Thursday, 18 December 2014

Final thoughts on 2014: Slings and Silver Arrows

Some years ago Frank Williams was asked during one of this game's periodic rounds of introspection whether he still considered F1 a sport. 'Between two and four on a Sunday afternoon this is a sport' he said, 'the rest of the time, quite honestly, it's just commerce.'

Whizzing forward to today this may evoke a pang of recognition. In this 2014 season just passed, on the track F1 just about got it right. The problem was that in virtually everything else it got it wrong. And would that it were merely commerce - instead outside of the two hours on Sunday afternoons what we got was politicking, intrigue, dispute, selfishness and the sport drifting unaltered in its grotesque and deformed state, seemingly unable to resolve on a remedy. Its future unclear, and eliciting rather a lot of trepidation. Too many people have been harmed by F1's warped ways already. The risk of many more joining them is real.

F1 threatened to be very different in 2014
Photo: Octane Photography
Yet heading in no one really knew what to expect from this season. In no small part because F1 in 2014 hit the reset button. We've had engine regulation changes before of course; we've also had chassis changes. But rarely have they arrived together. They certainly haven't to this extent. Never before had there been such a leap between F1 seasons; such a leap into the unknown.

In effect all teams had a new and highly complex technology thrown at them - a 1.6 litre turbo internal combustion unit plus greatly increased energy recovery, combined with a 100kg fuel limit as well as a limit to the flow (even the name changed - 'power unit' rather than 'engine' being the parlance) - and were told curtly to get on with it. Moreover, as Adrian Newey pointed out, a new hybrid car on the road will have five years' testing and development behind it, and the F1 equivalent of now is 20 times more complicated than even the most complicated road hybrid. The teams had but 12 days of track testing to get it right.

Not only - as is always so with reg shifts - was there potential for the competitive order to be shuffled, such were the changes this time that even the nature of the racing itself was potentially stepping through the looking glass.

And there was plenty of doom mongering. The cars would be hideously slow - perhaps lap times would slip over those of GP2; the races would be conspicuous fuel economy cruises; someone even - and with a straight face - in the early part of the round one weekend in Melbourne asked Race Director Charlie Whiting what would happen if no one finished...

But we should have known better - compared with such expectations things instead went rather swimmingly.

There were but five mechanical stoppages from 22 starters in either of the first two races, and from then on the trend was gently downwards to numbers comparable with 12 months ago. As for the speed, the lap times were undeniably slower, but usually not by much, and come the year's end the 2013 times were close to being matched. In Interlagos - helped no doubt by the altitude - the current cars were faster. And while much focus was on the new power units some of the lap time drop-off could be attributed to reduced wing sizes, the passing of the exhaust blown diffusers and less grippy tyres.

Races also were not the feared economy runs, indeed some Mercedes runners were thought to have not been using the whole 100kg allowance. Only really in the Russian race in Sochi was fuel saving conspicuous.

The power units in 2014 were very different, and they
were impressive - particularly the Mercedes
Photo: Octane Photography
In the event the units produced roughly the same power using 40% less fuel. Indeed all season the cars were smashing the 2013 marks through the speed traps (though the trimmed down aero for this year played its part too). And seeing drivers really work hard to control the higher-on-torque machines was a joy to watch.

Most importantly of all, as Darren Heath having witnessed the new cars close at hand and in the main functioning beautifully after their severely-restricted testing time noted post Melbourne: 'just imagine - outside the world of F1 - how long getting this right would have taken. Many company bosses in the wider automobile world would pay billions for such expertise, rigour and result'. Heck, even The Guardian outside of its sport pages spoke glowingly about how the ripple effect from the F1 technology's advances on the world's motoring industry could have a considerable myriad impact by reducing global oil consumption by 2% or more a year. The very clever people of the sport, now by regulation nudged in this direction, are now indirectly using their skills in a highly noble cause the effect of which will be felt far beyond the circuit's perimeter.

Not that you'd necessarily have known it however, initially at least. Instead the prevalent noise in the early weeks of the season was about noise. A few noticed that the cars didn't make as much of it as before. Ironically they managed to create a heck of a lot of decibels over the matter.

It was after the circus arrived in Melbourne for the season-opener that things really kicked off. It started with local journalists in their copy protesting at the new relatively hushed F1 machines. And before you knew it fans' complaints - some from the track, some not - spread like flame after someone had spread lighter fluid around the place and lit a match.

And nature abhors a vacuum. Not for the first time when the job of promoting F1 as a whole was being offered - to the FIA, to Bernie Ecclestone, to the teams - most stared at their shoes, even though the good news story of the new rules and their potential environmental benefit was a considerable one. Though honourable mention should go to Mercedes which did its level best to talk the technology up more widely throughout the year. But only F1 you feel could manage to turn its weakest flank in broader opinion into potentially its strongest and still manage in the PR job to blow a hole in its own foot.

As Joe Saward noted what FIA President Jean Todt really should have done in Melbourne were he PR-savvy was very publicly and visually celebrate the sport's new 'green washing'. This could even have involved dressing the grid girls in green, perhaps getting them waving big green flags and the like. Maybe even Todt himself could have got in on the act. It would have been silly but it would have been good silly, in that it would have got the message across. It also likely would have taken the attention away from the noise matters among those local journalists who started the rather destructive ball rolling. As it was, there was barely so much as a press release on what F1 was up to. Todt - showing all of the rigidity of a weathercock - even muttered that the V8s could be reverted to if everyone agreed. Well, if you want the sport to look prehistoric as well as to explain to three manufacturers that the millions they spent on the units all of sudden counts for very little, then knock yourself out...

