2015 Formula 1 season preview

Formula One has had no trouble in producing the headlines over the winter break, with many of them negative.

Among them is the continued ill-health of Jules Bianchi, with details of his recovery scarce.

Then there is the ongoing scenario at Sauber, where the Swiss team have somehow managed to hand contracts to three drivers with only two seats available.

It is greatly ironic that “sauber” is the German word for “clean”. This is a situation that could be called anything but clean.

With pay-drivers Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr announced as their two drivers and having appeared in all three winter tests, there seemed to be no issue.

However, along came Dutch test driver Giedo van der Garde to haunt the Sauber team.

Van der Garde had been offered a contract with the team for a 2015 race seat, for which he would pay several million pounds.

Then, Nasr and Ericsson came into the fray and offered more money than van der Garde and Sauber quickly snapped them up, abandoning the Dutchman and employing the newcomers.

Van der Garde took his case to a Melbourne court ahead of the first race and he won the right to drive for the team in Australia, with Sauber also failing in an appeal against the initial ruling.

To cut the legal jargon short, if Sauber do race with Nasr and Ericsson they will risk contempt of court – which would lead to several larger ramifications.

Of course, this is all rather embarrassing for a team run by Monisha Kaltenborn, who has a masters’ degree in International Business Law.

It is thought that van der Garde will replace Ericsson, if Sauber comply with the ruling, as Nasr’s sponsors are splashed on the entirety of the new car.

So, while the situation at Sauber is unwelcome, messy and off-putting there has also been a serious success story.

The saving of the Marussia team by Steven Fitzpatrick, boss of energy firm Ovo, has captured the attention of F1 purists.

To see a small team pull itself free from the quagmire of administration is the kind of positive story F1 needs.

The Fitzpatrick-led rescue of Marussia has seen the team renamed ‘Manor Marussia’ and they have quickly appointed British driver Will Stevens and Spanish youngster Roberto Merhi to race for them in 2015.

Fans should not expect too much from them, though. Although they have modified their 2014 car to comply with the 2015 regulations, they have had no time to test and develop the car.

That means the first four races will effectively be test sessions before the Spanish GP in May allows the team to fully unleash the 2015-spec car.

Moving on to the title battle for this year, there is only one team in with a chance of winning.

Mercedes have again crafted what looks to be the quickest car on the grid, with the only question surrounding which driver will win the world title.

Last season Lewis Hamilton romped to 11 wins in 19 races and it is in race trim where his team-mate, Nico Rosberg, must seek to improve if he is to turn his superior qualifying pace into victories.

Behind Mercedes the trio of Red Bull, Ferrari and Williams look evenly matched.

Red Bull had an inconsistent pre-season but they still look fast and in Daniel Ricciardo they have arguably the most aggressive racer on the grid.

Williams have looked very good on low-fuel runs and will need to cash in and score podiums to avoid a repeat of 2014 where it took them until round eight in Austria to clinch their first podium despite having the second-quickest car.

But it is Ferrari who appear to have made the biggest stride forward in performance.

The Italians have worked hard on increasing their engine power and newcomer Sebastian Vettel has indicated that the car is good to drive, with team-mate Kimi Raikkonen echoing his observations.

Behind that cluster of three, Force India and Lotus look like top ten regulars with the latter benefitting from a switch from Renault to Mercedes power in 2015.

Lower down the order, Toro Rosso, who are running with 17-year-old Max Verstappen and Formula Renault 3.5 champion Carlos Sainz Jr, will be gunning for points ahead of the troubled Sauber and reincarnated Manor Marussia.

Finally, we have McLaren.

Great hope spread throughout F1 that the team would be back to winning ways after signing a deal with Honda to rekindle their successful partnership of the late 80s and 90s.

Yet, the reunion has been an unhappy one with continued, niggling power-unit problems seriously restricting the running of the car during pre-season testing.

We know that Honda will get themselves sorted, it just remains to be seen if they can do so quickly enough to challenge the front four teams.

Added to the disappointing problems was the head injury to Fernando Alonso after a 134mph crash at Barcelona in the second test.

