Formula 1 Musical Chairs

Thursday 12th, March 2015 / 14:06 Written by
Formula 1 Musical Chairs

With under three weeks to go until the first race in Australia, the Formula One winter break is finally almost over. Winter testing has allowed us a closer look at the 2015 driver line up – both new and old faces – and what we might hope to expect from them. Caterham are sadly leaving the sport this year, unable to find enough financial backing to lift themselves out of administration. To the delight of all, however, the 2014 Marussia team – now known as Manor, or Manor-Marussia – have exited administration, and will be racing from the very first Grand Prix of the season. Although Caterham’s exit has shrunk the driver market by two spots, five promising rookies have found spots on the Formula One grid, creating a mixture of fresh talent and experience bound to produce fireworks.

 

Constructors champions Mercedes have maintained last year’s extremely successful – and competitive – driver line up of 2014 World Champion Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Arguably the best line up on the grid, and certainly the best car, it is hardly surprising that competition between the two was high last year. While competitiveness is clearly a necessary characteristic in Formula One, even the drivers would not deny that it has been taken too far at times. The Belgian Grand Prix is of course the primary example, with Rosberg refusing to back out of an ill advised overtaking attempt on the second lap of the race, when the drivers were leading. The further revelation that Rosberg admitted that he had not yielded to Hamilton in order to ‘prove a point’ soured relations between the drivers themselves for the rest of the year, and indeed between the drivers and the team bosses. After the last race of the year, however, the two drivers seemed to have reconciled, Rosberg congratulating Hamilton warmly on his World Championship title. Their team bosses will no doubt be hoping that this friendlier atmosphere, visibly continued throughout testing, can continue in the 2015 season.

 

Red Bull have exchanged their 4 time world champion Sebastian Vettel for 19 year old Daniil Kvyat, and unsurprisingly chosen to keep last year’s new boy Daniel Ricciardo. Ricciardo exceeded any expectations placed on him in 2014, consistently outperforming Sebastian Vettel and becoming the only non-Mercedes driver to win a race in the 2014 season, not just once, but three times. Vettel’s swift move to Ferrari has been subject to much discussion, with speculation that he could not handle the challenge Ricciardo presented, and criticism that he seems to have dropped the team that brought him so much success as a result of one poor year. Regardless of the reasons for Vettel’s move, Red Bull will no doubt be hoping that Kvyat can provide a similar challenge to Ricciardo this year. With two years less experience in Formula One than Ricciardo had when entering Red Bull, however, it would be a remarkable feat.

 

Williams are the first of the 4 teams to have maintained their driver line up from last year, in the form of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas. As one of the top teams from the 1980 to the early 2000s, Williams had been sadly suffering for pace over the last few years. Many were delighted to see them return to top form in 2014, as the only car that ever appeared to match the Mercedes for pace. Williams did suffer from some team/driver conflict towards the start of the season, but unlike Mercedes, this issue was resolved quickly. In the second race of the season, Massa was informed that his teammate Bottas was ‘faster than [him]’. This carried unfortunate echoes of similar orders Massa had heard over his years as second driver to Alonso in Ferrari, and he refused to do move aside. The team swiftly apologised for the matter, choosing to only apply team orders when strategies differed in the future. Despite the impressive performance of both drivers throughout the season, Williams never quite managed to capitalise on their chances, making several poor strategy calls in significant moments. This is no doubt something they will be looking to improve on this year.

 

Ferrari are another contender for ‘best driver line up’, keeping Kimi Räikkönen and exchanging Fernando Alonso for Sebastian Vettel. Their combined driver line up has the highest number of world championships between them – due mostly to Vettel’s input – but both drivers performed less well than might have been expected last year. Vettel and Räikkönen both seemed to have trouble adapting to the new regulations, allowing their teammates to regularly outperform them. There is clearly no shame in this for Räikkönen, partnered in 2014 by Alonso, and struggling with a car designed more for his teammate than for him. Ricciardo’s outperformance of Vettel was more surprising, however, and attracted significant criticism from those who found themselves dissatisfied by Vettel’s dominance of the 2011 and 2013 seasons. Despite this, Vettel’s four world championships – two in extremely competitive seasons – make it clear that he is one of the most talented drivers on the modern grid, and Ferrari will certainly be hoping that both drivers can overcome last year’s issues and return the team to winning ways this year.

