For jaded Formula One fans weary of Sebastian Vettel’s dominance in recent years, an overdue shake-up is coming.
A switch to six-cylinder turbo engines has forced a radical redesign of the cars, with the aim of making the sport more relevant to the car industry and tempting major auto makers back to F1.
While such changes tend to ultimately benefit the big teams, who have more resources to put into design and trouble-shooting, the change could see some of the major players struggle early.
How the teams adjust to the technical challenges will be the major theme of the season’s racing, with juicy subplots such as how Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen manage what could be a combustible relationship as teammates at Ferrari.
Off the track, there are also major issues, most notably the future of the sport’s commercial boss with 83-year-old Bernie Ecclestone facing bribery charges in Germany. Many eyes are also on Michael Schumacher, who remains in a coma in a French hospital months after he suffered head injuries in a skiing accident.
Preseason testing has raised some eyebrows, with Vettel — who will be aiming for his fifth straight drivers’ championship in 2014 — and his Red Bull team struggling with a series of technical problems, while Felipe Massa at his new team Williams the unlikely name at the top of the timesheets.
It will be tough to bet against Red Bull and designer Adrian Newey quickly coming up with solutions to the preseason glitches, but Vettel knew the restricted running in preseason put his team at a disadvantage for the March 16 season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
“We haven’t done enough laps, the speed is not there compared to some other teams, so we have to wait and see when we get there,” said Vettel, who last season matched Schumacher’s record of 13 victories in a year and equaled the nine consecutive wins of Alberto Ascari. “There’s no reason to paint everything black. We know that it’s a difficult time but everyone is aware of that and motivated to get out of it, get going and find out where we are.”
If Red Bull is off the pace in Australia and the early races, it will have plenty of opportunities to catch up in the 19-race season. The Russian Grand Prix is the new addition to the calendar in October, while the Austrian Grand Prix returns in June. The Korean Grand Prix has been dropped, while the Indian Grand Prix is off for 2014 ahead of an expected early-season return in 2015.
Red Bull’s preseason struggles have been caused by Renault’s teething problems with the new V6 engine and associated parts of the power train. That has also impacted the other Renault-supplied teams: Lotus, Toro Rosso and Caterham.
The trouble for Renault is that the engines have now been set for the season ahead, with no major changes allowed, so there is a fear the problems will be difficult if not impossible to resolve.
The Mercedes-powered teams have flourished in preseason, with the eponymous factory team a clear favorite for the early races to build on the second-place finish in 2013, while Williams and Force India have looked strong, less so McLaren. The Mercedes teams did roughly twice as many laps in preseason testing than the Renault or Ferrari-powered cars.
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who will sport the No. 44 on his car this season as F1 switches to personally-chosen numbers instead of the previous season’s finishing order, was playing down his favorite status for Melbourne.
“We have a strong package but I don’t feel we are guaranteed to be the guys ahead,” Hamilton said.
Mercedes does have the benefit of continuity because it is one of only two teams to retain the same driver pairing from 2013, along with Marussia.
There has been plenty of shuffling in the 2014 driver lineup but not many new faces. The debutants in Melbourne will be Kevin Magnussen at McLaren, Marcus Ericsson at Caterham and 19-year-old Russian Daniil Kyvat at Toro Rosso, while Kamui Kobayashi returns at Caterham after a year away.
The most intriguing driver pairing is at Ferrari, where Raikkonen returns to partner Alonso — the man who replaced him at the Italian team in 2010.
The Finn has the speed to challenge Alonso as the team’s top driver — something Alonso struggled with in his one season partnering then-rookie Hamilton at McLaren. There is also the potential for a personality conflict, with Raikkonen’s well-crafted languid image being a marked contrast to the Spaniard’s disciplined approach.
Vettel’s new teammate is Daniel Ricciardo, who replaces Mark Webber and will be a distinct No. 2 to the German. Two promising pairings will be at Force India, where Sergio Perez joins Nico Hulkenberg as both seek to belatedly deliver on their status as the next big things in F1, and at Williams, where the experienced Massa will cast off the long-held No. 2 role at Ferrari and become a team leader alongside promising Valtteri Bottas.
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