Hamilton’s Sunday afternoon stroll in Sochi

It was a day of milestones for Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team in Russia. A ninth victory of 2014 meant that Hamilton is now on 31 career Formula 1 victories, moving level with Nigel Mansell and becoming the joint leading British F1 driver of all time. Hamilton’s race win and the 25 world championship points that come with it was also enough to give the Silver Arrows their first ever world constructors championship, even without the additional 18 points the team got for Nico Rosberg’s second place finish.

Despite the beautiful setting in Sochi, and an excellent track, the race itself was pretty uneventful, and certainly one of the least exciting of the season so far. The reasons for that were probably fourfold. Firstly, Rosberg’s mistake going into the braking zone at turn two on the opening lap meant that the two Mercedes drivers would be separated for the duration of the race.

Rosberg locked up heavily at turn two, wrecking his chances of victory

Rosberg locked up heavily at turn
two, wrecking his chances of victory

Rosberg and Hamilton both started well, but the long run down to the turn two braking zone allowed the German to slipstream his team-mate and squeeze up the inside. Rosberg, however, left his braking much too late, severely locking his tyres, running straight on into the asphalt on the outside of the corner. Although Rosberg swept into the lead, he had done so by running off track and gaining an advantage. Not only did he have to hand Hamilton back the lead of the race, but he compromised his entire race by having to stop at the end of the opening lap for new tyres because of the severe vibration caused by his turn two lock up.

So, on lap two the two Mercedes couldn’t have been further apart, with Hamilton leading and Rosberg right at the very back of the field. This leads me on to the second reason that the race was so uneventful; the track surface and tyre compounds. Amazingly, Rosberg was able to complete the remaining 52 laps of the race on the set of medium compound tyres that he put on at his first pit stop. Not only that, but he was able to fight back through the field to finish in second place.

Rosberg was able to do this primarily because Pirelli – like everyone else going to the Russian grand prix at a brand new track for the first time – had been rightly conservative in their choice of tyre compounds, choosing to bring the soft and medium compounds to Sochi. As it turned out, though, the track surface was very smooth and unabrasive. We saw clear evidence of this in free practice and qualifying, with drivers able to run multiple laps on the same tyre and continue to improve their lap time.

For virtually everyone, this meant that the race would be an easy one stop race, cutting down the opportunity for teams to try something different with strategy to move themselves forward. That coupled with tyres that were incredibly consistent meant that wheel to wheel battles were severely limited in Russia.

Thirdly, surprisingly, there was no safety car to close up the field. Having watched the GP2 and GP3 races at Sochi, a safety car looked all but certain in the F1 race. That was because, after the awful accident experienced by Marussia’s Jules Bianchi last week at Suzuka, race officials were understandably being extra cautious to deploy the safety car when cars were stopped on the track. This, coupled with the face that the Sochi track is a street circuit, which can make the recovery of crashed or stopped cars more difficult, meant that a safety car looked likely, as we saw in the support series races.

Grosjean pushed Sutil into a spin at turn two

Grosjean pushed Sutil into a spin at turn two

However, there were simply no incidents at Sochi. No cars stopped on track and there were no crashes. The closest we came was on lap 32 when Lotus driver Romain Grosjean pitched Adrian Sutil’s Sauber into a spin at turn two. The former received a penalty for the incident from race stewards, while the latter succeeded in keeping his car out of the crash barriers and was able to safely rejoin the race.

Finally, despite Williams showing some great qualifying pace, the Grove-based squad were simply unable to compete on race pace with their Brackley-based counterparts. With Rosberg out of contention for victory, Hamilton’s closest challenger was Valtteri Bottas in the Williams for much of the race. While Bottas was able to stick reasonably close to Hamilton over the first 15 laps or so of the race, the Englishman was in cruise control mode. We saw clear evidence of Hamilton lifting and coasting fairly early on and continuing to put in fastest laps of the race.

