Rosberg hits trouble, while Hamilton makes it a championship double in Abu Dhabi

After all the build up, all the anticipation and drama of the 2014 Formula 1 season came down to one race, worth double points, in Abu Dhabi. It was a straight fight between the two Mercedes team-mates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. While Hamilton went into the race with a 17 point advantage, Rosberg had the advantage of starting on pole position.

Things were finely poised, but Hamilton knew that he only had to finish second to Rosberg to win a second world drivers’ championship. Rosberg, on the other hand, went into the race knowing that he had nothing to lose. The outcome of the title was largely out of his hands. He needed help from others or a car problem for Hamilton to take his first championship. As Rosberg frequently reminded the world, and his team-mate, in the build up to the race, the pressure was on Hamilton.

Hamilton started brilliantly and led into turn 1

Hamilton started brilliantly and led into turn 1

You wouldn’t have guessed it from the way the two Silver Arrows cars started the race, though. As the lights went out Hamilton took off, blasting past his team-mate to take the lead. It was the perfect getaway for Hamilton, who could watch in his mirror as Rosberg got a poor start and had to defend from Felipe Massa’s Williams going into turn 1.

As it turned out, Hamilton never looked back. He pulled out of DRS range immediately and built up a two to three-second advantage over Rosberg, which stayed stable throughout the opening stages of the race. It remained like that through the first pit stops until lap 23 of the race. It was at that point that things went from bad to worse for Rosberg.

The German appeared to lock up in the final sector of the lap, losing time to Hamilton. The gap expanded to around four seconds and if that had been the end of it Rosberg would still have been in with a shot. Sadly for the five time 2014 race winner, it only signalled the start of his troubles. Rosberg soon reported that he had lost power and his Mercedes team soon confirmed a hybrid system failure on his car.

It was a dreadful race for Rosberg, who finished 14th

It was a dreadful race for Rosberg, who finished 14th

The loss around 160hp from the failure of his ERS system was crippling for Rosberg. He started losing time hand over fist. Just a few laps later Massa blasted past him in his Williams, and he wasn’t the only one. As the laps ticked by Rosberg dropped further and further down the field, losing position after position as, despite his best efforts, cars cruised past his stricken Mercedes down the straight.

It is to Rosberg’s credit that he finished the race, despite his team suggesting that he should retire his car. In the end he finished in 14th positions, after being lapped by his team-mate. While it was a massively disappointing way to finish the season for Rosberg, it was very much delight for Hamilton.

A delighted Hamilton takes the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi

A delighted Hamilton takes the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi

The Briton took his second world drivers’ crown after a six-year wait since his 2008 championship win with McLaren. Hamilton survived some late pressure from Massa in the Williams, who ran a short last stint on the faster super soft tyres, to win the race by 2.5 seconds. Even without Rosberg’s troubles in Abu Dhabi, the German was never in a position to take the drivers’ championship. Had he not had his ERS failure and had somehow managed to catch and pass his team-mate – something that he hadn’t managed all season – Hamilton would still have finished in second place, which was all he needed to take the championship.

It was a great finish to a great season for Williams

It was a great finish to a great season for Williams

Thankfully, too, double points turned out not to be a factor in deciding the fate of the title. Hopefully this will be the first and only time this gimmick is used in Formula 1. Indeed, the only man to benefit was Valtteri Bottas, who took third place in the race behind his Williams team-mate Felipe Massa, and with it, fourth place in the drivers’ standings. It was an impressive end to the season for a resurgent Williams team, which took third place in the constructors’’ standings after finishing a lowly ninth in 2013.

2014 was, though Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton’s year. Mercedes finished as constructors’ champions with a record-breaking 16 race wins out of 19 and a record 701 world championship points. Hamilton took 11 of those race wins, more than double the number taken by his team-mate to deservedly take the world drivers’ championship by 67 points

It was Alonso's final race for Ferrari

It was Alonso’s final race for Ferrari

2015 will be a season of changes, though. We now know that Sebastian Vettel will leave Red Bull Racing – the team where he won his four world titles – to join Ferrari, while Fernando Alonso will leave the Scuderia for parts unknown. Presumably the Spaniard will join McLaren with their new Honda engines, but that’s yet to be confirmed, as are the futures of current McLaren drivers Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen.