Alonso lost consciousness, sustaining concussion and amnesia, and later took the mature decision to miss the season-opening Australian GP. Kevin Magnussen, dropped for 2015 in favour of Jenson Button, will ironically deputise for Alonso.

Negative stories aside, we should be treated to another compelling year of racing between the Mercedes drivers and a tight battle behind them between three pretenders to their crown as world champions.

It’s Mercedes vs. Mercedes.

It’s Lewis vs. Nico: The second chapter.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Sebastian Vettel – A true F1 ‘great’?

Formula One drivers come and go. Some may win races but most won’t. Others shrink into obscurity after a career spent hidden in the midfield. But there are an elite few, those who are recognised as ‘greats’.

Undeniably, after clinching a fourth consecutive title following victory at the Indian GP – his third in succession – Sebastian Vettel now joins a pantheonic group of F1 drivers who are freely regarded as ‘great’.

But sadly this historic achievement, for a significant proportion of F1 fans throughout the world, is being devalued with claims that he has had it all too easy during his short but illustrious career.

True, the 26-year-old has benefitted from an Adrian Newey-inspired Red Bull car for the past four seasons.

Red Bull’s rise from midfield runners to all-conquering world champions has coincided with a change in regulations in 2009 that mixed the ‘normal’ grid up.

The struggling Honda effectively forfeited their 2008 season, concentrating on the 2009 regulations and inventing the ingenious double diffuser.

Despite knowing the potential of their cars, the Japanese giant pulled out of the sport citing high costs and sold their operation to Ross Brawn, who promptly guided the rebranded ‘Brawn GP’ to a world championship double, with Jenson Button taking the drivers’ championship.

Since then, Newey has worked his magic, developing the Red Bull cars into a force so strong they have swept away all before them. It has been a Vettel stampede across the subsequent four championships.

To undermine Vettel’s ability during this period though, is to flirt with grave ignorance.

F1 bosses had long been aware of the German’s potential ever since an astonishing performance in 2004, when driving for Mücke Motorsport in the German branch of Formula BMW.

His team was not the fastest in the championship, but that did not stop the immensely talented Vettel winning 18 out of 20 races. To underline his brilliance he finished second and third in the two races he didn’t manage to win, amassing a staggering 20 podiums.

In fact, that title remains the last drivers’ title that Mücke won, further illustrating just how special Vettel is.

These are not the achievements of a man who has zero ability, or who would later rely on a superior car to win four F1 world championships. Moreover, it was a telling sign of the domination that was to come.

After progressing to Formula Three in 2005, he drove a so-called inferior car to fifth place in the standings, before earning the F1 test driver role with BMW Sauber in 2006.

The following season, Vettel was leading the Formula Renault 3.5 Series – a platform to F1 – when BMW driver Robert Kubica suffered a huge crash at the Canadian GP, sustaining concussion and forcing BMW to promote him to a race seat in the next race.

In another sign of his talent, Vettel qualified seventh and finished eighth, scoring his maiden point in F1 at the first attempt.

Four races later he replaced Scott Speed at Toro Rosso. The Italians, Red Bull’s sister team, were perennial backmarkers but Vettel took an outstanding fourth place finish at the Chinese GP.

This convinced Red Bull enough to place him in a full race seat with Toro Rosso in 2008, where he again surpassed expectations.

Bouncing back from four retirements in the opening four races, he took the slow Toro Rosso to five points finishes before a breakthrough moment set his career on a fast upward curve.

A wet Monza qualifying session was the stage on which Vettel needed no second invitation to demonstrate his capabilities. He surged to pole position – the first of his career and, to date, the only one during Toro Rosso’s short time in F1.

On race day, his achievements rocketed even higher. Despite his lack of experience and a wet start to the Grand Prix, he showed extraordinary skill to guide his Toro Rosso to victory.

It was the type of lights-to-flag win that would become gut-wrenchingly familiar to his opponents over the next five seasons.

He went on to finish eighth in the 2008 championship, ahead of established names such as Rubens Barrichello and Jarno Trulli.

Red Bull came calling after the retirement of David Coulthard, and suddenly Vettel was winning races again.

