The 2014 Formula One season has been one of the more interesting championships in the last several years. The balance of power has been shaken up by regulation changes and there is a new German king on the throne, at least for this season. It has been a year few would have predicted given the dominance of Red Bull over the past several seasons. How one engine developer can successfully cope with new developments while others can’t is remarkable and can change the sport in the blink of an eye.
Nonetheless, this season’s Formula One spectacle has provided a number of the usual storylines. Rivalries between teams hasn’t appeared on the scale of past seasons, replaced, instead, with an inter-team rivalry which has entertained us over a number of races. Speculation of cheating, questionable team strategies, rumors of team orders favoring a driver – these are just a few of the things we read and see on a yearly basis in respect to this massively popular sport. Love them or hate them, such characteristics are part and parcel of Formula One and help set it apart from other sports.
With just three races left in the 2014 Formula One campaign there is still the question of who will take home the Drivers’ Championship. There are 100 points up for grabs and there are three drivers capable of winning. Realistically, it’s down to the two Mercedes AMG Petronas teammates, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Their dominance this season has already handed Mercedes its first Constructors’ title in what is surely the beginning of a period of domination. In addition to Mercedes’ rise, there are a number of key points any fan should take away from this season. Barring some unexpected and crazy event in the final three races, the following looks at 10 of the biggest talking points to come out of the 2014 season.
10 The New V6 Engine: Good but Annoying
When the news got out that the 2014 cars were to be powered by a 1.6L turbocharged V6, reactions were mixed. Some people worried about the dramatic decrease in the size of the engines while others thought back to the turbocharged 1980s racers which faced very few restrictions. After the first few races of this current season, most people were united in hating the sound of the new engine. Rather than sounding like a swarm of angry hornets on crystal meth, we were greeted by a flatter tone with more bass. It was still the swarm of hornets, but they had been prescribed Prozac.
In all seriousness, the move to the smaller engine was made with good intentions by the FIA leadership. In trying to keep Formula One competitive, cost effective, cutting-edge and safe it was only a matter of time until the engines were changed. In comparison with the previous V8, the new power unit has two fewer cylinders, 0.8L less displacement, uses up to 60kg less fuel per race and weighs less overall. All of these ‘cuts’ have been compensated by the addition of a turbocharger and a more efficient Energy Recovery System which can boost power by approximately 160hp for small durations – twice as much as previous ERS systems. They may sound awful, but you can’t say F1 isn’t pushing engine development ahead.
9 Mercedes Dominating Everything
Before the 2014 campaign started, everyone was wondering who would have the best engine, the best chassis and drivers who could handle the new regulations. From day one it hasn’t even been a close fight as Mercedes walked away with the Constructors’ title and look set to tie up a 1-2 finish in the Driver’s Championship. Everything has gone right for Mercedes AMG Petronas this season. From the get-go, their PU106A power unit has outperformed anything the competition has. It’s faster, more fuel efficient and reliable. The chassis and suspension tuning appear to complement the new engine perfectly and make the car a real all-rounder out on the track, regardless of conditions.
Further proof of Mercedes’ dominance can be seen when you look at teams using their engine. Force India, Williams and McLaren are all doing relatively well this year. Mercedes-powered cars are leaving most of the Renault and Ferrari powered teams in their rear-view mirrors, which is further proof that the PU106A is a superior engine. It also explains why other teams are scrambling to push for a loosening of engine development regulations while Mercedes are happy to keep the engine freezing rules right where they are.
8 Renault and Ferrari Are Well Off the Pace
In the early 2000s, Ferrari dominated Formula One. Their engines were the best and it helped that they had a pretty good German driving for them. Then Renault came along and demonstrated they were up to the challenge. The two engine developers tussled over the next few years with Renault dominating the final four seasons of the V8 era, thanks in large part to another decent German driver. Then, with 2014, we all saw a literal example of the old going out and the new coming in. Up until then, most people knew Mercedes were good but their engines had only powered two constructors to the title in Formula One history. With the new 1.6L turbocharged power units, the balance of power has shifted dramatically, leaving the French and Italian engine developers scrambling.
