F1's all ready to rumble in 2015
While I'm half way around the world in Miami this weekend for the Formula E race, the 2015 Formula 1 World Championship kicks off down under with the Australian Grand Prix. The seasons are getting longer and the winters are now shorter for the teams and drivers. Last season's championship decider in Abu Dhabi doesn't actually feel that long ago, writes Karun Chandhok.Updated: Mar 11, 2015, 22:25 IST
While I'm half way around the world in Miami this weekend for the Formula E race, the 2015 Formula 1 World Championship kicks off down under with the Australian Grand Prix. The seasons are getting longer and the winters are now shorter for the teams and drivers. Last season's championship decider in Abu Dhabi doesn't actually feel that long ago.
Going in to the new season, the odds are firmly with the Mercedes AMG team. With the same driver pairing, stability in the technical staff and regulations, there's no reason why they won't build on their success from last year and hit the ground running for 2015. Lewis Hamilton learnt a big lesson last year which was that he didn't need to out-qualify Nico Rosberg to win the title, but just out-race him on the Sunday's where you earn the points. He did that to great effect, beating Rosberg in a straight fight on more than one occasion despite being on the back foot and he would be looking to do more of the same this year. For Nico, this season is critical for him to show that he can bounce back - another season of being beaten by Lewis could relegate him to a virtual number two role so detested for years by people like Felipe Massa and Mark Webber. It will take a miracle for anyone to beat Mercedes this year and the winter testing times clearly indicate a two-horse race for the title.
Behind Mercedes, things get very interesting. Ferrari, Williams and Red Bull Racing have all been very closely matched through winter testing and this could provide one of the big stories of the season. Ferrari have completely wiped the slate clean and start 2015 with a whole new team of technical staff and management as well as a new star driver in Sebastian Vettel. Kimi Raikkonen remains but he looks rejuvenated to be in a non-Fernando Alonso dominated team, so we could yet see some of the old Kimi magic this year. The team has taken a big step forward over the winter and technical chief James Allison has led a good re-structure of the design team that has delivered a good base.
Williams were the strongest opposition to Mercedes last year and being a customer team of the German engine giant will once again help them to fight near the front. Valtteri Bottas was one of the stars of 2014, racking up points and podiums with very little fuss and there's no question that another strong season from him could put him in line for a potential Mercedes seat for 2016. The big target for Williams this year will be to win at least win one race - something which they didn't manage to do last season despite having a faster car than Red Bull who managed to win thrice.
Daniel Ricciardo was the man to deliver those three wins for Red Bull and he starts this season as the established star in the team, with new boy Daniil Kvyat joining him from Scuderia Torro Rosso. The car has looked very well balanced in winter testing but once again they go in to the new season facing a power deficit to the Mercedes powered teams. The Renault engine is believed to be as much as 70 horsepower down on the Mercedes or as one Red Bull insider told me "it's like taking a pen to a knife fight".
The engine manufacturers are now all allowed to make a certain number of modifications through the season which means that both Ferrari and Renault have the opportunity to close in on Mercedes. The flip side is of course that Mercedes could also develop more and get further ahead but common logic says that starting from a higher platform means that they have less potential to gain.
The engine manufacturer with the most to gain however has to be F1 returnees Honda. The Japanese car giant has returned to join forces with McLaren in an attempt to re-create their golden era from 1988 to 1991 which resulted in four World Championships in a row. Thus far, the new partnership has gotten off to a very rocky start. The power unit has proven to be horrendously unreliable in winter testing and in fact the team have only done about 20% of the kilometres that someone like Mercedes have. There's no question that both McLaren and Honda have the resources and brain power to make the partnership work, but whether they have the time to do it during the season is a big question mark.
The shock return of Fernando Alonso to McLaren after his fractious season in 2007 hasn't started well either. The Spanish double world champion had a big accident while testing in Barcelona and ended up in hospital with a concussion which means that after all the hype of the last few months, he won't be fit enough to race in Melbourne after all. The progress of the McLaren Honda package is going to be a big sidebar to this year's World Championship and for the sake of Formula 1, I hope they do move forward as we need all the engine manufacturers to be competitive and fighting up front.
Beyond the top teams, Lotus seem to be more competitive this season aided with the Mercedes engine while Force India have been battling financial worries all through the winter. Team bosses Vijay Mallya and Bob Fernley admit that they head to Melbourne on the back foot after only doing the final two full days of winter testing. Torro Rosso have an all new driver line-up with a combined age of 37! Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen are both drivers with famous fathers in the sport but have earned their place on the grid through strong performances in the junior categories. The Dutchman in particular comes into the season with a lot of hype behind him as the youngest driver ever to race in F1 but watching him out on track, you would never have guessed that to be the case.
Sauber and Manor (the re-named Marussia team) are likely to prop up the rear. The latter in particular has been through a very hard few months to get the team up and running just in time for the first race after the collapse of the team and the withdrawal of the Russian investors at the end of last year.
Roll on 2015!
(The writer is an ex-F1 driver)