Formula One in 2015

The start of the 2015 F1 season might two months away, but there is still plenty to discuss in the offseason.  Most of the driver lineups have been announced.  The 2015 calendar has been finalized.  Testing dates are all set.  The next big event will be the car reveals.  A list can be found on the SkySports website.

Currently, only Force India has set a date for their car reveal.  The rest of the teams should announce theirs pretty soon.  The first test in Jerez, Spain, begins on February 1.  I expect most of the teams to be there, although there is still some doubt over whether or not Caterham and Marussia, now known as Manor F1, will be racing this season.  In the long term, I worry about the longevity of some of the independent teams.  Formula 1 is unbelievably expensive.  The divide between the top spenders and the back markers is only growing.  Cost cutting policies don’t seem to be working.

Sauber had their worst season ever. The team has two new drivers who have some backing.  Hopefully these improved funds will help the team in 2015.

Lotus struggled as well, but their more experienced drivers lineup helped drag an uncompetitive car into the points on a few occasions.  The 2015 Lotus will be Mercedes powered, which at the very least should improve straight line speed.

If any team can show how quickly fortunes change, it’s Williams.  Their 2013 campaign was their worst since their first full season in 1978.  They scored a total of five points and finished in ninth place, just ahead of the back markers of Marussia and Caterham.

In 2014, the team finished third in the constructor’s championship, with one pole position and nine podiums.  The team finished 104 points ahead of Ferrari, the team Felipe Massa left at the end of 2013.  He must feel pretty good about finishing ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, the man who replaced him at Ferrari.

The are some major driver changes for 2015.  Most notably was the news that Sebastian Vettel would be leaving Red Bull to replace Fernando Alonso at Ferrari.

This was huge.  Red Bull backed Vettel all through the junior categories.  His first full time F1 drive was at Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s junior team.  Vettel won four championships in four years from 2010 through 2013 in a Red Bull car, finishing second in the championship in 2009.  Leaving the team couldn’t have been an easy decision.

He’s going to Ferrari to pair up with Raikkonen.  Ferrari’s 2014 car was a complete dog.  Alonso only managed two podiums, while Raikkonen never finished higher than fourth, obviously struggling with the handling of the car.  This was the first season since 1993 that Ferrari failed to score at least one race win.  The team finished fourth in the constructor’s championship, ahead of McLaren, another great team that seems to have lost their way.

Many people have asked why Vettel would leave the comfort of Red Bull.  He has 38 race wins and four world championships with the team, plus his first race win in 2008 at Monza in a Toro Rosso.  Yes, 2014 wasn’t the best year for him, but Red Bull still seems like a better choice than a struggling Ferrari.

I think for Vettel the lure of Ferrari was just too much to pass up.  This is the oldest, winningest team in F1.  Vettel’s idol, Michael Schumacher won five titles with the team.  Some of the greatest drivers of all time have worn red overalls.  The idea of a new challenge, the privilege of racing for Ferrari and teaming up with Raikkonen, one of Vettel’s closest friends, had to be very appealing.

Some people have speculated that Vettel left because he was beaten in 2014 by Daniel Ricciardo.  I don’t think that’s it at all.  Vettel showed a maturity that seemed to be missing during his years partnering Mark Webber.  He never showed and resentment or frustration with Ricciardo and praised him on many occasions.  The two, at least by all outward appearances, seemed to be the best of teammates: competitive, yet complementary.

There were some major changes in staff this season at Red Bull.  Adrian Newey, arguably the one greatest designers in the history of F1, announced his role within the team would be greatly reduced.  His protege, Peter Prodromou, was poached by McLaren last year, returning to a team he left in 2006.  The team’s 2014 car was well off the pace of the Mercedes cars.  This has a lot to do with the Renault engines, but with their chief designer gone, there is uncertainty whether or not the team can get back to their winning ways.

Alonso is back at McLaren, a team he left after a single season in 2007.  He left the team on less than friendly terms.  Alonso had expected to be the de facto number one.  Instead the team gave equal preference to both drivers.  Alonso’s teammate was the young rookie Lewis Hamilton.  The two were tied on points at the end of the season, but Hamilton’s better finishes meant he finished second in the championship, ahead of Alonso.  There was also the whole espionage controversy.

Although that season was seven years gone, it still surprised many to see Alonso move back to McLaren.  Once it was announced that he was leaving Ferrari, he move to McLaren became F1’s worst kept secret..  The only question was who was going to lose their seat to make room for Alonso: Jenson Button or Kevin Magnussen

Button, one of the most experienced drivers ever in F1, was the 2009 world champion and could be relied on to deliver solid performances as well as solid advice on how to develop the car.  His age is a major factor, though.  He is currently the oldest driver in the sport, and it is unclear how many more years in F1 he’s got in him.

Magnussen, just coming off his rookie season, has a lot going for him.  He’s young, which means he is much more of a long term solution for McLaren.  He’s also been groomed by McLaren for years, much the same way Lewis Hamilton was during his years in the junior categories.  Magnussen though, not surprisingly, was never as quick or as consistent as Button, but, as a rookie, no one expected him to be.

So it came down to experience versus longevity.  This couldn’t have been an easy choice for the team.  Reports say that there was disagreement among the board members, which led to a prolonged wait in the team announcing their 2015 lineup.  In the end the team chose Button, giving them a driver pairing with a combined 501 race starts, 147 podiums, 30 pole positions, 29 fastest laps, 47 wins and three world championships.  Based on stats, McLaren has one of strongest driver pairings in the history of Formula 1.

I believe there are three factors that led to Button retaining his seat.

First off, it has become clear that Alonso preferred to be paired with Button.  The two had previously worked together at Benetton in the early 2000s.  They are friends off the track and McLaren needs stability within the team.  There have been a lot of staff changes in the past year or so.  Having teammates who can’t work together would only further drag the team down.

Secondly, Button soundly beat Magnusson over the course of the season.  McLaren was coming off one of their worst seasons in their history.  Despite being the most reliable car on the grid, with 36 finishes out of a possible 38, the team finished fifth in the constructors.  Button’s results show that his talent hasn’t yet expired.

Finally, and in my opinion most importantly, Honda is coming back into the sport as an engine supplier.  In 2015, McLaren will be there sole customer.  That essentially makes the team the works Honda team.  Button raced for Honda from 2006 to 2008.  Before that he raced for BAR, a team that Honda had a 45 percent stake in.  At the end of 2005, Honda purchased the remaining 55 percent.  Button’s relationship with Honda and the fact that he has a huge following in Japan were major contributing factors.  It’s also believed that Button was Honda’s choice for the drive.

The biggest question for McLaren is how the new Honda power unit will perform.  They’ve had a full season to observe the other teams hybrid power units performed, most importantly Mercedes.  Just this past week though, the teams seemed to have found a loophole in the regulations allowing Mercedes, Renault, and Ferrari to further develop their engines.  Because Honda didn’t compete in 2014, their engine can’t be be changed once it’s homologated.  Expect further news as this situation develops.

I’m looking forward to 2015.  I want to see how Vettel and Alonso perform in their new environments.  I want to see if Hamilton can defend his championship.  I want to see how well Honda’s power unit works.  I want to see if Caterham and Manor make it to the grid.  Mostly, I just want to see some racing.