It doesn’t quite seem possible that it’s been almost four months since Formula 1 2013 disbanded for the final time. Yet the 2014 season is upon us as the paddock gears up for the first race of the year around the streets of Albert Park in Melbourne.
It’s the first of 19 rounds that encompasses some of the classic circuits, including Monaco, Silverstone, Spa and Monza, as well as the return of Austria and the introduction of Russia. The 11 teams from 2013 remain, each fielding two drivers eager to be unleashed in Australia.
Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel heads to the first round of the year undefeated in almost eight months of competition. Vettel’s extraordinary 2013 form means that he arrives in Australia searching for an unprecedented tenth successive Formula 1 victory, but edging into double figures is an improbable proposition. Red Bull has struggled across pre-season testing due to overheating problems in the RB10, which is exacerbated by Renault’s issues with its power unit. The retirement of Mark Webber means the Australian baton is passed to Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, who is set for a busy weekend at his home event.
Only a fool would write off Red Bull and Vettel, but the gauntlet could pass to Mercedes. The Silver Arrows have had a productive pre-season campaign, with customer teams McLaren, Force India and Williams all enjoying spells at the top of the leader board. But it’s the factory team who is best placed heading into the season opener. The big question is not whether Mercedes will have an advantage, but how large the gap will be to their nearest rivals.
That’s not to say that Mercedes will have it all their own way. Williams, now sporting the iconic Martini livery, has shown superb pace with the FW36 both across short and long runs. Force India and McLaren appear to be behind, but cannot be ruled out. There’s also the tantalising question of Ferrari’s position in the pecking order. Its power unit has not shown as strongly as the Mercedes, but they’ve had a quietly productive if unspectacular pre-season.
But even possessing the fastest car isn’t a guarantee of success. Formula 1 has become accustomed in recent years to witnessing only a handful of cars retiring per race. The formula this year is brand news, with several teams suffering problems pre-season. The length of time being taken to fix issues in testing suggests that some teams could miss entire sessions if problems arise. It’s not inconceivable that not all 22 drivers will line-up on the grid this weekend. Teams will learn as the year progresses and finishing rates are likely to rise, but for now some predict that the number of classified runners this weekend could be in single figures. The last time this happened was in 2008 but before then it was much more common, so ignore claims that low finishing rates will be a farce. If there are few finishers, it presents a golden opportunity for Marussia and/or Caterham to claim their maiden Formula 1 points. The reality is that no-one knows how the weekend will pan out; the strategists will certainly earn their money. The optimum strategy for the past three years has been to get out of DRS range and promptly save tyres – but what will be the best approach in 2014?
But why is this the case? Well, Formula 1 has undergone significant technical changes. 2.4 litre V8 engines have been abandoned in favour of 1.6 litre V6 power units which not only sound different but present teams with a new challenge. They feature kinetic energy (MGU-K) and heat energy (MGU-H) saving devices with the power units capped at 15,000 rpm. Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault are the three suppliers. There are eight-speed gearboxes, narrower front wings and appendages on the front of the car courtesy of the lower height of the tip of the nose. But by far the biggest challenge for the race will be fuel management. Drivers must now complete the race on 100kg of fuel, a significantly reduced figure due to the aim of increasing fuel efficiency. The focus is likely to switch from tyre saving to tyre management, although rubber - as always - will be important. The greater torque means drivers may still be getting wheelspin in fifth gear, so tyre preservation, especially the rears, will still be vital. Formula 1 tyre supplier Pirelli anticipates two or three stops will be possible in Australia and drivers will now have to adhere to the new 80km/h pit lane speed limit, a reduction on 20km/h from 2013.
This will also be the first race to feature amended sporting regulations. Drivers will now carry specified numbers across the remainder of their careers, with the #1 reserved for the reigning champion. There have also been tweaks to the qualifying format; Q1 has been reduced to 18 minutes while Q3 has been extended to 12 minutes. In order to avoid drivers preserving their tyres and sitting out the final shootout, Q3 runners will now begin the race on the tyres which they set their best Q2 time. Drivers now face penalty points if they transgress and if they amass 12 points then they will be slapped with a one race ban. Stewards are also able to hand out five second time penalties for minor transgressions.
There also significant driver changes as only two teams - Mercedes and Marussia - will field the same line-up as in 2013. Ricciardo has joined Vettel at Red Bull, while Kimi Raikkonen joins Fernando Alonso at Ferrari. The Finn's place at Lotus has been filled by Pastor Maldonado, while erstwhile Ferrari racer Felipe Massa has teamed up with Williams. Sergio Perez has sought refuge at Force India, alongside Nico Hulkenberg. Adrian Sutil has replaced Hulkenberg at Sauber while Kamui Kobayashi returns to the sport with Caterham. Three drivers will line-up on the Formula 1 grid for the first time in Australia. Formula Renault 3.5 champion Kevin Magnussen makes the step up with McLaren, while GP3 champion Daniil Kvyat has joined Toro Rosso. GP2 winner Marcus Ericsson will partner Kobayashi at Caterham.
Drivers will complete 58 laps of the 5.3km Albert Park street circuit on Sunday, with the winner collecting the usual 25 points. As in 2013, there will be two DRS zones along the pit straight and between turns two and three. There will be a single detection zone on the entry to turn 14. Five-times Le Mans winner Emanuele Pirro is the driver representative on the stewards’ panel. Pirelli begins their second three-year contract as the sole tyre supplier and drivers will use the yellow-banded soft tyre and white-banded medium tyre this weekend. The notoriously fickle Melbourne weather could also play its part, with forecasts suggesting that rain could affect running on Saturday and Sunday.
Timetable: (All times local, GMT+11)
Friday 14 March
- First Practice: 12:30 (90 minutes)
- Second Practice: 16:30 (90 minutes)
Saturday 15 March
- Third Practice: 14:00 (60 minutes)
- Qualifying: 17:00 (60 minutes)
Sunday 16 March
- Race: 17:00 (58 laps or 2 hours)
|1||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull-Renault|
|3||Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull-Renault|
|27||Nico Hülkenberg||Force India-Mercedes|
|11||Sergio Pérez||Force India-Mercedes|
|25||Jean-Eric Vergne||Toro Rosso-Renault|
|26||Daniil Kvyat||Toro Rosso-Renault|