Bernie had much to do with many matters in 2014
Photo: Octane Photography
Meanwhile we as ever had the ubiquitous Bernie Ecclestone, who hadn't been into the new regs pretty much from their first conceptualisation. And he at the time of the Melbourne round (while he hadn't inconvenienced himself to actually show up to the track by this point) probably couldn't believe his luck and hopped onto this rather convenient bandwagon with a gleeful 'I told you so' air. And he was joined quickly on it by his big mucker Ron Walker, Race Chairman of the Melbourne event, who was in colourful prose espousing threats to sue as well as to host Indycar at his place instead of F1, and to convince other venues to follow.

Various bigwigs from Red Bull in time leapt aboard too, including Sebastian Vettel - who has in Nigel Roebuck's words 'long shared with Melbourne promoter Ron Walker the presidency of The Bernie Ecclestone Appreciation Society', not that I draw any conclusions from that you understand - as well as big boss Dietrich Mateschitz who, without actually spelling it out, hinted his firm's continued involvement in the sport was in doubt. Which came as a bit of a shock to all those employed in the Milton Keynes team. The supposed tepid entertainment value resultant of the new regs combined with apparent complexity were thrown against the same wall also to see if they stuck. Ferrari's President Luca Montezemolo by the time of round three in Bahrain turned up to tell all of a prevailing 'taxi cab formula'. Bernie at around the same moment called the on-track fare 'unacceptable'. But not everyone concurred, and Ron Dennis for one pointed out the absurdity of such actors who had agreed to the regs and had played their part in framing them suddenly lobbing stink bombs in as soon as they came into practice.

It's never been clear why Bernie holds the view of the new regs that he does, but a few theories were banded around, not many of them noble. Perhaps it was an attempt to get the sport's value down as a prelude to him buying the sport's commercial rights back from venture capitalists CVC Capital Partners, just like before buying a second hand car you might try to chip at the price by pointing out the excessive miles on the clock and that the brakes seem a bit dodgy. Some further rumours had it that Red Bull and Ferrari (and Mercedes) maybe were to be part of Bernie's consortium. Which if so would explain their respective stances. Before the year was out there was similar rumours about even a 'GP1'-style breakaway from the FIA altogether by Bernie with said top teams.

Of course, one should not be churlish. Noise is an important part of the experience, and an honourable one for many fans. It was never clear what the actual split of opinion was (and no, Ferrari's risible 'poll' from early in the year got us no nearer an answer); the extent that the complainants were representative or simply reflected a small and possibly vexatious bunch shouting loud (perhaps appropriately). The best evidence was that fans were divided. Plenty actually liked the new sound, both in its gravelly tone as well as that it allowed other sounds previously mixed well down to now be discernible.

Part of the trouble with those loosely against the new rules is that their powers of prediction almost always were poor, as intimated. Furthermore they perhaps weren't particularly well represented. Some of the claims made in support of their 'side' stretched credulity to breaking point, particularly those from the mouth of Ron Walker. Funnily enough by August an extended deal for Melbourne to host its Grand Prix at least until 2020 was announced. Walker's red lines mysteriously had evaporated in the meantime. And as Karun Chandhok pointed out too, what else was expected when an exhaust is plugged into a turbo?

The thrilling Bahrain race seemed a turning point
By Habeed Hameed [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://
creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons
Eventually the fuss died down as it almost certainly was going to. The main break point was round three in Bahrain, which was the most diverting race in a good while and shot most of the foxes that the complainants were looking to set loose. It also was timed perfectly as the afore-mentioned Montezemolo in attendance could be seen on the TV feed watching on like one chewing on a razorblade. Ironically the only taxi on show was that which Luca snaked into for making his escape midway through proceedings, the tail between his legs almost visible. Niki Lauda afterwards delivered the final strike with a flourish: 'If anyone complains that this is boring then they're an idiot'.

Undeterred however come the season's end Bernie was still muttering about the returns of the V8s, or even better to the V10s. As was his presence-on-earth Red Bull boss Christian Horner. The rumours about his grand (or destructive - delete as applicable) scheme for the sport's future refuse to desist. Hey ho.

But while rather excessive attention was given to shrieking at the odd mouse scuttling around the skirting boards, all the while we had an elephant in the room. And hardly a new one. If F1 on-track was rather different in 2014 then the main talking point in the latter part of the year had horrid familiarity.

It was the matter of cost control (or lack of it) and the desperate struggle to survive of certain teams. And just as Ernest Hemingway noted the bankruptcy arrived gradually, then suddenly. The building of pressure was gradual, and a long-time coming. Indeed we can trace it all the way back to 2009 - perhaps sooner - when then-FIA President Max Mosley sought to wrestle the sport's desire to spend itself out of existence.

Yet despite the odd back and forth since it never was resolved properly. Indeed the collapse of the teams' association FOTA had a double whammy - not only resulting in the effective end of the Resource Restriction Agreement but also that Ferrari and Red Bull's cutting and running, which started the process of FOTA's end, was shortly afterwards followed by the pair being awarded generous - you might say distortive - financial deals from Bernie. Almost as if one begat the other. Arguably what we ended up with was worse than when FOTA was created.

