Power unit: Renault
Drivers: 1 Sebastian Vettel, 3 Daniel Ricciardo
Testing: 1711 km (Vettel 866, Ricciardo 845)
Back in 1989 Ferrari were in so much trouble with their new, normally aspirated 3.5-litre V12 639 that nobody gave it the faintest chance in the season opener in Brazil. Even Nigel Mansell had booked an early flight, expecting a quick retirement. He missed it because against all expectations, he won.
Sebastian Vettel is interested enough in F1 history to know that, but even the most ardent Red Bull supporters admit it will take a miracle for a similar performance from the world champions after a disastrous series of winter tests.
Lewis Hamilton says that the RB10 is a “stunning car”, and rivals have noted its aerodynamic excellence. Jenson Button says it has heaps of grip at high speed. But the problem is it has rarely reached that, struck down by all sorts of Renault problems and some of its own, including rear bodywork that is too tightly packaged around a power unit with a much greater amount of heat to dissipate than the old V8.
Based on testing, in which the team did just over a third of Mercedes’ running, they have a mountain to climb just to finish in Melbourne.
Car: F1 W05
Power unit: Mercedes
Drivers: 44 Lewis Hamilton, 6 Nico Rosberg
Testing: 4973 km (Rosberg 2813, Hamilton 2159)
Right from the start, once they had recovered from a front wing failure that struck down Lewis Hamilton early in Jerez, Mercedes revealed pace and reasonable reliability. And they have built on that strong start to amass the highest test running figure of 4973 km. The Mercedes PU106A V6 is already perceived to have better horsepower and torque than the Ferrari and Renault V6s, and though there were a few power unit failures, for Mercedes, McLaren, Williams and Force India, these were high mileage units doubtless being run as far as possible just to see how long it would take for them to fail.
Mercedes have done race simulations too, and know pretty much what to expect when they get to Melbourne. Arguably, they are the best prepared team - which is why both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg have been keen to play down expectations and to deny their current favourite status. They are certainly likely to set the pace, but as was clear in the final Bahrain session, the Silver Arrows were not immune to mechanical failures and nobody within the camp is taking anything for granted.
Car: F14 T
Power unit: Ferrari
Drivers: 14 Fernando Alonso, 7 Kimi Raikkonen
Testing: 4489 km (Alonso 2698, Raikkonen 1790)
The feeling within Ferrari right now is that the F14 T lacks grip and isn’t yet a match for the Mercedes or maybe even the Williams, but that there is more performance to extract. After a relatively slow start, Fernando Alonso began pushing for more speed, while every time Kimi Raikkonen climbed aboard the new car - named after a poll of the Scuderia’s fans - it seemed to break on him. Thus while Alonso was desperate to see where they fit in relative to their rivals in the final Bahrain test, Raikkonen was looking for his first race simulation. Both drivers have managed this, but even allowing for the usual testing caveats regarding fuel loads - plus the new ones of turbo boost and ERS mapping - it seems that the latest Prancing Horse is close to a second off the pace of the Mercedes and around seven-tenths slower than the Williams.
That said, observers have struggled more in trying to quantify Ferrari than any other team, and while they had their share of mechanical woes in testing it would be no surprise to see either of their drivers up on the podium by the end of the Australian race.
Power unit: Renault
Drivers: 8 Romain Grosjean, 13 Pastor Maldonado
Testing: 1288 km (Maldonado 796, Grosjean 492)
Lotus could hardly have had a tougher start to the new season.
In the background were last year’s well-publicised money troubles and the departure over the winter of Eric Boullier, their highly regarded team principal, now installed as McLaren’s new racing director.
Then there were the problems which prevented the neat E22 from making the Jerez test. That put the team firmly on their back foot, as it ran into all sorts of trouble in the first Bahrain test with the exhaust system and other Renault-associated problems before new signing Pastor Maldonado finally put 59 laps together on the last day. There were further problems in the second Bahrain session, centring upon the exhaust again, the gearbox and associated fires, and an engine failure. These stopped the car on too many occasions, severely limiting its already restricted running to only 1288 kms. That was the least anyone achieved by some margin.
The E22 is a neat car with some clever solutions, however, including its distinctive ‘tuning fork’ nose. But insiders freely admit that as far as Melbourne is concerned, they will need luck on their side just to finish, let alone to score points.
Power unit: Mercedes
Drivers: 22 Jenson Button, 20 Kevin Magnussen
Testing: 4153 km (Magnussen 2471, Button 1683)
McLaren are already a different team to the one that struggled so much with the uncompetitive MP4-28 in 2013 as no-nonsense former chief Ron Dennis is back to oversee things, in place of Martin Whitmarsh. While initiating an intensive investigation and reorganisation of every department, Dennis has made a clear promise to the staff: “We will win.”
Lead driver Jenson Button believes that the team have a good car in the MP4-29 and that they have regained their buzz, but his own year got off to a tragic start with the death of his hugely popular father, John. Meanwhile, rookie Kevin Magnussen, the reigning World Series by Renault champion, has made a confident debut and has impressed with his speed, calmness and feedback.
The early indications from Jerez, where Magnussen was fastest on the second day, were that the MP4-29 is competitive, but Button was becoming concerned that McLaren had lost ground by the end of the second test in Bahrain. Like Mercedes, they were struck several times by reliability issues, and Magnussen ended up only 11th, 2.6s down, with Button 15th another 1.1s down. Now they are pinning their hopes on a big aero upgrade for Melbourne.
Power unit: Mercedes
Drivers: 27 Nico Hulkenberg, 11 Sergio Perez
Testing: 3975 km (Hulkenberg 1840, Perez 1777, Daniel Juncadella 358)
Force India have been working on their VJM07 for a long time and that, allied to having the Mercedes engine, has enabled them to make a promising start to their 2014 campaign. The car performed reasonably well in Jerez, and started to look really good with strong performances in the two Bahrain tests. Nico Hulkenberg was fastest on day one of the first Sakhir session, while Sergio Perez was quickest on the first two days of the second.
The VJM07 handles pretty well and put its power down well, and overall reliability has been reasonably good - the team did three consecutive 100 lap days at the final test. The engine failure that brought Hulkenberg to a halt on the last day in Bahrain was down to a high mileage unit being run just too long.
With two drivers with much to prove - Hulkenberg that once and for all he deserves a seat in one of the top four teams, McLaren refugee Sergio Perez that the Woking team made a mistake in dropping him - Force India look set to make the most of their good start by fighting for a podium finish in Melbourne.
Continued in Part Three