 

McLaren are undoubtedly the third contender for ‘best driver line up’ – and my personal winners – signing Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso. Unlike Red Bull, McLaren have clearly prioritised experience over youth, regulating last year’s rookie Kevin Magnussen to a test seat. Indeed, they have the highest combined driver age by 6 years, 68 in contrast to Toro Rosso’s 37! With 29 years of Formula One experience and four World Championships between them, Button and Alonso are a popular lineup with long term Formula One fans. The history between McLaren’s Ron Dennis and Alonso may be another reason for seasoned fans’ excitement. The last time Alonso drove for McLaren he broke contract to leave after one year, and was found to have shared private team data with his new team, Ferrari. Many believed that an Alonso/McLaren partnership would never be attempted again, certainly not under the authority of Ron Dennis, but it seems that 8 years’ distance is enough for the issue to be put behind them. The talent of the line up is undeniable, with Fernando Alonso widely considered the most talented driver of this generation. The only question remaining is whether new engine partner Honda can produce engines that will allow them to challenge the Mercedes.

 

Sahara Force India are the third of four teams to have maintained their driver line up from 2014, sticking with Sergio Pérez and Nico Hülkenberg. Hülkenberg replaced Pérez within the Sauber team in 2013 when Pérez was given an opportunity with McLaren, yet managed to outperform his now-teammate over the course of the season in an inferior car. Indeed, Hülkenberg is widely regarded as an extremely exciting talent in Formula One, with many eagerly awaiting the day he is granted a competitive seat to let his talent shine. For the past two seasons, Hülkenberg has been widely praised as a shining talent in the Formula One world, waiting only for a car to allow him to shine, however he will likely be disappointed by a lackluster finish to the 2014 season. Indeed, despite the excitement surrounding Hülkenberg, Pérez is the one who has gathered the better result for the team, earning his second podium in Bahrain last year. With only a two year age gap between them, Pérez and Hülkenberg are both at very similar stages of their careers, both hunting for a top-flight team to elevate them beyond the occasional podium, to a more frequent spot. Pérez has chosen to commit to a two year contract with the team, however, committing himself through 2016, while Hülkenberg appears to be leaving his options omore pen.

 

Toro Rosso have hired two of this season’s five rookies, Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Junior instead. The signing of Max Verstappen has, perhaps unsurprisingly, proved a rather controversial one. He is and will remain the youngest ever Formula One driver at 17 years of age, as the FIA have introduced an age limit of 18 for the 2016 season. Verstappen was announced relatively early in the season, with Red Bull no doubt intending for him to partner Kvyat. When informed of Vettel’s move, however, Red Bull did not shy from advancing their Young Drivers programme through Toro Rosso, announcing Carlos Sainz Junior. Many felt Sainz Jr had been snubbed in favour of Verstappen earlier in the year, but the announcement of an all-rookie line up still raised some eyebrows. Indeed, while their dedication to giving young drivers a chance is impressive, it has also garnered them a reputation for being rather ruthless. 2014 driver Jean-Éric Vergne out performed Kvyat over the season, and was highly competitive with Ricciardo when the two raced together, yet was dropped in favour of the advancement of the Young Driver Programme. With no experienced driver on their team as a reference, Toro Rosso may find it difficult to assess the true strength of both their car and drivers this year.

