5 storylines that could define the 2014 F1 season

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After its winter solstice, Formula 1 makes its long awaited return next weekend as the 2014 season kicks off in Australia (click here for TV times). Having won the past four championships at a canter, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel is looking to join an elite club of five-time champions in 2014, but he could face his toughest challenge yet as Mercedes and Ferrari come into the fray.

With 2014 seeing the biggest shake-up of the regulations in decades, it could be the beginning of a new era for the sport. As part of MotorSportsTalk’s preview, here are five storylines that we believe will define the new season.

1. The fall of Red Bull; the rise of Mercedes

This is a ‘two in one’, but all runs along one common theme: a re-shuffle of the pecking order. Since 2009 – when the regulations last changed – there has been a set status quo that has remained relatively stable: Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Lotus the leaders; Force India, Sauber, Toro Rosso and Williams the midfield; Caterham and Marussia still with zero points.

For 2014 though? That could all be set to change. As you will undoubtedly have seen during testing, the Mercedes-powered cars were dominant, posting eight of the top ten times in Bahrain. The works team, with drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, appears to be best placed after a very successful testing period. Williams and McLaren also look to be in the shake-up, whilst Ferrari (who completed the top ten) enjoyed a solid-yet-unspectacular testing period.

However, you can never write off Red Bull. For Sebastian Vettel, this could be the year he cements his place among the F1 greats. Given time, the RB10 could come good, and we might just see a five-time champion crowned in Abu Dhabi.

2. Reliability – or the lack of it

As well as changing the pecking order, the new regulations have created a technical headache for all of the teams in Formula 1. Even Red Bull guru Adrian Newey has been left scratching his head as the team has endured a number of reliability problems during pre-season, although much of them have stemmed from the Renault power unit. The French marque’s issues have also extended to its other teams: Lotus, Caterham and Toro Rosso.

Not one team went through testing scot-free. Engineers were left frustrated, trying to correct just a few lines of code and correct newly-found problems. Just as teams were left scrambling at the 2009 Australian GP, the same could happen this year. With new rules on engine life and fuel management (the latter being a key concern for many), it might be a case of just finishing a race to pick up points. That old saying: “to finish first, first you have to finish.”

For nostalgia lovers, the problems with reliability could see us return to the 80s and 90s where, at best, 60% of starters saw the checkered flag. Of late, reliability has been almost bulletproof: technically impressive, but a tad mundane.

3. New line-ups for most of the teams

Of the eleven teams on the grid, nine have made a change to their driver line-up across the course of the winter. Most notably, defending world champions Red Bull have drafted in Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo as a replacement for compatriot Mark Webber, who moves to Porsche’s LMP1 programme. Ricciardo has bags of talent, but he is yet to prove himself as a front-running driver. He might now have a chance, but it has been a rocky start with the RB10 proving to be something of a problem child. Ricciardo is replaced at Toro Rosso by 19-year-old Daniil Kvyat, who has the makings of a champion.

Ferrari have also made a change, replacing Felipe Massa with the returning Kimi Raikkonen in 2014. This has created a somewhat explosive partnership with Fernando Alonso, and goes against the team’s policy of having a designated number one driver. Massa has in turn joined Williams, replacing Pastor Maldonado who has joined Lotus – replacing Kimi Raikkonen. Quite a neat triangle of transfers.

Having missed out on the Lotus seat, Nico Hulkenberg has re-joined Force India, with Adrian Sutil moving in the opposite direction and joining Sauber, where he will partner the retained Esteban Gutierrez. Sergio Perez completes Force India’s line-up after spending just one year with McLaren. He is replaced at Woking by Kevin Magnussen, last year’s Formula Renault 3.5 champion. Caterham have dropped Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde, and replaced them with Kamui Kobayashi and Marcus Ericsson. Otherwise, it’s more of the same for Marussia and Mercedes as both teams retained their drivers from 2013.

New relationships to be forged; new set-ups to work in. Will there be any fall-out? (We’re looking at you, Ferrari).

4. Double points

It might be a bit of a broken record, but the double points debate is set to rumble on right until the race it actually has any impact on: the final round in Abu Dhabi. As a bid to boost TV ratings, the final race will see the winner awarded 50 points instead of 25; P2 gets 36 instead of 18, and so on. The drivers have called it “absurd”, the teams aren’t happy with it, and the fans are outraged. For all of the artifices that we have seen in the past few years (such as KERS and DRS), this is the most contentious.

