Hamilton to halt Vettel dominance
Tom Millard says the works Mercedes team can thrive in F1's new hybrid era with Lewis Hamilton our pick for the title.
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Sebastian Vettel will line up on the grid in Melbourne on Sunday having won every grand prix since August last year - an unsurpassed run of nine consecutive Formula 1 races.
He won't be making it 10.
The world champion's Red Bull Racing team appear in utter disarray as they prepare for the season-opener, victims of their own response to the sport's wide-ranging rule changes.
Unable to even complete a full race-distance simulation in pre-season testing, Vettel has had to sit in the garage twiddling his thumbs while his engineers take screwdrivers and hacksaws to his new steed.
The new regulations (see below) have ensured that engines and energy-recovery systems are a bigger part of the competitive equation this year, and the designers of the new RB10 and its Renault powertrain have simply been caught on the hop.
The betting markets have every faith that Red Bull will eventually find some form, refusing to write off the four-time champion, but Vettel has now ceded ante-post favouritism in the drivers' championship for the first time since 2010.
Usurping him at the top of the lists is Lewis Hamilton, the man whose switch from McLaren to Mercedes for the start of last season provoked derision from his critics, but who now appears to be in exactly the right place at the right time as the competitive deck is shuffled.
Hamilton's team-mate Nico Rosberg and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso are the other two drivers listed at single-figure prices, while the experienced Jenson Button (McLaren) and Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) are also considered contenders for what the raft of regulation changes should ensure will be a hugely unpredictable start to the season.
We'll quickly run through the big changes punters will need to be aware of (detailed analysis can be found here), and then assess each team and driver's chances in the 19-race season to come, before outlining our ante-post betting picks.
New for 2014
The bare stats from testing make grim reading for Christian Horner's men: 1063 miles completed, four on-track stoppages or crashes, zero full race simulations, and a fastest lap time in Bahrain 2.5 seconds off the pace. The principal problem appears to be in exploiting their energy recovery technology - a series of gremlins have restricted all the Renault runners from accessing the full potential of its ERS device, resulting in straight-line speed deficits of up to 20mph to their rivals. Whereas Mercedes and Ferrari's engine boffins have been working on their harvesting and storage technology for the full five years of the last rules cycle, Red Bull's Kers system was developed in-house rather than as part of Renault's engine department.
Teething problems for the vastly-complicated new powertrain were therefore all but inevitable as the engine manufacturer sought firstly to familiarise themselves with the technology, then incorporate it into brand-new engine and fit it to four different F1 chassis. Red Bull are therefore in the least enviable position of all the 'factory' outfits in that the chassis and powertrain departments operate out of two bases 400 miles apart - Mercedes' engine division is 30 miles down the road in Brixworth; Ferrari's literally next door to the old Maranello workshops.
But the extent to which the partnership has totally lost their way has been remarkable - Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko was quoted as saying that the "opening race comes at least two months too early for us". The key to their season will be how long it takes for the team and Renault to properly integrate the system, and how much Adrian Newey's aggressive design will have to be compromised in the process. Rumours abound that it could be mid-season before a solution which allows the RB10 to hit its straps is found, by which time Sebastian Vettel's hopes of a fifth consecutive title might well have been extinguished.
Vettel is out to 7/2 from odds-on at the turn of the year but although he can never be written off, it's impossible not to see him trading longer than that price once the reality of his situation becomes apparent next weekend. The silver-lining for the previously-dominant German is a chance to show a side to his character he hasn't yet had to display as he aims to cement his legacy as a sporting great. Mark Webber's replacement Daniel Ricciardo (50/1), meanwhile, will at least be allowed to find his feet away from the spotlight, but might struggle to make his mark in the turbulent atmosphere of the early races.
Fastest over long runs in pre-season testing, most miles completed for engine and chassis, and every box ticked in preparation for Melbourne next weekend. Mercedes are clear favourites based on what we have seen from the on-track action over the last couple of months, so it will have given their rivals no comfort to hear Lewis Hamilton insist there is "a lot more to come" from both him and the car. Departing team principal Ross Brawn has left the Brackley-based team in terrific shape, having overseen a two-year project aimed ensuring the chassis and powertrain departments were perfectly integrated with no stone left unturned at the advent of the new engine formula.
If that sounds familiar, it's because Brawn executed exactly the same plan five years ago, the last time there was such a revolution in the regulations, when this very team, months after being rescued from the ashes of Honda, blew away the opposition at Albert Park. The script could well be repeated this time around but it's worth noting that the F1 W05 has been far from bulletproof despite racking up the miles - it has endured its share of overheating, gearbox failures and an unscheduled engine change in the final test alone. Felipe Massa pipped the 2008 champion to the overall fastest time in the second Bahrain test, but the first sector of the lap following Hamilton's flyer suggested he had the pace to dethrone the Williams had he not chosen to abort the effort.
