Catch me if you can - the F1 2015 season preview

Catch me if you can - the F1 2015 season preview

13th Mar 2015 6:00 pm

Forget politics, bickering for cash and privilege, and fretting over fan numbers. The 2015 season is about one thing only, can anyone beat Hamilton?

Lewis Hamilton - THE HAMMER

The reigning world champion. When the going gets tough (and it will), you know what time it is.

 

Nobody can dispute Lewis Hamilton’s ownership of the 2014 world drivers’ championship. Nobody, that is, but Nico Rosberg, who outqualified his teammate 12-7 over the course of the season. And while Nico may still be wondering why or how it all went wrong on race days, Lewis, despite the confidence that comes from winning two world championships, certainly still has areas he needs to work on in 2015. If he can qualify on pole, his Sunday afternoons will be that much easier.

Lewis blew potential pole laps in Canada and Austria in 2014 by making errors under hard braking — mainly because he convinced himself that this was an area in which he would always have the advantage over Nico. Maybe that was the case in karting or F3, but in 2014 (Russia aside), Nico was brilliant under braking. Fact. And Lewis, instead, tended to find advantages over Nico where he perhaps wasn’t expecting it, amid the frenetic race variables with his basic use of the steering, throttle and brake pedals. The final result, as it turned out, was never about braking super-late.

Look out, then, for Lewis returning to one-lap braking basics in 2015 (or as basic as brake-by-wire can ever allow the driver to be). He’ll also need to tidy up some of his corner exits, as typified by Turn 12, Junção, at Interlagos, where Nico’s feel for the right rear was also a weekend benchmark. Nico is likely to remain Lewis’s biggest threat this year, but a host of rivals will be gearing up to try to stop the Brit.

Nico Rosberg - THE THINKER

The driver, who processes information like no other, is capable of unlocking a title-winning strategy.

The best way to assess Nico’s chances for 2015 is to consider why he wasn’t victorious in 2014, a year in which he drove a winning car for a winning team. Yes, there were mechanical failures: Nico would have won the British GP and could have scored more points in Canada and Singapore, but for ERS and wiring-loom issues. But Lewis was afflicted just as badly, so Nico should not rely on this philosophy.

Quick though Nico was on Saturday afternoons, when he was at least as fast as Lewis over a season and certainly less error-prone, his weak moments came in the races, often in the second stints when there was less grip. He also faltered in what you could call ‘straight racing conditions’. He spent too many laps behind Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso in Hungary — another day when he should have won; and then there were the second- and first-lap errors in Belgium and Russia… not forgetting, too, the incident in Q3 at Monaco (and all its ramifications).

No driver is perfect, so at this point I should put the above paragraph into the full context of Nico’s excellence in the Australian, Monaco, Canadian, Austrian, British, German and Brazilian GPs. On all of those days — Monaco Q3 aside — he drove like a champion.

His prospects for 2015 are coloured by two elements: one, beating Lewis; and, two, how much pressure the opposition will impose upon Mercedes. Perversely, Nico’s chances of winning the world title will be enhanced if Mercedes’ advantage is smaller. If Williams, Red Bull and Ferrari can take a few wins, there will be more in the mix to distract and perhaps hurt Lewis. And don’t forget that Lewis will be without Jock Clear, who, although he is moving to Ferrari in 2016, will this year assist Riccardo Musconi (who used to work with Nico and on simulations) ease into his new role with Lewis. If things get tight, expect Nico to be the more robotic of the two drivers — a heavy points-scorer on difficult days and a winner when the cards fall favourably. A harder season for Nico would be another straight-out fight with Lewis, with the opposition still half a lap behind.

Nico must prepare for both eventualities while capitalising on what he did so well in 2014 — to wit, his precise corner phases from rotation to exit. He can’t assume Lewis will make as many mistakes in qualifying — and he can’t afford any more braking errors on Sundays. Nico uses a slightly more extensive brake balance steering wheel map than Lewis, and needs to maximise those parameters within the race day variables. As intelligent as Nico is, the answer for him is less simulator work: don’t skimp on the set-up stuff but ease away from the full race simulations. In other words, less brain programming and more capacity for ‘feel’.

Daniel Ricciardo - THE HONEY BADGER

Like his emblem, a smiling exterior belies the steel and ferocity that lies within. Underestimate him at your peril. You have been warned.

Daniel finds himself in nirvana in 2015: there are zero downsides to his year and there is also zero pressure. All he has to do is enjoy what still might be the best team in F1, and to take his driving to an even higher level. The rest is out of his hands. Renault may or may not be able to close the power gap to Mercedes; the RB11 may or may not have an advantage in this first year of a semi-retired Adrian Newey.