One thing that is unlikely to change, however, is the Mercedes dominance of Formula 1. Next season already looks like it might be another shoot out between Hamilton and Rosberg, but let’s not worry about that too much now. Lewis Hamilton certainly won’t. He’s busy celebrating his second world drivers’ championship, and he’ll be going into contract negotiations with his Mercedes bosses with a spring in his step.

Abu Dhabi was billed as the duel in the desert. As it turned out, Lewis Hamilton was the jewel in the desert. It was a sparkling performance in a dazzling season from the 29-year-old.

Hamilton charges while Rosberg cruises in Germany

Well, the German grand prix was certainly an exciting one, not that you would have noticed if you were Nico Rosberg. After suffering his first retirement of the season at Silverstone, the German bounced back at home to take what must rank as one of the most straightforward of his career.

Hamilton's qualifying crash meant that he started the race in 20th position

Hamilton’s qualifying crash meant that
he started the race in 20th position

Rosberg was aided by some misfortune for his Mercedes team-mate, Lewis Hamilton. This time trouble stuck for Hamilton during qualifying. His right front brake disk failed at 130 mph during Q1, pitching the Englishman’s Silver Arrow into a spin, and into the wall. Even though Hamilton’s time was good enough to get him through to the second part of qualifying, with his car in the wall and its driver out of the cockpit there was no opportunity for Hamilton to challenge for a higher grid slot.

It looked like a 15th place start for the 2008 world drivers’ champion, thanks to a three place penalty for Esteban Gutierrez, while Rosberg claimed pole position ahead of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa in the Williams cars. As it turned out, though, the damage sustained when Hamilton hit the wall meant that his Mercedes team were forced to change his gearbox. The resulting five place grid penalty meant that Hamilton started in 20th.

Rosberg started well, while Massa's Williams rolled after contact with Magnussen's McLaren

Rosberg started well, while Massa’s Williams rolled after contact with Magnussen’s McLaren

Going in to the race everything pointed to a Rosberg win, and so it turned out. Rosberg got away cleanly at the start and was well ahead of the carnage caused when Kevin Magnussen’s McLaren came together with Massa’s Williams at turn one, pitching the latter into a roll and out of the race. Out came the safety car, but that made no difference to Rosberg, who again streaked clear at the restart.

Although he’d made up places at the original start, Hamilton was still only 17th when the safety car came in, with lots of work ahead of him to claw his way up to the sharp end of the field. By lap 10 Hamilton was up into the points in 10th place, while his team-mate was leading comfortably at the front. Hamilton was slicing his way through the field and was even up to second at one point before making his first pit stop on lap 27, running longer than his competitors having started on the slower prime tyres.

 

Hamilton's coming together with Button didn't help his charge through the field

Hamilton’s coming together with Button
didn’t help his charge through the field

Hamilton fitted primes again at his pit stop and looked set to do a two stop race. As his team told him on the radio, Hamilton was looking good for a second place finish. That was until lap 30. Just a few laps after his pit-stop Hamilton came up behind Jenson Button’s McLaren. As Button went wide into the hairpin it looked for all the world that he had opened the door to let his former team-mate through. It certainly looked that way to Hamilton as he made his move down the inside of the McLaren, but Button cut back across Hamilton damaging the front wing of the Mercedes.

The damage had an impact on the handling of Hamilton’s car, increasing his tyre wear and forcing him to switch strategies to a three stop, running the options in the last two stints. Hamilton stopped for the second time on lap 44 meaning that Mercedes aimed to do two 13 lap stints on option tyres in the latter stages of the race. Amazingly, such was Hamilton’s speed, even with the damage to his front wing, that second place was still a very real possibility.

Then came another piece of bad luck for the Englishman. Sauber’s Adrian Sutil spun at the final corner and then stalled his car. The stricken Sauber was left in the middle of the track and it looked like the safety car would be deployed. That’s certainly what Mercedes thought as they pitted Hamilton the very next lap, even though it was five laps earlier than they had been aiming for. Had the safety car been deployed it would have been a potentially race winning strategy call. Hamilton emerged from the pits in fourth place and on fresh option tyres. With a bunched up field, with his competitors all on used tyres Hamilton would have been in a brilliant position to challenge his team-mate, who had led every lap of the race.

