Questions for Melbourne
Will Mercedes justify their favourites tag? Could Williams' revival be the real thing? Just how far off the pace will World Champs Red Bull be?
By Sky Sports Online. Last Updated: 13/03/14 11:05pm
Will Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg have the upper hand at Mercedes?
Forget, for a moment, Sebastian and Daniel at Red Bull and forget, if you can, Fernando v Kimi at Ferrari, and consider the question writ large over winter testing: will Lewis v Nico be the intra-team battle of 2014?
Jerez and Bahrain certainly spelt out as much as Mercedes flew out of the blocks in a car that, for the present at least, appears to be without peer. If, as many now suspect, the W05 is a championship-winning machine - or at least a car with the clear and present potential to end Red Bull's interminable dominance - then it stands to reason that the main obstacle facing the two Mercedes drivers in their quest to win the World Championship will be each other. Hence why, despite its relative low billing hitherto, Lewis v Nico may consign all the other team-mate battles of 2014 to a distant periphery.
Hamilton, it won't need reminding, held the upper hand over Rosberg in 2013 despite the German's long-standing familiarity with the Mercedes set-up and a braking system that his new team-mate disliked from day one to day 365. With Hamilton confirming at the close of the third test that the W05 is far better suited to his styling of driving, the prevailing expectation is that he will prevail - hence the Englishman's status as favourite for the World Championship.
And yet... there's a persistent, nagging doubt that the intra-team battle at Mercedes will be so straightforward. Perhaps it's because nothing ever seems to be straightforward with F1's Mr Box Office, Lewis Hamilton. Perhaps it's due to the fact that Rosberg completed 554 laps to Hamilton's 421 over the winter. Perhaps it's due to the warnings that speed - Hamilton's first among equals of specialty - must be tempered against the demands of engine conservation and fuel management as F1 puts on the metaphorical and literal brakes to go green. Or perhaps it's just simply because in 2014, the year of F1's leap into a great unknown, nothing is reassuringly predictable, not even something as 'obvious' as Hamilton repeating his 2013 victory over Rosberg.
The game has been reset, the slate has been wiped clean, and Hamilton must win number one status at Mercedes all over again - just with the added pressure of knowing that, if he can, number one status in F1 could very likely follow.
How much will Red Bull struggle?
Four world titles in as many years; nine consecutive race victories for Sebastian Vettel at the end of last season: is it any wonder that Red Bull's pre-season woes have prompted such an outpouring of Schadenfreude as we've seen in recent weeks? After days spent sidelined as his team and Renault try their damnedest to fix the RB10, it's almost as if the World Champion accepts the role he's currently being assigned: the sight of Vettel pushing his car back to the pits in Bahrain during the last test told their story far better than words ever could, with seemingly everyone expecting more of the same in Melbourne.
Logic suggests as much: if Red Bull could string no more than a few not-so-fast laps together two weeks ago then completing 58 around Albert Park seems a tall order - and that's before we've considered the five hours of practice and qualifying they'll have to navigate beforehand. Both parties have not been standing still, of course: Red Bull have been taking steps to address the overheating issues they've experienced while Renault, although now unable to chase outright performance after the passing of the homologation deadline, can still improve reliability and also drivability - F1's current buzzword, which describes the smooth delivery of the increased torque provided by its new hybrid engines.
So whereas Friday practice has in the past served as a bellwether for Red Bull's pace going forward into the weekend - another front-row lockout perhaps? - in Melbourne it will gauge the likelihood of them simply making the chequered flag. Although the consensus is that the car will be fast when it's fixed, they have to reach that point first. And yet, ahead of an anticipated difficult weekend, there lingers the thought that logic doesn't necessarily follow in sport. A case in point is McLaren's woeful pre-season in 2011, when exhaust problems left them seemingly nowhere; fast forward to the Australian GP and Lewis Hamilton was on the podium. If surprises are in store this weekend then a similar result for Red Bull would be the biggest of all.
How will 'thirsty' Ferrari fare in Oz?
"Now it's time to win." Those were the words uttered by Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo at the launch of the F14 T back in late January, yet two months on and there hasn't been sufficient evidence through testing to suggest that F1's most successful outfit are yet in shape to triumph at the season-opener for just the second time in seven years.
That's not to say either Fernando Alonso or the returning Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari's last two winners on the opening Sunday of the season, won't be standing on the top step of the Albert Park podium given the F14 T does appear to be right in the pack behind apparent early pacesetters Mercedes and Williams. Yet even should the two favourites falter come race day then there's reason to believe it'll likely be someone else and not Ferrari who are there to profit given the suggestion through pre-season has been that the Scuderia's V6 turbo is not only less powerful, but 'thirstier' than its Mercedes counterpart.