There isn’t even any pressure from the driver in the other car. Daniil Kvyat is fast, and will admirably play the role in which he has been cast, but he won’t be a Nico to Mercedes’ Lewis. That’s exactly what drivers of Daniel’s stature secretly crave, even if they always tell the world that the man on the other side of the garage is, for the most part, irrelevant.

Based on 2014, and the Renault improvements that must now be expected, following the relaxing of the in-season update rules, you’d have to predict that Red Bull will win at least four races — perhaps even five. That won’t be easy, but then Daniel Ricciardo emerged last year as an outstanding driver — a driver who not only knows how to pace a race but also how to pass the guy in front. No one passes Fernando Alonso on a re-start…no one except Daniel Ricciardo (Austin, Turn 1). That’s worth a huge amount to any team — and Red Bull are perfectly placed to maximise Daniel’s ability. He has the depth of character to sustain his performance level and he will be intensely loyal to the people who gave him a chance.

So, it’s down to the car and its engine — and to politics. Certainly this year’s version of the team will be very different from any of the Newey-dominated Red Bulls we’ve known — but then all things must pass. High on Daniel’s list of priorities, therefore, will be to remain close to Adrian, even if Adrian isn’t at races and spends only the occasional day at the factory. Second, Daniel must use the combined muscle of Dr Helmut Marko and Dietrich Mateschitz to maximise Renault’s use of mid-season upgrades.

Michael Schumacher engineered Bridgestone priority treatment at Ferrari in 2002 by pulling political strings; and so, in this engine-dominated F1, it must be with Daniel, for his on-track brilliance alone will not be enough to beat the all-round power of Mercedes over a 20-race season.

Sebastian Vettel - THE SCARLET ACE

This dazzlingly fast fighter pilot has four, but still hungers for more.

Having followed, virtually to the word, the advice we gave them three months ago in F1 Racing, Ferrari should win plenty of races in 2015. They are now structured correctly; Sebastian Vettel is remotivated; and the James Allison car (aero- and chassis-wise) will be quick. The big question, as with the Renault teams, is how much power will Ferrari have at their disposal?

Thus, Seb joins them at just the right moment. The dirty work is over, thanks to intelligent decision-making by Ferrari’s latest team principal, Maurizio Arrivabene, and the only way is up. Nor will Seb need to devote too much time to traditional Ferrari politics. With Allison in charge, Ferrari’s new era should run as efficiently as the Red Arrows — with English, no doubt, as the predominant lingo.

In leaving Red Bull, Seb implied he was dealing with the difficulties of 2014 in the most efficient way — by expunging them. By mid-2014, he had no answer to the superior race pace of Daniel Ricciardo. He’d never been similarly troubled at any stage in his career, and his reasoning was that the more he worried, the worse it was going to get. So he cut the Red Bull ties and immersed himself in the biggest team of them all: Ferrari.

I doubt that Seb will have anything like the same problems with Kimi Räikkönen. Kimi is still fast, still very much a touch-and-feel driver, but even on a good day, he is now a couple of tenths away from his McLaren-best. So Seb will be under no real pressure to learn from the results of 2014, which could be a bad thing since last year highlighted style flaws that until then had remained disguised.

With the RB10 still generating huge downforce at the front, but with the new regs dumbing the rear, Seb in 2014 was not as manipulative with the back end as Daniel, Lewis or Fernando. This was probably due to the quality of the Newey cars he’d raced since 2007, and the way he was perfectly able to extend the straights with them, in the knowledge that the back end would invariably take a one-movement rotation. Then there was the human factor: Seb entered 2014 with four world championships behind him. Some sort of slump was inevitable.

The Ferrari will be less pointy, and Seb now knows what it’s like not to win a title: he’ll be a better driver for it. He proved in 2014 that he will race wheel-to-wheel with anyone on the grid — that he’s a racer up there with Fernando. For 2015, expect a win and a bundle of points — assuming, that Ferrari, like Renault, can maximise horsepower with their bonus mid-season.

Fernando Alonso - THE SAMURAI

An indomitable warrior who brings the Bushido spirit to Formula 1.

These are Interesting times for both Fernando Alonso and his new team, McLaren. I guess the last time 12 engineers were laid off in one day — as they were at McLaren in December – was probably when Eddie Jordan was selling up back in 2004. Not even Ferrari, at their scapegoating worst, have been so steely. Hence the pervading atmosphere of fear down at the MTC this winter. Who will be next? What did the 12 do wrong? I gather that the mantra at Woking at present is that talent is more important than experience. Interesting, as I say.