Hamilton crosses the line to take one of the easiest wins of his F1 career

Hamilton crosses the line to take one
of the easiest wins of his F1 career

Gradually the gap began to stretch into the double digits, with Hamilton never close to unleashing the full potential of his W05 Hybrid. The bottom line is that the Mercedes is simply too good. Reliability issues aside, the team have done a fabulous job in adapting best to the new regulations, delivering not only the class leading power unit, but a chassis and aerodynamic package that compliments that power unit perfectly. Hamilton’s stroll and Rosberg’s fight back through the field, in different ways, demonstrated that equally well.

A jubilant Mercedes team celebrate their first F1 world constructors' championship

A jubilant Mercedes team celebrate their
first F1 world constructors’ championship

Mercedes can be rightly proud of their first ever Formula 1 world constructors’ championship. Despite the cloud that still hangs over the sport in the wake of Bianchi’s crash at Suzuka it is right that the Silver Arrows take the time to enjoy this historic moment. The Frenchman is still very much in everyone’s thoughts, though, while he remains in a serious but stable condition in hospital.

While the constructors’ championship has been wrapped up three races early, the drivers’ championship is still very much alive. After winning four races in a row for the second time this season, Hamilton’s points lead over Rosberg now stands at 17; the largest that it’s been all season. However, with 25 points for a race win, and double points in Abu Dhabi, Rosberg still has every chance of beating his team-mate to the drivers’ crown. To do that, though, he’ll need to end Hamilton’s terrific run of momentum.

Reliability, seemingly the only Achilles heel of the Silver Arrows team in 2014, may still have a decisive role to play in deciding the drivers’ championship. Mercedes, and their two drivers, will hope that it’s decided on track in a straight fight, however. Formula 1 fans will certainly want that, too.

Bianchi’s crash overshadows Hamilton’s Suzuka triumph

After being beaten to pole position at Suzuka by Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton took a brilliant victory for Mercedes in difficult conditions. Hamilton’s pass around the outside of turn one on lap 28, and the huge gap he subsequently pulled out over his team-mate, should have been the big talking point in Japan, but sadly Jules Bianchi’s crash, which brought the race to a premature end, is dominating the headlines.

Before discussing that incident, I just want to pause on the performance of Hamilton for a while. As I said, he was beaten to pole and beaten by a reasonable margin – nearly two tenths of a second – by Rosberg, but he didn’t let that bother him in the race. After the Typhoon Phanfone weather system forced the race to start under the safety car, Hamilton had the measure of the treacherous conditions, relentlessly closing down Rosberg, particularly after the switch to intermediate tyres.

Hamilton sweeps around the outside of Rosberg to take the lead

Hamilton sweeps around the
outside of Rosberg to take the lead

His passing manoeuvre on lap 28 was brilliant and clinical, with the Briton pouncing at the first opportunity and never looking back as he built a double-digit lead over Rosberg. The German was once again beaten by his team-mate in a wheel to wheel battle and that might be crucial in the battle for the championship.

Not that any of the drivers were thinking or talking about that after the race, though. The podium celebrations were understandably muted after Bianchi’s crash which wasn’t caught by TV cameras. It seems that the Marussia driver aquaplaned off the track at the top of the hill at Dunlop on lap 43, just one lap after Adrian Sutil in the Sauber had a very similar incident.

2014 JAP Ambulance Bianchi

Bianchi was transported from the track in an ambulance

Sadly for Bianchi, a recovery vehicle was in the process of removing the stricken Sauber when the Frenchman had his accident. As a result Bianchi struck the recovery vehicle side on, ripping the roll-hoop from his car. Bianchi lost consciousness before being removed from the car and the circuit by ambulance. There was very little confirmed news for quite some time after the race, but we now know from an official FIA statement that the Marussia driver had a CT scan which revealed that he “suffered a severe head injury”. He subsequently underwent surgery at Mie General Hospital before being moved to intensive care.

Everyone’s thoughts and best wishes are with Bianchi, his family and the Marussia team. No-one should be pointing the finger or trying to apportion blame. What is crucial, however, is that Formula 1 learns from this nasty incident and makes steps to further improve safety, as they did after the tragic deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenburger at Imola in 1994. Obviously, having the roll-hoop completely ripped from the car is extremely serious, but the nature of the incident is not one that the roll-hoop was designed for. We’ve seen cars roll this season and in each case the roll-hoop has done exactly what it was designed to do and held up extremely well.

