Merc the marque to follow!

While there are fresh challenges to look forward to as the 2015 Formula One season gets rolling, the season could still end up like last year with teams playing catch up with Mercedes, writes S. Dipak Ragav.

It’s March, it’s spring time, and it’s that time of the year when hopes are high in the factories of the 10 teams that are getting ready to unleash their mean machines as the Formula One bandwagon gets ready to roll in Melbourne.

Well that’s the cheerful part of the story, at least if one were to look at the time-sheets coming out from Spain after the teams had completed their annual routine of three pre-season tests. After Mercedes and its drivers dominated the 2014 season, claiming the Constructors’ title and Lewis Hamilton securing his second Drivers’ title, the news coming from Spain is that the Anglo-German team looks even stronger this year.

While times from the pre-season tests do not matter much considering the lot of variables at play, a fair estimate puts Mercedes, which on an average had an advantage of close to a second over the rest of the pack last year, could well be in for another strong season. Nico Rosberg and Hamilton set times on soft tyres that were 0.2-0.3 seconds quicker than the fastest time set on supersoft tyres by Valtteri Bottas. The supersoft tyre is quicker than the soft tyres by about 0.5-0.8 seconds and if this holds good then we could be in for the second installment of Rosberg versus Hamilton for the Driver’s title this year.

Of late F1 seems to be in the mood to romanticise with the past a lot with various suggestions — not the best ones always — put forth to make the show similar to the Grand Prix racing era of the 1980s and early 90s. When in 2013, McLaren announced that it would be reuniting with Honda, which would supply engines from the 2015 season, it sent people down memory lane with excitement about the potential of this combination that set the tracks ablaze in the late 80s and early 90s and powered the great Ayrton Senna to all three of his world titles (1988, 1990, 1991) in addition to Alain Prost’s crown in 1989.

McLaren is not only renewing its relationship with Honda, but has also managed to mend fences with double world champion Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard, who raced for the British team in 2007, left after just one year under acrimonious circumstances after falling out with McLaren boss Ron Dennis when the latter refused to give Alonso the number one status ahead of Lewis Hamilton. It was unimaginable that Alonso would go back to McLaren, but after five years of putting up with a Ferrari that was at best the third fastest car, his patience ran out and his relationship with the top brass at Maranello soured.

The new partnership has not started off on the right note, with numerous gremlins that have prevented it from getting enough mileage under the belt. To make matters worse, Fernando Alonso had a heavy crash on the final day of the second pre-season testing in Barcelona and this has ruled him out of the opening race in Australia.

Moving over to Ferrari, things have been rather chaotic for the Italian marque with three new team bosses in a space of 10 months and an internal restructuring that saw longtime Ferrari President, Luca di Montezemolo being ousted by FIAT head Sergio Marchionne, who has taken over the reins of the Scuderia. There has been a lot of revamping on the technical side too after one of its worst seasons in recent history in which Ferrari failed to win even one race. However, the prestige of driving for Ferrari still endures and helped bring quadruple world champion Sebastian Vettel from Red Bull. Vettel himself had a torrid season last year and got blown away by his teammate Daniel Ricciardo. Vettel will partner Kimi Raikkonen, who was beaten comprehensively by Alonso, and both have a point to prove. The fact that Vettel and Raikkonen have similar driving styles and are good mates off the track should help the team go in the right direction. The team had a smooth pre-season testing sessions with both drivers expressing satisfaction with the new car. The engine was one of the main weaknesses for Ferrari and there seems to have been some major improvements on this side which should help the sport’s most successful team in the new season.

Williams, which had a dramatic change in fortunes last season that saw the team being a regular contender for the podium and in a few races the only genuine challenger to Mercedes, had good pre-season tests and will hope to capitalise on the good form of last year. Red Bull, which relinquished its crown last year after four successive titles, has promoted Russian driver Daniil Kvyat, who impressed with the sister team, Scuderia Toro Rosso, to replace the Ferrari-bound Vettel. The only non-Mercedes team to win races last year, all three of them courtesy Daniel Ricciardo, was hamstrung by the inferior Renault power unit. Red Bull will be hoping that Renault can provide it with the grunt to challenge the Mercedes team this year.

The class of 2015 will see the debut of three drivers, two of them with Toro Rosso and one with Sauber. Spain’s Carlos Sainz Jr. and Dutchman Max Verstappen — son of former F1 driver Jos Verstappen — who will officially become the youngest driver to start an F1 race at the age of 17 will lead the challenge for Toro Rosso, while Brazilian Felipe Nasr, who was with Williams as its official reserve driver, will make his debut for Sauber.

One of the biggest issues in F1 last year was the financial trouble that more than half the teams faced and things have not progressed much on that front. Marussia missed the last three races and Caterham missed two. Both teams later went into administration. However, a last minute deal towards the end of February with investment from Stephen Fitzpatrick, head of OVO Energy, has breathed new life into Marussia. Manor-Marussia has said that it will make the grid in Australia with Will Stevens as one of its drivers.

Force India is another team that has been struggling with financial issues. The team missed the first pre-season test, ran its 2014 car in the second one and managed to get the new car to run only on three out of the four days in the final pre-season testing.

For the new hybrid engines that were introduced last year only some cosmetic changes have been carried out. The new regulations have to an extent addressed the ugly anteater nose of last year which was decried by fans. Minor tweaks have given the cars a more aesthetic look.

With the new heavier engines, a lot of drivers complained last year about having to lose weight so that the car could meet the minimum weight regulations of 692 kgs without fuel. A lot of concerns were raised about the health of the drivers and the governing body has addressed this issue by raising the minimum weight of the car to 702 kgs.

Also a loophole in regulations has meant that engine manufacturers can spread the permissible number of updates through the season rather than having to get it done before the season. And finally, the universally hated double points for the final race that was in place in 2014, has been dropped.

While there are fresh challenges to look forward to with drivers changing places, some debutants coming in and the big teams going through some major restructuring, the season could still end up like last year with teams playing catch up with Mercedes.