The requirement that all cars now have to use no more than 100kg of fuel to complete the grand prix distance, which represents a 30% fuel-efficiency saving on last year, could therefore cause a particular headache for Ferrari and mean their drivers have to take things easier than most at certain stages of the race, with a direct knock-on effect for pace. Still, simply making the finish in Australia could be good enough to unlock the biggest rewards and Ferrari, who invented the guide to modern-day F1 reliability in the early part of the century, are as good a bet as anyone to get two cars to the chequered flag. Don't forget, it has been an astonishing 75 races since Alonso's car broke down on a Sunday after all...
Can Williams maintain their pre-season form?
If ever there was an example of how the major rule changes appear to have mixed up the 2014 pecking order then surely it is Williams. The Grove-based team endured one of the worst seasons in their history last year, yet after pre-season testing, they head to Australia as second favourites for victory with Sky Bet.
Reliability looks like it will be key this year - particularly in the early races - and with Williams achieving the second highest mileage of any team during pre-season and only suffering one breakdown, the team certainly seem to be performing well in that area (beware the curse of the commentator).
In terms of outright pace, it is always dangerous to read too much into testing times, but Felipe Massa's 1:33.258 was the quickest time recorded over eight days of running in Bahrain and the consensus of opinion in the paddock was that the time was the 'real deal' rather than a headline grabbing glory run with an underweight car. This viewpoint is supported by Valtteri Bottas's 1:33.987 on soft tyres on the final day of testing which was set during a run that was longer than a qualifying simulation.
Thus things are looking positive for Williams as they head to Melbourne. Deputy Team Principal Claire Williams said she was targeting points at every race this season, but that appears to be a conservative estimate for a car that seems capable of challenging for a podium spot at Albert Park.
And could Williams do even better and win in Australia for the first time since 1996?
Not since Damon Hill's title-winning season of 1996 have Williams won in Australia, but the betting odds suggest the Grove outfit could make their best start to a season since that glorious decade of dominance.
Somewhat generously, Sky Bet originally offered 17/2 on Williams finishing top of the pile in Melbourne when betting on the Australian GP commenced. Punters soon gobbled up that price though, pushing it in to 13/2 before it eventually settled at a meagre 4/1.
And with that, only favourites Mercedes (1/1) are given a better chance of winning the opening race, with Ferrari now a longer price than Williams at 9/2. McLaren are next in line at 6/1 while Red Bull's much-documented struggles sees them rated 10/1 outsiders.
Felipe Massa is deemed considerably more likely of being the victor if Williams are to prevail in Melbourne, with the Brazilian rated 8/1 third favourite behind the two Mercedes drivers. Valtteri Bottas has odds of 12/1 but stands a much better chance of getting on the podium at 3/1, while Massa is 11/4 for a top-three finish.
But just how many will make the chequered flag?
Big favourites to begin F1's new era with a win Mercedes might well be, but if the final week of testing in Bahrain made one other thing abundantly clear then it's that the W05 is probably just as vulnerable to breaking down as any of the other 10 cars that will take to the Melbourne grid. Well, perhaps not quite as liable to a stoppage given the team have completed several race distances over the winter while a number of rival outfits - Red Bull and Lotus being chief among them - have generally failed to complete many single race-style stints, but still often enough to mean the Brackley team cannot be 100% confident of completing the 58-lap distance at Albert Park. There pre-season favourites status will certainly count for little if they don't.
Furthermore, the fact there were no fewer than eight red flags on the final day of testing arguably underlined the feeling that while Melbourne may be ready for F1, the sport as a whole isn't quite ready for the challenges that await on race day. That all means that the trend of recent years that has seen low attrition rates become the norm will at least temporarily become a thing of the past. Whereas an average of 18 out of the 22 drivers made the chequered flag at each race in 2013, it seems pretty likely that we'll not get anywhere near that ratio in Melbourne thanks to the ongoing unreliability concerns with the complex turbo cars - and that's even before we take the tricky Albert Park layout's notoriously unforgiving nature into account. Even in the recent era of widespread reliability, an average of seven cars dropped out of the Melbourne race over the last five years.
So just how few cars really could make the finish come lap 58 on Sunday? Certainly the talk during pre-season has been that around ten - the number of points-paying places remember - finishers wouldn't be a big surprise, although some doom-mongers would have you believe things could be even worse than that. So whether or not F1's new era will begin with a crazy race of Monaco 1996 proportions, when just three cars were running at the end, predicting the cars that will finish, let alone the podium composition, is a mug's game right now.