The end result is set in stone though: it is happening. NBC Sports spoke to former F1 driver Martin Brundle yesterday, and he said: “I’m not as hung up on it as some people. It isn’t spoiling my life. I just don’t like it as it just smacks of being a random compromise.”

We can cry and cry over spilt milk, but that won’t change the mind of the powers that be.

5. The future of Formula 1

2014 is a big year in the history of Formula 1. As well as a new set of regulations to contend with, serious questions are being asked about the direction in which the sport is going, and who will be leading us into this new era. Having successfully won a case in the UK, Bernie Ecclestone now faces another trial in Germany for bribery upon the sale of the sport back in 2005.

Having been at the helm of the sport for so many years and helped to turn it into the commercially booming institution we know today, it seems odd to think of a future without Bernie. However, it is becoming more of a consideration for everyone involved with Formula 1. With the return of Ron Dennis at McLaren, the teams have gained a big personality and a man who has worked hard over the years to guide the sport in the right direction (even if it riled many of the other big-wigs). Jean Todt enters his second term as President of the FIA, and he too will be looking to help F1 into a bright and successful new era.

The changes made to the engine regulations does make F1 more appealing from an environmental point of view, and certainly more in line with modern car technology. The sport continues to modernize, but this year will see a lot of shuffling and changes being made.

But don’t forget:

  • Lotus’ financial struggles.
  • Eric Boullier’s arrival at McLaren.
  • New markets being entered (e.g. Russia).
  • Old markets being revisited (e.g. Austria).
  • The future of the German GP.
  • Re-developments at Interlagos.
  • Pressure on Pirelli and its tire design.
  • The ugly noses…

It promises to be a thrilling year for Formula 1; NBC Sports and MotorSportsTalk will be there every step of the way, with our coverage kicking off next weekend at the Australian Grand Prix.

Mid-Ohio, Honda Racing go galactic for 2017 at-track camping theme

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Honda Racing will channel a galactic theme for this year’s camping festivities at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a popular camping venue on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar.

This marks the third year of a contest for best campground site, with various Honda Indy 200 gifts on offer. The theme name this year is “May the G-Forces Be With You,” and the hashtag is #CampingWithHonda.  Last year’s was a “Christmas in July” theme, complete with Santa Claus. The full release from the track is linked here.

As this year’s event alludes to a very popular galactic film series in all but name, it will see a number of participants in the weekend festivities by to judge the campsites at the track – potentially in character!

Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in IndyCar, will visit the sites Saturday after qualifying to choose the winners. He did so last year as well.

Photo: PWC

Others, such as last year’s Mid-Ohio race winner Simon Pagenaud and RealTime Racing Acura NSX GT3 factory driver in Pirelli World Challenge, Ryan Eversley (right), are expected to attend as well – though whether as themselves or potentially in a special character remains to be seen.

“It’s always a thrill and a special part of the Mid-Ohio weekend to take part in Honda Racing fun festivities like ‘May the G-Forces Be With You,'” Eversley told NBC Sports; the Atlanta native finished second in the second PWC GT race here last year in the previous generation TLX-GT, in one of his best drives of the season. “These guys always know how to cook up some fun activities and so if there’s an opportunity to dress up, have fun and play along with it, I’m down!”

Photo: IndyCar

Pagenaud, who was a longtime member of the Honda and Acura family before his move to Team Penske’s Chevrolet-powered, IndyCar program (right), added, “For me, as a fan, this film series is just the best. I love the battle between the light and dark side of the force, because I feel like we can all identify with that. I try to channel the force when I’m in my race car, so this will be a really fun weekend in Mid-Ohio.

“I plan to bring something to show my pride at the track, but I won’t ruin the surprise for you guys in advance!”

Expect similar characters to be present on site on Saturday evening. There’s also going to be a bonfire, live band (Columbus group MidLife Crisis) and s’mores, plus branded lighted batons which should display well at the bonfire on Saturday.

And for James Hinchcliffe, another Honda driver who is no stranger to having fun, he’s also part of the buildup to this event, as evidenced by the event teaser below.

Wehrlein nonplussed by Sauber-Honda speculation

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Pascal Wehrlein is not paying any attention to speculation that Sauber’s planned Formula 1 engine deal with Honda for 2018 could be on the rocks, saying his future remains open as he focuses on his current duties with the team.

Mercedes junior Wehrlein was placed at Sauber for 2017, and led the team to its first points finish of the year at the Spanish Grand Prix in May.

Sauber had been given a boost two weeks earlier when it announced a deal to become Honda’s second customer team for 2018, including technical and financial support.

