Severn Sport’s Formula 1 2015 Season Preview!

For the F1 fan’s out there, the equivelant of Christmas Day is nearly upon us: the season opening race in Melbourne, Australia. For as long as I can remember being a fan of F1, the Australian Grand Prix is the pinnacle of the season. Now you might say “surely it should be the last race where the Championship(s) are won?” Well no. Rarely is the World Championship decided on the final day of the season, instead the victor has already been decided 1, maybe even 2, races in advance. The end of season race is merely a formality that leaves a hollow feeling inside. But once it’s over and all the teams have packed up and gone back to the factory, you can start looking forward to next season in 3 months time! Now the waiting is almost over, so what better way to mark the occasion with (what I believe is) the first ever Severn Sport blog post about Formula 1! Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the inaugural Severn Sport Formula 1 Season Preview!

Team: Mercedes

Drivers: Lewis Hamilton (GBR) and Nico Rosberg (GER)

Constructor’s Championship prediction: 1st

This is the easiest prediction I’ve ever made. Mercedes were absolutely unstoppable last season, winning all but 3 of the 19 races (the other 3 were won by Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo who we’ll get to later) and setting a new Constructor’s Championship points haul record of 701. Hamilton and Rosberg finished 1st and 2nd on 11 occasions, an unbelievable achievement that Mercedes look like repeating this season. I can only liken the 2014 Mercedes car to the 2002 Ferrari, a car that saw Michael Schumacher finish on the podium in every single race. Unfortunately last season the Mercedes had some reliability issues otherwise I’m sure we would have seen a similar achievement from Hamilton or Rosberg.

If you’re hoping for a tight season this year then you can forget it. Not many teams have their own rivals describing their car as “Unbelievably quick… the benchmark… miles ahead… in a class of it’s own.” Perhaps it’s an attempt to lower their fans’ expectations for the forthcoming season, but those in the know who have extensively analysed every single detail of every single car until they’re blue in the face believe Mercedes could be as much as eight tenths of a second quicker than their closest rival. In Formula One that’s equivalent to approximately 3 years in human time.

F1 Testing In Barcelona - Day Four
Nico Rosberg has helped Mercedes dominate pre-season testing in Spain.

Team: McLaren-Honda

Drivers: Jenson Button (GBR) and Fernando Alonso (ESP)

Constructor’s Championship prediction: 5th

Oh how the mighty fall from grace. McLaren were once the powerhouse of Formula One, akin to the Mercedes of last year. The smart money was always on McLaren to do well. But in the last few years, it’s all gone wrong. Perhaps the new engine partnership with Honda will power them to a good season, erasing the memories of the past 2 seasons where McLaren only picked up 2 podium finishes (both in Australia 2014) and finished 5th in the World Constructor’s Championship. Given the build-up, the hype, the endless references to the glories of McLaren-Honda’s past, it was pretty astonishing to hear racing director Eric Boullier admit they may not be competitive until Formula One returns to the Circuit de Catalunya for the start of the European season in May. After all, it is not as if Honda did not have years to prepare for their entry into Formula One and a year to observe and learn from all the other manufacturers.

The reality is, McLaren-Honda need a miracle (cite: Brawn in 2009) if they are to avoid an ignominious start to their brand new (old) era. They’ve suffered a blow in pre-season testing with Fernando Alonso’s crash meaning that he has been ruled unable to compete at the Australian Grand Prix in 2 weeks time, meaning test driver (demoted from the role of number 2 driver last season) Kevin Magnussen will return to race at the track where he scored 2nd place on the opening day last season. Frankly though, this minor setback won’t make one iota of difference to an already doomed and fruitless McLaren-Honda campaign.

mclaren 2-15
Despite all the promise, the 2015 McLaren-Honda looks set to disappoint in the opening months of the season.