Nico Rosberg, too, set a lap just 0.2 seconds slower on the penultimate day in conditions that were thought to be slightly less favourable, so 2014 could see the rivalry between the former karting buddies ramp up a notch with so much at stake. As things stand, Hamilton and Rosberg, at the peak of their careers, have the best seats in the house and will be determined to make the most of their chances.
A characteristically low-key testing programme has left more questions than answers for the Scuderia. The evidence suggest their car is amongst the fastest on heavy fuel loads but lacks the downforce and rear-end grip of their fastest rivals, while the engine seems to lack the fuel-efficiency of the Mercedes equivalent.
Neither Fernando Alonso, 7/1 fourth favourite for the title, nor Kimi Raikkonen (14/1) showed anything to suggest they will be in the first couple of rows of the grid in Melbourne next weekend. The F14 T's race pace appears creditable but Alonso's best qualifying-spec time was still a second shy of Hamilton's similar effort, while there was nothing to suggest the Scuderia were holding anything back in terms of outright pace.
Only Rosberg completed more miles than the Spaniard but the returning Raikkonen, who this time four years ago was being paid not to drive by the team, was less fortunate, experiencing various problems in the final test. Ferrari's season will once again hinge on whether they can match their rivals' pace of development through the season, something which they have fallen short of in the last few years. The windtunnel correlation problems they have experienced in the past are said to be behind them but we will only know this for sure later in the season.
Lotus have had arguably the most disrupted winter of all the 11 teams, losing team principal Eric Boullier to McLaren and a number of other key personnel who have followed Raikkonen out of the door. After missing the first test at Jerez simply because their new car wasn't ready, the Bahrain meetings further served to show how under-prepared the team are for the start of the season. Like the other Renault-engined teams, Lotus have been forced to run the engine below its full potential in order to simply get some miles on the clock and learn about the car itself.
As a result, Romain Grosjean, the only driver to seriously trouble Vettel in the second half of last season, is out to a triple-figure price for the title, while new recruit Pastor Maldonado will surely be regretting burning his bridges at the suddenly-sprightly Williams team. Put simply, we don't know how quick the Lotus is because it hasn't yet been able to run anywhere close to its maximum, which doesn't bode well for the start of the championship.
To some extent the team are at the mercy of Renault Sport's software engineers as they race against time to unleash the potential of their powertrain. But despite the nightmare start and the defections, the winning DNA passed down from the Benetton and Renault glory days remains, so if any outfit is capable of restoring respectability it is 'Team Enstone'.
"I'm quite happy with the basic car we have," said McLaren's lead driver Jenson Button earlier this month, "but I know we need more downforce." The MP4-29 which was rolled out at Jerez in January was essentially the same piece of kit which finished the second Bahrain test five weeks later after planned upgrades failed to arrive, so the car racing in Melbourne will be very different than the one which recorded the 11th fastest time in the hands of Kevin Magnussen last week.
Nevertheless, the straight-talking Briton has appeared less and less sanguine in each interview since the start of testing, which doesn't reflect well on their chances given his chipper demeanour in southern Spain when the first test kicked off. As someone who was forced to wrestle a poorly-conceived car through 19 rounds for little reward in 2013, there was initially a sense that this car could be the one to catapult the Woking team back towards the front of the grid. But the 2009 champion's price has doubled from 6/1 third favourite to 12/1 over the last two weeks as bookies and punters react to the lack of pace shown by the silver cars.
Magnussen, whose father Jan started a grand prix for the team in 1995, has quietly impressed insiders, completing the third most miles of any driver across the winter. The Dane is 16/1 to take the title in his debut season, but his and Button's chances cannot really be quantified until Friday morning's practice session at Albert Park.
Some number-crunchers have pencilled in the VJM07 as the third-fastest car in the field on the basis of the three pre-season tests. Ferrari and McLaren might ultimately prove to be ahead of the small Silverstone-based team but they certainly have the right engines, and in Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez two talented and intelligent young drivers. Perez, who was shuffled out of McLaren to make way for Magnussen, has landed on his feet in Northamptonshire, while Hulkenberg's re-signing is a genuine coup for team principal Vijay Mallya.
The team were among the earliest to start work on their 2014 challenger, sacrificing development on last year's midfield challenger to make the best of the new regulations, and the team head to Australia in good shape after some solid long-run simulations over the winter. Each-way optimists might be looking at Hulkenberg to give them a run for their money at 100/1, although the one-fifth the odds for three places realistically squeezes out any value. Perez starts the season at 200/1.