However, the deal was put in doubt following Sauber CEO and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn’s departure, leading to speculation that it had not been finalized.

Kaltenborn’s replacement Frederic Vasseur has made it a priority to resolve the matter, but it has made for a bleak outlook at Hinwil for the future.

With the 2018 driver market beginning to stir, Wehrlein has stressed he is not yet thinking about next season, nor is he paying any attention to the speculation about Sauber’s deal with Honda.

“I have no idea what is happening next year. Of course, I have heard all these rumors as well,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“I cannot influence any of these things, so why worry about them? Whatever rumors there are in the air, it is no distraction for me – that is the bottom line.

“I have a contract for this season so I am only focusing on this year. Decisions are made by others and I am only here to drive, to perform as well as I can.

“Of course I want to see Sauber do well. They have the potential and have already been in good positions in the past and I want them to get back there. How and when? That is on another page.”

Wehrlein expressed his confidence in Vasseur’s leadership, although he expects the team to shift focus to its 2018 plans.

“I do have expectations of Fred and the team. I don’t know how fast Fred can change things or how he can change them, but we now have one race left before the summer shut down,” Wehrlein said.

“In the second half of the season the team will focus on next year, so I don’t think you will see his touch too much this year. So let’s see what we can still do with the tools that we have right now.

“I really respect Fred. I used to work with him in DTM. He had a team when I drove there in 2015. He has so much experience in motorsport and in many other ventures outside racing.

“He is a very successful man. He could help Sauber. He could be very good for the team.”

Keeping Grosjean, Magnussen for 2018 ‘a given’ in Gene Haas’ eyes

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Gene Haas is planning to field an unchanged line-up for his Formula 1 team in 2018, believing it to be “a given” that Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will continue beyond the end of the season.

NASCAR team co-owner Haas took his eponymous F1 operation onto the grid in 2016, pairing Grosjean with Esteban Gutierrez.

While Grosjean scored a fifth-place finish in Haas F1 Team’s second race and picked up 29 points across the course of the season, Gutierrez failed to record a single top-10 result.

The Mexican was replaced by Magnussen for 2017, with the Dane taking 11 points through the first 10 races of the season.

Despite the fluidity of the driver market for 2018, Haas revealed in an interview with the official F1 website that the team is planning to race with Grosjean and Magnussen together once again next year.

“We will run with the same drivers that we have this year again next year. That is a given,” Haas said.

“And given the other continuity aspects, we should be better racers next season.”

Haas had been tipped to take on a Ferrari junior such as Antonio Giovinazzi or Charles Leclerc for 2018 given its technical ties to the Italian marque.

Grosjean is understood to be a target for Renault should it miss out on re-signing Fernando Alonso, while Magnussen penned a multi-year deal upon arrival at Haas at the start of the season.

Reflecting on Magnussen’s contribution, Haas believes the team has benefitted from his greater race performance that has allowed it to match its debut season points total in just 10 races in 2017.

“Esteban was a good driver. He was as fast as Romain in practice, but I think that Kevin has an edge in terms of race experience,” Haas said.

“He can score points and that was the key for bringing him on board. Kevin can grab points and Romain can too.

“We now have 29 points. Last year around this time we also had 29 points, but did not score for the rest of the season.

“So now if we can score another 29 points by Abu Dhabi, that would be a great position.”

Pirelli: Slow puncture caused Vettel’s British GP tire failure

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Pirelli has determined that a slow puncture was the cause of Sebastian Vettel’s Formula 1 tire failure towards the end of last Sunday’s British Grand Prix.

Vettel suffered a failure on his front-left tire on the penultimate lap of the race at Silverstone while running third, forcing him into a late pit stop that ultimately left him P7 at the checkered flag.

The incident was just minutes after Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen had also hit trouble with his front-left tire, although Pirelli stressed after the race that the incidents were unrelated.

Pirelli announced on Friday that, after conducting extensive analysis of the tire, it could confirm that its initial belief that Vettel had suffered a puncture was indeed correct.

“As appeared clear since Sunday afternoon, a full investigation has now confirmed that the original cause of the failure was a slow puncture,” Pirelli said.

“The consequent driving back to the pits on an underinflated and then flat tire led to the final failure.

“Kimi Raikkonen’s damaged tire shows less evidence of what occurred, so further tests and analysis are still ongoing in Pirelli’s laboratories and indoor testing facilities.

“It will take a few more days to reach a definitive conclusion.”