Of the two, Renault have had the better season. A Renault-powered car has managed three GP wins. Before you get too excited, keep in mind that those wins occurred when Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes-powered car were either forced to retire early or start from the pit lane. Currently, Renault-powered Red Bull Racing sits second in the Constructor’s title which is a massive let down considering the four consecutive titles they took over the previous four seasons. Still, they appear better off than Ferrari who currently sit fourth and are fighting it out with Williams (a Mercedes-powered team) to get into the top 3. This prancing horse is definitely not fast enough to keep up with ze Germans.
7 Ferrari: Off with Their Heads
Rather than send the prancing horse off to the glue factory, those in charge at Ferrari have opted to bring in a lot of new specialists, engineers and designers in an effort to resurrect a tired pony and return it to the podium. Engine specialists from Mercedes and aerodynamicists from Red Bull complement some bigger changes at the top which include a president and chief engineer. All-in-all, it’s a bad time for anyone named Luca at Ferrari. Sergio Marchionne replaces the outgoing ex-president, Luca di Montezemolo. Ferrari’s head of engines and electronics, Luca Marmorini, also finds himself heading out the door. In April, Ferrari even got a new team principal with Marco Mattiaci replacing Stefano Domenicali. The icing on the cake is the departure of driver Fernando Alonso who is reportedly to be replaced by German and former Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel. With more axes falling and heads rolling than in the French Revolution, it’s clear Ferrari are making a real push to pull themselves out of the mud and transform the team back into a real contender in the near future.
6 Red Bull Racing is Human After All
It was bound to happen at some time. Maybe they underestimated Mercedes? Maybe someone threw some kryptonite in Sebastian Vettel’s cockpit? Regardless, if you only started watching Formula One this season it would be difficult to convince you that Red Bull Racing had just come off four consecutive Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships. Perhaps if a Red Bull driver was even close to the competition this season, it might be believable. At the end of last season, Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel won by 155 points over his nearest rival. Heading into the United States Grand Prix, Daniel Ricciardo and Vettel sit 92 and 148 points, respectively, behind leader Lewis Hamilton. Mathematically, thanks to the double points available at Abu Dhabi, Ricciardo can still win but it would require one of the most epic meltdowns on the part of Mercedes in the final three races.
5 To Freeze or not to Freeze?
In a season where a new engine was introduced and a particular team is dominating, it is unsurprising that the issue of freezing engine development is high on most teams’ agendas. Freezing engine development is nothing new. The 2.4L V8 which powered the previous generation of F1 racers faced a freeze in an effort to curb spending, restrict the use of exotic materials and keep the sport competitive. The logic seems simple – allow teams to spend and develop as much as they want and the ‘big’ teams will over-spend and create ridiculously fast and dangerous cars. The practice of freezing engine development has carried over into this season with the 1.6L turbocharged power units – albeit with some modification.
Currently, teams are limited to developing the 1.6L engine in the off-season only – something Ferrari (unsurprisingly) is desperately trying to change. This development is further limited by a system of points which teams can use to upgrade their cars. Each season sees a certain number of “upgrade tokens” made available for development. A team can choose from a variety of parts to develop further but must keep in mind that various parts cost a certain amount of tokens. For 2015, it is reported that there will be 32 tokens available with that number decreasing every year afterwards. According to the current rules, in the 2015 off-season teams can change up to 48% of 45 recognized engine components with that amount decreasing every year afterwards. Sounds good? While how much of the engine can be developed is limited, there is nothing saying how much money a team can spend during development. This has led many to argue that it’s a hollow regulation.
4 Despite the Shakeup, F1 is for the Rich
The leadership of the FIA is very public about making the sport of racing competitive and sustainable. This includes facilitating and encouraging smaller teams and developers to compete in Formula One every year. The fact is, we can sit and talk about regulations and “tokens” and development freezing until we are blue in the face – in F1, traditionally the teams which spend the most tend to do the best. Here’s a brief look at approximate budgets for several teams for the 2014 season:
- Red Bull: $530 million
- Ferrari: $518 million
- Mercedes: $318 million
- McLaren: $290 million
- Lotus: $200 million
- Williams: $190 million
- Force India: $95 million
It’s evident how the big teams compare to the smaller teams, yet, this season the whole formula is a bit off. Thanks in large part to the new engine regulations and Mercedes’ superior power unit, the team that spends the most doesn’t necessarily do the best. Yes, Mercedes AMG Petronas sits first, well ahead of its rivals with their larger budgets, but look at some of the smaller teams. Williams currently sit third in the Constructors’ Championship and Force India sit sixth, both using relatively small budgets which have been compensated for by a superior engine and capable drivers. That said, the big-boys will not sit idly by and one would expect the big budget teams to re-establish the balance of power in the near future.