But in the autumn of the 2014 season the edifice crumbled with exasperating suddenness. After the round in Russia Caterham and then Marussia announced administrations - and at the time of writing neither team looks in the least likely to be on the 2015 grid - and these were followed about as quickly by confirmation from three other teams from the midfield and back - Lotus, Force India and Sauber - that they too are sailing very close to the wind. How this came to be in a sport that's thought to generate an operating profit of something like £1.8bn only underlines just how ridiculously skewed the £1bn that goes to the teams is, with as intimated the few at the top getting a gluttonous share of it. Ferrari and Red Bull get minimum payouts just for being them (i.e. before performance-related payments are added) that outstrip the entire annual budgets of the teams towards the back.

Come the next race in Austin Lotus's Gerard Lopez spoke eloquently that - contrary to the inferences of Bernie, Mercedes's Toto Wolff and others - this was not a case of these struggling teams being imprudent and failing to cut their cloth. Instead the minimum cost of simply turning up in F1 has risen sharply in recent times to a level beyond the ability of the teams at the back to raise revenue. The costs of the new power unit, combined with tyres which used to be free, ensured it was so. Ex-FIA President Max Mosley emerged at around this point too to state that a serious trick was missed in not placing a strict cap on how much the new units could be sold on for. Without it we have ended up with the small teams in effect subsiding the big manufacturers' R&D.

Bernie and the top teams largely were unmoved. To the point that some, such as Force India's Bob Fernley, wondered if rather than lethargy it was strategy; that there was a plan to make the sport an effective carve-up for the top five with the rest falling off, and the remainder of the grid instead made up by third cars, customer 'B teams', or a combination of the two. Needless to say the risks of such a future were pointed out by a few.

Many would like to see Jean Todt confronting more
Photo: Octane Photography
Just like last year, and a lot of the ones immediately before it, F1 it seems is frozen by inertia, and is drifting. A big problem is the Strategy Group (supposedly merely a forum but seems to have established considerable power somehow), made up in thirds by the FIA, Bernie/FOM, and the 'big six' teams (note the non-presence of the teams at the back) - and rarely do they agree on anything, and what they do agree on tends to be silly (see double points, as well as the fleeting wheeze to cut Friday practice thankfully since abandoned). Meaning that the FIA that is meant to be running the show only has a third of the say.

Therefore it is no surprise at all that, in Dieter Rencken's words: 'The 2014 Formula 1 political season ended precisely as it started: With much squabbling over costs and engine regulations...despite F1's three player groups (governing body FIA, commercial rights holder FOM and the team collective) vowing to engineer solutions that should be the work of a moment - but for F1's intransigent governance procedure.'

Indeed Todt and the FIA in the course of the year had to abandon their plans to really deal with the cost issue via a cap, and Todt admitted that he simply was out-numbered. Some though - including his predecessor Mosley - reckon that Todt should simply start to face the teams and Bernie down. Todt did indeed do just this on the issue of restricting radio 'coaching' late in the season, so hopefully he'll develop a taste for it.

In a ray of hope too the EU Commission is starting to sniff around the Strategy Group and its legality. Few would mourn its passing.

Yet in keeping with the inertia, with the grid apparently down to 18 cars at most for next year, and at a point where you feel that if it goes any lower then the sport's really in trouble, if there is a strategy in place to get F1 out of its financial mess then it is well-concealed. Thus not since the end of 1982 have we ended a season with such trepidation of what form F1 will be in at the start of the next. You fear that it has reached the point that it'll take a proper crisis - a properly cataclysmic one - to concentrate everyone's minds sufficiently and make the game sensible again. Either that or - as was the case 32 years ago - the FIA to finally emerge from its coma and impose a solution. Your move, Jean.

There is plenty on Bernie's rap sheet too in addition to the sport in crisis related to a skewed cash distribution that he created. Chief among these is the CVC deal and its various manifestations - not least Bernie's bribery trial which not only dragged on to the sport's great embarrassment and distraction for much of the summer but also ended rather unsatisfactorily  (seriously, ending a bribery trial ahead of time with something that appeared a lot like a bribe?), and left him rather as damaged goods. Both in his image as well as that he relinquished executive authority when the charges were confirmed.

You can add to the rap sheet that - related to the money-guzzling CVC deal to whatever extent - the sport has increasingly based its financial model on demanding vast hosting fees from venues, which has had the multiple negative impact of both sky-rocketing ticket prices at existing Grands Prix as well as taking the sport away from its core support to appear instead in new territories, where in a lot of cases the locals don't appear terribly interested. This even worse often associates the sport often with, shall we say, questionable governing regimes who wield the blank chequebooks.

It's also manifested itself in the sport demanding vast fees for TV rights, meaning TV coverage disappearing behind paywalls. In other words the fans are the ones to miss out, and to fork out. His attitude to social media and the internet, as well as on attracting young fans as expressed late in the season, borders the cringeworthy.

Finding those with enthusiasm for Bernie staying on suddenly by the conclusion of 2014 became a trying task. But still Bernie's staying power is not to be underestimated. As seen after the season's end when all were convinced that CVC was to replace current F1 chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, thought to be stepping down due to ill health, with the formidable British liquor executive Paul Walsh. A man who most of us were convinced would lead the transition from Bernie's stewardship and ultimately to floatation.

