2014 was a bittersweet year for Formula 1. On one hand, we witnessed an enthralling fight for the championship between two of the finest drivers on the grid, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Wheel-to-wheel battles became a common feature and the new regulations delivered an exciting season for the fans.
On the other hand, these very regulations were criticized by the sport's bosses for reasons such as lack of noise. No one spoke of how efficient the new power units were - the very reason these regulations were introduced in the first place. But the worst of all was Jules Bianchi’s unfortunate accident at the Japanese Grand Prix in which the Frenchman suffered from a severe head trauma.
We take a look back at some of the key stories that made the headlines
A record breaking year for Mercedes
Mercedes endured a torrid end to the 2012 season, failing to score a single point for six consecutive grands prix. Naturally, an ultimatum followed from the Daimler board. Fortunately, a plan was already in place to take the German outfit to the forefront of F1. Ross Brawn, Mercedes’ then team principal initiated a hiring drive to lure some of the best engineers in F1(Paddy Lowe, Bob Bell, Aldo Costa to name a few) as well as recent graduates from leading Universities. Toto Wolff, a former venture capitalist and Williams executive director took the responsibility of business side of the team. Niki Lauda was given the position of non-executive chairman and his biggest contribution came when he successfully poached McLaren’s star driver Lewis Hamilton for the 2013 season and beyond. While Ross Brawn himself left the squad for not being given the ultimate authority to lead the outfit, the structure he left was one capable of winning multiple championships.
And we got the glimpse of the upcoming Mercedes domination in 2013 itself when the team scored a string of pole positions and rose to the top step of the podium on three occasions before a change in tyre structure turned the tables in favour of Red Bull.
Fast forward to 2014 pre-season testing and the rumors about Mercedes’ producing the best car and engine proved to be true. While rivals could barely venture on track, Mercedes drivers put laps after laps in their W05 Hybrid. And the rest is history.
But as 2013 proved, it wasn’t the work of 400 odd people at Brixworth that pulled Mercedes from a lower top team to one that won a record breaking 16 races this season. The chassis was also probably the best in the field and the coordination between the two factories made the German outfit virtually unbeatable this season. Only reliability issues, safety car timings and a clash between their own drivers prevented them from winning all races.
As 2009 showed, a major change in regulation opens door to break the status quo. Every major outfit on the grid had an equal opportunity to exploit the change in regs. But it was Mercedes that made most of it and deservedly reaps the benefits from the same.
The tenuous relationship between championship protagonist Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg
With Mercedes producing a chassis-power unit combination that was miles ahead of the rest, their drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were the only ones that had a shot on the title. And the two ensured that fans witnessed one of the greatest intra-team battle in recent history.
Nico Rosberg upped his game in qualifying which was supposed to be Hamilton’s territory, beating him 12-7 for the DHL pole position trophy. The German, having never got a car to fight for the championship gave 2008 title winner Lewis Hamilton a run for the money all season long. Some of his actions were questionable, however. While nothing can be said firmly about what happened during the qualifying session at Monaco, it is clear that he didn’t deliberately back off at Spa to ‘prove a point’. However, that action was no way premeditated, unlike what the majority of fans have perceived.
The very incident, the subsequent public apology and his mistakes while leading the Italian Grand Prix initiated a downhill drive for the German which eventually ended in Brazil. By that time, it was too late. Hamilton had won five races on a trot, to add to his five victories he scored in the first part of the season. He had always won a wheel-to-wheel battle against his teammate and entered the final race of the season as the favourite to win the title, with a handy 17 points advantage.
The final race in Abu Dhabi brought out Mercedes’ biggest weakness in their record breaking year - reliability issues. While Hamilton’s lion share of reliability problems hit him during the first half of the season, Rosberg was unlucky in the other part of the year with him failing to score a single point in Singapore and Abu Dhabi.