It’s also intriguing to see the perennial Ekrem Sami — a sort of Adrian Newey of sponsorship procurement — now working alongside Martin Reiss, an Eric Boullier commercial man from Lotus F1. This reflects McLaren’s ongoing search for 2010-13 market-value title sponsorship, and underlines the changes taking place in the team. This power struggle will reflect the one in the garage, where Fernando’s Ferrari engineer, Andrea Stella, will now rub shoulders with the likes of Phil Prew. And there are the matters of Honda Power and Alonso Presence — mini earthquakes in their own right, but in 2015 just parts of a heaving conglomerate.

So what can Fernando expect? The personnel count behind the Honda engine programme is currently relatively small (much smaller than he would have seen at Ferrari), and he’ll be surprised that Honda have chosen Milton Keynes as their UK base and not somewhere closer to McLaren. The Abu Dhabi 2014 test engine hadn’t run with the ERS installed prior to those abortive first days, so one problem followed another.

The car was designed by former Red Bull man Pete Prodromou, but only to a point: it’s his front wing, but the chassis was signed off by Tim Goss before Pete could start the real work. Another neat irony, given Ron Dennis’s disdain for the Toyota F1 team: McLaren will keep using the Toyota windtunnel in Cologne for aero tests. Fernando will just do his thing. He won’t try to change the methodology of McLaren or Honda, but you will see him extracting 100 percent from the car at any given moment. He will take the short-term view: if it doesn’t work out, he’ll be off to a quicker car for 2016; if there’s lots of pace and lots of promise, then he’ll stay. He’s fortunate to have a McLaren-Honda to drive: gazumped by Vettel at Ferrari, rejected by Red Bull, Fernando was, for a few weeks, actually looking at temporary retirement. He wouldn’t have wanted to return to Woking on Ron’s terms, but it’s done now.
Maybe, magically, the new car will be a Merc out of the box…

Valtteri Bottas - THE FLYING FINN

Heir apparent to the finnish mantle, and keen to forge his own legend.

Valtteri Bottas need do nothing more than he did in 2014. The wins will come: Williams-Mercedes
are too punchy for it all to slip away.

The difficult thing, of course, will be to sustain a margin over his teammate, Felipe Massa — something he must do if he is to graduate to the level of the Hamiltons, Ricciardos and Alonsos. Valtteri must outqualify Felipe over a season and also outrace him — as he did in 2014. Felipe, though, is now very different from the driver who left Ferrari chastened and a little desperate. He finished 2014 on a high, and that momentum will carry him through at least to Melbourne — and probably beyond, if the Williams is quick.

It’s important for Valtteri not to lose concentration if the year begins in Felipe’s favour. It’s unlikely he will, but there’s no accounting for what pressure will do. Valtteri has so far proved himself immune to outside forces and I think the group around him — Jonathan Eddolls, Didier Coton, Mika Häkkinen, Toto Wolff — will continue to protect those walls. Valtteri needs to be prepared in case Felipe becomes the first Williams winner since Pastor Maldonado. His knock-out punch would have to come at the next race, where — more than ever — he’ll need to outqualify Felipe and then beat him on the Sunday.

He has the technique to do so. Even in GP3, Valtteri showed a deftness of touch above the F1 average; and in 2014 he honed that into Lewis-like management of changing conditions. His economy of movement is compelling, particularly at low-speed change-of-direction corners and also into medium-speed turns.

Like Felipe, Valtteri had to spend 2014 down- and up-shifting with heavy load on the rear tyres (thanks to Williams’ short gear ratios) — but his ability to manipulate straight lines where Felipe was still loading the car in time, became a Bottas trademark. Williams are retaining their own gearbox casing and internals for 2015, and it’s a fair bet that they’ll stretch the ratios a bit, and that this little source of Bottas expression will, in the main, fade away. The better the car, in other words, the harder it will be for Bottas to dominate a quick and reflexy driver like Felipe. That’s why he’ll be under so much pressure.

Bottas is now accomplished in traffic, too, with a racer’s sense for what’s next; and then there was the moment he outmuscled Fernando Alonso on the opening lap of the US GP. No longer the quiet rookie, in Austin Valtteri arrived as a racing driver — potentially a great one.

 

WORDS - Peter Windsor

ILLUSTRATIONS - Hellovon

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