The Formula One season kicks off in Melbourne next weekend and these are the things you need to know about the coming season
1. It will take an almighty effort to topple Mercedes-Benz
Of course we desperately want Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull to win races in 2015. And our boy snaring the title would be nice, too.
Not gonna happen. Not the title, although a race win will not shock, not after his stellar 2014.
This year, as was the case in 2014, will be a Merc romp.
The Silver Arrows breezed through the 12 days of pre-season testing completing the most laps – a solid indicator of reliability – and setting the fastest times. Speed is always handy.
World champion Lewis Hamilton has indicated the Mercedes' W06 2015 car feels much the same to drive as last year's dominant machine.
"I'm even using the same seat from last year, the steering wheel is the same, the cockpit is the same… just have a little more downforce,” said the Brit. "The characteristics of the car feel pretty much the same, too." So no acclimatisation needed for Hamilton and Rosberg.
Best of the rest across the 12 days was Williams-Mercedes, looking even more competitive than last year, with both Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa going quick.
On the basis of what we’ve seen to date – before the teams lob in Melbourne – Red Bull might be in catch-up mode, chasing Williams, a much improved Ferrari, a very busy Sauber and even, embarrassingly if it happens, junior team Toro Rosso.
2. Honda won’t have it as easy rediscovering winning ways
Past glories are nice, but don’t ever think they will automatically be repeated. Honda knows this as it takes another shot at the F1 world championship, again as an engine supplier.
In previous spells in F1, variously as an entrant, constructor and engine supplier between 1964 and 2008, Honda basked in celebrated success. In the mid-1980s, Honda power was the ticket to the podium. Honda engines powered six consecutive constructor champions (two with Williams and four with McLaren), as well as five consecutive driver titles (one by Nelson Piquet, three by Ayrton Senna, and one by Alain Prost).
Less successfully, Honda returned in 2000, providing engines for the underperforming BAR, which the Japanese manufacturer subsequently purchased in 2005 and, when the global financial crisis hit, flogged off to Ross Brawn and his mates. From 2009, the team raced successfully as Brawn GP using Mercedes power.
Back this year as a supplier to old partner McLaren, Honda faces a tough task to become competitive with tricky hybrid power unit technology.
Honda’s most devastating weakness in testing has been ERS seals, forcing engineers to run the engine in a detuned state just to get laps onto the car. Supporters hold hope that, like Red Bull last year, Honda can turn testing misery into smiles on Sunday at Albert Park.
The brutal truth is that Honda’s power unit managed just 1751km of pre-season testing, while Renault – the next worst – covered 9886km.
3. Questions whether Bernie lasts another year
At 84, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone is the great survivor.
Eternal tabloid fodder, bribery allegations, admissions that he understands what’s wrong with F1 but doesn’t know how to fix it, German state bank BayernLB suing him and his family holding Bambino for about €345 million over the sale of its stake in F1, regular attacks of foot-in-mouth disease…
Praising Hitler in 2009 for his ability to “get things done” and admitting he preferred totalitarian regimes to democracies also brought Ecclestone under savage fire, and he later suggested he was an idiot for saying such things.
The newest tabloid tale is that a letter sent to the now-defunct Caterham in 2013 – apparently genuine – reminds the team that “where possible, grid access passes should be used for celebrities or people of note or, as always, really glamorous ladies”. Bad news for fuglies everywhere.
There was also his humiliating about-face following pressure from teams and fans to not keep his controversial double points rule for the final race of the season. "The teams have not accepted it because they are bloody idiots. They are all mechanics. They think of their team in the short term,” Bernie ranted, when caving.
But the big teams in F1 don’t seem to mind these slips and barbs, as long as Bernie continues to make them money.
4. Chance of a female driver in an Grand Prix this year: close to zip
A female on the F1 grid would be so positive for the sport. There is no physical impediment, especially with power steering and other driver assistance.
We’ve seen it before, of course, although only two women racing drivers ever started a grand prix – Maria Teresa de Filippis (three races in the 1950s) and Lella Lombardi (12 races in 1974-76).
Williams named Scotswoman Susie Wolff as its official test driver in 2014 and again this year, bringing a welter of attention to the team. She may get a chance should one of the regulars be unable to race.