In all, Hamilton deserved to win the title due to his superiority on Sundays. Rosberg, meanwhile, is likely to delve deeper into the data of each of the W05s to gain the extra tenths that will help him win that elusive crown next year.
The noise regarding regulation change
Coming into the season, some of the sports bosses and team principals were overly critical of the new regulations. Sound or lack thereof of the new power units was a concern for the aforementioned personalities. But in Bahrain when things reached a head, a thrilling race - one of the best in recent history dropped eggs over these very people. F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone and Ferrari’s then president Luca di Montezemolo left the track even before the race ended, missing the climax ending that lies ahead.
It is also clear that some of this criticism was driven by self motive. Ferrari and Red Bull in particular can’t see Mercedes dominate the sport for years to come even though the two teams accept that Mercedes has just done a better job. Red Bull boss Christian Horner went one step ahead, saying a modified engine formula should be introduced as early as 2016 to address the sound issue. The catch here is that under his prescribed formula, each team are to have a standard ERS, thus eliminating any gains Mercedes makes from the same. A ‘new’ twin turbo engine also gives Renault another chance to beat Mercedes.
Double points finale
In a move to ensure the championship fight goes down the wire, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone introduced a system of awarding double points for the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi. The infamous rule eventually didn’t deter the outcome of the championship and will not be implemented next season.
End of era for Red Bull
Mercedes’ gains came at the expense of F1's previous pace setters Red Bull which was reduced to the second best outfit, having dominated the last four championships. While the team was able to get on top with their chassis related problems of pre-season testing, the Renault power unit continued to be a hindrance throughout the season. The Adrian Newey designed RB10 was one of the best in class but with a horsepower deficit like that, it had little chance to beat the Silver Arrows on raw pace.
Appropriately or diss-appropriately, Renault have received heavy criticism from the energy drink brand for producing a power unit that was not only unreliable but also down on sheer power. And with limited number of ‘tokens’ available for next season, there are little things the French manufacturer could do reduce the gap to its German rival,
It remains to be seen what lies ahead for Red Bull Racing. Technical head and design guru Adrian Newey is stepping down from the outfit and 2015 RB11 will be the last car he will play a full role on. Newey's right hand man Peter Prodromou has left for McLaren and the team has simply promoted its lower staff to fill the void in the engineering department.
The contrasting fortunes of Ricciardo and Vettel
Sebastian Vettel, who had brought the team so much glory, played second fiddle to Daniel Ricciardo this year amid latter's move to the senior Red Bull outfit. Vettel, by his own admission, had found it hard to get to grips with the new generation of Formula 1 cars and results speak likewise. While Ricciardo was smiling proudly at the FIA Prize Giving Gala, Vettel finished in fifth place in the championship with just five podiums to his name. The German has eventually jumped ship to Ferrari in search for new challenges and only time will prove whether that move will pay off or not.
As far as Ricciardo is concerned, he has exceeded everyone’s expectations. He made some fine overtaking moves all season long, be it on his teammate or on the championship winner Lewis Hamilton. He was always in the right place at the right time to pick up the pieces left by Mercedes and therefore won three races this season as the only driver to have stood on top step of the podium other than the two employed by the Silver Arrows.
Ferrari’s downhill drive and managerial shake up
Ferrari has endured its worst season in over 20 years and as a result a string of top managers have been fired from their jobs. First to be shown the door was team principal Stefano Domenicali. Next in line was engine cheif Luca Marmorini. If that wasn't enough, company president Luca di Montezemolo himself lost his seat to Ferrari’s parent company Fiat’s boss Sergio Marchionne. The F1 season ended with Marco Mattiacci, the man hired to replace Stefano Domenicali, being stripped off his role and company altogether to Marlboro’s Maurizio Arrivabene.
It is reported that the team wasn’t entirely happy with how Mattiacci dealt with star driver Fernando Alonso who left the team under his reign.
