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Hot topics: 10 intriguing questions for the 2015 season

11 Jan 2015

It may seem an age since the chequered flag dropped in Abu Dhabi to end the 2014 season, but fear not - in less than a month the teams and drivers will be back in action at the first pre-season test of the year. To whet your appetite, we’ve compiled a list of 10 of the most intriguing storylines heading into the new F1 campaign…

1. Can anybody dethrone Mercedes?

There were times in 2014 when Mercedes appeared unbeatable, a silver juggernaut sweeping all before it and breaking all manner of records in the process. But while there have been ominous mutterings of areas in which the Silver Arrows can improve further this year, history suggests repeating that level of dominance will be an extremely tall task.

So can Mercedes’ rivals close the gap? And, if they do, will the dynamic between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg change? It was the pair’s rivalry - and the constant swings of momentum which at times threatened to derail their relationship - which helped make 2014 so compelling. Seeing how they square off once more, while also having to fend off renewed competition from rival teams, will be fascinating.

2. Will Sebastian Vettel’s arrival revitalise Ferrari’s fortunes?

By their own impeccably high standards, 2014 was nothing short of a disaster for Ferrari, with just two podium finishes from 19 races and, for the first time since 1993, no race wins. Unsurprisingly, some big changes have been made at the Italian team over the winter: engineering director Pat Fry and chief designer Nikolas Tombazis have both departed, while Maurizio Arrivabene has been brought in as team principal in place of Marco Mattiaci.

But undoubtedly the biggest change is on the driver front where Sebastian Vettel, the youngest four-time world champion in F1 history, has been drafted in in place of Fernando Alonso. Given the German’s difficult 2014 campaign - not to mention his performances relative to Red Bull team mate Daniel Ricciardo - some have questioned whether Vettel is the right man to lead Ferrari back to the top, but the Scuderia are clearly confident that he’ll bounce back to his best sooner rather than later.

But there was more behind Vettel’s signing than simply his speed on the race track. Like Michael Schumacher before him, the Scuderia are hopeful that Vettel’s enthusiasm and renowned work ethic will help galvanise the team and provide some much needed direction. Whether Vettel is able to do this remains to be seen, but he’s certainly not lacking in either motivation or self-belief, and at the very least he can be expected to form a strong working relationship with - and perhaps bring the best out of - long-time friend (and new team mate) Kimi Raikkonen.

3. Can McLaren and Honda rekindle the magic of old?

McLaren-Honda. For many F1 fans these words send shivers down the spine, such are the memories associated with this historic partnership. Paired together for five seasons in the late eighties and early nineties, the British team and Japanese engine manufacturer won an incredible 44 races as well as four drivers’ crowns and four constructors’ titles. Rightly or wrongly such a legacy has ratcheted up expectations for 2015, though in reality it’s difficult to know what to expect from the revived partnership in year one.

Clearly, the out-of-the-box performance of Honda’s new power unit will have a major impact on overall performance, but will the Japanese firm struggle as a result of being a year behind fellow suppliers Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari in terms of data and experience, or will they benefit from the extra year they’ve spent watching, learning and developing? That question could be moot if McLaren don’t come up with the goods chassis-wise, and clearly a big step forward needs to be made from last year’s disappointing MP4-29.

But whilst there is uncertainty over McLaren’s new car, there can be no such doubts over the quality of their driver line-up. In Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso the Woking team boast two of the quickest and most experienced racers on the grid. The only possible question mark is how the latter settles back in at McLaren, seven years on from a tempestuous single season with the team…

4. Does Daniel Ricciardo have what it takes to spearhead Red Bull’s title charge?

His speed was never in question, but over the course of an outstanding 2014 season Daniel Ricciardo proved he also has the ability to consistently handle pressure and thrive in the heat of battle - traits that are often hallmarks of the sport’s greatest drivers. But does the Australian truly belong in such illustrious company - and is he ready to lead a Red Bull team determined to regain the drivers’ and constructors’ silverware?

With a new team mate in the form of highly-rated youngster Daniil Kvyat, Ricciardo will need to deal with a whole new set of challenges in 2015. A revelation after stepping up from Toro Rosso to Red Bull, how he fares this time around could do much to prove whether the ‘smiling assassin’ is also a world champion in waiting…

5. Will Nico Hulkenberg finally score a podium finish?

Of the 13 drivers on the 2015 grid with 20 or more Grand Prix starts to their name, only one has failed to claim an F1 podium finish. That driver, somewhat surprisingly given his stellar reputation and obvious talent, is Nico Hulkenberg, whose best results remain a pair of fourth places. There can be no doubting the German’s ability to consistently operate near the top of his and his car’s potential - he finished in the top ten in 14 of the 19 races in 2014 - but despite comfortably outscoring Force India team mate Sergio Perez over the course of last season, it was the Mexican who delivered the team’s only podium finish (in Bahrain), and who came agonisingly close to another in Canada.