IndyCar racer Simona de Silvestro was last year appointed an "affiliated driver" by Sauber, but that might not lead anywhere, despite her obvious talent.
Now, amid much debate, Lotus F1 has signed comely Spanish racer Carmen Jorda as a development driver, despite a record of more than 150 race starts and no wins. The 26-year-old has spent the last three seasons in GP3, where her best race finish is 13th.
She dismissed criticism from former rivals as “jealousy”. The glass ceiling doubles as a make-up mirror.
5. Survival is an ongoing issue for the minnows on the grid
Marussia and Caterham went into administration last October and missed the end-of-season races. It wasn’t a good look for the premier form of motor sport.
There has been a knock-on effect, too. Suppliers to struggling teams are now demanding payment up front.
During the northern winter, Force India, Sauber and Lotus went public with their financial struggles, and only a week ago Bernie Ecclestone reportedly offered each a $US10 million advance to help ease cash-flow problems and to quell fears that just 12 cars would be on the grid at the opening race in Melbourne, which would have been devastating for the reputation of F1.
While Caterham seems to be a basket case, with its assets expected to be liquidated this month, Marussia has fought back from the brink and entered the 2015 championship as the Manor Marussia F1 team.
The problem will not go away until the smaller teams succeed in their quest for a greater share of the revenues and a more level financial playing field.
Self-made Ecclestone, whose personal wealth is estimated at $US3.9 billion, is a tough little sucker.
6. The gamble with the rookies
Toro Rosso’s super-cool Dutch recruit Max Verstappen goes into the first GP of 2015 with the spotlight firmly on him as the youngest driver ever in F1, and with the right genes – his dad is former F1 racer Jos.
Max will be just 17 years, 5 months and 14 days when the lights go at Albert Park on March 15.
He has shown his class, but F1 is a huge leap into the unknown. The wonderkid won 10 European F3 championship races last year (though he didn’t take the title).
Red Bull motor sport mentor Helmut Marko says Max reminds him of a young Ayrton Senna. Luckily, Verstappen wears the pressure and expectations lightly.
The second Toro Rosso driver is another son of a gun, the poised Carlos Sainz Jr, who arrives on the F1 grid via the traditional route after winning the Formula Renault 3.5 championship last year. Sainz Jr looked to have dipped out on his F1 chance but got the nod after Sebastian Vettel made his late call to head to Ferrari.
Both Toro Rosso rookies will need to perform because the team has a history of not being big on patience; perform or depart seems to be the theme. Ask Jean-Eric Vergne or Jaime Alguersuari.
Sauber’s Felipe Nasr was quick in testing, but the big examination of his ability starts on Sunday afternoon. Dismissing him as a ‘pay driver’ is too harsh, although the Brazillian brings money to the team. But he beat Kevin Magnussen in British F3 in 2011 and was runner-up in the Macau Grand Prix the same year. He was a test driver with Williams last year but opted for a full-time role with Sauber, and should outshine team-mate Marcus Ericsson.
Reinvented and (hopefully) returning Manor F1 – formerly Marussia – hasn’t announced the name of its second driver to partner Will Stevens, who has just one GP (Abu Dhabi last year) to his name. If it’s rich kid Jordan King, as is rumoured, four rookies will be on the grid in Melbourne.
7. Missing Melbourne a smart move for Alonso
Even accounting for health safeguards that have forced Fernando Alonso to miss the Australian Grand Prix as he recovers from the knock on his head suffered in a testing crash on February 22, the Spaniard will have other reasons to give the opening race a swerve.
He will probably avoid the ignominy of struggling to avoid a rear-of-grid start, then duelling with cellar-dwellers, followed by a non-finish. This appears to be McLaren-Honda’s fate next weekend.
Instead, Fernando can concentrate on being fit for race two in Malaysia. Doctors see no evidence of any injury in Alonso, whose condition was described as 'asymptomatic', but they want to dispel any possible risk factors.
They describe him as entirely healthy from neurological and cardiac perspectives. But, as we’ve seen from footballers who have been concussed, there is a risk of long-term issues if they don’t take a rest.
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