March 11th, 2014 (f1plus/B Ferreira).- In the next weekend, F1 will start one of the most intriguing seasons in the last few years. Completely new engines or powertrains as they called it now, completely new rules and a possibility of a completely new pecking order raised the expectations amid the public.
The teams will start this new era after having just 12 days of testing. This is not even close to the ideal amount, so everyone will use the first races and the tracks as laboratories, to learn even more about the package, the tyres and above all, the power units.
However, the tests in Spain and Bahrain answered some questions and at least we could learn some things.
1 - Mercedes indeed has the upper hand
Last year, the reports from the F1 paddock indicated that Mercedes would start the V6 turbo era ahead of its rivals – and the tests confirmed it very clearly. All the Mercedes teams (McLaren, Williams, Force India and, of course, Mercedes) displayed at least once impressive performances and it is expected that the beginning of the season will have one of them as the main strengths.
Reliability will also be crucial and Mercedes has the upper hand on that too. The German manufacturer almost managed to put under its belt the same amount of kilometres than Ferrari and Renault together. That means more knowledge and more possibility of positive results in the races.
By all indications, the Mercedes factory team is the one to be beaten on the early season, as they showed strong speed, race pace and reliability, but this scenario is not quite clear.
2 - Renault teams are really struggling
It is almost funny to see how things can change in F1 from one season to the other. Renault, the most successful engine supplier in the last era (winning 5 out of 8 years with the V8s), was quite optimistic they would stay on top with the V6s turbo. Just remember what Remi Taffin, Renault’s head of track operations, told F1plus on last year’s finale, at Interlagos:
“Let’s say I’m 99% sure that we’ll have a power unit that is able to win at Melbourne”, he said. “Unless the four teams that we are supplying next year are three seconds off we can say ‘okay, we’ve done a bad job’.” And, guess what, it seems to be the case.
The four Renault teams (Red Bull, Lotus, Toro Rosso and Caterham) had without exception a terrible time at testing. Caterham’s Kamui Kobayashi believes the French power unit is around 20-30 km/h slower than the rivals on the straights. And the engine not only showed poor performance, but unreliability (especially overheating) was really a trend. Renault gathered 8,770 km in the 12 days of testing – less than Ferrari’s 10,214 km and Mercedes’ 17,994 km.
Therefore, Red Bull, the team that won the last nine races of 2013 season, will celebrate if they finish Australian GP with at least one car.
3 - Williams can dream about a genuine comeback season
The power units’ scenario is the best statement possible: Williams took the right decision by switching from Renault to Mercedes. More than that: the Grove squad seems to have built a strong car aerodynamically speaking, which means the package is very, very promising.
The FW36 was arguably one of the quickest cars in testing, as Felipe Massa set the best time after eight days at Sakhir. Reliability was there as well, thanks to Mercedes. The team also strengthened its engineering side and it seems to be in best financial moment in the last few years. Isn’t that the recipe of success?
Massa is experienced and motivated enough to lead the team towards the top, and Valtteri Bottas is also an interesting prospect of the grid. So, being above the average with engine, chassis, drivers, personnel and budget, Williams seems to be about to have a promising season in 2014.
4 - The unreliable F1 is back
In the recent V8 era in F1, it was quite rare to see lots of mechanical failures at the top teams. This year, that seems to be set to change.
The power units are way more complexes, especially on what regards cooling systems, electronic and the ERS. The new gearboxes and even the new brake-by-wire system are also giving headaches to the teams. So, the result couldn’t be different: the cars are not as reliable as they were until last year.
There were several mechanical problems from the first to the last day of testing, and nobody has been immune to it. We can expect more unpredictability on this side, which means the teams shall never forget that old mantra: “To finish first you first have to finish.”
What do we still need to learn?
Twelve days of testing are almost nothing considering all the changes for 2014 season. That’s why there are a lot of things that are still unclear – and the answers will come in the next few months.
Race pace x fuel consumption. F1 is no more about just speed and reliability. The fuel consumption will also play a key role on the races, as the cars must only use 100 kg of fuel on Sundays. How will the teams deal with that?
Will Renault bounce back? The answer of this question will determine if Red Bull and Lotus will remain as two of the biggest forces of the grid of if they will drop to the midfield pack.
Which driver will stand out with the new cars? The new rules of engine and aerodynamics changed the way of driving a F1 car. Will the quickest drivers until 2013 remain as the best in 2014?
How will the tyres behave? The hot topic on the last couple of years is a little bit hidden amid the technical changes for 2014. But how important will they be after the teams already got to grips with their new cars?