There's no getting away from it: Red Bull has had a torrid pre-season. The car looked great when it was rolled out in Jerez, but it barely appeared again as just 21 laps were completed across the opening four days. Renault power-unit problems were highlighted as the main cause, but since then it's become clear that it takes two to tango as Red Bull even had a day when it failed to complete a lap at the final test while Caterham racked up race distances.
When it runs, the car looks very quick; Jenson Button expressing his surprise at the RB10's high-speed performance as he was overtaken by Daniel Ricciardo around the outside of Turn 11 in Bahrain, while Lewis Hamilton called it “stunning”. But it hasn't run enough, and the first few races could prove very challenging.
BBC co-commentator David Coulthard on Vettel v Ricciardo:
“My view on it is that pressure is when you're losing control of the situation. At Ricciardo's stage of his career it's all about opportunity; he's driving for the world championship-winning team. It looks unlikely right now that they're going to have the same level of success that they've had over the last few years but actually the only important battle is how he performs against Sebastian.
“I would be surprised in the first year if he's able to outperform Sebastian because Sebastian is a really seasoned professional. I think Daniel has a tremendous amount of potential and raw speed which is what has got him the drive, but there is a lot which he still has to learn; not about how to drive a racing car but how to operate in a team where the spotlight is on you constantly.”
Long before any car took to the track in 2014, the Mercedes power unit was hotly tipped to be the pick of the litter. And by the end of the first week of testing in Jerez, the F1 W05 looked to be the class of the field, having logged an impressive 309 laps. In the weeks since the cars first launched Mercedes have led the pack in race simulations and qualifying trim, despite the occasional niggle.
While the team have had their share of reliability issues, particularly at the final Bahrain test, the sheer number of miles logged over the course of 12 days' running gives the Silver Arrows an advantage over their rivals. Paddock chatter sees the team with anything up to 1.5 seconds in hand over the rest of the pack, making Mercedes the firm favourites as the season kicks off in Melbourne's Albert Park.
BBC co-commentator David Coulthard on Hamilton v Rosberg:
“Two different personalities, both very comfortable in their own skin in terms of their experience, they've won grands prix and Lewis obviously a championship. They're both loved by the team but come with very difficult operating manuals. Lewis is more heart on sleeve, he can be on pole position and look sad because something else is happening in his life and he'll tell you so, or he can finish fifth and be grinning from ear-to-ear because he knows he did something remarkable in the car.
“Nico on the other side is seen as being the thinking man's driver – maybe more Prost than Senna if Hamilton's a bit more the Senna in the team – but they've known each other since they were kids so there's not the volatility that was there with some other top driver pairings.
“Just because Lewis has won a championship and you know he can deliver something electric I'd say Lewis. I say that reluctantly because Nico has had a great run at Mercedes alongside Michael and Lewis and just looks really comfortable in what he's doing.”
After years of Red Bull dominance, expectations are high at Ferrari that the new regulations will allow the stranglehold to be broken. And in order to do that, Ferrari has put together the most exciting driver pairing on the grid in Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen. The early signs were positive, with solid running in Jerez, but the new power unit seemed slightly off the Mercedes pace.
While Bahrain saw that gap closing, it still appears the Ferrari V6 is a close second in terms of outright engine performance but strong on a race run. Perhaps one area its development has been hampered lies in the number of teams running the Ferrari engine (three, compared to four each for Mercedes and Renault), but Stefano Domenicali is convinced by what he has seen that the team will be able to fight for the championship this year.
BBC co-commentator David Coulthard on Alonso v Raikkonen:
“Some people see it as being just a question of time for when it goes wrong, but I see it differently because I don't think that Kimi is a political animal. I was team-mates with him at McLaren, he was just asleep and/or driving the car quickly. I believe he will continue to do the same thing at Ferrari.
“Across the season you have to expect Fernando to be able to get more out of the package just because of familiarity with the team, speaking the language. It's been built around him over the last few years; even though it's a big regulation change the basis of the car which you sit in has been developed around him. But we could be surprised, they're both world champions…”
The situation at Lotus could be looking as grim as that at Red Bull if it hadn't opted to skip the first test by choice, with the team starting the season without a team principal after Eric Boullier's departure for McLaren. Wanting more development time on the car, Lotus was always going to be on the back foot come the Bahrain tests but it has struggled more than it would have expected, especially in the final week. Lap totals of 32, 32, 33 and 31 were at least consistent, but nowhere near enough mileage ahead of the first race.
