It seemed like almost yesterday we sat on the edge of our seats, battle lines drawn between Mercedes-AMG teammates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, as they fought corner to corner for the 2014 F1 World Championship.
The modern-era script had been rewritten. The Red Bull juggernaut had been broken – the turbocharged V6 from Renault its Achilles heel. Ferrari struggled as well, as the might of the works Mercedes team sped off into dominance, bringing their customer teams Williams, Force India, and McLaren to shared success.
And although Red Bull were able to claw their way back for a late season charge, it was clearly a two horse race – but it was one for the ages.
The Brit fought off the hard-charging German in Bahrain in a thrilling wheel-to-wheel battle royale. Rosberg persevered in Canada when both Mercedes F1 W05s were stricken by brake problems, finishing second versus Hamilton’s DNF. In the end, Lewis Hamilton proved his edge over his teammate, forcing mistakes, and doing just enough to preserve his second Formula One World Championship.
The 2015 season brings with it a new benchmark: Beat Mercedes AMG.
Hopes, dreams, reputations, and jobs are on the line. So without further adieu, let’s take a look at the teams and their machines:
Challenger: Mercedes F1 W06
Drivers: Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg
I’ll outright say it: Mercedes mastered the new V6 turbo engines in 2014. For most of the season, any team fortunate enough to have the AMG powerplant instantly became a points finisher, but the works team combined awesome engine performance with leading-edge aerodynamics for what would be an easily dominant package.
There were chinks in the armor, however. Small problems meant Hamilton’s championship run was more contentious than it should have been and it appears these small problems still loom over their 2015 challenger, the W06. Pre-season testing has brought with it electrical problems and with other teams pouring everything into their 2015 cars, reliability must be a priority for Mercedes to fix.
Still, other teams admit Mercedes’ pre-season form is simply a preview of their true pace, and some experts say they still have a 0.7 second advantage over their rivals. That could mean another long season for rival teams.
Infiniti Red Bull Racing
Challenger: Red Bull RB11
Drivers: Daniel Ricciardo, Daniil Kyvat
Toro Rosso graduate Daniel Ricciardo was nothing short of a sensation in 2014. Passing by his 4-time World Champion teammate, along with bold moves on Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton throughout the season, Ricciardo brought Red Bull from a frustrating pre-season test to 2nd in the manufacturer’s standings.
The RB11 is the swan song from longtime aerodynamicist and design genius Adrian Newey, who has taken a smaller role within the team. Questions surround the Renault engine, as well as the in-season aerodynamic development without Newey, but if there’s one thing Red Bull has proven over the years it’s that they always find a way to return to the front each year.
Surprise newcomer Daniil Kyvat has shown strong form, matching the pace of former teammate Jean-Eric Verge at Toro Rosso, but with a calm demeanor. The 2015 season will be a big step up and we’ll see if the young Russian is able to keep pace with Ricciardo.
Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro
Challenger: Ferrari SF15-T
Drivers: Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen
No other team on the grid experienced a larger off-season ctrl+alt+del than Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro. Gone are Fernando Alonso, Luca Di Montezemolo, and Mario Mattiaci – in are Sebastian Vettel, Maurizio Arrivabene, and a success-at-all-costs attitude.
Yet, despite such a massive overhaul of personnel, signs are promising. The car seems reliable and the pace is good – even with the mental games being played in pre-season testing. There’s no doubt the drivers are some of the best you can have, with newcomer Sebastian Vettel looking to channel his countryman Michael Schumacher in pulling the legendary marque from a mid-pack challenger back to World Championship dominance.
Williams Martini Racing
Challenger: Williams FW37
Drivers: Felipe Massa, Valtteri Bottas
If there’s one good thing to have coming into a new season, it’s knowing your car is good, it just needs one area of improvement. Last year, Williams vaulted itself from a near-backmarker to race-winning potential, consistently keeping Mercedes honest during the season, and outrunning every rival except for Red Bull on occasion. Clearly the fastest car in a straight line in 2014, this year’s goal is simple: find the extra downforce to handle the turns while keeping the straight-line speed.
The question is: can Williams continue to run near the front with a comparatively small budget versus the works teams? It may be a bold prediction, but expect at least one win from Valtterri Bottas before the year is out.
