The countdown begins.
It is currently 11pm on a Friday night in Germany and the first Qualifying session of the 2015 season is fast approaching. Naturally, it seems like an appropriate time to publish my first blog post with just a few thoughts I have floating about before we get into the thick of the action. I tend to disregard predictions for the new season because typically we do not learn a huge amount from the tests and first practice sessions of the year. Teams are always running different programmes, fuel amounts, tyre compound choices etc and reliability will also play a big role in the first race.
However, one thing is blindingly obvious this year just as it was in 2014; Mercedes will enjoy a very dominant season as the leaders of the pack. If anything, I believe we probably haven’t seen the true pace of the Brackley based team’s 2015 offering. And that is a frightening thought for those of us that are craving to see more competition at the front. Nevertheless, that is not to say we won’t be seeing tight fights and there is a huge prospect of this season being a tense and close battle for the title of ‘best of the rest’. The obvious contenders for this honour are currently Ferrari, Williams and Red Bull. If you’re reading this blog I will presume you had an eye on the winter tests and saw the pace of Ferrari and Williams. Ferrari in particular appear to have made huge strides with this year’s car in comparison to the dismal F14T car of last year. 2014 was probably a season to forget for Ferrari and the Tifosi but I would advise them not to do that! There is still a lot the team can learn from last season and for now it appears to be lesson learnt. The team seems committed to the new system in place with Arrivabene as team principal and two former world champions with five titles between them as their drivers. The team has seen a large personnel overhaul and I’m sure they have a lot to be happy about before the first session of the year is contested.
Williams seem to have built on their strong end to last season. Both drivers, Massa and Bottas, seem happy and optimistic about the new season. Could a win be on the way this season? They certainly had qualifying pace last year and I’m sure improved race pace was top of the team’s winter agenda. Young Bottas has a lot of support amongst F1 fans and I think his first win is surely just around the corner. But for that to happen Williams need to make sure that they are waiting to pounce on any mistakes made on Mercedes’ part. Red Bull have promoted Dani Kvyat from their sister Toro Rosso team to replace the departed Sebastian Vettel and there is a lot of apprehension as to what F1’s youngest ever points scorer can do in a top team. We already saw what Ricciardo was capable of when Red Bull gave him a chance. Will we see another case of a youngster coming in to Red Bull and spoiling his teammate’s party? This will certainly be interesting to observe. However, with early reports from Australia saying that the team are not happy with Renault’s engine both may be left disappointed after F1’s big return this weekend. Ricciardo didn’t even get to run in FP2 earlier today so I’m sure he will be eager for a successful FP3 session. Red Bull had a poor 2014 testing programme but the team did manage to pull things together and recover fairly quickly. Indeed, they were the only other team to take a race win, three in total, when Mercedes failed to do so. Max Verstappen, Red Bull’s 17 year old wunderkind, will be driving for Toro Rosso this year and it is clear that the team are fully behind him and excited by what he can do. I for one do not think his age is a huge deal if he has the talent and the likes of Helmut Marko think he is capable. He seems to be able to handle the car just fine from what we saw in testing but will he be able to handle the intensity of motorsport’s biggest league at such a young age?
Honda have made their comeback to F1 with the McLaren team but it is already clear that having one season less than the other engine manufacturers will hurt them. Fernando Alonso has certainly not had the dream start to his McLaren return and hopefully he will be racing again in Malaysia. Now there is the opportunity for a very lengthy post solely focused on the strange nature of his Barcelona crash and the way the team handled the situation but I simply don’t have the time for that at present and I think we will just have to accept that we will never know exactly what happened. Alonso and Jenson Button have not gotten the mileage they would have hoped for in the pre-season tests but both have a high belief in Honda to turn things around sooner rather than later. But most likely not in time for this weekend’s race. Can Honda and McLaren pull off what we saw Red Bull do last season in terms of recovery? I can think of two world champions who will be giving it everything to make sure that happens.
I will end this post with a note on Sauber and the absolute chaos happening with the team and their drivers right now. The team has been ordered by an Australian court to appoint or rather reappoint Giedo Van der Garde as a driver for the Grand Prix because they unlawfully terminated his contract in favour for what we now call pay/money drivers. As we saw Caterham leave F1 and Marussia return as Manor F1 the tight financial situation for F1’s smaller teams has been no secret. So Sauber were clearly desperate and decisions were made to try and keep the team in the sport and able to produce a car to line up on the grid. However, if they do not appoint Van der Garde as driver following the dismissal of their appeal they may not even be allowed to race. It will be interesting to see how this plays out and what the team do. One thing is for certain though, this is a PR nightmare for the sport. What image of F1 is being sent out to the world when a talented and, maybe more important, contracted driver is turfed out in favour of drivers who come with sponsors and money? Not a very positive one!
The qualifying session for the Australian Grand Prix will definitely be an interesting and unmissable one. Qualifying is not necessarily an indication as to what will happen in the race because as I mentioned before reliability may be the biggest factor at play. But it will be intriguing to see how the teams line up and which drivers can beat their teammates to go 1-0 up at the start of the season. So, any predictions for pole? I personally think it’s between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton (groundbreaking I know). Let’s hope that the two Mercedes boys are ready to put on a big show at the front because after such a long break and the prospect of even more crushing dominance, all eyes are on them to step up to the plate and give the fans what they want.
UPDATE: Giedo VdG ends court action against Sauber. Nasr and Ericsson to race for the team this weekend.