If any steps can be taken to further improve the design and strength of the roll-hoops, then of course those steps should be taken. For me, though, the key learning point must surely be that, in wet conditions, if there is a recovery vehicle on the track – and by that I mean on track, in the gravel traps or anywhere in front of crash barriers – then the safety car should be deployed.

It might be time to reconsider the use of tractors to recover vehicles

It might be time to reconsider the use
of tractors to recover stricken cars

Clearly, this might mean more safety cars in Formula 1. We certainly don’t want to get into a situation where every minor incident results in a safety car deployment, like we see in IndyCar, and that’s why I’d restrict safety car deployment in such situations to wet weather conditions. In the dry, double waved yellow flags – as we have seen already – is sufficient because visibility and track conditions are normal. In the wet, cars will often crash at the same parts of the track because of rivers of water running across the circuit and aquaplaning. Formula 1 should also look to limit the use of tractors to recover vehicles, wherever possible. Cranes must be the better option in such situations, although there will always be places where their use is just not possible.

F1 heads to Russia for the inaugural race in Sochi in a week’s time in a subdued mood. It’s at times like these that race victories and championship battles take a back seat. I hope to see a complete and speedy recovery for Bianchi. Let’s hope that we see him back on the Formula 1 grid soon, fighting fit and ready to race.

Dan’s the man in Montreal

Mercedes dominated qualifying yet again, with Nico Rosberg surprisingly beating Lewis Hamilton to pole position. With the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve seemingly designed to suit the strengths of the Mercedes W05, it looked like the Canadian grand prix would be another straight fight between the two Mercedes team-mates.

The Mercedes cars battle into turn one

The Mercedes cars battle into turn one

And so it proved, but only for the first 37 laps or so of the race. Rosberg was actually beaten off the line by Hamilton, but managed to squeeze the Briton into turn one and maintain the lead. As it turned out Sebastian Vettel managed to manoeuvre his Red Bull ahead of Hamilton, too, as the Mercedes driver was forced onto the grass by his team-mate as he took action to avoid a collision.

Bianchi's wrecked Marussia following his 1st lap crash with Chilton

Bianchi’s wrecked Marussia
following his 1st lap crash with Chilton

Hamilton had to wait a while to re-pass Vettel, until lap 10 in fact.  The reason for that was a lengthy safety car period caused after the Marussias of Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton collided on the opening lap, putting both out of the race. It was a swift return to earth for the team after they’d been on a high after scoring their first formula 1 points with Bianchi’s ninth place finish in Monaco.

It proved to be a return to earth for Mercedes, too. With Hamilton trailing Rosberg we suddenly heard reports of a loss of power on Hamilton’s car, swiftly followed with team radio indicating an identical issue on Rosberg’s car. The rest of the field were suddenly catching both Mercedes cars hand over fist.

Even before we got to that point there was controversy as Rosberg escaped a penalty, despite gaining an advantage, by cutting the final chicane when under pressure from a charging Hamilton. It proved to be immaterial however. While the Mercedes toiled the rest of the pack continued to close in. It was time for the second stops for Mercedes, and a slow stop for Rosberg allowed Hamilton to overtake him, although both were now behind the Williams of Felipe Massa.

Hamilton pulls into the pits to retire

Hamilton pulls into the pits to retire

Hamilton, finally had the advantage over his team-mate, but it wasn’t to last. The Englishman emerged from the pits on lap 46 just ahead of his German team-mate, but later the same lap he ran wide at the hairpin allowing Rosberg through. Hamilton then himself cut the final chicane as we saw his right rear wheel smoking. It turned out that in addition to the loss of power his brakes had failed, forcing him into his second retirement of the reason.

