Seldom has there been this much uncertainty ahead of a Formula One championship.
When this Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne ushers in a new 19-race season, the faces under the helmets will be mostly familiar but the sport will have undergone its most radical technical changes in decades with the introduction of new turbocharged 1.6-litre V6 engines with energy recovery systems, in place of the normally-aspirated 2.4-litre V8s.
From pre-season testing it looks as if this may have caused a major grid shake-up following four years of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull dominance.
Renault-powered teams, including Red Bull and Lotus, have struggled with pace and reliability in the run-up to Melbourne and neither Vettel – who won the last nine races of 2013 – nor his new Australian team mate Daniel Ricciardo, have beeen able to complete a full race simulation ahead of this weekend.
It seems the balance of power has shifted to the Mercedes-powered teams. Apart from Mercedes itself, which has shown great pace and reliability in the hands of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, Mercedes-powered Williams has also set the pre-season lap charts ablaze, indicating that a revival may be on the cards for the once-dominant team which last won the constructors’ title in 1997.
McLaren, which also uses Mercedes, has shown some promising pre-season signs too, after experiencing one of its worst years in 2013, where it managed no podiums.
FERRARI IN THE HUNT
Ferrari hasn’t been as quick as Mercedes-powered teams but also seems to be in the hunt, and all eyes are on the potentially explosive driver pairing of Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso – the first time since 1954 that Ferrari has two champions at the wheel.
Races will call for more fuel-saving strategies and driving styles as drivers adapt to the new hybrid power units, which rely on energy recuperation to go the distance now that fuel tanks have been reduced in capacity from 150 to 100 litres. Reliability is also a key concern and the early races could deliver some topsy-turvy results.
New safety regulations dictating lower noses have resulted in some of the ugliest-looking F1 cars of recent times, with some of the front ends resembling anteaters and crab claws. Also controversial are the double points on offer for the finale in Abu Dhabi in a bid to prevent the title being wrapped up too early.
The Indian GP has been dropped and there are two new venues on the 19-race calendar. Austria makes its return after 13 years with a race at the Spielberg circuit, while Russia is a first-timer on the calendar at Winter Olympic host city Sochi.
Three young rookies make their F1 debuts in 2014: Denmark’s Kevin Magnussen at McLaren, 19-year-old Russian Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso and Sweden’s Marcus Ericsson at Caterham. Departing drivers include Australian Mark Webber who has quit 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. -Star Motoring
F1 CALENDAR 2014
16 March - Australia, Melbourne
30 March - Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur
6 April - Bahrain, Sakhir
20 April - China, Changhai
11 May - Spain, Catalunya
25 May - Monaco, Monte Carlo
8 June - Canada, Montréal
22 June - Austria, Spielberg
6 July - Britain, Silverstone
20 July - Germany, Hockenheim
27 July - Hungary, Budapest
24 August - Belgium, Spa-Francorchamps
7 September - Italy, Monza
21 September - Singapore, Marina Bay
5 October - Japan, Suzuka
12 October - Russia, Sochi
2 November - USA, Austin
9 November - Brazil, Sao Paulo
23 November - Abu Dhabi, Yas Marina