Circumstances (read: incompetence, laziness, occasional lack of internet / interest) mean I have yet ever to follow a full season of Formula 1 racing through to its conclusion in any blog. I’ll try to address that this year by reducing my ambitions to general segmented reviews when I see fit – or can fit.
The obvious story of the year has been the meteoric speed of Mercedes. One of their two cars has topped fourteen out of eighteen practice sessions. Neither has qualified off the first two rows, Nico Rosberg’s fourth on the grid in China being the “worst” performance. What’s more, a Mercedes has led every single lap of every race this season, at times scarpering into the distance two seconds per lap quicker than the other twenty entrants.
All this means the Silver Arrows leave the first three months of the season with five 1-2 finishes in six rounds, the only blot being Lewis Hamilton’s early exit from the Australian race with a misfiring piston. In 1988 the McLaren MP4/4 took fifteen poles and fifteen victories from sixteen rounds, and has been roundly considered the most dominant car ever produced, including Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari years. With a 100% rate in both categories thus far, there is every chance the Mercedes W05 may topple it.
Better still, it doesn’t equate to the supremacy that Sebastian Vettel enjoyed over the past few years, as neither Hamilton nor Rosberg has been able to establish himself over his most important rival. I waived supporting Hamilton before the start of 2014 – year after year of disappointing near-misses, car failures, driver errors and a poor attitude with the media were irritating, but his outspoken admiration for (convicted rapist) Mike Tyson was the final straw for me.
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Naturally, he has thrived since I disowned him, taking four wins on the trot and generally enjoying faster pace than his Teutonic teammate. However, Rosberg maintains his slightly fortuitous championship lead, and Hamilton’s well-publicised retorts after being defeated in, ahem, debatable style over the Monaco weekend highlight an emotional fragility one would have hoped he’d be well clear of by now. Ultimately, for all the media play up a head-to-head rivalry, I think the only man who can deprive Lewis Hamilton of his second world championship title is Lewis Hamilton.
Behind the runaway Mercs, the order has changed from track to track. Firstly, McLaren achieved a double podium finish at Albert Park, their first for over a year; debutant Kevin Magnussen remains the only non-Mercedes driver with a top-two finish so far this year. Since then, though, their performance at more traditional purpose-built circuits has left a lot to be desired – as well as a slow car, Magnussen has had more than his share of opening-lap bump and grind, whilst Jenson Button is just… going steady, to put it nicely.
Instead, Red Bull have usually taken over the mantle as best of the rest, but the real talking point is Daniel “The Teeth” Ricciardo’s apparent superiority over Vettel. I’ll concede that the reigning title holder has assumed levels of misfortune comparable to his erstwhile teammate Mark Webber, with turbo failures in Melbourne and Monte Carlo, and also gremlins in qualifying for Spain. But the Australian has outqualified the quadruple world champion four times out of the other five too, and is still outscoring him despite suffering a disqualification and retirement himself in the first two races. What’s up, Seb?
There’s little of great interest to say at Ferrari, meanwhile – Fernando Alonso continues to draw reputable results from the car like blood from a four-wheeled stone, and sits third in the standings as a result. Kimi Räikkönen, bar a good opening stint in Monaco, has underwhelmed, even in terms of producing amusingly sardonic soundbites. Team boss Stefano Domenicali was replaced after the Chinese race with Marco Mattiacci, though it remains to be seen whether this brings an upturn in fortunes. The Prancing Horses have now gone since 2008 without a constructors’ championship, and Räikkönen took their last drivers’ title in 2007; impressively, however, the last time they went an entire season without a single race win was way back in 1993. Chances of that particular streak surviving this year, though…
Of the habitual midfield teams, Force India have undoubtedly had the most success in the early part of 2014. Sergio Pérez achieved their first podium for five years with a jubilant third place in Bahrain, but it is the performance of Nico Hülkenberg that has stood out – an unbroken string of top-6 finishes lifting his team as high as second in the constructors’ standings at one stage. Hülkenberg himself is above both McLaren drivers and even Vettel, renewing the interminable murmurings about why he isn’t in a championship-contending team by now. Also, his pass of Magnussen going into the tunnel at Monaco is probably the boldest overtaking move I’ve yet seen this season.