It soon emerged that Rosberg had trouble with his brakes, too. As Massa made his second pit stop on lap 49 the remaining Mercedes retook the lead of the race, but was being chased down by a pack of three cars led by the Force India of Sergio Perez, with the two Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Vettel close behind. Amazingly, though, Rosberg was able to hold on with Perez closing rapidly down the straights, but unable to make his move as Rosberg kept pulling out enough of a gap through the corners.

The Force India just wasn’t going to get the job done, but as it turned out a Red Bull could. Perez started suffering from brake issues himself allowing Ricciardo to pass on lap 66, just five laps from home. Even though the Red Bull isn’t as quick in a straight line as the Mercedes powered Force India, it was quicker through the corners, meaning that Rosberg was unable to pull away from Ricciardo through the first and second sectors.

Ricciardo takes the chequered flag to win his first Formula 1 race

Ricciardo takes the chequered
flag to win his first Formula 1 race

On the penultimate lap of the race Ricciardo made his move and took the lead. There was no opportunity for Rosberg to fight back as Massa and Perez crashed very heavily at the start of the final lap, bringing out the second safety car of the race. The race finished under the safety car, with victory for Ricciardo – his first in Formula 1 – with his team-mate Vettel in third and Rosberg in second.

It’s a massive achievement for Ricciardo and thoroughly deserved after a stellar start to his career at Red Bull Racing. You can’t help but feel, though, that despite not taking the race win, the biggest winner was Rosberg. A retirement for Hamilton and a second place finish means that the German’s world drivers’ championship lead has ballooned to a daunting 22 points over his team-mate.

Hamilton will be hoping for a change in fortunes next time out in Austria. It’s Red Bull’s home race, though, and they’ll certainly be heading there in high spirits.

One in the eye for Hamilton in Monaco

Having grabbed the lead of the world drivers’ championship with victory in Barcelona – his fourth straight win – Lewis Hamilton promptly surrendered it back to Nico Rosberg, who took a lights to flag victory in Monaco. All quite straightforward, you might think, but that would be a massive over simplification.

The tensions between the two Mercedes team-mates, which had been bubbling away under the surface prior to Monaco, finally erupted this weekend. The battle between the two drivers has been close all season and, going in to the final Q3 run in qualifying the pair were separated by less than six hundredths of a second. But it was what happened on that final qualifying run that has ramped up the tension at Mercedes to such an extent that come the podium in Monaco, the two team-mates couldn’t even look at each other, let alone congratulate each other on another 1, 2 finish.

Rosberg's qualifying error actually guaranteed him pole position

Rosberg’s qualifying error actually
guaranteed him pole position

The flashpoint was the mistake from Nico Rosberg on Saturday, which saw him lock up at Mirabeau and go straight on down the escape road. The error ruined Rosberg’s final run and opened the door for Hamilton, who was half a lap behind him and going quickly. However, the problem for Hamilton was that Rosberg’s error also brought out yellow flags; yellow flags that Rosberg guaranteed would continue to be waved as he reversed backwards onto the track.

There was talk that Rosberg deliberately went off to guarantee himself pole position, but I don’t agree that was the case. Indeed, the stewards didn’t think so, either, having examined the TV footage and telemetry as part of their post-qualifying investigation into the issue. The issue for Mercedes is, though, that many in the paddock, including, crucially, Lewis Hamilton thought otherwise. Hamilton’s mood would not have been helped by Rosberg’s pole celebrations, which I would say were over the top, particularly so given the circumstances.

It’s in a situation like this where the media like to stir the pot. Hamilton fell into the trap of saying that he’d deal with the situation like Senna in a post-qualifying interview, which ramped up the tension another notch. The Prost/Senna comparisons, already prevalent in the media, were brought out again. All the talk was of a potential incident at turn one.

Rosberg leads the field into Saint Devote

Rosberg leads the field into Saint Devote

As it happened there was no such incident come race day. Rosberg got off the line brilliantly, unlike in other races this season, and led Hamilton and the rest of the field into turn one. Given the nature of the Monaco track – tight, twisty, and with limited opportunities to overtake – the start was the first of two big chances for Hamilton to overtake Rosberg; one which he couldn’t take.