But before we knew it Bernie had seen him off, for the Chairman position at least. And right on cue suggested for the role instead his long-time ally and chief legal officer Sacha Woodward-Hill, as 'a safe pair of hands'. Quite if a safe pair of hands, a consolidator, is what the sport needs right now given everything is rather open to debate of course.

But while heading into this campaign felt like a massive step into the unknown for the reasons given, the identity of the team on top was no surprise. Indeed everyone had suspected it for months; maybe even years.

Mercedes has had this year's change in regs circled on its calendars for for some time; let's not forget its preparations were a crucial part of convincing Lewis Hamilton in late 2012 to come aboard. Also when it gave up on the 2012 season early, it was not to focus resource on 2013's preparations but on 2014's. The power unit was running on the test bed way back in 2010. Perhaps its advantage went back further, to 2009 when F1 first flirted with energy recovery. Ferrari outsourced the task; Renault let the teams went on with it. Mercedes, alone, kept it in-house and from that point was half a lap ahead.

At the front at least, F1 in 2014 was all about this lot
Photo: Octane Photography
Throughout 2013 Ross Brawn - who sadly wasn't around to experience the team's success this year - had the team running the new unit and its associated systems on the dyno exactly as if it were a Grand Prix weekend, complete with FP1, 2 and 3, qualifying and the race, and with the same time gaps between, and according to Brawn 'that brought to light an enormous number of problems we wouldn't otherwise have found'.

Brawn too outlined the benefits of being a works engine team, and thus being able to develop the new power unit and chassis in unison. 'If you approached it like the old days - just take the engine, plug it in, stick a gearbox on the back of it and stick it on the track - you'll have a nightmare' he said. 'Heat, installation, the dynamic coupling of everything - it's fascinating in many ways. But God help those who have not been on the dyno in representative conditions.' Given this was said at around the time of pre-season, Brawn may have had one team in particular in mind. As on top of Mercedes's own stellar job the team that it toppled in Red Bull, indeed the Red Bull team that even so turned out to be its closest challenger, in the early throes got it very wrong.

Suddenly the structure of the previous standard-bearing Bulls of an arms-length relationship with its engine supplier became exposed in this year's new landscape, its power unit builder being several hundred miles, one border and one English Channel away in Viry-Châtillon as opposed to the 40 minute drive between Merc's race team in Brackley and power unit builders in Brixworth.
.
Whether this is a permanent shift or merely one that helps a team hit the ground running after an engine-focussed regulation shift isn't clear but that Red Bull is reportedly seeking to pull more of the power unit development closer to it indicates it thinks it knows the answer.

Crucially too Mercedes found an 'unfair advantage', as Colin Chapman would have put it. And it was disarmingly simple. The Merc power unit took a radical departure from the usual concept of a turbo layout by placing the air compressor at the front of the engine rather than at the customary rear, having separated it from the turbine via a lengthened shaft. The compressor therefore was placed well away from the hot exhaust and this means less pipework is required to cool the air before it is entered into the engine. Ferrari apparently also produced something in the same ballpark but crucially didn't take it to the same extreme, placing the compressor only about a third of the way along the unit.

As is often the case the benefits of such a gain were not ring-fenced. This shorter pipework improved driveability by reducing turbo lag, which in turn meant less of the ERS power was required to make up for the turbo lag (meaning there's more of that to use elsewhere) as well as allowed more compact sidepods thus boosting aero efficiency. You can add to these too that as a consequence of the repositioned compressor the Merc's gearbox was placed further forward, helping handling and change of direction via the more centralised weight distribution, as well as that its 'coke bottle' at the car's rear was much more compact than that of its rivals, further benefitting aero.

And getting ahead of the game in F1 2014-style meant one heck of a virtuous circle. A better-handling car, better aero and lower drag meant less fuel usage due to less of a need to stamp on the throttle to make up for it, which meant you could run at higher boost; these also meant lower tyre wear which also benefits fuel economy as well as energy harvesting; better energy harvesting in turn helps power and fuel economy...

Lenin isn't the most likely source of quotes relevant to F1, but one of his utterances seems highly apt to how Mercedes reaped its considerable gains this campaign: 'everything is connected to everything else'.

Of course, the Merc power unit customer teams also benefitted from this layout concept, but what they didn't have was the same amount of time to design their cars around it and thus maximise the resultant possibilities. To give some idea of the difference, it's said that Mercedes first had its big layout idea somewhere in the region of two years before this year's pre-season testing. Whereas in the case of its customers it could only find out about this when their 2014 contracts with Mercedes were finalised, which in many cases gave them but a matter of a few months to prepare. Before the season was out too the odd grumble about the engine modes permitted to customers from the Merc engineers, especially when battling with a silver car, was aired.

Mercedes one-two finishes were a common sight
Photo: Octane Photography
The only surprise, and it was a partial one, was in the sheer extent of the Silver Arrow domination. It was confirmed in Bahrain in round three. After the late-race safety car peeled in giving us ten or so laps of racing to the flag the two Mercs now absolutely off the leash in their battle for victory routinely lapped upwards of two seconds a lap quicker than anyone else including their closest (a relative term) pursuers. And in the final shake out the best lap from any other car was 1.7 seconds over that of either Silver Arrow. Little wonder that the team's Technical Director Paddy Lowe admitted later that 'by Bahrain you began to feel "OK, we really have got a car with historic levels of performance difference."'