Bottas drove brilliantly to claim a second consecutive second place finish

Bottas drove brilliantly to claim a
second consecutive second place finish

Unfortunately for Hamilton, the safety car wasn’t deployed. Despite the dangerous position of Sutil’s Sauber race control decided that it was fine to allow marshals onto the track to push the stricken car out of the way. That meant that Hamilton had to run on his last set of tyres for far longer than expected. In the end it cost Hamilton at least second place. Although he was able to pass Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari very easily and close on Bottas rapidly, by the time that he caught the Williams his tyres were finished and he was unable to pass.

Third was the best that Hamilton could manage in the end, while Rosberg, barely featuring on the TV coverage, cruised to victory some 20 seconds clear. Hamilton looked downcast after the race, despite his stunning drive from 20th to a podium. Luck certainly wasn’t on his side in Germany, but he should console himself with the thought that going in to Silverstone the points gap to his team-mate was some 29 points. It’s now just 14. Had Hamilton won in both Silverstone and Germany, with Rosberg second, the gap would have been 15 points.

The championship is far from over and if Hamilton can win in a week’s time in Hungary – as he did last year – things will be nicely set up going in to the mid-season break.

The return of the Mack

So, that’s the first Formula 1 race of 2014 done and dusted.  In some ways you could say that, despite the new 1.6 litre turbocharged hybrid power units and regulations changes, nothing has changed.  We still had a German dominating the race, by breaking clear at the start, leading the way for the whole race and winning by a huge margin.  In reality, though, we all know that the F1 of 2014 is different from 2013 in a whole raft of ways.

Nico Rosberg on his way to a dominant victory in Australia

Nico Rosberg on his way to a
dominant victory in Australia

Firstly, of course, it wasn’t Sebastian Vettel – world drivers’ champion for the last four seasons in his Red Bull Renault – who dominated the race, but another young German in Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg.  Such was the manner of Rosberg’s victory, though, that it was very reminiscent of Vettel’s past dominance.  Rosberg won the race by a huge 24.5 seconds from Red Bull Racing’s new Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo (later excluded from the results after a fuel flow infraction), with McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen a further 2.2 seconds back.

While Red Bull Racing Team Principle Christian Horner’s prediction that Mercedes might win by a couple of laps proved to be very wide of the mark, it was certainly proved correct that Mercedes are enjoying a significant pace advantage over the rest of the field right now.  Unfortunately for them, and for polesitter Lewis Hamilton, that pace has not come hand in hand with total reliability.  Sadly for Hamilton, and for the race, he only managed to complete three laps because of a failed cylinder in his engine, which hampered him from the get go enabling Rosberg to cruise past him off the line.  Hamilton, though, handled the understandable disappointment well; you suspect that his turn will come, and before long.

Ricciardo drove an excellent race to finish second, and hold off Kevin MagnussenThere were also contrasting fortunes for the two Red Bull Racing cars in terms of race performance.  To be honest, the world constructors champions did amazingly well to be anywhere near the front after a disastrous pre-season, but they confounded expectations by looking competative in Melbourne.  While new boy Ricciardo was hugely impressive over the race weekend, both starting and finishing in second place before his subsequent exclusion from the results,  his team-mate, reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel, did not enjoy the same sort of performance levels.

Vettel was hampered by a software problem in qualifying, meaning that he could only manage to qualify in 13th place (he started 12th after a grid penalty for Valterri Bottas).  In the race, he never really got going, dropping back at the start and completing just one more lap than Hamilton before being forced to retire.  The frustration from the German was clear over team radio as he instructed his team to “Do something” while complaining of a lack of power and pace.  Things aren’t quite so easy when you’re not in the dominant car and you suspect that this is something that Vettel will have to come to terms with, particularly in the early stages of the season.

Eric Boullier has joined McLaren as Racing Director

Eric Boullier has joined
McLaren as Racing Director

While Mercedes cars, and in some ways the two Red Bulls, suffered contrasting fortunes the same cannot be said of a resurgent McLaren.  Martin Whitmarsh’s departure, the return of Ron Dennis and the recruitment of Eric Boullier as Racing Director has coincided with a huge turnaround for the Woking-based team.  McLaren struggled throughout 2013, finishing the season without scoring a single podium finish.  They ended that run in the first race of 2014 with rookie Kevin Magnussen’s brilliant drive to third place on his F1 debut.  Following Ricciardo’s exclusion this, of course, was upgrade to second.