In a season where Brawn were dominant, Vettel managed to outperform team-mate Mark Webber to take second in the championship behind Button. He took four victories in amongst a total of eight podiums.

His record since then is scary.

He has won 31 times more, taking his career race win tally to 36 – the fourth-highest ever.

With 43 pole positions, he has started over a third of the races in his career from the front.

He has also been on the podium 50 times in his four title-winning seasons, recording 59 in total.

That means that of the 117 races he has started in F1, he has been on the podium in 50.43% of them – a mind-boggling display. Additionally, over 30% of those races have been victories – hardly an example of a driver who relies solely on his car.

These are the kind of statistics that remain unchallenged in modern F1. Nobody even comes close to the achievements that Vettel has carved out.

His meticulous approach to everything F1, including a unique visit to the Pirelli tyre factory, is a trait of a winner, a champion with a fierce desire for success – and success he has grasped.

It is clear that his unpopularity this season largely stems from the ‘multi-21’ incident with Webber in Malaysia. The team had instructed the drivers to respect track position after the first pit stop, but Vettel relentlessly chased the Australian – who had dialled his engine power down – before passing him for victory.

Webber, himself a popular figure in the paddock and with fans around the world, was incensed. Nevertheless Vettel, although sheepish in victory, displayed a ruthless streak compatible only with that of a champion.

He has since been booed on the podium during victory, something which has been on the wane in recent races – particularly in India where it was perhaps non-existent and if not, inaudible.

Unfortunately, the fans have also attacked the sport because of his dominance, claiming it to be boring – whether that would be the case if ‘greats’ Fernando Alonso or Lewis Hamilton were to have been as dominant is extremely unlikely.

His driving style may be win at all costs and some may frown upon that, but out of the cockpit he is as personable and friendly as they come. His cheeky and fun personality is always engaging and makes him a wonderful ambassador for the sport.

It is doubtful too whether the steadfast Alonso or the cocksure Hamilton would show as much humility as Vettel has done in the wake of four consecutive world championship triumphs – if they even get there.

Vettel’s record alone is worthy of the ‘greatness’ tag. Add to that his almost limitless talent and ability – displayed with crushing victories in junior and senior formulae – and you have a driver who should unquestionably be lauded as a true F1 ‘great’, joining names of the calibre of Schumacher, Fangio and Senna.

He really is that good – and the scary part for his opposition is that he is improving all the time. Are title numbers five, six, seven and eight feasible? For Vettel, anything is possible – and with the talent at his disposal, it is entirely probable.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Vettel vs. Webber – A volcanic F1 rivalry

Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber have long been intense rivals at world champions Red Bull, but now it seems Formula One’s most high-profile rivalry has erupted again after a spell of dormancy.

As with most volcanic activity there is heat, poisonous smoke, and a history of violent eruptions – a perfect metaphor for the Vettel/Webber rivalry.

The compelling Malaysian Grand Prix was the latest explosion where Vettel, who was mindful of the 25-point advantage he would gain over title rival Fernando Alonso following the Spaniard’s early retirement, overtook Webber in a gripping wheel-to-wheel contest with just over ten laps remaining.

Webber had twice been assured by the team that the win was his. This resulted after a team meeting on race day which stipulated that the driver in front after the final pit stop would pull rank over the other. Vettel seemingly ignored that discussion.

Instead he showed a hunger which threatened to destroy the team’s 1-2 position in the race to pass Webber for the victory and incur the wrath of the Australian and, on the surface at least, his team.

The fight between them has intensified in recent seasons, as reigning world champion Vettel has romped to three consecutive drivers’ titles with Red Bull claiming successive constructors’ crowns in the same period.

It is, without question, the German’s team – and how Webber detests that fact.

Red Bull veteran Webber and Vettel first clashed when the then 20-year-old German, driving for sister team Toro Rosso in his debut season in F1, smashed into the Australian under safety car conditions in the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji.

Webber had been second at the time with Red Bull (a small team back then) primed for a hugely valuable podium.

Vettel was third in his slower Toro Rosso in monsoon-like conditions, and was caught out by leader Lewis Hamilton’s erratic driving behind the safety car, embarrassingly clouting Webber from behind and ending both their races.