Indeed winning every race - doing what McLaren so famously just missed out on in 1988 - seemed a genuine possibility for a time. As it was F1's capacity of happenstance - unreliability, weather and an intra-team contretemps - meant that three races were relinquished, all to Daniel Ricciardo's Red Bull. But still, this season no one else ever ran on the Mercedes pace without unusual circumstances. In 2014 the rest were routed.

Whether it was the tight confines of Monaco, the long sweeping turns of Silverstone, the long flat-out blasts of Monza, the bit-of-everything Tilke-dromes of Malaysia, China and Russia, the heat of Singapore, the wet of Suzuka, the old school challenges of Interlagos, in its campaign of triumph Mercedes took them all. Indeed wiped the floor in them all.

The Mercedes's pace advantage was big in qualifying, in races usually even bigger, and didn't show much sign of being diminished over the season. Indeed by the year's end it looked as big as it had been.

With the absurd superiority of the Mercedes the on-track fare in 2014 could have been ruined. And if that had been so contemplating - on top of F1's other woes - where that might have landed us should elicit a shudder. A season such as 2002's would have seemed mild by comparison.

That we didn't should be a matter of huge relief. Indeed Toto Wolff was heard early in the year talking of his obligations to the sport in this regard. Wolff ended the year not as everyone's cup of tea, what with his stance on matters such as cost control and power unit freezes. But for this particular stance we should always be grateful.

For a time however it seemed that not even Wolff's laissez-faire spirit would give us a close title race. Lewis Hamilton dropped out of the first race with mechanical woes on a day wherein he looked likely to be in a competition of one, and Nico Rosberg in the other Merc helped himself to the win. But Lewis then won the next four, having the place to himself in two and robustly defending his lead against an apparently faster Nico in the other two. Nico finished second everywhere, thus minimising the damage, but Lewis now had a bare championship lead.

But in Monaco the story changed. Changed utterly. And it heralded a tight and exciting championship battle including many equally exciting races - reminding us once again that just two cars are required to give us thrills.

The tension between the two Mercedes
drivers in Monaco was palpable
Photo: Octane Photography
In the final part of Monaco's qualifying as is now notorious Nico on provisional pole disappeared down an escape road on his final run, and the resultant yellow flags (with Nico curiously trying to reverse back onto the track...) meant Lewis behind couldn't improve and pole was therefore Nico's. This was another act that divided wider opinion, this time as to Nico's intent. And it was clear what Lewis thought, and plenty others including a few drivers agreed with him. As the year went on the grapevine got a bit louder that Nico had indeed committed a professional foul.

We found out furthermore that already by this point the mistrust between the pair was well underway. Lewis had used an MGU setting he shouldn't have done in the Spanish race which helped him defend his place against Nico. Nico it transpired had done similar before that in Bahrain.

So all of a sudden in addition to having a real championship fight (Nico indeed from pole took the Monaco win) we got one with a rather embittered undercurrent.

The plot then thickened as whatever the cause and effect Monaco was prelude to a run of difficult qualifying sessions for Lewis. Two in which he erred by pushing two hard, then one in which he gave up too readily on a drying track. Dumping salt into his gaping wound the next two were spoiled by mechanical failures. He remained mesmerising on each race day but these ensured Lewis spent much of the summer playing catch up. Nico meanwhile was striking the ball confidently into the unguarded nets he was presented.

But the 2014 title fight was one with two pivots, and the second awaited us in Spa. The slightly tetchy intra-Merc scrap reached its much-speculated conclusion of on-track contact on Belgium's second lap, after Nico rather lazily let his front wing hang alongside Lewis's rear tyre. Lewis punctured which led to a no score; Nico carried on hobbled and salvaged second.

Once again things were changed, changed utterly. And while it was well-concealed at the time this pivot was in Lewis's favour. Somehow Nico lost some of his swagger, possibly related to his team publicly treating him rather as a schoolboy in disgrace in response to the clash. To many it looked mere misjudgement on Nico's part though Lewis alleged that Nico had said it was deliberate, to 'prove a point'.

Come the next round in Monza a suddenly twitchy Nico aided his team mate to victory with an error mid-race letting him by, then the Singapore race changed the mathematics - Nico not getting off the line with technical troubles and Lewis sweeping up the 25 points. In the blink of an eye Lewis was right with Nico, and this was just the early part of another run of Lewis wins, five in a row this time. By the time it had ended the title was his barring disasters. And even though Nico, as he'd spent most of the season doing, delivered a counter-punch in Interlagos when all thought him down and out, the disasters never arrived. Indeed it was Nico that fate dealt a dud hand in the season-closer in Abu Dhabi, which confirmed Lewis's title slightly ahead of time.

Few doubted that in 2014 we had a
worthy champion in Lewis Hamilton
Photo: Octane Photography
But few disputed that the sport in 2014 had found a worthy champion. Eleven wins from 19 was hard to argue with; so too was being consistently the quickest on race day. And Nico's grace in defeat - in combination with Lewis's magnanimity in victory - while incongruous with the season on a few levels was nevertheless highly refreshing. The two Merc pilots may not be confidants again but at least they ended the year having declared a truce. Indeed generally this year we witnessed a more rounded and complete Lewis Hamilton than at any point before. Nico Rosberg also was as worthy adversary.