Not only that, but Magnussen was followed home by team-mate Jenson Button who inherited third, meaning that McLaren leave Australia with a double-podium and the lead of the constructors championship.  While all is not quite as the team would hope – they’re still lacking in outright pace in comparison to Mercedes – this is a massive leap forward for McLaren.  They might not be the quickest, but they have proved that they’ve got consistency.  Not only that, but the tactical errors that have blighted the team over the past couple of seasons look to have been eradicated.  There was clear evidence of that as Jenson Button was moved forward through the pit stops from his 10th place starting position, leapfrogging cars with some good strategy, particularly when taking maximum advantage from the single safety car period – caused after Valterri Bottas brushed the wall in his Williams – by diving into the pits at the last possible moment.

Bottas, tyre smoking, squeezes past Raikkonen

Bottas, tyre smoking, squeezes past Raikkonen

While McLaren – the Mack of this article’s title – are clearly back amongst the front-runners, they’re certainly not the only ones.  Williams were hugely impressive in pre-season and they seem to have carried that forward into the season proper, along with a new title sponsorship deal with Martini.  Although they perhaps didn’t achieve the results that they might have hoped for in Australia, Bottas’s sixth place finish still resulted in eight world championship points for the Grove-based team.  That’s three more than they managed for the whole of the previous season.  Things might have been even better for the team had new recruit Felipe Massa not been taken out at the first corner by Caterham’s Kamui Kobayashi, and Bottas not brushed the wall at turn 10 on lap 10 when running in sixth position, triggering the safety car.

We’re only one race into the season, of course, but Williams and McLaren look to be back where they would say they belong.  Ferrari, clearly have work to do – the Scuderia where never really in contention at Albert park, finishing fifth (Alonso) and eighth (Raikkonen) places (both upgraded following Ricciardo’s disqualification) – but not as much as Lotus who, as expected, struggled badly, with both cars forced to retire.  Pastor Maldonado’s move from Williams to Lotus, is not looking like the wisest one right now.

One thing is clear, though, Mercedes are enjoying a significant pace advantage over their rivals.  If they can maintain that throughout the season, and minimise the sort of reliability issues suffered by Hamilton, there’ll be no stopping them in 2014.

The wrong formula

If you’re reading this, it’s pretty likely that you’re a Formula 1 fan.  A fan of thrilling racing, overtaking, battles for the lead and the championship.  A fan of motorsport at it’s very best.  That’s what F1 is all about, after all; it’s the pinnacle of motorsport.  Or, at least, that’s what it should be.

Vettel takes the chequered flag at the Circuit of the Americas

Vettel takes the chequered flag
at the Circuit of the Americas

Sadly, Formula 1 has become increasingly dull.  At the weekend we saw the now four time world drivers’ champion, Sebastian Vettel, take his eighth consecutive victory.  As usual, he was pretty much unchallenged at the front and the win was comprehensive and straightforward.  As usual, we heard team radio messages to various drivers urging them to conserve their Pirelli tyres.  Yes, that’s right, team radio telling drivers not to push to the maximum for fear that they might wear out their tyres.  The overtaking that we did see either happened at the start or was largely achieved with the assistance of the Drag Reduction System (DRS) overtaking aid. Is this really what we want racing to be like at the pinnacle of the sport?

I should be clear that none of this is Vettel’s fault.  He’s clearly a great driver, who has the privilege of driving cars that have been the class of the field for the last four years.  Indeed, but for the Brawn double diffuser in 2009, there’s little doubt that Vettel and Red Bull Racing would have won five consecutive world drivers’ and constructors’ championships.  No doubt, future generations will look at the record books and marvel at the German’s achievements.  No doubt, his fans love his complete dominance of Formula 1.  For the rest of us, though, be we supporters of other drivers, or just fans of great racing, Vettel’s dominance is a real turn off.  What’s the point of watching a race when the outcome is all but certain?

An example of a coanda exhuast on Jenson Button's McLaren MP4-27 from 2012

An example of a coanda exhaust on Jenson
Button’s McLaren MP4-27 from 2012

The change in regulations in 2014 brings with it a huge opportunity for F1 to become exciting again.  Non-Vettel/Red Bull fans are living in the hope that other teams and drivers will raise their games for 2014, and that the absence of the exhaust technology that Red Bull has mastered will level the playing field somewhat.  I very much hope that it does, but even then there are other things that need to be addressed, chief among them the Pirelli tyres.

