2014 F1 preview - all bets are off!Comment on this story
London - If the tough get going when the going gets tough, then the Formula One season starting in Australia next week should offer Sebastian Vettel ample opportunity to roll up his sleeves and play the paddock hard man.
On the evidence of pre-season testing, the quadruple champion and his Red Bull team are up against it as the sport braces for an unpredictable new hybrid turbo era in Melbourne.
“Right now it is not an easy situation, but there is no reason to hang the head,” said the 26-year-old German, who is bidding to become only the second driver after compatriot Michael Schumacher to win five titles in a row, as Red Bull wrapped up a troubled final test in Bahrain.
“When I listen to some media we are right in the middle of a huge disaster...but we will fight through it. Everybody in the team - including me - is ready to fight,” Vettel told the formula1.com website.
The glamour world of grand prix racing is in the throes of a revolution, one that will be televised around the world, and Vettel is a young king whose throne is most definitely threatened in what could be a rollercoaster year.
Success-starved rivals can sense their time has come, spurred on by rare signs of weakness from the once dominant team.
The technical change is the biggest most of the sport's engineers and mechanics have ever seen thanks to the introduction of a new turbocharged V6 engine with energy recovery systems.
In this brave new world, Red Bull's preparations have been little short of shocking with neither Vettel - who won the last nine races of 2013 and has not been beaten since July - nor his new and ever-smiling Australian team mate Daniel Ricciardo completing a race simulation.
All the Renault-powered teams have struggled to log as much mileage as their Mercedes and Ferrari rivals - Cosworth having now disappeared as an engine supplier - after experiencing problems bedding in the new power unit.
Reliability is a key concern for all teams, and the early races could be full of surprises with fuel economy coming to the fore and drivers playing a game of hare and tortoise to get to the finish.
The big question is how quickly Red Bull will be able to overcome their problems and whether testing is an accurate reflection of what will come when the lights go out in Melbourne.
Lewis Hamilton, whose Mercedes team are already the early favourites, expects Red Bull to be firing on all cylinders sooner than might be expected.
“They look like they have a stunning car, and usually the more beautiful it is the faster it is so I'm sure they've got a pretty quick car this year,” said the Briton who won his 2008 title with McLaren.
“Once they get the engine sorted, or the systems that they might be struggling with, I think they'll - as always - be very hard to beat.”
Mercedes-powered Williams - who have signed a rejuvenated Brazilian Felipe Massa from Ferrari to replace Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado - have also looked strong in testing after scoring just five points in a dismal 2013.
FIRE & ICE AT FERRARI
Ferrari, reunited with 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen in a lineup of champions with Fernando Alonso, have kept their cards close to their chest but the engine has looked reliable.
Expect sparks between those two fire and ice characters, the first champions Ferrari has paired since 1954, if the car proves to be a championship contender.
The same applies to Mercedes, where Hamilton and Nico Rosberg's friendship could be sorely tested.
Nothing, however, can be taken for granted.
“We have seen cars struggle to do a race distance in pre-season testing but then finish the first race on the podium. We have seen it countless times and it can happen again,” Mercedes engine chief Andy Cowell told autosport.com.
“Melbourne is a very exciting step into this new world of hybrid F1. I really don't know how it is going to unfold.”
The sport will have three young rookies making their debuts - Denmark's Kevin Magnussen at McLaren, 19-year-old Russian Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso and Sweden's Marcus Ericsson at Caterham - while others have said farewell.
Australian Mark Webber has left Red Bull to race sportscars for Porsche while Britain's Paul di Resta has returned to the German Touring Car championship (DTM) after being dropped by Force India and failing to find a seat.
Lowly Caterham have shed Frenchman Charles Pic and Dutchman Giedo van der Garde and delighted Japanese fans by bringing back the crowd-pleasing Kamui Kobayashi.
On the management side, three of the 11 principals have changed since the end of last season while even commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone's future is clouded by an impending trial in Germany on bribery charges.
Ross Brawn has left Mercedes, where Toto Wolff and Paddy Lowe now share his responsibilities, while Martin Whitmarsh has been ousted by returning predecessor Ron Dennis at McLaren after a 2013 season without a podium finish.
Frenchman Eric Boullier has switched from Lotus to McLaren, where he will effectively run the team at races.
The 19-race calendar has a new look and, controversially, the novelty of double points on offer for the finale in Abu Dhabi in a bid to prevent the title being wrapped up too early.
INDIA OUT, RUSSIA IN
India and South Korea have been dropped while Russia makes its debut with a race in Winter Olympic host city Sochi and Austria returns after a 13-year absence.
That race at the bucolic Spielberg track in June will be a home one for Red Bull. Whether Vettel will be in a position to win it remains to be seen.
TEAM AND DRIVER PROSPECTS
1 - Sebastian Vettel (Germany)
3 - Daniel Ricciardo (Australia)
Vettel ended the 2013 season with nine wins in a row but a 10th in Melbourne already looks unlikely. Red Bull's engine partners Renault have been beset by testing issues and the champions have done far less mileage than Mercedes and Ferrari-powered rivals. Neither driver has done a full race simulation so far. Despite that, the car looks good and has plenty of potential but reliability will be key. Red Bull's chances depend on how quickly they can fix the problems. Vettel will be even more the main man, with Australian Mark Webber departing and replaced by compatriot Ricciardo, who is quick but has yet to stand on an F1 podium. He must learn the ropes and score consistent points, if the car allows.