McLaren’s delay in decision making
While McLaren have themselves have had a poor year in the sport, the British team didn’t do its image any good by delaying its driver lineup. With Fernando Alonso likely joining the squad next season, the McLaren board is yet to decide which driver will partner the Spaniard- Jenson Button or Kevin Magnussen. While the experienced Jenson Button had scored double the points of Magnussen, many in the team are of the view that the young Dane is the future of the team. To add to the complexity is the money matter and no, we aren’t talking about pay drivers.
Ron Dennis, who reinstated himself as the CEO of the company following a coup early this year, has to reportedly find money to buy additional stake in the team. After failing to find an investor in China, the Brit has turned his attention to Denmark which happens to be Magnussen’s home country. At the time of writing, McLaren is yet to announce its driver lineup for it’s new partnership with Honda.
While the three aforementioned teams disappointed their fans with their performances in 2014, one team that rose to the occasion was Williams. A significant technical shake up, a new driver in the form of Felipe Massa, Mercedes power units, some extra cash from the company and a certain driver pulled the team to third in the championship. Last year, the Grove based outfit only managed five points; this year they scored 320 with both Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa ensuring regular podium finishes for the team. What a turnaround.
The exceptional Valtteri Bottas
Valtteri Bottas has been one of the revelations of the season, taking full advantage of the Williams resurgence. His consistent podium finishes have made many in the paddock declare him as a future world champion.
The plight of F1’s smaller teams
F1’s top teams take lion's share of FOM’s revenue, leaving little in the hands of the smaller teams. Many of these teams have been running into losses for years and have found it hard to make their both ends meet. However, the matter reached its head this year, with the introduction of the new power units that are almost thrice as expensive as their predecessors. The worst hit were the tail enders Marussia and Caterham with both teams missing the US and the Brazilian Grand Prix. Caterham made its way back in Abu Dhabi only after a crowd funding project while Marussia wasn’t as lucky as its Leafield rivals. In fact, the administrators have started selling some of its assets, signalling the end of the road for the team that beat Sauber in the constructors championship. Nothing concrete can be said about Caterham but what is clear is that something needs to be done about F1’s revenue sharing system which is heavily skewed towards the top teams. However, not surprisingly, these very outfits are unwilling to relinquish revenue for the smaller teams.
They are also not in favour of disbanding the Strategy Group which leaves more than half of the teams with almost no say in decision making. Yes there’s the F1 Commission but how practical it is for these smaller outfits to influence decision making is already evident.
Jules Bianchi’s unfortunate accident in Japan
At a time when the world was already recovering from Michael Schumacher’s skiing accident, another incident followed, not on some hills, but on a race track itself. While Schumacher has already made a mark in the sport with innumerable records, Jules Bianchi is one driver that was supposed to set the world alight as soon as he gets a top drive.
F1 has become so safe nowadays that if any driver crashes, people assume that he’ll walk out of it without any troubles. However, there’s always room for improvement, as evident from the events of the Japanese Grand Prix.
At Suzuka this year, Jules Bianchi aquaplaned of the circuit at turn 7 during difficult wet conditions. Had he normally went on to hit the barriers, it would have been just another accident. But the fact that Adrian Sutil crashed at the very place a lap ago complicated the matters. Bianchi hit the recovery vehicle deployed to recover Sutil’s stricken Sauber, suffering from diffuse axonal injury(a severe head trauma caused by rapid acceleration or deceleration) in the process.
After undergoing treatment in Japan, he has been shifted to his homeland in France where he continues to be in critical but stable conditions. He is out of artificial coma and is able to breathe unaided.
The Accident Panel set up by FIA to investigate the crash came up with a 398 page report on the incident, the conclusions published on the governing body's website revealed that the Frenchman ‘did not slow sufficiently to avoid losing control.’
However, it failed to provide information regarding the speed of other drivers at the same corner. Fortunately, the panel came up with some strong recommendations to prevent such an accident in the future. Whether they are implemented efficiently, it remain to be seen.