Again, I should preface my comments by saying that I don’t think the Pirelli are solely to blame for the problems that we’re now seeing.  They must, though, shoulder some blame.  When Pirelli entered F1 in 2011 they were asked to make tyres that degraded more rapidly than the Bridgestone rubber that had been used previously.  Typically races run on Bridgestone’s during the time that they were the sole tyre supplier, following the banning of refuelling, were one stop races, lacking in much excitement.  Then the Canadian grand prix of 2010 came along, with multiple tyre stops as the rubber degraded more quickly, we had an exciting and tough to predict race.  “This is the answer” thought the FIA, “faster wearing tyres produce better racing”.  So that’s what Pirelli were asked to produce.

Pirelli's 2013 range of tyres

Pirelli’s 2013 range of tyres

And that’s what Pirelli have produced.  I would argue that they have taken their brief too far, but they have certainly done what the FIA asked them to do, and with very limited testing, too.  What the FIA didn’t consider, though, was that rapidly degrading rubber is fine when it’s not the norm.  When it’s unexpected it will produce racing that’s exciting.  The problem is, though, that everyone knows that the tyres wear out quickly.  So, instead of pushing their cars and themselves to the limits – as they should be doing at the pinnacle of motorsport – they concern themselves with not overstressing their tyres.  They’re not pushing hard.  They’re not driving on the limit.  They are protecting their tyres to try to achieve the optimum race strategy.

As a result, we don’t see much exciting wheel to wheel racing.  There are no race long battles for the lead.  Formula 1 in 2013 has become what the FIA had hoped to avoid – dull and uninteresting.  If the FIA wants races with multiple pit stops it would be far better to have harder wearing tyres – tyres that drivers can really stress and push to the limit on – and mandatory pit stops.  That would be better from a marketing point of view for the tyre manufacturer, and better for the sport.

An example of an open DRS system on the Mercedes

An example of an open DRS system on the Mercedes

F1 is not really helped by DRS, the other big change, along with Pirelli tyres, at the start of 2011.  DRS, to be fair, does help overtaking by reducing drag.  As you probably know, it can only be used at set points at each track and only when a car is within a second of the car ahead of it at a set detection point.  The problem with it is that it’s completely artificial.

We’ve become so used to DRS now, though.  I find myself watching a DRS assisted pass during races and thinking, “great pass” or “good move” when it’s anything more than someone just driving past someone else in the middle of a straight.  These aren’t great passes, though.  They are manufactured and artificial.  A far cry from the truly great overtaking manoeuvres of the past that we now see fewer and fewer of.

As I’ve written about previously, instead of dreaming up devices to artificially boost overtaking, the FIA need to concern themselves with addressing the aerodynamic rules that make it difficult for Formula 1 cars to follow each other closely.  Resolve that, introduce mandatory pit stops and request harder wearing tyres, and we might see Formula 1 racing that’s exciting again.

Of course, not much can be done if one team or driver is just better than the rest, as we’ve seen over the past few seasons with Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing.  As I’ve said, it’s up to others to raise their game to make sure that it doesn’t happen again in 2014.  They need some help from the rule-makers, though.

Young Dane Kevin Magnussen has recently signed to drive for McLaren in 2014

Young Dane Kevin Magnussen has recently signed to drive for McLaren in 2014

At the moment, the FIA have got the balance completely wrong.  And when you add the ridiculousness of the driver market into the equation, the situation looks even bleaker.  Increasingly, teams need drivers to pay their way, rather than earning their drives on the basis of talent alone.  There are a few exceptions to that rule, most notably McLaren’s recent promotion of Kevin Magnussen to a race seat in 2014, but others aren’t as lucky.  The best example at the current time is Nico Hulkenberg.  It looks increasingly likely that the talented German will be overlooked for a leading drive at Lotus because of his lack of sponsorship cash.  Hulkenberg has performed wonders whichever team he has driven for in the past, but that’s not enough nowadays.

Instead it looks likely that the Lotus drive will go to Pastor Maldonado and his bucket-load of PVDSA sponsorship.  The Venezuelan is quick on his day, but crash-prone, erratic and prone to red mist.  As we saw in Austin, he’s also petulant and a poor loser.  Certainly not a driver that’s worthy of  one of the top drives in F1.  Indeed, but for his sponsorship money I doubt he would have ever secured a drive in Formula 1.

I’m not sure what can be done about the rise of the pay driver in F1 but this, together with the lacklustre on track action does not make for a healthy sport.  This is not the right formula for success.  As they’d say in Star Trek, the F1 of 2013 “is Formula 1, Jim, but not as we know it”.  Nor as we want it to be.