or the lack of it, could be a brake on performance over the course of the year for a cash-strapped team that fought doggedly to stay afloat last year.
GP247 Prediction: Sutil is a typical F1 journeyman who has yet to prove that he has the credentials and talent to move to a big outfit, this year might be his last chance to impress. Gutierrez enters his second year at the pinnacle of motorsport and can count himself somewhat lucky to retain his seat. Although it must be said that the Mexican did come good towards the end of last season – his rookie year – and credit to Sauber for keeping the faith, but now the youngster has to deliver to secure his future in F1.
Scuderia Toro Rosso (Renault)
25 – Jean-Eric Vergne (France)
26 – Daniil Kvyat (Russia)
Kvyat has replaced Ricciardo and will attract plenty of interest as the most promising driver yet to emerge from Russia. Last season’s GP3 champion, the Ufa-born driver is as at ease behind the wheel as he is fluent in a range of languages. He’s still only 19 and definitely a talent to watch. Vergne missed out on the Red Bull drive and knows that he needs to showcase his talents if he is to have a longer-term future in the sport. The switch to Renault engines (from last year’s Ferrari supply) may not help him.
GP247 Prediction: Vergne was unlucky not to get the nod to be promoted to the Red Bull team, on our score card it was 50-50 between him and Ricciardo. Nevertheless the Frenchman has accepted the decision as the best one for him and he will now do what he has to do, and perhaps keep an eye on how Ricciardo does in the big league. Kvyat is an unknown quantity and a surprise choice by the team. With only GP3 and Formula 3 experience on his CV it will be interesting to see if the young Russian is the real deal, as many claim him to be. Renault power issues may be the ball and chain that hampers them too.
Williams Martini Racing (Mercedes)
19 – Felipe Massa (Brazil)
77 – Valtteri Bottas (Finland)
Williams are looking more and more like a team on the up following the switch to Mercedes power. And they desperately need that, having plumbed new depths last year with just five points on the board. Massa replaces Maldonado and is eager to show that he still has plenty to offer despite being eclipsed at Ferrari by Fernando Alonso. Former Ferrari race engineer Rob Smedley has also come on board and the experience of technical head Pat Symonds is starting to show. There are new sponsors and the tidy-looking car set the pace in Bahrain testing and chalked up plenty of laps. After scrabbling desperately for points in 2013, Williams could be back among the podium contenders.
GP247 Prediction: Many are predicting a Williams renaissance this year, and if Bahrain testing is anything to go by this outfit could well be upwardly mobile in 2014. Applause for perfect timing to ditch Renault and become a Mercedes powered team. At the same time Massa has chosen a great year to sign up with a team steeped in history, and is arguably in a good place to score his long overdue 12th grand prix victory. In Bottas the team have a solid young driver who has yet to have a decent piece of kit to allow his obvious talents to shine through. This could all change starting in Melbourne for the team which is third on the list of all time grand prix winners, behind Ferrari and McLaren.
17 – Jules Bianchi (France)
4 – Max Chilton (Britain)
A switch to Ferrari engines, inevitable after Cosworth quit the sport, is a big step in the right direction for Formula One’s smallest team. The line-up is unchanged, another bonus. Money remains extremely tight, however, and that will limit how much they can achieve in performance terms. A first point might just be on the cards if races prove as unpredictable and other cars are as unreliable as some fear they will be.
GP247 Prediction: It can be argued that Marussia have over-delivered in their short time in Formula 1. Although anchored to the bottom of the pack since their birth in 2010 as Virgin Racing, this year they have shown signs of a resurgence with their new car, relative to rivals who are struggling with engine issues. Retaining Bianchi and Chilton gives the outfit stability, and although shooting up the pecking order is unlikely, they certainly are looking a better option than their back of the grid rivals as they head to Melbourne, but truth is that back of the grid is where they will be jousting.
10 – Kamui Kobayashi (Japan)
9 – Marcus Ericsson (Sweden)
An all new line-up, bringing crowd-pleaser Kobayashi back to F1 while Ericsson makes his debut. Even the team admits that the car is no looker, but they need it to narrow the gap to the midfield runners if team owner Tony Fernandes is not to lose patience. Like all the Renault teams, they have had problems in testing but have in fact been the most reliable of the Renault crowd. A challenging season lies ahead but with more potential than in the past.
GP247 Prediction: Two new drivers, one a rookie in Ericsson and the other an experienced campaigner in the form of Kobayashi have to overcome what is a huge deficit in terms of pace thanks to Renault power unit problems. But even without these difficulties it is not easy to visualise these perennial backmarkers moving up the order. With team owner Tony Fernandes losing patience with back of the grid walks, this is a do-or-die year for the greens. (Reuters-GP247)
Subbed by AJN.