But even more widely and as mentioned it seemed that on-track was about the only place that F1 got it right this year. The season started a little slowly in the entertainment stakes (grist to the malcontent mill) but as mentioned the Bahrain race mentioned was the most riveting most of us could remember. And from then on the races rarely let us down, even those that the silver cars disappeared in. Frenzied yet perfectly judged wheel-to-wheel battles up and down the field became close to an expectation. Hungary was another classic. Only the debut round in Russia was conspicuously tepid, and in that case it was for peculiar reasons.

The creeping pariahs of DRS and gumball Pirelli while still present was noticeably reigned back, and the racing benefitted. As noted fuel-saving barely was a factor of race days, Russia aside.

There were some superb driving canvasses on display too even over above those of the two in silver. Indeed the year had a lot of the changing of the guard about it, particularly in the form of Daniel Ricciardo. It was a reminder that nobody knows anything as a guy some said only got his big break at Red Bull on the assumption that he wouldn't challenge his four-time champion team mate Vettel in fact wiped the floor with him. He was at least as fast as Seb and much more sympathetic on the tyres at the same moment. And over the course he demonstrated that he apparently is a driver without much obvious weakness, and won three races into the bargain, being the only one to beat the Mercs to victory at all. For many he was the driver of the season bar none.

And even more cockles were warmed by the astonishing resurgence of hardy veterans and everyone's favourite other team Williams, following a 2013 wherein it beat only Marussia and Caterham, and not always by much. But this year it was third in the constructors' table, took a pole position (in so doing depriving the silver cars of a clean sweep) as well as several podium finishes. Arguably it was the Mercedes's most persistent closest competitor on pure pace. It was assisted of course by the jewel of a Mercedes power unit, but it was well clear of the two other Merc customers of McLaren and Force India. Pat Symonds, Rob Smedley and others reinvigorated the squad technically, and Claire Williams filled the apparent management vacuum that had lingered since Toto Wolff had left.

And just like Ricciardo, the Grove pilot Valtteri Bottas was another to really show us what he could do with access to a good car - that he is a fast breakthrough driver without conspicuous flaw. Race wins surely are just a matter of time for him. Titles could be too.

Williams, and its pilot Valtteri Bottas, were among the year's
good news stories
Photo: Octane Photography
With Ricciardo and Bottas, in addition to 2014 debutant Daniil Kvyat, we can be confident that the sport's healthy future in driving talent at least is assured. Even though with now just nine teams and many towards the back discriminating chiefly on the grounds of money brought (Sauber's really gone to town on this for 2015) things are probably tougher than ever for those seeking their big break.

Sadly though 2014 on-track matters did have a jarring false note struck, with Jules Bianchi's chilling accident at Suzuka, when in worsening conditions he left the track and collided with a recovery vehicle already there for an accident for Adrian Sutil. Latest news at the time of writing is that while he is out of his coma and breathing unaided he remains in a critical condition. All continue to hope for the speedy recovery of a pleasant young man and highly promising talent.

But while Merc mesmerised us in 2014, it has to be said that the other two engine builders in Ferrari and Renault simply did not rise to the revised challenge.

Red Bull therefore at least had a compelling excuse for relinquishing its crowns. Renault, which had pressed for the new regs as hard as anyone, arrived in pre-season testing woefully under-prepared. Most Renault-powered machines conked out regularly, and with Red Bull as ever it taking cooling and the like to the edge it seemed the RB10 barely could leave the pits without stopping amid smoke. By the time of Melbourne all had pulled the thing together remarkably, but the chasm to Mercedes already was unbridgeable. Throughout the year the horsepower deficit remained stark, which Horner put at 75bhp, and this wasn't entirely Horner blarney. That the Bulls nevertheless salvaged a comfortable second in the constructors' table underlines just what a formidable unit it remains. Many felt that, despite the Merc preponderance, the Bull has the best chassis still. As mentioned next year it's seeking to learn the lessons by drawing its power unit development closer to itself.

Next year though it will have to do without its fulcrum Vettel, who is off to Ferrari, and its inspiration in Adrian Newey, who after leading the creation of the 2015 machine is to head up 'Advanced Technologies'. Latest word however is that he might not after all be quite as detached as had originally been assumed.

But even with all of this the Red Bull season was a model of serenity compared with Ferrari's. In an engine formula that should theoretically have suited it, it flopped.

Gary Anderson watching on noted that 'it seems that, while Mercedes produced a new engine from scratch for the new regulations, Ferrari just started with a six-cylinder version of the old V8 then added the ERS package onto it'

Ferrari had a desperate season
Photo: Octane Photography
Apparently too the Scuderia chose the wrong path in seeking to keep the engine and required cooling compact in order to help the chassis. But somehow it ended up with both the chassis and the power unit pitiful.

'Having interviewed those who designed, developed and ran it' said Mark Hughes of the F14 T at the season's end, 'it was relatively good in high speed constant radius turns (behind only the Red Bull and Merc in that order) but was otherwise poor. The window between having good front and rear downforce was way too narrow, on lower speed corners the mechanical grip of the front end was mediocre - and visibly so when you watched trackside - it lacked traction, its energy harvesting efficiency was so bad it frequently couldn't do two consecutive laps at full power, the power delivery was awful (hence Raikkonen’s several inexplicable low speed spins), it had poor braking stability and was up to 70 horsepower down. No, it was a poor car - as even those responsible for it are quick to acknowledge.'