Challenger: McLaren MP4-30
Drivers: Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso
The drivers may as well be Shaggy and Scooby Doo, because the MP4-30 is this year’s “Mystery Machine.” The team with the largest change in engineering, switching from Mercedes to Honda power, has struggled mightily in pre-season testing. Everyone is hoping the Honda engine will rekindle dominating performance from the Senna days, but it’s worth noting the struggles Honda has faced in more recent years – from Takuma Sato’s trademark engine explosions in 2003-2005, to the horrid performance of the “elephant ears” 2007 challenger – means success isn’t guaranteed.
Still, with World Championship-winning drivers, Ron Dennis in control, and Honda’s extra year of V6 development, success should come soon. There’s simply too much on the line and too much talent.
Sahara Force India
Challenger: Force India VJM08
Drivers: Nico Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez
Despite a noticeable lift in points in 2014, Force India heads into 2015 looking to reverse a downward trend in performance towards the end of last season’s races. The driver lineup remains unchanged, giving the team the best stable of drivers who may be poised to jump to a front-running team, and Mercedes power returns – both promising factors.
What is not promising is the team’s financial struggles. Despite sizable prize money from coming 6th in last year’s championship (nearly coming 5th after tussling with McLaren through the later stages), many eyebrows were raised at news reports saying the team had not paid suppliers. It’s a microcosm of the financial state of F1 at the moment – if a team can be relatively successful, yet not have the money to pay suppliers, there’s a problem.
Lotus F1 Team
Challenger: Lotus E23 Hybrid
Drivers: Romain Grosjean, Pastor Maldonado
2014 was tough for the Enstone squad. After a strong 2013 that saw drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean bring home wins and podiums, the team struggled mightily last season. The “tusk” nose design didn’t generate the airflow necessary, while the Renault engine further curtailed their hopes for podiums.
This year, Lotus has shed the strange for a clean design that aligns with what the top teams have also done. But the big change is behind the driver, with a brand new powerplant from Mercedes. For a team that achieved success in 2013, there’s a chance last season’s form could be an aberration. But, like Force India, financial problems are a cloud that looms. If the package is strong from the start, can Lotus continue to develop their vehicle?
Scuderia Toro Rosso
Challenger: Toro Rosso STR10
Drivers: Carlos Sainz Jr., Max Verstappen
If those driver names seem familiar, you’re not mistaken. The sons of Carlos Sainz and Jos Verstappen are now at an age to race in F1. At just 17 years old, Verstappen will be the youngest F1 driver ever, and making the jump from Formula 3 to Formula 1 was met with questions and concerns from current and former F1 drivers alike. To be fair, Verstappen won 10 races in F3, the most of any driver in that field, so there can be no doubt he has the speed necessary.
As the junior team of Red Bull, don’t expect a huge change in race pace from previous years, but top times in testing at Jerez are promising. Of course, we’ve seen Toro Rosso run high in the points before, even winning a race way back in 2008, so there’s potential one of these young hot-shoes could vault the team forward.
Sauber F1 Team
Challenger: Sauber C34
Drivers: Marcus Ericsson, Felipe Nasr
2014 was a disastrous season for the Swiss team, as they failed to score a single point. Financial problems, engine struggles, and an overall poor design proved to be too much to overcome. But, 2015 is a new season, and one that could return the Hinwil-based squad back to points finishes.
The Ferrari engine seems to have improved, while new drivers Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr bring no shortage of cash to a perennial cash-strapped team. Of the two, Nasr brings a little more raw pace, while Ericsson has the F1 experience, but whether the two can vault a car that seems to still have large mountains to climb is a big question.
Manor F1 Team
Drivers: Will Stevens, TBD
The status of the team formerly known as Marussia F1 doesn’t seem promising. After capturing 2 points for the first time in the young team’s existence, financial struggles shut the doors on the factory. 2016 challengers Haas F1 Team purchased the team’s (incomplete) 2015 challenger and facilities at auction, while a desperate plea from the team to run last year’s car at the beginning of the 2015 season was blocked by Force India. The future doesn’t seem bright as the season fast approaches, with minimal funding,
no drivers (one driver! Just announced – Will Stevens, former Marussia test/reserve driver), and no new car.
Even if they could get special clearance from the FIA, they would be running (as backmarkers) with the hope that someone would buy out the team. There’s also a few million dollars in prize money that, if Manor won’t be able to race in 2015, would be divided amongst the teams who are. Force India, Lotus, and Sauber can deny their intentions all they want, but that money can mean the difference between a World Championship point and not.
#ForzaJules no matter what happens.