The second chance would come through strategy, with Hamilton hoping to use the single pit stop that both drivers were scheduled to make to his advantage. Unfortunately for him, the second of the two safety car periods, caused after Adrian Sutil crashed his Sauber heavily coming out of the tunnel, fell in the ‘window’ for making that pit stop.

The safety car all but ended Hamilton's chances of beating Rosberg

The safety car all but ended
Hamilton’s chances of beating Rosberg

We heard over the radio that Hamilton was irked that he hadn’t stopped immediately, before the deployment of the safety car. Instead Mercedes took the safe option and stopped both drivers on the same lap, following the deployment of the safety car. That decision, while completely understandable, meant that Hamilton had to wave goodbye to his second big chance to overtake his German team-mate.

With Hamilton questioning the decision and his frustration levels rising, he resumed the fight after the safety car in the wrong frame of mind. Not that it mattered at the time, though. Hamilton could never quite get close enough to Rosberg to attempt to pass, even when the latter was forced to save fuel for several laps. The fight was over long before Hamilton suddenly and alarmingly dropped back several seconds from Rosberg after dirt became lodged in his eye.

Ricciardo celebrates his podium finish after the race

Ricciardo celebrates his podium finish after the race

In the end, Rosberg won the race comfortably, by over nine seconds from Hamilton who did well to hold off the hard charging Daniel Ricciardo who took third for Red Bull Racing. Once he’s had a chance to calm down and reflect on the situation Hamilton may feel differently, but he was certainly not happy post-race. The body language between the two team-mates at Mercedes suggests that they’re on the verge of meltdown; a consequence of the team’s decision to let their drivers race each other on an equal footing.

Jules Bianchi scored his, and Marussia's, first points in Monaco

Jules Bianchi scored his, and
Marussia’s, first points in Monaco

While meltdown might be on the cards at Mercedes, there was delight for one of Formula 1’s smaller teams. Marussia, through 24-year-old Frenchman Jules Bianchi, finally scored their first point in Formula 1 in their fifth year in the sport. Bianchi’s ninth place finish (he actually crossed the line eighth, but had to take a five second penalty) resulted in the Banbury-based team scoring not one, but two world championship points.  This means that they’re now ahead not only of fierce rivals Caterham, but also Sauber in the world constructors’ championship. A massive achievement.

There’s no chance of them, or anyone else for that matter, overhauling Mercedes, though. That is unless the Brackley-based squad shoot themselves in the foot by going into a full-scale meltdown. The Silver Arrows have now amassed 240 world championship points. Their nearest rival, Red Bull Racing have yet to break into three figures, thanks, in part, to an early retirement for Sebastian Vettel in Monaco.

All eyes will continue to be on Mercedes as we head to Canada in two weeks’ time. Lewis Hamilton will be desperate to reassert his authority, and retake the championship lead, in Montreal; a track he loves and has had great success at in the past. Nico Rosberg will be equally keen to ensure that the momentum remains with him. The battle between the Mercedes team-mates looks set to be a season long one.

Cruise control in China for hat-trick hero Hamilton

The thrills and fireworks that we saw last time out in Bahrain were sadly lacking at the Chinese grand prix. In that respect the two races couldn’t have been more different, but in another they couldn’t have been more alike. Once again, we saw Mercedes very firmly on top yet again, as Lewis Hamilton led home his team-mate Nico Rosberg to take his first ever Formula 1 hat-trick of victories with his third straight win and the team’s third consecutive 1-2 finish.

Hamilton proudly holds his winner's trophy aloft

Hamilton proudly holds his winner’s trophy aloft

The manner of Hamilton’s victory was akin to his first win of the season in Malaysia; completely dominant, with an 18 second margin of victory to his team-mate. In some ways, the race in Shanghai was even more impressive from Hamilton. The Englishman was severely hampered in Friday free practice because of suspension troubles which limited his running in FP1.

Despite finishing FP2 on top of the timesheets, Hamilton wasn’t happy with the car and made some big set-up changes for Saturday. Saturday free practice and qualifying were wet, however, which meant that, even though he claimed pole position, going into the race, however, he had no idea whether those changes would actually work. They clearly did, showing yet again that Hamilton’s detractors are wrong; he has the intellectual capacity to go alongside his undoubted natural speed and racing skills.