Team: Red Bull

Drivers: Daniil Kyvat (RUS) and Daniel Ricciardo (AUS)

Constructor’s Championship Prediction: 3rd

“Red Bull gives you wings.” Well one of the most successful Formula One drivers in recent time, Sebastian Vettel, obviously had too much of the stuff as he flew the nest to join Ferrari in the off-season. It’d be a massive blow for any team, to lose a four-time World Champion and I don’t expect it to be any different for the Milton Keynes based team. A return to the form that saw them win four World Drivers and Constructor’s Championships in as many years seems way off. The car hobbled in 2014 compared to previous years, powered by a Renault engine lacking in horsepower, energy-recovery efficiency and reliability, Red Bull is banking on upgrades and improvements from it’s friends in France.

Daniel Ricciardo, who stole all the headlines thanks to his thrashing of Vettel in his first year with the team, says he’s ready for his home race in Melbourne. He’ll just have to hope his RB11 is, too. With highly rated Russian youngster Daniil Kvyat moving up from Toro Rosso to replace Vettel, I wonder which Dan will be The Man. Unfortunately for both of them though, a target of just the 1 win probably seems realistic with the sheer dominance of that Mercedes.

red bull 2015
The Red Bull had a new look in pre-season testing

Team: Ferrari

Drivers: Sebastian Vettel (GER) and Kimi Raikkonen (FIN)

Constructor’s Championship prediction: 2nd

If, like me, you grew up watching Formula One in the early 2000s (the noughties, if you will), then you’ll know that the flagship team for the sport was Ferrari. Much like Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona are one of the main reasons why people watch football, Ferrari were one of the biggest reasons people tuned in to watch Formula One on a Sunday afternoon. They were the best team, with the best drivers, unstoppable. Those days are behind them now and they have failed to live up to their reputation in previous years, but the Italian giants can look forward to the new season knowing they have the best driver lineup behind Mercedes (who’s going to stop them though?). The beginning of this season marks the end of the Fernando Alonso era at Ferrari, which promised so much but ultimately failed to deliver the one thing that matters – a world championship. Vettel arrives hoping to emulate his idol Michael Schumacher, who joined a struggling team in 1996 and turned it into a dominant force in the early 2000s.

Things are certainly looking up for the Italians though. To use the words of Motorsport magazine’s Mark Hughes late last year:

“‘Oddly enough, despite all the catastrophe going on around the outside of it at the management level, they could just fluke into a good car next year because it’s the first of the James Allison cars, and the engine this year (in 2014) was deliberately configured to be small and concentrate on heat rejection for the benefit of aerodynamics. Now that’s turned out not to be the way to go. So there’s a big chunk to be easily found there. So they may well be…much more competitive.'”

Despite the apparent descent into chaos within Ferrari, there was still a good chance that the Scuderia could nevertheless produce a car that would allow it a conspicuous forward step in the competitive order, due to a combination of conspicuous power unit gain and this being the first car properly from the technical leadership of the extremely highly-rated James Allison, who reportedly was given complete control. And it appears that is exactly what’s happened as the famous red car was near the top of the Jerez test lap time leaderboard almost habitually.

On the power unit front the red team appears to have focussed on the things it was bad at last year – namely its power delivery and energy harvesting. It also appears to have clawed back the power deficit at least to the Mercedes of 2014 (there apparently is more to come from the engine too). And as well as reliability problems being rare out on track the car has looked the business, with the chassis’s own 2014 bugbear of a weak front end also looking largely resolved, the machine appearing consistently responsive and nimble through tight chicanes and elsewhere.

ferrari 2015
Um, the camera is over here lads!

Team: Williams

Drivers: Felipe Massa (BRA) and Valtteri Bottas (FIN)

Constructor’s Championship prediction: 4th

Williams Racing are another team, like McLaren and Ferrari, who were at the centre of some of the best years in Formula One. But where McLaren and Ferrari only got stronger, Williams were left trailing in the dust left behind. But last year it was good to see them competing for podium spots every race near enough, something nobody expected. Unfortunately a winning race weekend never materialised and going into 2015 it doesn’t look like it will this year either, but the proverbial underdogs finished 3rd in the Constructor’s beating the much better resourced Ferrari and McLaren.

