Merc’s merriment

The 2014 season had its fair share of highs and lows. However, the year was more about the Silver Arrows, who proved that they were a cut above the rest when it came to the new era of Formula One with its turbocharged hybrid engines, writes Dipak Ragav.

Two drivers, friends since their teens, turning foes and fighting bitterly until the last race of the season for the ultimate prize; futuristic technology; a few teams running into financial troubles; a driver sustaining serious injuries following a ghastly accident on the track for the first time in nearly two decades — he is still battling for life in a hospital in France...

The 2014 season had its fair share of highs and lows. However, the year was more about the Silver Arrows, who proved that they were a cut above the rest when it came to the new era of Formula One with its turbocharged hybrid engines.

The Brackley-based team dominated the season like never seen before in over a decade, winning all but three of the 19 races.

Often in the past, when a team produced a dominant car as Mercedes did this year, it has been difficult to sustain the interest of the fans. However, thanks to the authorities in the German team, the drivers were allowed to race each other unhindered until the last race, and this contributed to a memorable season, which could otherwise have been a dud.

The new regulation with lesser down-force led to some wheel-to-wheel racing, and Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg gave us some great action in Bahrain and Spain in the early part of the season, with neither of the drivers yielding much until the mishap between the two in Belgium.

To Mercedes’ credit, despite the crash, the way the team let the driver’s title be decided on track with no interference from the authorities was commendable. However, Rosberg was never the same driver after the crash, for which he was publicly rebuked by the media and his own team bosses. After the Belgian Grand Prix, the German looked vulnerable in wheel-to-wheel racing and could not give a close fight to Hamilton in the latter half of the season.

The sceptics feared the new fuel limit (100 kg per race) would result in the drivers trying to save fuel instead of racing flat out. However, their fears were unfounded.

It is indeed a triumph of engineering brilliance and efficiency of the new engines that we have cars that run on much less fuel and produce nearly the same amount of power as the older normally aspirated engines. Besides, we did not see any mass retirements due to the unreliability of these new power units, as some people had predicted. The 2014 season also marked a new phase in the career of Hamilton, who has, in the past, let things get to him and floundered. This year, after the Belgian Grand Prix — where Hamilton lost a chunk of points after Rosberg crashed into him — the Briton put his head down and brought his prodigious talent into play. He won the next five races, taking his tally of victories to 11 in 19 Grands Prix.

Hamilton was clinical on the track. The manner in which he hunted his team-mate Rosberg in Monza and forced him into a mistake, or the brilliant overtaking move in Suzuka in wet conditions showed that Hamilton is one of the fastest of his generation.

Daniel Ricciardo was easily the star of the season. The Australian, the only non-Mercedes driver to post victories in 2014 – he won three races — outperformed his team-mate and four-time World champion Sebastian Vettel. After two full seasons with Scuderia Toro Rosso, a mid-rung team, Ricciardo was promoted to the Red Bull team and was widely expected to play a strong support role to Vettel. But the man from Perth, with an infectious smile, was ruthless behind the wheel. He was not only very quick but also consistent. He managed his tyres better than Vettel and hardly made an error to finish third in the standings. The Aussie was no mug either when it came to wheel-to-wheel battles — he pulled off some of the best overtaking moves in the season.

Williams’ Valtteri Bottas and Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Russian rookie Daniil Kvyat (he is replacing Vettel at Red Bull in 2015) also showed that they belong to the big league. The Finnish driver snapped six podium finishes and sometimes even looked like winning. On most occasions, Bottas fully exploited his car’s potential with minimal fuss.

While the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka gave us some great action in wet conditions, Jules Bianchi’s serious accident — he hit a recovery vehicle on the circuit — towards the end of the race in poor light took the sheen off an exciting season.

Since then things got worse with two teams, Marussia and Caterham, failing to compete in the last three races of the season owing to financial issues.

The threat of teams falling away due to the unequal distribution of revenues has been hanging over the sport for sometime. The financial meltdown from which the world economy in general has not fully recovered has also had an impact on Formula One. However, the big teams put their narrow self-interest ahead of the collective good of the sport, and this meant that there would be just nine teams lining up on the grid in 2015, barring last minute changes.

In an interview to a news agency, the Force India boss, Vijay Mallya, said, “It is very clear that this distribution is skewed heavily in favour of the big teams (mainly manufacturers) and the smaller teams are at a disadvantage. For a sport that generates USD 1.7 billion in revenues, which is more than Rs. 10,000 crore, it is sad that small teams (Marussia and Caterham) are being no longer able to compete.”

To make it worse, the stakeholders of Formula One do not seem to think twice before criticising their product. They appear keen to further their self-interest and not make a constructive assessment to improve the sport.

The new hybrid engines were introduced to help the sport project an image of being responsible and in tune with the increased awareness about green solutions. But the drivers and team bosses (mostly the ones running on engines other than Mercedes) — and on occasions even the promoters — kept running down the new engine and the sport.

Formula One must act quickly to put its house in order before the new season starts.