Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Team Mate Struggles Surface

The first European Grand Prix of 2014 took place last weekend at the Catalunya circuit near Barcelona. The track is not notorious for providing stand out races, but it does highlight the cars aerodynamic strengths and weaknesses. With all of the teams bringing update packages to this Grand Prix following the 3 week break, it was hoped that the advantage enjoyed by Mercedes previously would be reduced. They of course brought updates of their own as they are pushing equally as hard to maintain the gap to the rest of the field.

Excluding the pitstops, Hamilton leads over Rosberg never exceeded 5 seconds.

We are already a quarter of the way into the 2014 championship, a season that Mercedes have completely dominated from the start and could well dominate to the end. McLaren have come the closest to winning every single race in a season in 1988, failing only at the Italian Grand Prix with both cars retiring from the Grand Prix. There is a chance that the gap back to the second best team (currently Red Bull) could be closed, but reliability once again seems to be the others only hope of stopping the clean sweep from happening. I am glad to see then that the Mercedes team are intent on allowing both of their drivers to race fairly and give us some action concerning who takes the race win. Equally, I'm glad to see that both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg have so far been very evenly matched at the first 5 races. With each race that goes by, the dynamic of the 2 deepens somewhat and we see a little bit more of the personal hunger showing through.

Lewis Hamilton celebrates victory, a scene Rosberg had already rushed from.

Hamilton has now won 4 in a row, and questions are being asked of Rosberg's championship aspirations. If it wasn't for Hamilton's retirement in Australia, he would be around 28 points adrift already and in need of a win streak himself. As it stands however, he still has a chance at the title if he can stop the run of form being enjoyed by Hamilton currently. With each race he seems to be getting closer to that achievement, but Hamilton seems to have just that last half a second to take the win. Both during and after the race, you could tell that he himself is not resting up and settling for narrow wins, getting increasingly frustrated at his need to absorb pressure rather than apply it. The need for each to win is starting to really show post race as well, with the friendly handshakes and hugs now absent within parc fermé. The exchange of race details has also stopped within the time allowed to regain composure ahead of the podium, but they are at least still getting along unlike the big team mate fallouts of old. That will be Mercedes key task this year as the 2 grow into the mammoth showdown expected for the drivers championship itself.

Nico Rosberg has targeted improving both his qualifying performances, and his poor race starts. These represent his best chances at getting ahead and staying ahead.

Mercedes may have the biggest challenge in keeping both of their drivers happy, but they are also doing the best job of it. Prior to the weekend, Mercedes had highlighted the Ferrari team as their most feared rival ahead of the Red Bull team. With a driver pairing of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, it is easy to understand why. So far however Raikkonen has been shaded by Alonso quite comfortably. Raikkonen finally seemed to have the measure of Alonso when he managed to out-qualify him, but struggled to continue the form in the race. Usually never outspoken, Raikkonen uncharacteristically remained at the circuit after his duties to query exactly why Alonso was given priority on strategy when he was behind at both of the pitstops. It may be felt that Kimi Raikkonen does not care, with emotionless answers and the playboy attitude, but he like all of the other drivers dreams of being crowned champion at the end of each year. The Ferrari team have given themselves a case to answer in Spain as to whether they are capable of having 2 equal drivers in the garage.

Raikkonen will seek assurances from the Ferrari team that he is not number 2 driver to Alonso.

As a whole, the Ferrari team were left scratching their heads as to why they were so far off the pace again in Spain. They are trying to ascertain themselves as Mercedes closest rivals, but they finished a long way behind both of the Red Bull cars even with all of the bad luck suffered by Sebastian Vettel ahead of race day. Luca di Montezemolo is retaining a close watching brief with the team since Marco Mattiaci's appointment, and is expecting improvements by Canada from the information he has seen and heard. With only the Monaco Grand Prix between then and now, I'm not so sure that he will be happy with the outcome. Mattiaci is saying the right things though so far, and has mentioned a hiring drive for the talent that the Ferrari team needs to rebuild. It doesn't take very long to identify his target as Red Bull Racing's design guru Adrian Newey, but it could take longer for the Ferrari team to produce sufficient reasoning behind him moving allegiance. That said, there is always a mysterious draw in Formula 1 towards the Ferrari team steeped in history.

If Ferrari go on a recruitment drive, Kimi Raikkonen wouldn't oppose a new race strategist...

The Red Bull Racing team were the second best team in Spain, a track where aerodynamic efficiency is rewarded more than any other car characteristic. Daniel Ricciardo enjoyed a fairly routine drive to third place, the best to be expected with Mercedes as dominant as they are. In contrast, Sebastian Vettel put in the drive of the day as he rescued a 4th place finish having started way down in 15th following a weekend disrupted heavily by reliability woes. It was a real show of force by the German that he is not giving up on 2014 yet, and will hope that he can go on to shadow Ricciardo in the coming races. Daniel Ricciardo has settled very well, joining a top team alongside a 4 time champion and really demonstrating that he is not there just to boost the teams points haul. He has a maturity beyond his age that will see him stand up to Vettel in a way that the fans wanted Webber to. It is another intriguing team battle that could develop nicely when Vettel is not handicapped so badly, and I look forward to more battles like we saw in China between the pair.