A description of Sauber's winter testing performance could also be used to summarise the team's entire F1 adventure as it approaches the 21st anniversary of its first race: solid, consistent, unremarkable. There were a few teething issues with the new C33 chassis in Jerez but the team enjoyed generally decent reliability in the process of putting over 2,500 miles on the clock.
Adrian Sutil, the experienced German driver, joins the squad while Brazilian Esteban Gutierrez gets a second crack after a creditable debut season in 2013. The pair will be adopting Sauber's perennial target to beat fellow midfielders Force India, Toro Rosso and Williams but the first and last of that trio appear to be in better shape than their Swiss sparring partners on current evidence. Sutil's early performances should prove a reliable benchmark for the team's ambitions - if he's knocking on the door of Q3, a promising season beckons; if he's marooned in Q1, it could be a tough campaign.
The switch from Ferrari to Renault powertrains could end up costing the Red Bull junior squad a chance of breaking into the top six of the constructors' championship. The Faenza-based team is suffering similar problems to its big brother in packaging and cooling the engine and energy-storage devices, not to mention getting the package working close to its full potential.
Jean-Eric Vergne posted some respectable times in the 1m 35s on the final day of testing in Bahrain, but the laps were low-fuel qualifying simulations and look to place the team firmly in the midfield - ahead of Sauber, Caterham, Marussia and Lotus, but behind their usual midfield rivals Force India and Williams. Highly-rated Russian teenager Daniil Kvyat joins Vergne at the team and looks comfortable in the car on the limited evidence available so far.
As the surprise package of the testing season, there is a case to be made that Williams has the quickest car of all on the evidence from Bahrain. Felipe Massa's time last Saturday afternoon was never bettered while he, team-mate Valtteri Bottas and third driver Felipe Nasr clocked up over 3,000 largely untroubled miles through the course of the winter.
Most paddock sages believe that the Mercedes works challenger has a little more in hand than the retro-liveried, Martini-sponsored FW36, but chief technical officer Pat Symonds couldn't contain his optimism post-Bahrain. "It has been a very successful pre-season," said the man who guided Alonso and Michael Schumacher to four drivers' titles over the last 20 years with Renault/Benetton. "The reliability of the most complex part of the new car [the powertrain] has just been exceptional."
The absence of serious problems in their preparation explain why former Ferrari number two Massa has been backed in from three-figure prices into as short as 20/1, with Bottas listed at a general 50/1 to take the title in just his second season in the sport. A beefed-up technical structure including some impressive recruitments on the engineering side should help Williams maintain pace advantage over the better-funded non-Mercedes runners at least until the F1 circus gets back on European soil, although there doesn't appear an obvious way to support them in the ante-post markets. At the very least we can expect a Williams team consistently challenging for podiums on merit in the early part of the season, something which the venerable old team hasn't done for nearly 10 years.
Marussia's technical tie-up with Ferrari could finally be the catalyst for the perennial backmarkers to start knocking on the door of the midfield pack. Max Chilton's flying lap on the very final day of testing was only 3.6 seconds slower than Massa's pace-setting effort, and six-tenths faster than a bloke called Sebastian Vettel in a blue car normally found nearer the front.
The car looks well-balanced if slightly wanting in terms of downforce and grip, but might yet start the season with a chance of making Q2 on merit, something it has been unable to do in the last four years. An electrical problem on the final day of running dampened enthusiasm slightly but the fact that Chilton's time was only 0.6 seconds shy of the team's fastest lap in the race weekend in Bahrain last year, things appear to be looking up for the minnows. Ferrari academy driver Jules Bianchi retains his seat on the other side of the garage as Marussia field an unchanged line-up from last season.
Caterham's CT05 can certainly lay claim to be one of the most striking pieces of machinery from what we have seen of the runners so far, but unfortunately not in a positive way. The green machine sports a nose which only its designers could love, and there's no sign that F1 returnee Kamui Kobayashi or rookie Marcus Ericsson will be able to get it any further than Q1 at the start of the season.
Kobayashi's re-emergence is a genuine feel-good story in the piranha-infested waters of the F1 driver market but the popular Japanese will have his work cut out to get noticed given the troubles their engine supplier have been experiencing over the last few weeks. Nevetheless, the Norfolk-based squad racked up the most miles of any of the Renault-supplied teams and have completed double the laps of fellow tail-enders Marussia. Sadly the pace doesn't appear to be there, with Ericsson's fastest lap the thick end of a second off Chilton's time, meaning reliability is likely to be the team's sole trump card in the early races.
So, is this the end of an era?
The last five years in F1 have really been all about one man: an engineer with a sharp pencil and a sharper mind, whose design concept set the benchmark for that rules cycle and whose subsequent iterations kept it ahead of the innovation curve.
