Long Time, No See……

A funny time to revive my blog, you might think: the season is over, celebrations are done, and everyone is taking a step back and looking forward to the Christmas break. I admit to having been lazy in this past year, and for many a reason, but promise to keep my attention focused for 2015. So, why have I decided to come back now?

Well, for me, the ‘off-season’ is one of the most interesting times. I’ve always been interested in the technical side of the sport and like to keep on top of developments (which is why, unlike an increasingly out of touch Mr Ecclestone, I’m firmly in favour of the current hybrid power units) and can still recall the days when, without the wonders of the internet, a trip to the newsagent on a Thursday morning to pick up the latest Autosport was THE essential shopping trip of the year.

Nowadays, of course, we get to see the new cars in all their glory (and usually, it must be said, in disguised ‘launch configuration’) as they are unveiled. This winter, however, it must be said that there is plenty to talk about, and not just how the 2015 cars will look.

Let’s be honest: outgoing World Champion Sebastian Vettel had a terrible season. Roundly beaten by a quite brilliant Daniel Ricciardo (and I’m one who couldn’t see it coming), he has jumped ship from Red Bull to Ferrari. Many have bleated about him throwing in the towel and running from the competition; in truth, I believe it was always going to happen. What is also intriguing is that his new team mate, Kimi Raikkonen, also had a pretty awful time in 2014, and was completely trounced by Fernando Alonso. Within the team there have been a number of changes: Luca di Montezemelo is gone as is Stefano Domenicali, and the interim manager whose name I can’t remember has also gone, to be replaced by a man who was formerly the Philip Morris (read Marlboro) agent for the team. Intriguing, and rather odd, but who are we to argue? In the past few days it has also been announced that both Pat Fry and Nikolas Tombazis, both quality players, have also been ‘let go’. That’s two men with copious experience looking for a job, then.

The changes leave James Allison in a rather stressful position: he, and his talented team, has to deliver a car that can challenge the runaway leaders Mercedes, even if hampered by an engine that is not quite up to the job. Watch this space for news on the ongoing argument about ‘freeing up’ the engine regulations – I suspect something may happen in the next couple of weeks.

So, what to say about Mercedes? There are two schools of thought: they either bored the pants off everyone, or they showed the rest how to do it. Of course, the latter is – to any real F1 fan – the correct version. I predicted last winter that Mercedes would hit the ground running: I didn’t expect them to do it like this. I expect them also to lead the field in the early stages of next year, but suspect there may be challenges from elsewhere as the season develops.

Congratulations to Lewis Hamilton, then, on a second World Championship, and a big well-done to Nico Rosberg for going down like a fighter in unfortunate circumstances at the last race. Incidentally, the dreaded double points never played a part.

Who else starred during 2014? Ricciardo, as the only winner bar the Mercedes duo, has already had a mention, but for me the man of the year is one who seems to raise mixed feelings on the forums and fan sites: Valtteri Bottas is emerging as a true star, and it is no surprise that stories are circling about interest from Ferrari and, perhaps, others. He drove some excellent races this year in a Williams-Mercedes that as undoubtedly the surprise of the season. I have a feeling that Williams will build on their success this year, and take the fight to the big boys in a more consistent fashion next season. The youth, skill and enthusiasm of Bottas coupled with a revitalised and experienced Felipe Massa is a strong pairing, and that brings us neatly onto the next talking point about 2015: the driver line-ups.

In Vettel and Raikkonen at Ferrari, the established pairing of Hamilton and Rosberg at Mercedes and Bottas and Massa at Williams we have already mentioned three exciting and intriguing line-ups, and there are more right down the field.

Red Bull has opted to pair Ricciardo with the acknowledged Rookie of the Year Daniil Kvyat. I have to admit to having less than high expectations for the young Russian going into the year; perhaps more than any driver of recent seasons, his apparent ability to get on with it from the off was extremely impressive. He looked very good alongside the clearly talented but seemingly bewildered jean-Eric Vergne and turned in some very good races. That Vergne is now off to Indycars (so the story goes) with nobody interested in him in F1 displays both the good and the bad about the Red Bull young driver scheme: Vergne is better than that, and I believe, should he get a drive in the USA, he will be one of the stars of the season.

At the Red Bull junior team, Toro Rosso, thinks look even more intriguing. The team was one of many to be sniffing around the latest young hot-shoe Max Verstappen, who is clearly a potentially great talent. Interesting to myself, as a long time follower of the sport, is how his F1 beginnings mimicked those of his father, Jos Verstappen, who was courted by every man and his dog only to have his career falter in a series of under-par cars. Young Verstappen has already broken records, having tested an F1 car in Friday practice at the age of just 16, and will make his debut as the youngest of all time. If I’m honest, I fear for him: he’s very quick, dedicated and from excellent stock, but is the pressure of F1 going to be too much for his young mind? We shall wait and see.

Meanwhile, he is to be partnered by another son of a former star, Carlos Sainz jnr. The 20 year old Spaniard, son of the great rally champion of the same name, has a lot resting on his shoulders. Nevertheless, this ranks as one of the most exciting and interesting pairings of the coming season.

Force India had a fine season in 2014, and has opted to retain its driver line up of Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg for the coming year. This is a good decision, as both are quality drivers, with Hulkenberg especially considered by many to be top-drawer material. Also choosing to retain its drivers is Lotus, a team that endured the exact opposite of Force India in the past season; Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado will be hoping for improvement from the incoming Mercedes power unit in 2015.

At Sauber things are a little more complicated: after a genuinely torrid season the team has taken the decision to let both Adrian Sutil and Esteban Gutierrez go. Neither did a poor job in 2014; the car simply wasn’t up to it. However, while Gutierrez has landed a role as Ferrari third driver, Sutil believes he has a valid contract with the team. So, as it happens, does Giedo van der Garde. Nevertheless, the team has announced Marcus Ericsson, ex of Caterham, and former Williams test driver and GP2 star Felipe Nasr as its drivers for the coming season. How this all pans out we wait to see.

So, with Caterham and Marussia out of the picture – although both have, in some form, filed entries for 2015 – that’s everyone. Isn’t it? Oh, wait a minute, no it’s not! How could I forget McLaren? Well, to be absolutely fair, I didn’t forget them at all; I simply left the most exciting until last.

Why the most exciting? Because 2015 heralds the return of the McLaren-Honda partnership that remains so evocative to many fans. Not only that, it also sees the return of one-time McLaren Bad Boy Fernando Alonso, who will partner the – surprisingly – continuing Jenson Button. I believe the team has made the right choice in retaining Button: Kevin Magnussen is a hot prospect, but the new partnership will relish the experience it has in its 2015 line-up. The team has retained Magnussen, may believe with a view to putting him back in the car when Button goes. The new engine had a problematic debut at the recent Abu Dhabi test, but that’s what tests are for. Will it be up to the job? Will the car be on the pace? It’s difficult to say, and the logical thought is that it will take some time, but it remains an enigmatic presence in the field, and I can’t wait to see it.

So, that’s 2015 summed up: a couple of things – don’t believe the fluff about third cars, it won’t happen; and don’t believe the nonsense about 21 races – Korea is not going to happen either.
Keep in touch, and let’s see what the winter brings.

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