Getting the jewel of the Mercedes power unit was a massive help of course, but then again the other Merc customers were nothing like as competitive. Claire Williams filled the apparent management void that had existed since Toto Wolff left. Pat Symonds was brought in and changed a lot – not so much in personnel but rather on how they worked. Before the car was being flooded with new pieces without much coherence, a habit which stopped. In typical Symonds fashion the operations were given heavy focus too; the team’s pit stops for example improved from being one of the worst out there to one of the best.

As for pre-season for this campaign, over the first two tests while the team hasn’t been troubling the tops of the times no one is worried on its behalf. Williams’ way is to leave the headline-grabbing to others when it doesn’t matter and instead get on with its productive work, just as it tended to do in Friday practice sessions last season. Both drivers look and sound quietly content. Its rivals consider Williams a conspicuous threat.

The consensus remains that Williams is in the thick of the fight of best of the rest behind Mercedes. Perhaps even that it leads it. On the meagre downside however, a relatively common criticism of the team last year was that there were occasions – Austria and perhaps Canada too – when a possible win was not grasped due arguably to over-conservative strategy. Given where the team had come from in a short space of time the approach was perhaps forgiveable. But onlookers will be less forgiving in 2015.

Motor Racing - Formula One Testing - Day 1 - Jerez, Spain
Valtteri Bottas was convinced that the 2015 Williams was a step forward from 2014 on the first day of testing in Jerez.

Team: Force India

Drivers: Sergio Perez (MEX) and Nico Hulkenberg (GER)

Constructor’s Championship prediction: 7th

Perhaps a few of us are guilty of not giving Force India due credit. Not that long ago when Vijay Mallya took over the team, and gave it its identity, it was back of grid fodder. Since then the team’s year-on-year improvement has been a near-constant – only the minor blip of its 2013 results spoil it slightly. And continuing this the 2014 season just passed was its best season so far under its current guise, with a record number of points, its first podium finish since 2009 and equalling its best ever constructors’ placing of sixth. We know that like Williams it benefited from the majestic Mercedes power unit (and in Force India’s case its gearbox too), but the Silverstone squad still ran ahead of the far larger and similarly-powered McLaren operation for much of the season, only slipping behind with four races to go.

Observers have been wondering for a couple of years or more the extent that the dramas of team owner Vijay Mallya’s other business concerns will impact negatively on the F1 investment. Last year moreover the money difficulties faced generally by teams in the bottom half these days became clear, and indeed it was Force India’s Deputy Team Principal Bob Fernley that was about the most vocal on the issue. That Fernley’s admitted recently to being in communications with Bernie Ecclestone about financial help doesn’t suggest a team in rude health either.

The 2015 car was delayed in running in pre-season testing and Fernley says the delay was related to a regulation change of having to switch to a single windtunnel, which they didn’t have access to until 1st of January, as well as ‘cashflow issues’ exacerbated by suppliers being made more nervous by Marussia and Caterham’s respective problems and requiring more of an upfront payment.

But when the VJM08 actually ran it became something of a case of panic over. The car functioned like a watch from its get-go, and did 77 laps on its first day and 158 on its second. Driver Nico Hulkenberg reported no problems, that it provided a sturdy and familiar base to work from, but also that the reliability from the off was a surprise to the team. So in this sense the team appears to have gotten away with its late start. It remains to be seen though the extent that it inevitably being at a lower point of its development curve impedes early results. Perez admitted at the end of testing that the team is ‘two steps behind.’

force india
Force India really need to hit the ground running in Australia and put all their financial woes behind them.

Team: Sauber

Drivers: Marcus Ericcson (SWE) and Felipe Nasr (BRA)

Constructor’s Championship prediction: 9th

Sauber will have an all-new line-up for 2015, but that is as much a reflection on the state of the team’s finances as a need to shake things up behind the wheel. Marcus Ericsson was offered a career lifeline just over a week after Caterham fell into administration and brings big money to the team often described as “the team that somehow manages to cling on.”

I don’t really have a lot to say on Sauber, other than it would be difficult for the Swiss team to have a worse season than in 2014, but in fact its Ferrari-powered C34 ran well in Spain, setting some headline times early on and working through a programme to ensure a better year.