 

Lotus are the fourth and final team to have kept the same drivers, in the form of Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado. This line up was treated to a rather sceptical response when it was announced, as both Grosjean and Maldonado have a reputation for occasionally reckless driving. The two gathered 19 penalties between them in the 2014 season, Maldonado taking 10 – joint most of any driver with Gutiérrez – and Grosjean 9, the second most of any driver. Unfortunately, driver error was not the worst of Lotus’ problems in 2014. Lotus made the unique choice to go with a double pronged nose, which unfortunately left the car visibly difficult to control at times. In addition to this, they had trouble with the unreliable Renault engine throughout the season, resulting in 11 retirements due to technical failure throughout the season. This left Lotus, who had finished the 2013 season an indisputable member of the top flight of teams, with almost 200 points more than the team below them, struggling to score any points at all in 2014. With 3 points-finishes between both drivers over the season, they found themselves dropping from 4th to 8th in the Constructors Championship. Lotus will certainly be hoping to reverse this turn of fortune in the 2015 season, looking for a more reliable engine and improved car to give their drivers the chance to display their talent.

 

Manor-Marussia have only announced one full-season driver as of the first race in Melbourne, indicating just how last minute the transition out of administration has been. Will Stevens was announced by Manor-Marussia just 24 days before the first race in Melbourne, before which point many the teams’ chance of making the event. The announcement of Roberto Merhi on a short term off driver for the opening races came 20 days later, leaving only two days between driver announcement and the start of the first practice session. The late nature of these appointments may present a rather frantic impression, but ultimately serves to highlight just how impressive Manor-Marussia’s return to the 2015 grid has been. Both Stevens and Merhi have former F1 experience with Manor-Marussia’s 2012-2014 rival team, Caterham. Merhi drove for Caterham in three practice sessions over the 2014 season, yet Stevens was the one called upon when the team found themselves one driver short at the last race of the season. In addition to this, Stevens and Merhi competed together in Formula Renault 3.5 over the course of the 2014 season. Both performed well over the course of the season, each achieving multiple race wins and podium finishes. Stevens finished sixth with two wins and four podiums to his name, coming in 61 points behind Merhi’s impressive third place performance. Merhi achieved six podiums, three of which were wins, but unfortunately simply does not have the financial backing Manor-Marussia desperately need from a full season driver.

 

Sauber have legally binding contracts with three drivers, having announced Felipe Nasr (the fifth and final rookie) and Marcus Ericsson in 2014. This move surprised many in the paddock at the time, as many were aware that Sauber’s 2014 reserve driver Giedo van der Garde also believed he had a contract. van der Garde took the case through the Swiss legal system over the winter break, then to the Australian courts prior to Melbourne, where the team were informed that they had a legal obligation to put him in their car. No doubt the same is true for Nasr and Ericsson, however, and Sauber do not seem to have the money to buy any of their drivers out. van der Garde has a year of experience in Caterham in 2013, supplemented by seven practice sessions in his role at Sauber in 2014. Ericsson also drove for Caterham, in 2014, outperforming experienced teammate Kamui Kobayashi. He swiftly cut his ties with the team when they entered administration partway through the season, perhaps enabling his quick signing to Sauber, but leaving him unable to compete in Caterham’s return at the last race of the season. Nasr performed well as Williams test driver last year, driving in 5 FP1 sessions and 3 days of testing, giving him more experience in a Formula One car than Sainz Jr and Verstappen combined. He has enjoyed consistent success in the lower formulas, coming third in the GP2 championship in 2014 while also fulfilling his responsibilities for Williams.

 

While experienced drivers largely dominate seats within the top teams in 2015, there is a wealth of fresh talent pooling within the midrange/lower teams, and indeed waiting in the wings in test and reserve driver roles. In a sport as competitive as Formula One, more experienced drivers cannot afford to miss a step this season. The same holds true for the 2015 rookies, of course, as Magnussen proved last year that not even a podium in your very first race is enough to guarantee a contract renewal. Within the teams, Mercedes will be looking to dominate for the second season in a row, and others may find themselves hard pressed to stop them.

Vicky Davis

Vicky is studying Biology at university, and grew up in a household obsessed with a wide variety of sports. One of her very first memories is of watching Formula 1, and this love only has grown and spread to encompass further disciplines of motorsport. Now a passionate WEC and Formula E fan, Vicky is thrilled to be attending her first live race in 2015. With further interests in tennis, rugby, and professional cycling, it’s a wonder there’s ever time for coursework!


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