Ferrari responded to the challenge in time-honoured fashion, with the resultant rate of heads on spikes remarkable even by its own standards from its worst of times. Come the year's end it was on its team principal number three since April; President Montezemolo and engine head Luca Marmorini were out during the season; senior technical figures Pat Fry and Nikolas Tombazis were out after its conclusion (reportedly too the flux lost a few likely recruits, including Newey no less). Little wonder there's a conspicuous culture of not sticking your head above the parapet down Maranello way...

Little wonder too that the magnificent Fernando Alonso reached the end of his tether, and got out of his Ferrari contract two years ahead of time, so to throw his lot in with the returning Honda and, perhaps astonishingly, McLaren.

So, plenty changes for next season. But just as Red Bull for years got an auxiliary benefit of its rivals getting into a state of flux, cannibalising each other, in their desperation to claw the deficit back, now it appears Mercedes is getting exactly the same thing.

Speaking at the season's end Mercedes's chief designer John Owen said: 'Our rivals seem to have sacked half their companies - so I think they are in a bit of a difficult situation. If they had remained stable and got their heads together, rather than criticising themselves and maybe the sport, I think we would be more worried than we are.'

Of course, in many ways it might not get so good again for Mercedes. Its competitors in spite of everything will do their darnedest to honour by imitation the things that have made the Merc quick. You'd imagine the other Merc customers will be especially well-placed.  As we know the Brackley team is doing its best to ensure the engine freeze maintains its full rigidity, but even if it does this advantage is likely to be narrowed, as there are loopholes which ensure that the development freeze is more honoured in the breach than in the observance. There will be a new power unit on the scene next year too.

But whatever developmental avenues there are will be explored in minute detail by Mercedes also. Indeed word has emerged from the Brackley/Brixworth direction that it has scores of horsepower itself to gain if things are opened up.

Lewis Hamilton acknowledged as much in Suzuka: 'I'm sure others teams will make a big step (for next season)' he noted, 'but we plan to move forward again as well. Mercedes are planning to be number one again.' You can take that as a promise.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

New F1 Times article: McLaren's unfinished business

Photo: Octane Photography
In recent days it had become the main - almost the only - F1 matter being discussed. It being McLaren's driver line-up decision for next year. And finally after weeks of prevarication we got it last Thursday. Fernando Alonso's confirmation was expected but Jenson Button being retained alongside - at the expense of Kevin Magnussen - was not until a few hours before the official announcement. All of a sudden, we have all of the drivers in place for 2015 and it's not even Christmas. That probably is a first.

But still, it is an announcement that in certain ways gives us yet more to chew on. Was the selection of Button really a no-brainer? What now for Magnussen? And most pointedly, what now for McLaren?

In my latest article for F1 Times I look at McLaren's 2015 driver decision, what's ahead for the Woking team and in particularly for the scrutinised Fernando Alonso-Ron Dennis relationship. You can read it via this link: http://www.f1times.co.uk/news/display/09658

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

My Top Ten Drivers of 2014: The Rest...

Photo: Octane Photography
Here are my views on those F1 drivers from 2014 who didn't make my top 10 ranking that I published a few days ago.

My top 10 drivers of 2014 can be read here.

The two drivers who came closest to the top 10 but missed out were Daniil Kvyat and Jules Bianchi.

There was close to unanimity that Kyvat was rookie of the season. For all of the fears about how debutants would adapt to the sport, especially the complex variety of 2014, in the Russian's case the doubts immediately were dispelled as he didn't falter in his confident strut straight from GP3 and impressed in just about every way. His speed on show this season was superb, as was his chutzpah. Frequently he could be seen with his Toro Rosso on the very edge of adhesion, often with the tail hanging out. Indeed him finishing the Italian race without brakes for the last lap or so, at astonishing speed and mainly because he could, took the breath away. His team mate Jean-Eric Vergne is highly rated, and this year did a lot to sort his qualifying out, but herein Kvyat was ahead over the piece, and towards the end of the year often he was far ahead. Perhaps most impressive of all is that Kvyat never appeared at all cowed by his rapid promotion - observing him out of the car was like observing a veteran, and his complete assurance (but never of the excessive kind) could on occasion be astounding. And it reminds us all of the mental toughness and constructive approach that Helmut Marko said is what set him apart for the drive in the first place. There possibly inevitably was the odd example of rookie overreaching, such as qualifying prangs in Monaco, Canada and Hungary as well as being at fault for a collision with Perez in Germany. And for all of his single lap pace he didn't appear to have near to Vergne's ability to look after the tyres over a stint, betrayed possibly by him only scoring eight points to his team mate's 22. Equally though Toro Rosso unreliability cost him points in Monaco, Austria and Abu Dhabi, in each of which he was well-placed. And the big Red Bull team felt it saw enough to promote him without the slightest hesitation when Sebastian Vettel fled for Ferrari. Let's not forget either that Red Bull's judgement just lately on such things has been pretty impeccable.