On pace alone, the Williams cars should be beside or even ahead of Force India, but a number of driver errors and poor strategic calls on occasion have deprived them of several points opportunities. Matters were not helped in Malaysia when, whilst running seventh and eighth respectively, Felipe Massa refused to allow the faster Valtteri Bottas through to have a crack at Button’s McLaren ahead – echoes of his Ferrari days perhaps ringing a little too close to home. The team assure that there are no creeping interpersonal dramas, and they certainly can’t afford to have their drivers trip one another up if they are to take the results the car deserves.
I’ve never considered myself superstitious, and it bothered me for my whole F1-watching life that a sport associating itself with science, progression and modern thinking insisted for decades on no driver using the number 13 on their car. So when Pastor Maldonado chose the portentous figure for this season, for all I dislike him, I hoped fervently that he would defy the convention and prove the auspices incorrect. His first six results of 2014 have been: non-finish, non-finish, 14th, 14th, 15th and a non-start. Granted, the sinfully ugly twin-tusked Lotus car has been very unreliable throughout the early races, but he has only himself to blame for spearing Esteban Guttiérez’s Sauber into a somersault at Bahrain, spinning in first practice at China after being distracted by his steering wheel, clouting the pit wall in second practice of the same event, and another collision with Marcus Ericsson’s Caterham on the opening lap in Spain.
It doesn’t say much that Maldonado’s teammate Romain Grosjean is outperforming him, but I still feel for the Frenchman who, after a notoriously crash-filled 2012 season, had shown a genuine burgeoning talent in 2013 that is currently going to waste again. Unlike Maldonado, he at least has points on the board, thus keeping Lotus in touch with Toro Rosso in the standings. The “Red Bull B-team” began well with a double score in Australia but, like McLaren, have trailed off since. Jean-Éric Vergne and Daniil Kvyat are on an equal footing in terms of points scored, but while the former is technically ahead by grace of the higher finish, his rookie teammate has taken more points finishes, and on the whole looks the quicker prospect.
Down at the back, the once proudly midfield Sauber team have had a miserable opening to the season. Their best chance for points thus far was Monaco, and both Guttiérez and Adrian Sutil ended their weekends against the Armco barriers, a particular shame after Sutil had made some excellent passes into the Loews hairpin. Caterham are still Caterham – even the hiring of “Krazy” Kamui Kobayashi can’t seem to help them secure that first elusive top-10 result. And both have been completely overshadowed by Jules Bianchi’s meritorious ninth-place finish at Monaco, the first point-scoring result for Marussia at their 83rd attempt since joining the sport in 2010. It’s like Rochdale qualifying for the Champions League. Nothing else matters after an upset like that, although kudos must continue to go to Bianchi’s teammate Max Chilton, whose unblemished record of completing every race he has started has stretched well into his second year. Sometimes he doesn’t even finish last, either, and he has managed to out-qualify Bianchi twice.
Of course, relative performances of drivers and teams are all well and good, but it matters squat if the racing isn’t up to scratch. What a relief, then, that the 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix was the finest Formula 1 race I’ve seen since… oh, Canada 2011? Maybe even better than that – a sumptuous treat of wheel-to-wheel racing all the way through the field. I can watch the video highlights over and over and still not get bored of it. If the eleven minutes below are not enough to convince you of the excitement of open-wheel racing, I’m not sure anything will.
But enough of looking to the past. Qualifying in Canada has concluded (a Mercedes 1-2 at the top of the timesheets, quelle surprise) and the race commences in mere hours. I’ll probably report back next during the summer break.