It doesn’t seem two minutes since the chequered flag dropped on the final race of 2013, but here we are again – but with some major changes. No doubt getting bored to tears with Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel’s dominance of the sport, Uncle Bernie and the FIA have come up with some fiendish new rules and regulations to try to put some ‘interest’ back into preceedings. I mean, the last two seasons – save for a handful of Grand Prix – have been about as entertaining to watch as choosing new wallpaper for the spare bedroom on a wet Bank Holiday Monday in one of the famous DIY chain stores. Honestly.
However, my faith has already been restored from the events of pre-season testing. With the return of the turbo-charged engines, you’d think the manufacturers of the power plants in F1 who have experience of this form of transmission from the eighties (Ferrari and Renault) would have a head-start on the rest. This has not been the case at all. Ferrari have been nothing more than ‘distinctly average’ (are they this really, or are they keeping their powder dry till the first race?), while Renault have experienced major problems of their engine over-heating, leading to Red Bull and Lotus completing nowhere near the amount of laps to develop their cars fully. The surprise (so far) is Mercedes. Their engine initially appears to be solid, reliable, and above all, can deliver when it matters. On this alone, expect the teams with the three pointed star on their car to perform well. That would just lead to who has the best chassis out of Mercedes, McLaren, Williams and Force India.
For the previous few campaigns, I’ve been a firm believer if you put any of the top five drivers into a Red Bull, they’d have won the title. Why then, I hear you say, didn’t Australian Mark Webber become World Champion? He had the same package around him as Vettel, but was persistently the bridesmaid. Webber’s main problem is he’s too much of a nice guy – he doesn’t race ‘dirty’ like Vettel, Alonso and on occasions when it suits / is required, Hamilton. Button is another one – too nice. He won his title in 2009 due to the Brawn he was driving being head and shoulders better than everyone else for the first two thirds of the season, with the other teams trying to catch up. That was the result of major rule changes to make F1 more appealing and interesting to the spectator – wonder what this year will cause?
It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if Williams have a long-awaited renaissance, after all it’s overdue. Many experts, sections of the Motorsport media and a good portion of fans seem to be predicting a Hamilton / Mercedes championship victory come November. I’m not so sure. While the British driver has shoulders big and broad enough to take the burden of expectations laid at his doorstep, and Mercedes appear to have the best engine at the moment, I still fancy Williams. Their car fared better than Ferrari in pre-season testing, being equal to McLaren on more than one occasion and a hair’s breath away from Mercedes. Massa is quite an understated driver in my opinion, unlucky to have been pipped to the 2008 title by Hamilton, and didn’t seem the same at Ferrari after his incident during practice for the 2009 Hungarian GP (hit in the face at speed by a spring that came away from Barrichello’s Brawn). I like Massa, as he is a proper racer like Button – no silliness, no ‘dirty tricks’, no moaning if he has a crap race, he just gets on with it. If his car proves to be the new diamond for the first third of the season, he’s talented enough to gain a sufficient lead in the championship while the others play catch up.
I’m writing this after first practice has occurred at Melbourne, and Mercedes are once again appear to be the team to beat. Obviously, a tremendous amount of work needs to go into the cars to get them fully ready for Sunday, tweaking them so they are at their best for this circuit, so we really still won’t be any the wiser till the race is underway. But there are signs Williams are miles better than they have been for years. So I’ll stick my neck out and say Massa for the title, but Mercedes edge Williams for the constructor’s championship. I feel Mercedes – and Ferrari – will not benefit from having two of the top drivers in their team (no-one is going to give an inch, which is bound to cause friction in the Senna – Prost style from the late eighties we haven’t seen for decades). Which leaves Williams and McLaren to nip in from behind the squabbling. Force India, while they do have Mercedes power, don’t have the chassis or the driver line up for a realistic title challenge, but then the exact same was said in early 2009 about Jenson Button and Brawn, who also had Mercedes engines...