But with aerodynamics now set to play a less significant role in the overall performance of the car, Adrian Newey's immense gifts will no longer be the determining factor in the brave new world of fuel-flow restrictions, energy harvesting and hybrid engine technology.
Like a virtuoso violinist playing in a thunderstorm, Red Bull's chief technical officer has had to watch while his latest sculpted masterpiece trundles round the circuit at half-pace before arriving back in the garage, shrouded in smoke, on the bed of a truck.
The new Renault V6 turbo and its energy-recovery ancilliaries simply were not ready to be integrated into the car in time for the pre-season tests, meaning the RB10 has yet to complete more than 20 consecutive laps as the teams head to Australia.
Toro Rosso and Caterham are in similarly dire straits and Lotus appear to be in an even worse position.
With the Ferrari-powered cars looking in better shape but having shown nothing to suggest they will be at the sharp end in Melbourne, it looks to be the Mercedes-engined teams which will be setting the pace at the opener.
Of those, the works Silver Arrows could turn out to be the most formidable racers and it's a surprise to see Mercedes at odds-against prices to win the constructors' championship this season.
Critics were unconvinced about the 'top-heavy' nature of Mercedes' management structure - at one point last season there were five engineers who had held the title of technical director there or at at other teams.
But just a couple of months after Ross Brawn hung a 'gone fishing' sign on his office door, the chiefs he left behind were marshalling the Indians to the top of the timesheets in Jerez.
If the initial performance advantage of the Brackley-based team is as convincing as some in the paddock fear, the development potential of a richly-funded team with an already significant head start could be too much for the other competitors to overcome.
In such a situation the championship could therefore come down to a straight fight between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, arguably the strongest driver line-up on the grid.
At this point it would be fashionable to trot out a cliché about this being a battle between the fast-but-ragged genius with a heavy right foot who wears his heart on his sleeve, up against the cool, cerebral lateral-thinker whose clever tyre-management and reading of a race makes up for a lack of outright pace.
But, frankly, that is nonsense.
One only has to watch Rosberg's stunning pole positions in Bahrain, Spain and Monaco last year to acknowledge his stunning natural talent, while Hamilton's performance in taking victory in Hungary in a race he had no right to win gives the lie to the critics who claim the Englishman is a tyre-shredding boy racer.
The big problem with the Mercedes of 2013 vintage was less about wear and more about its propensity to drop its tyres out of the operating window at seemingly unforseeable moments.
Bahrain and Spain were the two worst races for that - the first of which Rosberg dropped eight places from his starting position and Hamilton only one; the second of which Rosberg dropped five spots and Hamilton 10.
In any case, the indications are that tyre degradation will be less of a factor this season as a result of Pirelli introducing slightly more durable compounds across the range.
The current consensus appears to be that the German's driving style and approach will be better suited to the demands of the fuel limitations, that his smoother technique will see him use less juice and potentially take advantage late in the race.
The trouble is, there's not actually any evidence to support these assumptions - they may turn out to be true, but without any empirical confirmation it's better to dismiss them as lazy stereotyping.
It's more likely that the fuel consumption of the cars of two drivers in the same team will turn out to be relatively evenly-matched, with the fuel flow at the mercy of the engine-mapping software buried in the ECU and the efficiency of the power plant and its energy-recovery units.
The winner of the intra-Mercedes match-up - and therefore possibly the title - will almost certainly be the bloke who shows himself to be the quicker driver over the 19 races of the season.
And we'd cautiously suggest that that should, just about, be Hamilton.
The pair's relative performances ebbed and flowed last season and although the Englishman pipped Nico in the championship, Rosberg was arguably the more consistent driver.
But it's worth remembering that 2013 was Rosberg's fourth season with the team; Hamilton barely had time to take off his shoes, never mind get his feet under the table after his McLaren contract ended the previous December.
With a full year under his belt and a strong pre-season behind him, Lewis's slight edge in raw pace might just prove the difference between the pair as the year rolls on.
The key to the rivalry could be how each driver reacts to the new 'brake-by-wire' system introduced in response to the demands of harvesting braking energy on the rear axle.
Throughout last year Hamilton complained that the Brembo discs on his car lacked feel, that he couldn't commit as hard and as late as he wanted when decelerating from high speed, particularly on street circuits such as Montreal.
Modifications were made but as late as Singapore he was still not totally happy.
This season the entire rear end has been completely overhauled due to the introduction of ERS, and as far as we're aware there have been no whispers of discontent from Hamilton's side of the garage thus far.
While recognising Rosberg's talent and racecraft, we'll cautiously back Hamilton to edge the dual and take a second title in what we hope will be an entertaining season-long battle between the two.