2014 F1 Season Review

Red Bull Formula 1 in Singapore GP

Red Bulls in Singapore F1 race

Okay so I’m a bit behind on this recap but I did watch the race the same day it took place. Not that that makes this post any more current.

Mercedes duly clinched the Constructors’ Championship in Russia, the 16th of 19 races – their first ever as a constructor – but not without a season full of drama. It was inevitable because they let their two drivers race each other and stuck by that policy, even when it seemed to go pear shaped after they collided on track at the start of the Belgian grand prix at Spa. So kudos to them for doing so.

Lewis Hamilton won the race and his second World Championship while teammate Nico Rosberg finished 14th in the race and second in the championship in what could only be described as a letdown in the final race at Abu Dhabi due to Rosberg’s KERS system failing.

However, that doesn’t take away from Hamilton’s 11 victories out of 19 races. He finally earned his second title, though he almost certainly would have won more titles by now had he been less of a celebrity prima donna earlier in his career.

Since his 2007 F1 debut he has become more focused and mature. But he some times still displays appallingly petulant behavior as during the Monaco race weekend when he refused to acknowledge his teammate on the podium after Rosberg’s victory. (Hamilton had accused Rosberg of cheating in qualifying by backing up the escape road during his best lap, causing the session to be red flagged and nullifying Hamilton’s best lap time.)

That the two teammates seemed more reconciliatory on the podium in Abu Dhabi should come as no surprise as the title was won, and they’ll be paired up again next season.

While Hamilton had often been perceived as the fastest driver in F1, it was Rosberg who ended up the king of qualifying, scoring 11 pole positions to Hamilton’s seven. Is Rosberg championship material?

Many thought Hamilton would crush him but it wasn’t quite so, with Rosberg leading the points for much of the year and the title fight going down to the final round. Add to that his blazing qualifying speed, technical acumen and political prowess, and there is world championship potential. Largely with the exception of the fallout from his clumsy maneuver on Hamilton at Spa, he said and did all the right things in terms of the team. There is no doubt Rosberg is a formidable competitor.

But he does seem to be the underdog in the races, where he doesn’t appear able to get the most out of the car, only converting five of his pole positions into wins. He needs to improve his racecraft – amping up the aggression without going over that fine line. Whether racing his teammate, for instance in Bahrain, or other drivers such as in Hungary, Rosberg seems to lack the “killer instinct” for passing that most world champions seem to possess.

His Mercedes was also less than reliable in the races with failures on at least three occasions, including two retirements in Britain and Singapore, then limping home in 14th place in Abu Dhabi (compared with two mechanical failures for Hamilton). Canada was no picnic either, another event where he had to nurse the car home.

Daniel Ricciardo was a revelation, notching three wins – including his first – in his debut season with the Red Bull team and outshining his teammate, the reigning four time World Champion Sebastian Vettel. All the while he kept his plucky “I can’t believe I’m here” outlook. He was also the only non-Mercedes driver to win a race. That’s a great year by any measure.

As for Vettel, not so much. The same goes for Kimi Raikkonen who was comprehensively outshone at Ferrari by his teammate Fernando Alonso. Both Raikkonen and Vettel, who will team up at Ferrari in 2015, seemed to not like the new F1 cars. I don’t blame them but adaptability is a key trait of a complete driver, and with five world titles between them… their performances fell short of expectations.

Constructors’ Championship Results

Red Bull finished second for the year 296 points behind Mercedes’ 701 points in the Constructors’ Championship.

Williams, having switched to Mercedes power for 2014, was a strong third and much more competitive – even pushing for victories by finishing second on three occasions.

Ferrari seemed to descend into the clutches of disarray, with lots of personnel shuffling and long time CEO Luca di Montezemolo being ousted after the season. The team finished fourth with just two podium appearances and 216 points, only 30 percent of the Mercedes points haul.

McLaren had a dreadful year finishing fifth in the Constructors’ Championship with 181 points – barely one fourth of the points Mercedes garnered – and no victories, with Force India nipping at its heels with 155 points.

Toro-Rosso looked pretty good at times with Jean-Eric Vergne and 20 year old Russian newcomer Daniil Kvyat. Kvyat was promoted to the Red Bull team for 2015 after some impressive drives.

From there it only gets worse. Lotus-Renault scored points on only three occasions with a best finish of eighth (twice). The team is also in poor financial situation, with constant rumors of unpaid debts and of “investors” looking to buy it.

Sauber has fallen into a formidable financial chasm from which it remains to be seen if it can extract itself. The team is looking like the newer, floundering backmarker teams having gone the whole season without scoring a single point.

HRT has long been gone, Marussia is in liquidation despite finally scoring two points – not helped in the least though by the tragic crash that befell their driver Jules Bianchi, who has yet to emerge from his coma. Caterham is in receivership and may or may not make the grid this year – perhaps fate didn’t like that they built one of the ugliest F1 cars of all time. In racing there’s no excuse for ugly and slow. I’m not holding my breath they will make it.

Ironically, former owner Tony Fernandes is also the CEO of AirAsia, whose flight 8501 sadly crashed in the Java Sea last month.

Were the Cars Faster, the Racing Better?

Designing, testing and building any one of these would have been a major expense: a new V6 engine, turbochargers, heat rejection units, two different energy recovery systems, hybrid electric drive, all the attendant electronic management systems and the all-new chassis that go around these systems. To do all of it simultaneously was astronomically expensive.

Despite all this expenditure the cars were much slower and the racing no better than before. While the engineers and designers did a great job to improve the pace of the cars over the course of the season (see table below), it was a hugely wasteful exercise in greenwashing that has put the sport in jeopardy. It didn’t create any value. Rather, it eroded it.

The cars were much slower in 2014
F1 lap time comparison: 2013 vs. 2014

Financial Armageddon

In fact, Mercedes spent more than any other team in 2013 between its engine and chassis operations, a sport destroying total of ₤325m (about $491m). A big part of that was to fund the development of the 2014 car. In a word, that is ludicrous. It’s also unsustainable as evidenced by the number of teams that have either failed or are at risk of doing so. Eventually there will be no one left to race.

As I said before the season, this was a bad idea and the sport’s governing body should have left well enough alone.

[1] Race Car Engineering magazine, Dec. 2014 (p. 82)