Technical director Nick Chester is convinced the car has potential, saying there are “clear advantages” to the tusk-style nose. However, the lack of running means the car is far from ready to race and Lotus hasn't been able to do set-up work or explore the E22's true performance. Reliance could be on Romain Grosjean to continue his late-2013 form as the team plays catch-up, but with such complex machinery there's only so much a driver can do, and he admits the team is likely to be struggling not only in Australia but in Malaysia too.
BBC co-commentator Allan McNish on Grosjean v Maldonado:
“I'm not sure you can call them both hot-headed any longer. I think both the drivers will miss Eric Boullier because he had a calming influence and was very supportive. Pastor has won a grand prix, so you can't say that he's not got speed and everything else but he's got to be able to produce it week-in, week-out. Romain put his past behind him last year and showed what he can do. He will build on it.
“The question is whether the car is reliable enough at the beginning. I think it will be fast but I'm not sure if the team is going to be the same team that it was in 2013. Out of the two, I would say Grosjean to come out on top.”
After a wretched 2013 for the team, McLaren has to improve this year. Martin Whitmarsh was a high-profile early casualty but the team produced a car which was relatively reliable after the first day of testing and looked quick early on. The longer testing went on, however, the more the team appeared to slip back and a failure to bring all of the planned updates to the new car in time for the end of the final test saw it unable to match the likes of Mercedes and Williams for pace.
Kevin Magnussen's pace did not drop off, however, and he looks set to give Jenson Button a real run for his money. With a Mercedes engine and a good base – Button says the new car is “completely different … now we can do consistent laps and the pace is reasonably good” – the team will need to deliver a strong update in Melbourne to definitely be in the mix for victory, but the signs for a competitive year are promising.
BBC co-commentator David Coulthard on Button v Magnussen:
“Jenson is in an interesting position because he's well respected, well-liked in the paddock and a safe pair of hands. We all know he can do exceptional things on race day. Ultimately the wins and the trophies and the points come on race day, but what must be a concern is how he's going to stack up against Kevin in qualifying.
“Kevin is a young, motivated racer who will really need to show himself. One of the key aspects of any top driver is their qualifying speed, so he needs to show that alongside Jenson. If he does it consistently then he's really got a big springboard for the future, if he doesn't then a bit like Perez he's going to get written off quite quickly.
“You've got to believe over the season with a regulation change and all that sort of thing that Jenson will be the team leader, but there is a genuine excitement as to what Kevin can do. He's the real deal in terms of his lower formula performance, and typically the real deals when they get to F1 they deliver something remarkable.”
As long-term customers of Mercedes High-Performance Engines (now Powertrains), Force India are well-versed in working with Brixworth. With the Mercedes power unit now firmly established as the one to envy, that long-established working relationship has proved to be a boon to Force India. After a strong 2013 season, and winter testing that saw the team get close to completing their agenda, the Silverstone racers are in a good position heading to Melbourne.
New hire Sergio Perez has brought the team much-needed external funding, while the Mexican also topped the timesheets on occasion in Bahrain. The return of the highly-rated Nico Hulkenberg has proved to be a morale boost for the team, who are widely expected to secure the odd podium this year, an achievement that has eluded them since Force India took pole and finished second at the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix.
BBC co-commentator Allan McNish on Hulkenberg v Perez:
“It's a good mix; Perez for flamboyance and speed, Hulkenberg because he will doggedly drag it out. I think over the course of the season I will watch Perez probably get some really good results but I'll watch Hulkenberg to be the one for the staple points through the year.”
The final round of pre-season testing proved to be particularly challenging for Sauber, with the Swiss team suffering a day with no running and a full chassis change before hitting the track and logging enough miles to complete three race distances with a few laps in hand. The Ferrari power unit is not as strong as the Mercedes, meaning that Sauber are unlikely to make the jump from consistent mid-fielders to front-runners this year.
Based on their pre-season struggles, the C33's brake-by-wire system appears to be one of the most troublesome of the complex new braking systems introduced for 2014. Adrian Sutil admitted that adjusting to the BBW was causing him problems, a fact made starkly clear by the number of spins the German suffered as he attempted to push the system to its limits.
BBC co-commentator Allan McNish on Sutil v Gutierrez:
“I'd have to go for Sutil. Not just because of his experience but also because Gutierrez's engineer left as well, and he was confirmed very late so will have been worried about his future ahead of this season.”
