After the return of Formula One two weeks ago, in which we saw Mercedes take an imperious one-two and looking unassailable this year, we’ve had a more surprising result today in Malaysia, where Ferrari took the fight to Mercedes, with Sebastian Vettel exploiting what appears to be a slippery chassis and an improved engine to win decisively against Hamilton and Rosberg. Kimi Raikkonen compounded Ferrari’s success, despite his misfortunes in qualifying and suffering a puncture during the race to take a solid fourth place. After seeing Hamilton romp home to take victory a fortnight ago in Australia, I was concerned that we would see a domineering season from a single driver, with Rosberg, possibly chastised from falling short at the end of last season, perhaps left to pick up the scraps. However, if Ferrari can maintain some degree of consistency about their performances, it might bode better in terms of intrigue throughout the season. At this point, I still expect Mercedes to win the World Constructor’s Championship with greater consistency from both their drivers, but if Vettel and Raikkonen can deliver performances at tracks that don’t have such a focus on top speed, they may present themselves as at least dark horses for the World Driver’s Championship.
After Ricciardo’s spectacular performances last season, taking three victories in a season where barely anybody else even came close to snatching glory from the Mercedes, he has become team leader at Red Bull with the move of Vettel to Ferrari. Daniil Kvyat, formerly of Toro Rosso, joins him and has acquitted himself well so far, despite reliability problems which prevented him from taking the grid in Australia. After so many years in the previous naturally-aspirated formula at the top of Formula One, Red Bull have struggled to regain their pace with the turbocharged Renault engines. Reliability gremlins struck both cars in Australia and the Renault engine, even when it is working, still appears to be down on power versus the Mercedes and an improved Ferrari. Unlike last season, where Ricciardo achieved victories, I think that this season will see Red Bull lucky to battle for podiums, more regularly scoring in the middle of the points.
Red Bull’s sister team, Toro Rosso, shares the Renault engines and also suffered some mechanical problems in Australia at the hands of Max Verstappen. Verstappen has drawn a considerable amount of press for his age, being only 17 years old, by a long way the youngest ever Formula One driver. The son of former Formula One journeyman Jos Verstappen, Max has a notorious lack of experience in single-seater racing, with only a single season of Formula 3 under his belt and joins Formula One after a year of test driving for Toro Rosso in 2014. However, on current evidence in the Formula One races so far, he has quite a bit of natural pace, matching his substantially more experienced team-mate, Carlos Sainz Jr., another new entrant and also son to a famous racing driver father. Despite the limited experience of both drivers, they have quickly brought the fight to the other teams, with Sainz scoring in both of his two finishes and Verstappen only being denied a points finish in his race due to an engine failure.
Williams, regularly best of the rest in 2014 and unlucky not to score a victory on occasions, might have to retemper their expectations in 2015. They still have the proven Mercedes engine, have retained both Felipe Massa and Valterri Bottas from last year and still appear to have a fair degree of pace, but with Ferrari looking stronger than last year, Williams will more likely be caught up in a scrap with the likes of Red Bull, Toro Rosso and Lotus – when their car works properly – for the middle points positions. This is slightly disappointing for Bottas, who scored several well-deserved podiums last season and looks like a likely race winner in the future, but the team may be able to take some solace in that they are likely to be at the front of the battle between the teams that aren’t Mercedes or Ferrari.
Closer to the back of the points positions, Sauber appear to have a quicker car than last year, although they are embroiled in a legal battle with Giedo van der Garde over contract issues that looks like it’ll be a slow burner. Considering one of the drivers that they did choose, I would question their decision not to give van der Garde one of the seats this year; Marcus Ericsson, whose results last year were underwhelming even by the standards of the Caterham team and who didn’t cover himself in glory in the lower single-seater formulae, was signed up in his place. The other choice of driver for the team, Felipe Nasr, is more sensible, despite Nasr being a rookie; he did win a championship at Formula Three and came third in last year’s GP2 series. Nevertheless, given the prominent change in livery for Sauber, now proudly displaying the colours of Banco del Brasil, one strongly suspects that both drivers were picked for their ability to bring in sponsorship dollars, since Sauber is suspected to be in a weak position financially.
Another team rumoured to be weak financially and who will also be scrapping for the lower points positions this season is Force India. Their driver line-up, with the podium-scoring Sergio Perez and the pole position-attaining Nico Hulkenberg, is more experienced than that of Sauber, but their car, despite having a Mercedes engine, does not look especially fast. Somewhat benefited in the race in Australia by virtue of reliability where for others it was lacking, Force India managed a double points finish, but I suspect they will struggle to keep that up during the rest of the season.