3 Hamilton v. Rosberg: We All Win
A lot of fans can find a Formula One season with one dominant team boring, mundane or frustrating to watch. On paper, this season threatened to produce another one of those one-horse races dreaded by many. However, an inter-team rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg certainly made Mercedes’ on-track dominance a lot more palatable for all Formula One viewers. Rivalries add a real spice to racing as the jealousy, anger and rumors that inevitably come add an extra dimension to race day. It may not be in the same category as Schumacher-Hakkinen, Senna-Prost or Hunt-Lauda, but the Hamilton-Rosberg clash this season has added a great sub-plot to the 2014 season.
It all started with Hamilton telling Sky Sports F1 that he and Nico were not friends after the English driver was told not to pass his German teammate who went on to win the Monaco GP. From there, the media did its best to keep the rivalry fueled with rumors and speculation. Come the Belgian GP, it wasn’t needed. On lap 2 at Spa-Francorchamps, Rosberg put his front spoiler into Hamilton’s rear tire, resulting in a puncture which knocked out the Englishman. The story set the F1 world abuzz and required Mercedes Executive Director Toto Wolf to undertake damage control after post-race comments by Hamilton, Lauda and Rosberg were made. While the situation has cooled a lot since then, we all watch each race wondering if the rivalry will once again flash over into an on-track incident.
2 There’s a lot of Exciting New Talent Coming Through
This Formula One season has seen some teams struggle with the new regulations and traditional underdogs punch well above their traditional weight. Some teams, like Williams with a long history in F1, have almost been reborn and enjoy a strong place in the standings. Through all of this, new drivers and those who are often overshadowed by the ‘big’ names, have stepped forward to make a name for themselves. It’s a refreshing change, not because some of the bigger names are suffering, but because it’s always nice to see an underdog do well and get their chance to shine in a sport which can be difficult to break into. From Valtteri Bottas to Daniel Ricciardio, drivers who have spent a few seasons sitting in the shadows have now emerged as top-5 challengers. Kevin Magnussen and Daniil Kvyat, only in their early 20s, show that there is some real potential coming through the ranks. Toro Rosso’s Kvyat has even impressed enough that he has been selected to drive for Red Bull Racing in the 2015 season – a real achievement for someone who is just 20 years old.
1 Safety Can Not Be Taken For Granted
This current Formula One campaign marks 20 years since the death of Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian died after his Williams car went off the track and hit the wall during the San Marino Grand Prix. It was a weekend which also saw Austrian racer Roland Ratzenberger killed and Rubens Barrichello badly injured during qualifying. In a sport such as Formula One, safety can be as much reactionary as proactive, meaning it can often take a tragedy to bring about change. The FIA stepped in and altered the layout of various tracks to reduce speeds and improve notorious sections. Regulations for car designs were tightened and new protection for drivers’ heads and necks was implemented. The measures worked well and for 20 years not one driver of the Formula One Championship was killed during a GP.
The issue of safety and reassessing safety procedures was brought to the forefront again following the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Circuit in early October. The race took place during heavy rainfall as the result of a nearby typhoon. Following the crash of Sauber driver Adrian Sutil, a crane was used to remove the car. In a freak accident, Marussia’s Jules Bianchi hydroplaned in the same spot and flew off the track at around 100-110mph straight into the crane which was removing Sutil’s car. Bianchi suffered extensive head injuries and, as of writing this, remains in critical but stable condition in a hospital in Japan. Bianchi’s crash has led to a new investigation of safety and procedures by the FIA. Indeed, the weather, the crane on the track-side of the barrier and the allowed speeds under various flags are all issues being explored. Whatever the outcome, the Japanese GP has demonstrated that safety must remain high on the agenda, especially in a sport such as Formula One.