Indeed, the 2008 world drivers’ champion proved his critics wrong again during the race in China. Some said Hamilton would struggle with having to manage fuel consumption as a result of the 100 kg per hour fuel flow limit imposed in the new regulations. However, as we have seen in the previous two races, Hamilton’s fuel consumption was excellent. In China it was easily better than anyone else.

Hamilton was way out in the lead for the majority of the race in China

Hamilton was way out in the lead
for the majority of the race in China

Hamilton has also been criticised for using his Pirelli tyres too aggressively in the past, resulting in higher wear rates and faster degradation than his rivals. In China, while the likes of Red Bull Racing’s four time world drivers’ champion Sebastian Vettel complained about tyre wear over the team-radio, Hamilton declared “Surprisingly the front tyres still feel really good, as well as the rears.” He pitted some three laps later than team-mate Nico Rosberg on lap 17, after a brief off track moment as his soft Pirelli tyres finally gave up.

Hamilton, as in Malaysia, led every lap of the race, but to be fair to Nico Rosberg things might have been closer than the 18 second margin of victory suggested. Rosberg had a poor start and fell backwards as his team-mate got the perfect launch off the line to lead Vettel into turn one. Rosberg on the other had dropped down to seventh place, after heavy contact with the Williams of Valtteri Bottas in turn one.

Rosberg did well to recover from his disastrous start, to finish the race in second place. This was even more the case given that the German – the race winner in Australia – had to race without his car’s telemetry being communicated to the pit wall. This meant that Rosberg had to provide his team with fuel consumption data from his steering wheel’s LED display – an annoyance and a clear source of frustration.

Vettel seems to be struggling with his Red Bull

Vettel seems to be struggling with his Red Bull

Rosberg’s troubles pale into insignificance compared to those of Sebastian Vettel, though. Vettel, so dominant in winning four consecutive championships wth Red Bull, is clearly struggling with the 2014 RB10 and the change of regulations. Vettel has been out qualified three times in four races by his new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, and although he leads the young Australian in the fledging championship table he is not having things all his own way.

For the second time in two races, Vettel was asked to let the faster Ricciardo through. In China, he refused to do so, questioning his race engineer about the tyres the Ricciardo was on and the reason why he was being asked to move over. When told that Ricciardo had fresher tyres he replied simply “tough luck”. A couple of laps later Ricciardo moved ahead of his team-mate into turn one and although the official line from Red Bull was that Vettel had let him through, it certainly didn’t look like that was the case.

Ricciardo leads Vettel, who eventually finished 20 seconds behind his team-mate

Ricciardo leads Vettel, who eventually finished
20 seconds behind his team-mate

Vettel eventually finished the race in Shanghai a very distant fifth, only one place behind Ricciardo, but a massive twenty seconds adrift of his team-mate. Sobering stuff for the defending world drivers’ champion. He’s not the only one unexpectedly struggling, though. Kimi Raikkonen is having a torrid time on his return to Ferrari. The Finn finished down in eighth place in China, over 50 seconds behind his team-mate Fernando Alonso who drove brilliantly to claim Ferrari’s first podium of the season with a third place finish.

There are a few other teams and drivers that are worthy of a mention. Despite Romain Grosjean’s retirement following gearbox trouble it clearly looks like Lotus are finally getting their act together in 2014. The Frenchman did brilliantly to qualify in the top 10 and had been on course for a points finish before retiring. McLaren, though, seem to be on the opposite trajectory. After a hugely promising start to the season with a double podium finish in Australia, the Woking-based team now appear to be struggling. In China, they were the least competitive of all of the Mercedes powered teams, finishing in 11th and 13 positions, both cars having been lapped.

The turn one contact between Rosberg and Bottas

The turn one contact between Rosberg and Bottas

Williams are still looking competitive. But for first lap contact for both Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas and a truly horrendous first pit stop for Massa, the team might have had more than Bottas’s seventh place to take away from Shanghai. Given the right conditions, and a bit of luck, a podium finish would not look to be beyond Williams’s reach at some stage this season, especially if Massa can continue to make the same sort of lightning quick starts that we’ve seen in recent races.