At least, though, for all their financial woes, Sauber and Force India are performing better than McLaren, who look like they’re going to have an annus horribilis. With the conclusion of McLaren’s contract with Mercedes, McLaren have gone back to a partner who has presented them with considerable success in the past, with Honda engines in the back of their car. Unfortunately, though, the Honda engine is suffering from a distinct lack of development versus Mercedes, Ferrari and even Renault and is by far the least powerful engine on the grid right now. Trundling around at the back is not a place where we have often seen McLaren and the car, while reportedly nice to drive, is unbefitting of the most experienced line-up on the grid, with double World Champion Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, also a World Champion. McLaren will be lucky to score points this season and have already struggled to complete races.
One of the feel-good stories of the pre-season was Manor Marussia’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes to present two cars at Australia. Unfortunately, having completed no testing and with all software wiped from their computers in preparation for auction, neither car turned a wheel in Australia and it had to wait until Malaysia until we had a full grid of cars ready to take the start. Will Stevens, who competed in one race last season and Roberto Merhi, another rookie driver, have both been signed up to drive for the team, but it remains to be seen whether the position is a poisoned chalice or not. The car, a derivative of the 2014 Marussia, was not on the pace in Malaysia, barely scraping through the 107% rule in free practice, although Merhi’s completion of the race shows that the car may well have reliability on its side. Even as a fan of the plucky underdog, the pace of the car looks prohibitively slow and with the exit of Caterham, who had gone from underdogs in their early seasons to perennial underachievers by the time of their demise, Manor will largely be in a lonely race with themselves. Things are not looking good for the smaller teams.
In terms of tracks for this season, we have gained another classic track in the Mexican Grand Prix, being held at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, but temporarily lost the German Grand Prix for the first time since 1960. The loss of the German Grand Prix marks another struggle for the classic European tracks where so much of Formula One’s history lies and while the move to new markets has occasionally given us gems like Sepang or Circuit of the Americas, I do think it’s terrible that Germany doesn’t have a Grand Prix this year for financial concerns, despite having three successful German drivers on the grid, while Abu Dhabi, a city in a desert only notable for its oil reserves and the obvious artifice of its settlements, maintains its end-of-season place at a dull, largely featureless track that has been site of some of the most boring races of the last five years, where not even seasons coming down the wire can improve the racing itself.
In other news, the BBC finally bit the bullet and sacked Jeremy Clarkson after a career of controversy. To be fair, even as a Top Gear aficionado, from what we have been presented with from reports of the incident between Clarkson and the BBC producer, Oisin Tymon, Clarkson deserved his sacking; assault on a co-worker is very difficult to condone. Nevertheless, though, it looks like it’s the end of Top Gear as we know it; the ribald, politically incorrect humour of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May will be unlikely to be continued on the BBC. Plenty of names have already been mooted for a completely new set of presenters, several who would be good choices for an informative car show, but few who would present anything like what we have seen since Clarkson took the reins in 2002.
The bookie’s favourite at the moment is Guy Martin, perennial Isle of Man TT competitor, lorry mechanic and occasional TV presenter. To be fair, Guy Martin would be one of the best choices the BBC could make; not only does Guy have a quirky personality that is interesting to watch, he is genuinely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about motor vehicles and has exceptional mechanical sympathy. This would make him a great choice for an informative car show, as I would suspect the BBC would try to retool the show towards, but I’m not sure that Guy would actually bite – after all, it could affect his ability to race successfully at several of the motorcycle road races that take place during the year in Northern Ireland, some of which provide a lead up to the TT.
My fear is that the BBC will bow to pressure from outspoken minorities and take the politically correct route unnecessarily. This includes the lobby to have a woman back on the show – several women did present the show during the original run of Top Gear, but the show was retooled precisely because the original formula had poor ratings and apart from Sabine Schmitz who is already too busy with D-Motor on German television, I can’t think of many female candidates that wouldn’t just be there to tick diversity boxes. Meanwhile, Clarkson will likely find himself a home somewhere on Sky, given his already comfy relationship with several organs of the Murdoch empire, possibly with Richard Hammond and James May in tow, drawing away viewers from the BBC and causing a crisis in an already battered broadcaster.
Finally, I see that Ted Cruz has announced his nomination as the Republican candidate for President of the United States. I already made my views on Ted Cruz very clear earlier this month, but I hate the man even more now – he was dangerous enough as the head of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space without going for the Presidency as well. While the other Republican candidates look more appealing than Ted Cruz, that isn’t exactly a difficult feat, since lighting my pubes on fire would be more appealing to me than voting for Ted Cruz.
From an objective point of view, it looks like the Republicans will present their third terrible candidate in a row in presidential elections; unfortunately, I don’t have enough confidence in the Democrats to present anything better than a mediocre candidate (because perish the thought that they’d actually be sensible and pick Elizabeth Warren) and I don’t have enough confidence in the American populace not to go for the Republican candidate out of spite. Prove me wrong, America; I’m begging for you to prove me wrong.