1 LOTUS REPOSITION
With the technical rules remaining almost unchanged, Red Bull Racing, Ferrari and McLaren are expected to continue as the main title contenders. That’s because stable regulations usually mean the gap between the best and the rest gets wider. But the stability could allow Lotus to threaten the leading trio’s dominance if it maintains the momentum it built up last year. Lotus had plenty of race speed, which enabled the iconoclastic Kimi Raikkonen to shine in his F1 comeback, stealing his way to third in the drivers’ world championship with regular appearances on the podium and a memorable victory in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Even Raikkonen’s unruly teammate, Romain Grosjean, showed winning potential on the few occasions he didn’t run into someone or something. In its former Renault guise, Lotus – nothing to do with the British F1 team of yore; it’s a long story – won the world title with Fernando Alonso in 2005-06, ending Michael Schumacher’s five-year reign with Ferrari. A small step forward, especially in qualifying, should get Kimi racing from the front and threatening for the crown.
2 SILVER ARROW OR LEAD SLED?
Will he thrive or will he dive? That’s the big and burning question about Lewis Hamilton’s risky move from safe-haven McLaren, where he was nurtured from age 12, to the Mercedes-Benz mad haus. The three-pointed star squad has undergone a management upheaval that installed brutally blunt F1 legend Niki Lauda as Stuttgart’s standover man. Lauda’s record of running teams is as bad as his efforts at launching airlines are good. Mega-money and freedom from McLaren’s strict regime were Hamilton’s incentives to switch, plus the challenge of leading the Silver Arrows to the long-promised land of world title glory after three years of underachievement – including driving the final nails into Michael Schumacher’s comeback coffin. Hamilton is arguably the fastest driver in F1, but whether Mercedes can provide him with a winning weapon remains to be seen. Amid the team’s frictions and factions, the change will test his maturity and patience. And with Hamilton on board, Mercedes will have nowhere to hide if the car isn’t fast enough to win.
3 BREAKOUT BOYS
While Sebastian Vettel chases a historic modern-era fourth world title in a row, and Fernando Alonso resumes his bid for his first with Ferrari, there will be a handful of new-generation drivers trying to make their marks as future champions. Chief among those looking to make this his breakout year is Mexico’s Sergio Perez, plucked unexpectedly from midfielder Sauber to replace Lewis Hamilton at McLaren. Perez punched above the sleepy Swiss squad’s weight on occasion last year – notably when nearly causing an upset at the Malaysian GP – but his form was wildly inconsistent, compounded by a puzzling lack of pace at the end of the season. Joining McLaren for only his third year in F1, he’ll be expected to push his experienced teammate Jenson Button – who must be overjoyed to be paired with a comparative novice – and to be a frontrunner. Perez will have the opportunity to win if he is up to the unrelenting pressure of expectation at McLaren. Others hoping to enforce their displays of speed – and rehabilitate their reputations – are Williams’s Pastor Maldonado, the biggest upset winner of last year amid a season of thuggish driving, and Lotus loose cannon Romain Grosjean, retained despite a one-race ban for one too many opening-lap collisions. If they can contain their impetuosity, Maldonado and Grosjean have the pace to impress.
4 AUSSIE, AUSSIE, EH?
Once again, there will be two Australians in F1, something that hasn’t happened on a regular basis since the 1970s. But will both – or either – Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo still be there next year? Heading into his 12th season, Webber is the oldest driver at 36, and by his own admission a lot closer to the end of his career than the start. He is fit, feisty and a proven winner, despite being in the Red Bull shadow of Sebastian Vettel. Webber rejected official No.2 status at Ferrari for another one-year deal as Vettel’s unspoken wingman, betting on himself to know whether he’ll be ready for retirement at the end of the year. As well as his own form, he’ll have competition for his seat from Ricciardo, whose second season with Red Bull’s Toro Rosso junior team is an audition for his compatriot’s place next year. Ricciardo, in turn, will have to outperform his fast French teammate Jean-Eric Vergne to earn possible promotion to RBR. Both have been backed by the energy drink giant in the junior ranks to their F1 apprenticeships, and will have to justify the investment this season.
5 REVVIN’ HEAVEN
Enjoy the banshee wail of F1 engines while it lasts. This is the final year of the screaming V8s that have provided the sport’s signature sound for years. In a move to appear greener and make its engine technology more relevant to road cars, F1 is switching to smaller turbocharged V6s next year. The normally-aspirated V8s are 2.4-litre pocket rockets that, despite cost and technical restrictions, spin to a maximum of 18,000 rpm and produce more than 520kW. Combined, their high-pitched notes make an F1 field sound like a swarm of mutant mosquitoes. Their shriek will be replaced next year by a more guttural turbo-muffled growl that engine-makers promise will ease fans’ concerns that F1’s aural appeal will be diminished. The 1.6- litre blown V6s will be reminiscent of the snarling turbo motors that dominated F1 from 1981 until banned at the end of 1988. Limited to 15,000rpm, they will still produce up to 560kW with the assistance of energy recovery systems to power an additional hybrid-style electric motor. They will use less fuel, with the tank capacity of the cars – also subject to rule changes – cut by more than a third.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.