It will be a big ask for anyone to catch Mercedes, though. Such was the dominance of Hamilton in Shanghai that the chequered flag was waved a lap early. A bizarre mistake, which fortunately didn’t alter the result of the race much. The only driver to miss out was Kamui Kobayashi in the Caterham, who had passed Jules Bianchi’s Marussia on the last scheduled lap of the race, which was officially classified as running for 54 laps rather than the planned 56, in accordance with the regulations.

Next we move to Europe for the Spanish grand prix. This is the race where traditionally the teams make big updates to their cars. On the strength of the evidence of the first four races, the others will have to make some massive improvements to get onto terms with the Silver Arrows.

Marussia: Ahead of Caterham by a nose?

Thanks to  Express Insurance for sponsoring this post.

So, the new 2014 formula 1 cars have been launched and the first test has been completed.  As always, the focus is on the teams expected to be at the front of the grid – Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Red Bull – and their perceived successes and failures at this very early stage of the year.  But what about the teams at the back of the pack?

Marussia and Caterham are now entering their fifth year at the pinnacle of motorsport and the massive regulation change this year offers both teams their best opportunity to start moving up the pecking order.  Even if outright pace is still lacking, the expected reliability issues and higher rates of attrition in races will mean that those elusive points scoring finishes are finally a real possibility for both teams.  Which of these two, back of the grid teams stands the best chance of delivering in 2014, though?

The Caterham CT05 certainly can't be descibed as a 'looker'!

The Caterham CT05 certainly
can’t be descibed as a ‘looker’!

Let’s start by looking briefly at Caterham.  The Leafield based team certainly generated a massive amount of interest when their 2014 challenger – the CT05 – was revealed to fans and media at Jerez.  We expected some odd-looking cars this year thanks to the regulation change that requires the nose of the cars to be lower, the aim being that they are less likely to launch into the air in accidents.  The Caterham, though, is perhaps the oddest looking of all of the 2014 F1 cars, with an extremely aggressive nose solution that looks, frankly, hideously ugly.  The team won’t be too worried about that if their car proves to be quick, though.

As I’ve already alluded to, however, outright speed may not be enough to deliver a winning package in the brave new world of Formula 1.  Reliability is expected to be a major issue.  Formula 1 has turned its back on the 2.4 litre V8 engines used in recent years and moved to new 1.6 litre turbocharged V6 units paired with Energy Recovery Systems – ERS – which are more relevant to modern road cars.  This is a huge change for the sport, and making these packages work reliably is, on the basis of the first test proving challenging for one manufacturer in particular.

Renault's 2014 F1 Engine

Renault’s 2014 F1 Engine

Unfortunately for Caterham, that manufacturer is Renault, who supply the team’s powertrain.  Renault engine cars suffered badly at Jerez.  Over the course of the four-day test, Renault engines completed a paltry 151 laps, with world champions Red Bull Racing struggling the most with just 21 laps completed.  Admittedly, it’s much too early to write off Renault, but this doesn’t bode well for teams that use their power units.

This is where, perhaps, Marussia might have the upper hand on their rivals.  The Anglo-Russian team, based in Banbury in the UK, had used Cosworth engines in their first four years in F1.  However, the British engine manufacturer decided to drop out of the sport at the end of 2013, choosing not to produce one of the new breed of 1.6 litre V6 turbocharged units.  Marussia therefore were forced to switch suppliers and opted for Ferrari engines and ERS systems.  On the basis of Jerez testing, this looks like it will give Marussia an advantage over Caterham.  Despite Marussia missing the first couple of days of testing, with the new MR03 turning up on day three of the four day test, Ferrari engined cars completed 444 laps, nearly three times the number of laps completed by cars running Renault engines.