Of course, Hulkenberg’s hopes of breaking his podium duck in 2015 are contingent on Force India producing another competitive car. If they do, then the onus is on Hulkenberg to take the next step and prove to the top teams that they were wrong to pass him over for a race seat.

6. Will Williams finally return to winning ways?

Though they flirted with victory on several occasions in 2014, the history books show that Williams have won just once in the past decade. On the face of it they have an exceedingly good platform to change that statistic in 2015, having made massive strides both behind the scenes and on the track last year - a progression that has continued over the winter.

But Williams have been here before. Rejuvenation in 2012, when they collected that sole win (with Pastor Maldonado in Spain), was followed by a distinctly uncompetitive showing in 2013. So have they now got it right, and put the pieces in place to finally return to winning ways? After the uncertainty and false dawns of recent seasons, the team have renewed momentum, and in Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa they have a dynamic driver pairing. Re-establishing themselves as a Formula One force is tantalisingly close…

7. Can Sauber break back into the points after miserable 2014 campaign?

Last year’s championship table made for grim reading at Sauber, as they failed to score a point for the first time in their proud 21-year history. The discontent has been followed by a winter of change, including an all-new driver line up.

Marcus Ericsson - who appeared to make strides with Caterham last year - and rookie Felipe Nasr - who challenged for the GP2 crown in 2014 - are not without pedigree, but are they the right pairing to lead the team back to the promised land? Lessons will have been learned from the unloved and uncompetitive C33, but even so 2015 will be a critical year as Sauber look to rejuvenate their flagging fortunes.

8. Will Mexico be as challenging a race as it was before?

In its previous guise Mexico City’s Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez was a daunting challenge for man and machine, featuring, amongst other things, a notoriously bumpy surface and a fearsome final corner: Peraltada. As you might expect, the circuit is undergoing much-needed improvements ahead of the first race in the country since 1992, but despite Peraltada’s demise (owing to a lack of run-off), the good news is that much of the old layout will remain.

But perhaps the most intriguing challenge for the drivers will be the circuit’s unusually high elevation. Situated at more than 2,000 metres above sea level, it’s comfortably the highest altitude track on the calendar, and according to Nelson Piquet, who finished second in Mexico in 1987, the drivers could suffer if they don’t ready themselves adequately: “I remember before going there you had to prepare very differently,” the three-time world champion told us. “I used to go to the mountains before the race to get used to that altitude. It was always a challenge to race in Mexico City. Of course the cars are (physically) much easier to drive than back in my day, but still I’d recommend to all the guys that they take a break in the mountains (to prepare).”

9. Is a switch to Mercedes power what Lotus need to return to winning ways?

Lotus didn’t so much fall as plummet from grace in 2014. From Grand Prix winners in 2012 and ’13, they struggled to break out of Q1 at times last year; and having previously carried the fight to the likes of Red Bull and Ferrari, race victories - let alone a title challenge - were suddenly miles away.

Can they rise from the ashes in 2015? There are certainly reasons for the team to be optimistic - a switch from using Renault engines to the all-conquering Mercedes power units could breathe new life into the team, while flaws in the design of the E22 have - according to Lotus - been identified and understood. Their technical team has also had time to bed in, following a spate of departures ahead of the 2014 season, whilst their driver line-up remains unchanged. The ingredients therefore exist for Lotus to launch themselves back to the front - but much will depend on the new E23 hitting the ground running…

10. Will Toro Rosso’s youthful gamble pay off?

There’s no question about it: Toro Rosso’s decision to pair 17-year-old rookie Max Verstappen with 20-year-old rookie Carlos Sainz Jr in their 2015 driver line-up represents one of the boldest moves in recent F1 history.

Both young men are undoubtedly hugely talented and bursting with potential - Sainz graduates to F1 racing having won the hugely competitive Formula Renault 3.5 series, whilst Verstappen (who has been mentioned in the same breath as the legendary Ayrton Senna by Red Bull’s talent-spotter-in-chief Helmut Marko) was a multiple race winner in last year’s European F3 championship, in what was his first season of car racing. Both drivers have also impressed in their limited running in an F1 car to date.

However, the big question is whether two drivers as young as Verstappen and Sainz have acquired the necessary maturity and racing experience to flourish at the highest level. Will their inexperience hinder Toro Rosso when it comes to developing the car? Will the team regret parting company with the experienced Jean-Eric Vergne? Or will both drivers emerge as genuine superstars of the future, following in the footsteps of the likes of Kimi Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button who all made the grade at a young age? We can’t wait to see how it plays out.