Daniel Ricciardo got to keep this podium and thoroughly deserved it too.

The inevitable development push at the first European Grand Prix saw some changes both to the order and to the respective race pace of the teams. Whilst the resources of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing extended their advantage at the front, a greater gap has emerged to a more defined midfield pack. The ever improving Renault engine allowed Romain Grosjean to score the first 2014 points for Lotus, despite suffering some serious engine gremlins that did not allow him to put up much fight against the Ferrari pair. I am glad to see Grosjean back challenging for points after an impressive end to the 2013 season, but he could do with some help from the other side of the garage. Being paired with Kimi Raikkonen is a huge challenge given his skill and lacking as much feedback to the team as other drivers. Pairing him with Pastor Maldonado seems even harsher given some of his antics and the name that he carries. The Lotus team helped Grosjean shed the badboy title gained in 2012, and I have stated my hope that they can help Maldonado too. Spain showed us however it just isn't working so far in 2014. Losing the car in qualifying was a rookie error, but colliding with a Caterham on lap 1 really showed just how much work it is going to be to change the Venezuelan around. Frustrating as it is to be at the back of the pack, he only had himself to blame and should not be forcing the issue with drivers he isn't really in competition with, especially with over 65 laps of a Grand Prix to run. He has to start seeing a bigger picture beyond rash choices and paying out for new front wings...

With the reputation Maldonado (bottom left) has gained, it is easy to forget he won the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix.

The closest battle in the midfield is still the fight between the customer Mercedes engine teams, with McLaren still at the foot of that battle. Another weekend without any points and despite having access to the same resources as the front 3, the development of the MP4-29 has not been as fast as the team need. The first task will be getting a hold of both Force India and Williams after a very impressive weekend for them both yet again in Spain. Sergio Perez finished ahead of Nico Hulkenberg, a great result given the praise directed the German's way over the last couple of seasons. Williams had a more mixed race, with Valtteri Bottas recording a brilliant 5th ahead of the Ferrari drivers, and Massa finishing 13th behind the McLaren's after needing to use a 3 stop strategy to overcome tyre wear problems. The next race at Monaco could represent theses teams best chance at capitilising on the Mercedes engine advantage they have and scoring some big points if they are falling behind in the development race.

Bottas was the standout driver from the apparent midfield running teams.

Behind the Mercedes customer teams come the Ferrari and Renault powered teams, still struggling with the balance between power, reliability and aerodynamic updates on a smaller budget. The gaps between all 4 of the teams now is not large, but there does appear to be very definitive order between them all. Toro Rosso are battling reliability issues foremost, as they look to reduce the deficit to those running the Mercedes engines ahead. With McLaren struggling and potentially already having to look to 2015 development instead, we could see them in a close fight over the latter positions soon. Sauber had a new lightweight chassis in Spain, rumoured to be about 15kg lighter, having had to run above the minimum weight limit in the first 4 races. It didn't bring the gains that the team had hoped however, finishing 16th and 17th with Maldonado 20 seconds ahead. It has given the Marussia team a real carrot to chase now, as they believe they will be racing against the Saubers very soon. Jules Bianchi was around 50 seconds behind Sutil at the end of the race, similar to the margin between Red Bull and Mercedes at the front. There is clearly then still work to be done, but they have at least asserted their position ahead of the struggling Caterham team. Max Chilton finished yet again, but he was 40 seconds behind his team mate and still 20 seconds clear of Marcus Ericsson. Kamui Kobayashi looked set for a 2 stop race having run closely with the 3 stopping Chilton before running into brake problems, it is a shame that we did not see the conclusion to that battle in the end.

Marussia are targeting outright race pace, whilst Caterham look to be kinder on their tyres and benefit from making less pitstops.

The next Grand Prix is at Monaco in just under a fortnights time, but before then is the Spanish in season test session today and tomorrow (13th and 14th May). Despite bringing updates for the Spanish race itself, I expect we'll see even more new parts tested as the relentless development drive in 2014 continues. Ferrari tested the new louder exhaust in FP1 on Friday, and it is expected that a number of other teams will run the wider exhausts in these 2 days to assess the affects they have, both on the cars power and the noise they produce. We won't have to wait long for sound comparisons to then emerge and I will try to update the blog with those tech pieces where I can!

Ferrari fitted the widened exhaust for FP1, with Mercedes expected to run their own during the in-season test session this week.