It prompted Webber to say in a post-race interview to ITV that, “It’s kids isn’t it, kids with not enough experience. You do a good job and then they fuck it all up.”

The straight-talking Webber later criticised Hamilton, also in his debut season, for his “shit” driving behind the safety car.

Webber was hurt by the incident, and three years later those old wounds were to be opened again – in even more dramatic fashion.

Now team-mates at Red Bull, Webber and Vettel were pushing hard for a win in the 2010 Turkish GP under increasing pressure from the McLaren duo of Hamilton and Jenson Button.

With Vettel getting a tow on the long back straight he swept to the left of Webber, drew alongside and then veered across him before the braking phase into the following hairpin, causing a high-speed crash which punctured his tyre and forced Webber to stop for a new front wing.

The gleeful McLarens took a straightforward 1-2 while Webber took third with Vettel retiring from the race with irreparable damage. Team boss Christian Horner and chief designer Adrian Newey were in utter despair after that inter-team crash, but another incident was shortly in the offing.

In trying to reassure Webber that Vettel was not their favoured driver, Red Bull gave the Australian an updated front wing for the British GP later in the season.

Only one model of the front wing was built but, when Vettel damaged his old-spec wing, Red Bull took the decision to take it off Webber’s car and give it to Vettel.

It was a call that served to infuriate the Australian, but he would have the last laugh as he romped to a superb victory before relaying the infamous “not bad for a number two driver” message to his team on the cool-down lap.

The spotlight was firmly on the duo’s battle and in the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi the conspiracy theorists were again out in force.

Webber entered the race behind leader Alonso in the standings, with Vettel in fourth and also within reach of the title, but he had qualified poorly and showed a lack of race pace.

Red Bull decided to use the slow Webber as a decoy to fool Alonso’s Ferrari team into covering his every move – and after a tactical pit stop they resumed in traffic on a track with notorious overtaking difficulties.

Vettel sailed off into the distance and took the title from Alonso – and Webber.

Few could have argued that Red Bull had nailed Vettel’s colours to its mast that season, and the old war resurfaced in the 2011 British GP when Webber, eagerly chasing the German down, was told to “maintain the gap” to Vettel in second.

Webber ignored those veiled orders, in much the same way as Vettel did today, and continued to race his colleague to the final lap.

By now the Australian seemed determined to race for himself, utterly disgusted by Red Bull’s favouritism towards Vettel beneath their public affirmations of neutrality.

Vettel went on to take the title with four races remaining, and later took his third drivers’ crown at Brazil in 2012 – but with little help from Webber.

Vettel collided with Bruno Senna on the first lap and worked his way up to take sixth – a position good enough to deny Alonso the title – but later said that Webber did little to help him.

It has been alleged that the incident in Malaysia today was revenge for that perceived lack of help, but the fact remains that Webber has backed off at the team’s behest to conserve Vettel’s superior racing positions on numerous occasions over the past few seasons.

With Webber’s past obedience to such orders in mind, Vettel’s overtake will sicken Webber further.

Will the Australian enter into a similar situation with no trust of his team-mate and look for retaliation? Will their rivalry spiral into another catastrophic crash? And can Red Bull regain control and authority over their drivers?

All these questions remain unanswered, but for now the focus will be on Formula One’s most captivating rivalry and the tremors that will continue to rumble from Mt. Red Bull in the coming weeks.

Alonso the Alchemist: 2013 F1 season preview

Formula One cars are ugly – that is, before they are painted in their respective liveries.

Their skeletal shell is one of carbon fibre – a substance resembling a black synthetic cloth.

Had Fernando Alonso, in his carbon fibre Ferrari, actually pulled off his amazing assault on the 2012 F1 drivers’ championship, he would literally have turned his beastly car into gold – becoming an alchemist in the process.

So slow had the Spaniard’s scarlet machine been in pre-season testing, few had given him hope of getting into the points on a regular basis.

That Alonso led the drivers’ championship for much of the season, until the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel finally overhauled him, shows what a fierce competitor the man from Oviedo is.