6 - Nico Rosberg (Germany)
44 - Lewis Hamilton (Britain)
The early championship favourites. The driver line-up remains the same but there is change on the management side, with Ross Brawn relinqushing the principal role and departing. Toto Wolff and Paddy Lowe are running the team in tandem. Mercedes should be setting the pace, at least in the early races, and have plenty of testing laps in the bag. Will Rosberg get the better of Hamilton? The German will be helped by a less aggressive style and strategic nous. Hamilton has raw speed and sheer talent in abundance but that may count for less in a fuel-saving formula likely to reward smoother driving.
14 - Fernando Alonso (Spain)
7 - Kimi Raikkonen (Finland)
Brazilian Felipe Massa has departed and Raikkonen returned in a line-up of champions, one of two 'roosters' in the same henhouse. The partnership will be watched closely for signs of sparks and disintegration. Ferrari have told both drivers the team must come first but neither will be happy to be behind the other. The car and engine package has looked solid in testing but with plenty of work still required. Alonso, now in his fifth year at Maranello, is hungrier than ever for success. Ferrari are looking like title contenders again, car permitting.
13 - Pastor Maldonado (Venezuela)
8 - Romain Grosjean (France)
There have been big changes at Lotus, with Maldonado joining from Williams to partner the established Grosjean while principal Eric Boullier has jumped ship to McLaren. Expect plenty of frustration from Maldonado if the car turns out to be worse than the one he left behind. The team had financial problems last year which affected development and some key staff have left. The new car has an innovative split nose but the team have done less testing than others and are way behind on mileage. With money tight, it remains to be seen how Lotus fare as the season goes on, but they are likely to slip down the pecking order.
22 - Jenson Button (Britain)
20 - Kevin Magnussen (Denmark)
The only way is up for former champions chasing their first constructors' title since 1998 and back under the overall leadership of Ron Dennis. Last year was dismal, without a podium finish in what was by some measurements their worst season since 1966. Button, feeling the loss of his ever-present father who died in January, is the most experienced driver in F1 and will be expected to lead the team and add to his win tally. Magnussen, 21, could be another Lewis Hamilton in the making. His speed is evident, the racecraft yet to be fully assessed.
27 - Nico Hulkenberg (Germany)
11 - Sergio Perez (Mexico)
An all-new line-up of sorts, given that Hulkenberg is returning after a year at Sauber. The German is highly-rated but one of the biggest drivers, which could count against him. Perez joins after a difficult year at McLaren and has a reputation to restore. The Mercedes engine is a clear asset even if the car is no beauty. If top teams suffer reliability problems, then the podium should be within Force India's reach, at least early on. A first win cannot be discounted, such is the degree of uncertainty about how the new regulations will pan out.
99 - Adrian Sutil (Germany)
21 - Esteban Gutierrez (Mexico)
A rookie last year, Gutierrez now represents continuity. Sauber will expect more consistency from him now. Swiss-based Sutil brings experience from Force India and is looking forward to the challenge after spending all of his career to date at one team. Money, or the lack of it, could be a brake on performance over the course of the year for a cash-strapped team that fought doggedly to stay afloat last year.
25 - Jean-Eric Vergne (France)
26 - Daniil Kvyat (Russia)
Kvyat has replaced Ricciardo and will attract plenty of interest as the most promising driver yet to emerge from Russia. Last season's GP3 champion, the Ufa-born driver is as at ease behind the wheel as he is fluent in a range of languages. He's still only 19 and definitely a talent to watch. Vergne missed out on the Red Bull drive and knows he needs to showcase his talents if he is to have a longer-term future in the sport. The switch to Renault engines from Ferrari may not help him.
19 - Felipe Massa (Brazil)
77 - Valtteri Bottas (Finland)
Williams are looking more and more like a team on the up following the switch to Mercedes power. And they desperately need that, having plumbed new depths last year with just five points on the board. Massa replaces Maldonado and is eager to show he still has plenty to offer despite being eclipsed at Ferrari by Fernando Alonso. Former Ferrari race engineer Rob Smedley has also come on board and the experience of technical head Pat Symonds is starting to show. There are new sponsors and the tidy-looking car set the pace in Bahrain testing and chalked up plenty of laps. After scrabbling about for points in 2013, Williams could be back among the podium contenders.
17 - Jules Bianchi (France)
4 - Max Chilton (Britain)
A switch to Ferrari engines, inevitable after Cosworth quit the sport, is a big step in the right direction for Formula One's smallest team. The line-up is unchanged, another bonus. Money remains extremely tight, however, and that will limit how much they can achieve in performance terms. A first point might just be on the cards if races prove as unpredictable and the other cars as unreliable as some fear they will be.
10 - Kamui Kobayashi (Japan)
9 - Marcus Ericsson (Sweden)
An all new line-up, bringing crowd-pleaser Kobayashi back to F1 while Ericsson makes his debut. Even the team admit the car is no looker, but they need it to narrow the gap with the midfield runners if team owner Tony Fernandes is not to lose patience. Like all the Renault teams, they have had problems in testing but have also been the most reliable. A challenging season ahead but with more potential than in the past.