Another team to be heavily affected by the Renault issues during testing, Toro Rosso did well to recover to the extent it did as it managed almost 150 laps more than its sister team Red Bull. However, with the team adapting to its new engine supplier having switched from Ferrari, the good days were interspersed with too many problems to get a true idea of the car's potential.
Jean-Eric Vergne remained positive throughout and admitted to Crash.net
that he was relishing being the experienced driver tasked with leading the team through the tough period, with rookie team-mate Daniil Kvyat still settling in. That Vergne set the fastest time by a Renault-powered car at the final test hints at some strong performance to be unleashed, but the new working relationship with Renault may prevent Toro Rosso from making progress at the same speed as the likes of Red Bull and Lotus in the early races.
BBC co-commentator Allan McNish on Vergne v Kvyat:
“Kvyat is quick but he will take time to get used to it. I think in the last three or four races of the year watch Kvyat, but in the first part of the year, I'd have to say Vergne.
“Vergne is definitely the one for the year for the points, but I've watched Kvyat in GP3 and Formula 3 and that's why I say the last races; when he got in to his stride, boom, he was there. But then in the beginning he was struggling a little bit.”
What a pre-season Williams has had. Following the arrival of Felipe Massa there have been numerous high-profile sponsorship deals, culminating in the title sponsorship deal with Martini which has left the team with another iconic livery. On top of that the team has been recruiting key staff members like it's going out of fashion; the biggest name being Rob Smedley joining as head of vehicle performance.
The icing on the cake has been the pace of the car. While the Mercedes engine is an obvious strength, Williams has managed to produce a car which looks quick both over one lap and over a race distance. Testing went smoothly, with chief test and support engineer Rod Nelson admitting that every box was ticked, and Williams looks like it will be the biggest threat to Mercedes when the lights go out in Australia.
BBC co-commentator Allan McNish on Bottas v Massa:
“They're back on song and that's nice to see. It's real, they're reliable and I like to see that. They've got a steadying hand in Pat Symonds and the crew behind them. Between the two it's your youth and experience combination; Massa seems to have a new lease of life and I would say Felipe actually, believe it or not.
”I think Bottas has got a lot to prove and he does have a lot of talent. If the car is good then he has got to start producing the goods, but I think Massa will be a little bit like Jenson was when Brawn popped out having sort of tough times. All that Ferrari experience is hard to replace – you don't buy that in five minutes, that's been a long time there and ingrained in to him – and to be able to take that to Williams is very important. Therefore Williams will lean on Felipe, which will tend to drag things sometimes a little bit to his favour. That's a battle I'm looking forward to.”
Despite a stream of reliability issues affecting everything from the engine to the electrics – and a host of components in between – Marussia are looking to be in their strongest pre-season position since their 2010 debut, with Jenson Button tipping the team to surprise this year. “Following the Marussia, they look so much better than last year's car through high speed … I think people will be surprised how competitive they are, actually,” he said.
Part of Marussia's improvement can be put down to the team's switch to Ferrari power, but credit must also go to a multi-year overhaul of their technical department. Over the course of three weeks of testing reliability improved steadily, while on-track performances when all was running smoothly showed the team look to have what it takes to score their first world championship points in 2014.
BBC co-commentator Allan McNish on Bianchi v Chilton:
“I think Bianchi is likely to edge this one. Chilton's qualifying run in Bahrain says that he will improve in his second year, but Bianchi is without doubt a talent. This is a year for Max to show what he has got.”
When winter testing kicked off in Jerez, Caterham were the strongest of the Renault-powered teams. Their conservative approach to cooling and packaging meant that the CT05 was able to log significantly more laps than Red Bull or Toro Rosso, and with the team looking certain to get to the finish in races of attrition, 2014 looked like it could have been the year the Leafield racers scored their first points in Formula One.
But in the second and third weeks of testing, reliability issues began to trouble the team, who nevertheless remained the most reliable of Renault's customers. The choice of engine supplier could prove to be Caterham's Achilles' heel this season – while clever packaging should see the team make the finish more often than not, they are likely to be out-paced by the similarly reliable Ferrari-powered Marussias.
BBC co-commentator Allan McNish on Kobayashi v Ericsson:
“Out of the Caterham pairing: Kobayashi, it's got to be. Ericsson is coming in cold having not been part of the team previously and has a lot of learning to do in a very complex year.”