This season, testing has flowed rather more smoothly for the Italian marque, and the hope is that they have finally given Alonso a car capable of exploiting his exceptional talent from the first Grand Prix in Australia this Sunday.

In theory, if Alonso had the ability to push a faster car all the way to the final race last season, he should be able to win it in a car which is vastly better than one year ago.

Formula One is never that simple though.

The ‘Prancing Horse’ will have to hurdle the imposing obstacle of Red Bull, who have fatally gored their opponents for the last three years to establish themselves as the dominant team in F1.

Their ‘lead’ driver, Sebastian Vettel, will be hunting for a fourth consecutive drivers’ title, and in Mark Webber he has a team-mate who is capable of winning any race on his day – despite the in-house nepotism built around his young colleague.

In McLaren, Alonso will also have cause for concern. The British team have elected to start afresh for 2013, rather than evolve a car that finished 2012 as the fastest on the grid.

Their thinking behind this move is that the new car will open up a new path of development which the old car lacked – and should their calculations materialise they will get stronger as the season wears on.

Despite losing Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes, McLaren have a powerful line-up, with Jenson Button and newcomer Sergio Perez both likely to excel in an era where looking after the delicate Pirelli tyres is key.

Then there is Lotus, a team who arguably conceive the most inventive cars on the grid. Having been pioneers of the tricky passive DRS system, the team based in Enstone is rumoured to have mastered it – a potentially crucial advantage in the race for the title.

Their driver line-up, of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean, remains unchanged for 2013 and their target of third in the constructors’ will depend on Grosjean’s ability to rid himself of the costly first-lap crashes that blighted his comeback season last year.

Mercedes too, seem to have made a step forward. Their car finished ‘fastest’ in pre-season testing – however the headline lap-times are to be taken with a pinch of salt as fuel quantities, setups and a number of other variants are religiously hidden by the teams (there is little way of knowing which car definitively looks quickest at this stage).

The addition of Hamilton also helps the German giants in their quest to bridge the gap to the ‘top four’, while his team-mate Nico Rosberg faces what is widely reckoned to be a career-defining season.

Aside from the top five teams, the midfield battle is microscopically close. Williams appear to have evolved their race-winning 2012 car into what is debatably the sexiest on the grid.

The sometimes maladroit Bruno Senna has been replaced by Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas – who outpaced 2013 team-mate Pastor Maldonado in several FP1 sessions last season – and the team certainly look ready to score consistent points.

Sauber and Force India are joined by Toro Rosso in the midfield race, with the latter looking likely to make a notable step up in performance from 2012, where they languished within the clutches of backmarkers Caterham and Marussia.

Sauber will hope that the exciting all-new partnership of Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez can bring instant dividends to a team that finished on the podium four times in 2012, while Force India need to improve on a season which was hallmarked in underachievement.

Scottish driver Paul di Resta is joined by Adrian Sutil, who returns to the sport following a one-year lay-off as a result of a GBH conviction, and their instant aim for 2013 is to score a podium finish.

Caterham and Marussia, meanwhile, have each brought in two new drivers as they try to stay afloat in Formula One’s money-guzzling environment.

Marussia were most visible in pre-season testing for their employment of ‘pay-drivers’ rather than their pace, as Timo Glock and Luiz Razia both lost contracts due to a lack of sponsorship – Razia rather more unfortunately so because of a last-minute U-turn from his financial backers.

They are replaced by British rookie Max Chilton and Ferrari academy prospect Jules Bianchi, whose rich reputation very nearly landed him a drive at Force India.

Caterham, like Nico Rosberg, face a defining season in the sport. Consistently finishing fastest of F1’s newest teams they have threatened, and failed, to catch the midfield and earn their first world championship point. If they are to show signs of progression their driver line-up of Charles Pic and rookie Giedo van der Garde must score that elusive point to keep their sponsors interested.

With testing indicating very little about what shape the grid will take in Melbourne, a unanimous verdict would be to say that the pack of 22 cars looks closer than it has ever been in recent seasons.

In that type of situation, the most consistent team and driver will usually come out on top to win the respective championships – an observation which favours F1’s resident alchemist Alonso.