Only two teams enter the 2014 season with the same pair of drivers they ran last year, while three outfits – Williams, Toro Rosso and Marussia – have changed engine partners. Those facts alone would make the coming season an intriguing one, but throw in the massive rule changes and there’s plenty of food for thought. Testing showed a clear hierarchy of Mercedes, Ferrari then Renault in terms of the new power units, but it was also apparent that nobody is immune to reliability issues, and that problems in practice and qualifying could prove to be hugely expensive. Here’s our look at how the teams stack up.
Red Bull Racing
Red Bull Racing’s position as F1′s dominant team is being challenged this year thanks to the new power unit rules moving the goal posts. Over the past five years Christian Horner, Adrian Newey and Sebastian Vettel built RBR into a formidable unit, winning both world championships four years in a row from 2010-2013. The team formed a close relationship with Renault, but from the start of testing in January it’s been clear that there are problems with the 2014 package, and some tension between the two parties. It’s apparent too that Newey was too aggressive in some areas of the case, which led to some of the overheating problems seen in testing. It remains to be seen how much of the potential of the car has been lost, as he’s been forced to take a more conservative route. Vettel has a chance to show us how good he is by turning things around, while it won’t be easy for new boy Daniel Ricciardo, although he should not be underestimated.
Even without the rule changes, the momentum was with Mercedes last year, after the team showed improved form as a new management and technical team gelled. Between them, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton scored three Grand Prix victories, and the team jumped to second place behind RBR. Continuity with the drivers is a plus, as is the integrated chassis/engine approach the team shares only with Ferrari. It was clear from the start of testing that Mercedes has come up with a strong power unit, and an economical one. Ross Brawn has retired, but with Toto Wolff and Paddy Lowe now running the show – with assistance from Niki Lauda – Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg look set to challenge for the World Championship. Indeed, their biggest rivals could well be each other.
Ferrari has not won a World Championship since 2007, and after coming close so many times in recent seasons the Italian team was determined to make amends this year – but the signs are that the Mercedes teams have the edge, at least initially. New technical boss James Allison is leading the push to regain the title and, as with Mercedes, having a fully integrated race team and power train department has to be an advantage. The returning Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso form the most experienced and intriguing partnership in the field, and it will be fascinating to see how they fare alongside each other. Inevitably, everything will depend on how the power unit performs over the course of the season.
Last season Lotus was a regular frontrunner, but the team looks likely to have a much tougher time in 2014. Financial struggles and loss of key technical and management personnel will definitely hurt, while the car also appeared late and suffered badly with reliability problems that severely restricted its testing mileage. On the plus side, the team is still ambitious technically, as evidenced by the E22′s novel nose solution. Meanwhile, Kimi Raikkonen has moved on, but there is no shortage of talent in the cockpit. Romain Grosjean was on good form at the end of last year, and Pastor Maldonado’s raw pace will be a bonus, if the Venezuelan can be tamed.
After a difficult 2013 season that saw the team fail to register a podium finish, McLaren has been undergoing a rebuilding process, while at the same time preparing for the start of its new relationship with Honda next year. With former team principal Martin Whitmarsh ousted, Ron Dennis is hands-on once more, and former Lotus boss Eric Boullier has taken on the newly created role of racing director. The MP4-29 looked competitive from the start of testing, although the car also experienced a few reliability issues. Confident rookie Kevin Magnussen has brought a breath of fresh air to the camp, and he certainly will keep Jenson Button on his toes – and could prove to be one of the talking points of the season.
A solid performer in recent seasons, Force India looks set for a very strong year. The team switched to Mercedes power back in 2007, and for this year has added a Mercedes, rather than McLaren, gearbox. Having a package so closely aligned to the very competitive works W05 is obviously a boost and, with some talented technical people on hand, the team is in a good position to take advantage. The highly rated Nico Hulkenberg has returned to the team after a year at Sauber, while his teammate Sergio Perez is seeking redemption and is hugely motivated after being dropped by McLaren.
Five years have passed since BMW pulled out of F1 and Sauber returned to private ownership, and ever since the Swiss team has struggled to make financial ends meet. The team has good facilities, and it has remained a solid midfield contender. Indeed in 2012, the car was good enough to secure four podium finishes. Last year started badly but, by the end of the season, Nico Hulkenberg was a regular point scorer. The German has traded places with countryman Adrian Sutil, while Esteban Gutierrez provides continuity in his second season. The Ferrari power unit and gearbox package provides a solid base, but the budget problems could be very restrictive as the season progresses.
Scuderia Toro Rosso
Toro Rosso has switched from Ferrari to Renault power this season as it attempts to gain more from its relationship with sister team Red Bull Racing, through sharing of gearbox parts and data and so on. Only time will tell if the change ultimately proves to be a successful one, for, like the other Renault powered teams, STR had a difficult time in winter testing. Daniel Ricciardo has moved on to RBR, and has been replaced by rookie Daniil Kvyat, the latest highly rated Red Bull protégé. There’s a different dynamic in the team this year, as Jean-Eric Vergne has a lot more experience than his teammate, and there’s no place in the senior team up for grabs.
The only way is up for Williams after an awful 2013 season saw the team that used to dominate the sport score just five points and drop to ninth in the World Championship. A move from Renault to Mercedes power is well-timed, and the technical team has been rebuilt under the direction of veteran Pat Symonds, who has helped to bring several high profile recruits on board. In addition, the team has attracted some major new sponsors, further strengthening its position. Meanwhile, a very motivated Felipe Massa has joined alongside the talented Valtteri Bottas, and his experience gives the team a welcome boost.
Along with Mercedes, Marussia is one of just two teams on the grid to retain its 2013 driver line-up in Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton. The Russian-owned outfit has a new power unit and gearbox partner this year in Ferrari, and as such looks set to make some progress. The change from Cosworth and Xtrac was perhaps more stressful than anticipated, and priceless track time was lost to problems in early testing. The important thing is the ultimate potential of the package which, given the relationship with Maranello, has to be greater than in past years. However, a tight budget remains the perennial problem, and will hamper development as the season goes on.
Like Marussia, the Caterham team enters its fifth season on the F1 grid hoping that the change in rules presents a chance to finally score some points and progress up the order. The CT04 might not be the prettiest car on the grid, but the team did at least log more miles than its fellow Renault runners in early testing. Inevitably, form will depend in large part on how the French manufacturer recovers as the season goes on. The irrepressible Kamui Kobayashi returns to F1 after a year away and provides both experience and pace. He is joined by Swedish rookie Marcus Ericsson, who is perhaps better than his GP2 results suggest.