Along with new recruit Marcus Ericcson comes Felipe Nast, who has run well in the ‘lower leagues’ of motorsport for some time now and has finally been given his shot with the big boys. Nasr has taken part in Friday practice sessions for Williams this year as well as securing a third-place finish in the GP2 championship and comes to Sauber with substantial backing from Banco do Brasil. It will be interesting to see the two drivers go up against each other, with Nasr coming to the team off the back of four wins in GP2 and Ericsson’s form taking an upward turn in his last few races for Caterham.

sauber 2015
New season, new colours. Sauber abandon last year’s gloomy grey livery for a much more vibrant colour scheme.

Team: Toro Rosso

Drivers: Max Verstappen (NED) and Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP)

Constructor’s Championship prediction: 6th

We know what most of us would say if we heard the name of Toro Rosso in a word association test. Red Bull’s B team. Where it tries out the latest eager things from its young driver programme. But over recent years the squad’s gradually becoming about more than that. The team has been growing, particularly over the last couple of years, and it has been doing so under the technical leadership of one of the most highly-rated guys out there in James Key. It is currently in the process of moving factories too to a larger, more consolidated, facility.

There have been some growing pains along the way, and last year there were a few more. The Toro Rosso cars were a fairly common feature in qualifying top tens, though the general view was that the team didn’t rack up nearly as many points as it should have done with that basis. Indeed on qualifying pace it seemed if anything quicker than the Force India, with what by common consent was a worse engine, but ended up with under a fifth of its points total (a mere 30 to 155). This was down to a variety of things, not least the Renault power unit not having the fuel economy of its direct rivals which of course included Force India, necessitating often a low power map in the races when petrol is rationed. Tyre wear and energy management on Sundays were problems too.

Yet as intimated the car was fundamentally a pretty quick one; its brake-by-wire thought to be among the best out there, while the reliability improved (but wasn’t perfect) in the second half of the year. And ambition clearly is there. Indeed team principal Franz Tost has stated the aim for a fifth place finish in the constructors championship in 2015. That sounds rather lofty, especially for one with a Renault unit which still appears behind the curve and indeed Toro Rosso hasn’t really set lap times in pre-season to suggest that it’s running with the top five crowd. But the promise is that there is more to come from the French unit. The STR10 for this year has impressed observers visually while the rate of development looks rapid too, given the team turned up to the second Barcelona test with a hefty aerodynamic upgrade, that Key said amounted to an ‘almost completely brand new’ car. It also throughout testing achieved mileage well beyond the A team, and both Toro Rosso drivers have race simulations in the bank. Toro Rosso looks well-placed to improve on 2014, perhaps considerably.

toro rosso 2015
Toro Rosso sticks with the same philosophy for 2015.

Team: Lotus

Drivers: Pastor Maldonado (VEN) and Romain Grosjean (FRA)

Constructor’s Championship prediction: 8th

The final team that will definitely line up on the grid in Melbourne are Lotus. Among the always-intense scrap for mid-grid placings between the second-tier teams, testing revealed plenty of evidence of the status quo this time round. Lotus is a far happier set-up, especially with the Mercedes engine bolted into the back of the E23.

Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado remain with the British team and showed signs of pace, consistency and reliability, despite missing some of the crucial early running at Jerez. Expect the team to banish its 2014 blues and be in the hunt for regular points, even if a decent haul of podium finishes, 2012/13-style, is too big an ask. Ultimately however, I don’t think that will be the case and another lacklustre season is on the cards. But hey, what do I know?

Motor Racing - Formula One Testing - Day 2 - Jerez, Spain
Lotus will try to put last season’s dismal showing behind them in 2015.

Plenty of good, bad and indifferent stories to conjure with then in the run up to the first race around Melbourne’s superfast Albert Park street circuit. From the roster of well-worn clichés it may be, but who’s done their homework properly will be revealed in the early hours of Sunday March 15.

Kelsey De Maria

@kjdemaria

kelsey@severnsport.co.uk

A reminder that there will be a new episode of the Sports Puncast tomorrow evening! (Friday 6th March) Also, check out the latest edition of Ryan Butler’s Sporting Lists on the website now!