Thoughts on the 2014 Formula One Season

The 2013 Formula One season, by all accounts, was a walkover for Red Bull Racing. Sebastian Vettel, who won the Drivers’ Championship at a canter, collected more points than the runner-up team in the Constructors’ Championship and won nine back-to-back races in the latter part of the season. While I can’t deny that Vettel certainly did enough to deserve the title, I did not find that dominating results in his manner led to terribly exciting racing. Often, Vettel would score a pole on the Saturday and spend the entire race out front on Sunday while the other racers scrapped for the remaining positions. The few missteps that Vettel made at the start of the season were effectively rendered irrelevant once the tyre dispute with Pirelli that led to unintentional chaos was resolved in favour of Red Bull.

All tension was removed from the championship hunt, while results down the field increasingly took up an air of irrelevance once teams started to slot into their final championship places. Transitioning to 2014 and a team is once again showing exceptionally dominant performances, but this time, it’s not Red Bull; instead, Mercedes have made good on their gain in potential over the last few seasons and stolen the march in the early development of the current formula. This should, taking the past few seasons into account, be a catalyst for dread for more processional and dull racing – but I’m not concerned yet.

One major difference has appeared so far to lead me to believe that this season holds more potential for excitement. In the past four seasons, Sebastian Vettel’s team-mate was Mark Webber, a driver whose last big chance to compete for the Drivers’ Championship was 2010. This title was – eventually – won by Sebastian Vettel at the last race of the season at Abu Dhabi, who took advantage of his pole position and controlled the race while his competitors for the title, Webber himself and Fernando Alonso, trailed in the bottom end of the points. From then until Webber’s retirement from Formula One, Webber never really looked like a competitor for the title, despite having the same dominant machinery as Vettel. His confidence apparently sapped, Webber might have won races, but Vettel won championships.

The difference this year comes from the objectively better matched confidence and desire of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Lewis Hamilton has often appeared to be one of the fastest drivers on the grid, but only has one championship to show for it. Nico Rosberg, whose father was a champion in the chaotic season of 1982, has emerged as a quick and technically proficient driver, but has not yet had an opportunity to compete for the championship. The races so far in the season have shown Hamilton and Rosberg to be willing to battle each other in wheel-to-wheel racing, as shown magnificently in the dying laps of the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix. Even if Mercedes were to remain dominant for the rest of the season, the competition between two drivers hungry for success could help offset the ennui of a single-team domination, in much the same way as the inter-team battle between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost helped to make the 1987 season exciting despite the overwhelming technical advantage of the McLaren team.

Even in the Red Bull inter-team battle, Sebastian Vettel doesn’t seem to be having it all his own way. Daniel Ricciardo, recently promoted from the Toro Rosso sister team, has proven so far to be a surprisingly competent foil to Vettel, outqualifying him three times out of four so far and outscoring him on the two occasions when both drivers have finished. This in itself could be a very interesting contest to watch as the experienced champion has to fend off the young challenger in his own team.

Most of the other teams in the championship are rather more difficult to classify. Ferrari has been underwhelming so far, with Fernando Alonso so far demonstrating some degree of pace but his much-vaunted team-mate Kimi Raikkonen struggling. McLaren, after a very quick opening race, has dropped back into the midfield. Force India has reaped some of the rewards of having the Mercedes engine and are currently third in the Constructors’ Championship, but it remains to be seen whether they can make a consistent effort throughout the rest of the season. Williams, despite early promise, have not managed to make the most of promising situations and lie below where I would have expected. Toro Rosso has been largely anonymous, although Daniil Kvyat has challenged his more experienced team-mate better than expected. Only at the back of the midfield group does a pecking order really emerge; Lotus are suffering from the consequences of overspending throughout the last few seasons to try to punch above their weight and Sauber are just nowhere with two underwhelming drivers.

The battle of Marussia and Caterham at the back continues, but it has been given some additional spice by the addition of Kamui Kobayashi, one of my favourite drivers in previous seasons, to the Caterham team. Max Chilton currently leads the standings with performances that belie his appearance as a bit of a pay-driver (although, to be fair, his reliability throughout the 2013 season also belied that appearance) while Jules Bianchi has been rather invisible. Marcus Eriksson, Kobayashi’s team-mate in the other Caterham, has looked a bit like the lame duck of the season, but hasn’t made any embarrassing slip-ups yet.

The rule changes for the season have ranged in their effectiveness; the turbocharged engines and the fuel regulations have led to a high-torque driving challenge where the cars seem – to my excitement – to be rather more of a handful than the V8 cars were in the previous few seasons, although the reticence to reach the 15,000rpm limit has led to the rather underwhelming and controversial sound (although I do like the sounds the cars make as they slow down for corners). I’ve found the fixed driver numbers rather irrelevant in the grand scheme of things and somewhat gimmicky to boot, but their irrelevance at least means they couldn’t have had a large-scale negative effect. The same can’t be said of the decision to double the points for the final race of the season.

The idea to introduce double points at all is gimmicky by its very nature and seems a rather tacky way to try to manufacture excitement. This is made worse by the track which is receiving double points – the Yas Marina Circuit at Abu Dhabi. I have never felt that the Abu Dhabi race should be held as the final race of a season, being on a circuit which I feel demonstrates the worst impulses of Hermann Tilke’s track design.

The track is flat as a pancake – which I suppose Tilke couldn’t help, considering he had much better results with the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, an environ more suited for undulation – with the transition between tight, twisty sections and a long straight hypothetically creating a challenge between low and high downforce, but in reality just creating a compromise to medium downforce. It is difficult to overtake at the Yas Marina circuit, with Fernando Alonso’s long, ultimately fruitless struggle to get past Vitaly Petrov in the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix which earned Sebastian Vettel his first title underpinning that point perfectly. The circuit has large, expansive run-off areas which are very useful for enhancing safety, but remove the big consequences for running off the track at the likes of Suzuka or Spa-Francorchamps. If they have to have double points at all, it should be at a track which either promotes overtaking – Spa-Francorchamps, Interlagos, et cetera – or at a track which promotes the ultimate in driver skill – the one and only Circuit de Monaco.