The Marussia MR03 is, at least, more aesthetically pleasing than the Caterham CT05

The Marussia MR03 is, at least, more aesthetically pleasing than the Caterham CT05

Marussia have also opted for a more conservative approach to the nose of their car.  If this is an indication of their general approach this, paired with a seemingly more robust power unit, might indicate that Marussia might have the edge in terms of reliability over Caterham.  With both teams unlikely to set the lap time charts alight, this might prove critical in 2014.  But, of course, that’s not the full story in terms of reliability.

As it turned out, Caterham proved to be the most reliable of the three Renault powered teams – Lotus were absent – at Jerez.  The CT05 completed 76 laps over its four days of running.  That’s just over half of the total number of laps completed by Renault cars at the entire test.  While that’s only just over half of the number of laps completed by Force India – the Mercedes powered car that competed the fewest number of laps at Jerez – it does at least indicate that the Caterham itself is probably pretty reliable.

In contrast, in comparison to the two other Ferrari powered teams, Marussia completed the fewest number of laps – just 30.  Granted, the team did (as I mentioned earlier) only run for half of the test, so that might not be significant, but it does indicate that reliability is something that Marussia won’t necessarily be able to count on to give them the advantage over Caterham, particularly as the former have to adapt to a new engine supplier while the latter does, at least have stability with Renault.

Caterham's 2014 driver line-up: Kobayashi (L) and Ericsson (R), either side of third driver Robin Frijns

Caterham’s 2014 driver line-up: Kobayashi (L) and Ericsson (R), either side of third driver Robin Frijns

While Caterham have stability in terms of their engine supplier where their rivals don’t, it’s Marussia that have stability in terms of their driver line up, while it’s all change at Caterham.  Marussia have retained Frenchman Jules Bianchi – an undoubted talent – and Englishman Max Chilton in 2014, while Caterham have gone for an all new pairing of Japanese driver Kamui Kobayashi – making a welcome return to F1 after a year out of the sport in 2013 – and rookie Marcus Ericsson, who makes the step up from GP2.  The pairings are probably fairly evenly matched, but because Marussia know their two drivers pretty well this might afford them a slim advantage, at least to begin with.

It is, though, unlikely that we’ll see either Marussia or Caterham making big steps forward.  Williams, who struggled in 2013 and were the team most under threat of being overtaken by Marussia or Caterham in the constructors standings, look to have made an inspired move by switching from Renault engines to Mercedes power units, meaning that the target for the two ‘newcomer’ teams is likely to be the Red Bull junior team, Toro Rosso.

A Minardi at Monaco in 2001, driven by future double world champion Fernando Alonso

A Minardi at Monaco in 2001, driven by future double world champion Fernando Alonso

Toro Rosso, the team that was formerly Minardi, one of F1s great minnows, have also swapped engines, but it looks like they’ve made the wrong choice in switching from Ferrari engines to the same Renault units used by ‘big brother’ Red Bull Racing.  Still, though, Toro Rosso probably has a bigger budget than either Marussia or Caterham, and let’s not forget that they are also grand prix winners, albeit at the hands of now four-time world drivers’ champion, Sebastian Vettel, way back in 2008.  They’re likely to retain the advantage over the new boys.

So, while 2014 presents a huge opportunity for Marussia and Caterham, their prospects don’t look all that promising.  If it proves to be the case that Marussia and Caterham are still battling it out between themselves at the back of the pack it’s a worrying situation for F1.  Indeed, unless the long mooted budget cap is agreed, the only opportunity for either team to make big strides forward might be to follow the Minardi example and sell up to someone able to inject a significant amount of cash.

Caterham Boss Tony Fernandes has threatened to pull out of F1

Caterham Boss Tony Fernandes
has threatened to pull out of F1

Caterham owner Tony Fernandes has already threatened to pull out at the end of the year if results do not improve for his team, and you have to wonder whether Marussia might be in a similar position.  It would be sad to see either team go the same ways as the other 2010 new entry, HRT, but unless either can take advantage of the opportunity afforded to them by the regulation change this season, that may well happen.

What do you think about Marussia and Caterham’s prospects for 2014 and beyond?  Will either team score points?  Will Marussia be ahead of Caterham by a nose?  Comment below!