Jules Bianchi
Photo: Octane Photography
As for Bianchi, this year at Marussia he managed to build on the already haughty structure he'd assembled in a debut season there in 2013. Sadly though his campaign transpired also as one cut desperately short; perhaps always to have a shadow cast over it. A lot like Valtteri Bottas did last year, Bianchi in 2014 had a crucial knack of when in a modest car seizing the rare opportunities to be noticed when they presented themselves. This was most acutely so in Monaco where he was quick throughout, famously squeezed past Kamui Kobayashi with his elbows out in the unlikely place of Rascasse, and of course finished ninth (and eighth on the road) for his team's first ever points. And all this despite a grid penalty as well as his team adding five seconds to his solitary pit stop unnecessarily. In Silverstone he was about as impressive, as in difficult conditions he qualified in P12, aided by others goofing up but the laps Bianchi banged in were excellent. While in similar conditions in Spa's qualifying he was about as effective. While Hungary's qualifying was another high point, Bianchi barging Kimi Raikkonen of all people out in Q1 with a stunning lap at the last. Ferrari's approach there can be (and was) criticised but there was the mitigating circumstance that Jules had himself pulled a rabbit from the hat. In the mid-year test at Silverstone for the Scuderia he also impressed the team and indeed set a time better than any Kimi had managed in the same machine a few days later. Naturally chat about him getting a Maranello race seat sooner or later gathered intensity. But elsewhere too when fewer were watching Bianchi got about as much as could be expected out of his car, and it was routine to see him head the B class on Saturdays and Sundays. There were a few early-race collisions - in Malaysia, Bahrain and Canada - but it was debatable how much any of them were his fault. Then of course we had Suzuka, which left matters for Bianchi, in more ways than one, hanging in the balance. It was a grim reminder that motorsport fates can have exasperating cruelty.

Romain Grosjean
Photo: Octane Photography
An honourable mention should go to Romain Grosjean. Ordinarily his would be a comfortable presence within the top 10, and indeed he remains one of the sport's most highly-rated talents. It's just that a year in the evil Lotus E22 was near-impossible to judge. Nevertheless in the early rounds he looked to be getting as much as could be expected out of his car; perhaps indeed a little more than that. In Malaysia and China he was strong and could have got points without technical problems slowing him. While in the Barcelona weekend in which the Lotus suddenly and for one weekend only worked (in a way that flummoxed the team subsequently) Grosjean stepped up, qualifying fifth and probably he would have finished sixth without his engine losing power mid-race. Still, he got points for eighth. It was a result he repeated in Monaco, and while he benefited from attrition that day his hustling of a reluctant mule around the Principality was impressive. Perhaps understandably there were a few small signs of creeping frustration later. He rather embarrassingly smashed his mount to pieces under the safety car in Hungary, then in Singapore was heard on the team radio trash-talking his Renault power unit. He also collided with Sutil in Russia. Still in Brazil he once again was excellent and unfortunate to be deprived a chance of points after yet again being hobbled by mechanical problems. But Grosjean at least can look ahead with confidence. Next year it's impossible to think that Lotus will get it as wrong again while he'll also have the jewel of a Mercedes engine in the back. And as mentioned his personal reputation has survived his annus horribilis intact.

To go through the rest in championship order brings us first to Sergio Perez. Following his ditching by McLaren at the end of 2013 this season at Force India Checo managed to steady the ship of his F1 career. Nevertheless there was a touch of more of the same about it for him, in that while there were a few high-tide watermarks there also were plenty more weekends wherein you'd hardly know that he was there. In the former category, in Bahrain he was excellent all weekend, strong on long runs, put in a qualifying lap good enough for fourth then his combative race got him onto the podium, the first non-Mercedes. In Canada too he did well, and in one of his time-honoured one-stoppers it looked for a time that he might even win, though a battery problem kicked in then he was at least imprudent in jinking in front of Massa before their collision on the final lap which put both out. In Austria though he was excellent again, again not for the first time making hay from a back-to-front strategy having started outside of the top ten. Nevertheless a number of tepid weekends elsewhere ensured that come the summer break he remained far behind his team mate Nico Hulkenberg on most measures. But in the second part of the year Perez did rather better, in comparison with Hulkenberg at least, and taking after the summer break only was ahead both on points and on the quali match up. That Force India by this stage tended to employ more stretched-out strategies played more to Perez's skills in looking after the tyres, particularly in comparison to his team mate. His race in Russia was very good, as were those in Monza, Japan and Abu Dhabi. But over the piece, and in another more of the same aspect, there were a few too many misjudgements in there too - in addition to Canada he crashed out in Hungary, collided with Sutil in Singapore while his collision with the same driver on Austin's opening lap was extremely clumsy.

Kevin Magnussen
Photo: Octane Photography
Kevin Magnussen must think an F1 existence is one with the fast forward button forever pressed. In Melbourne he started his freshman year by immediately seizing next big thing status with a flawless debut run to what became second place eventually. But not too long afterwards and almost without an intervening period he was thought by a few as a busted flush. There is a lot of the rough diamond about him; on occasion his pace was stunning and of a clip that his team mate Jenson Button had no answer for, especially in qualifying. But in many races he rather disappeared, possibly related to that he didn't have close to his team mate's ability spread the limited resource of the Pirellis over a race stint. Related to this he totalled well short of half of his stable mate's points, and only three times was he ahead in the race result when both finished (though time penalties took away two more). And for all that we rate his ultimate speed he ended up behind Button on the qualifying head-to-head too. Furthermore he was far from the finished article in how he behaved with other cars around, particularly when he really got his elbows out after the summer break - perhaps driving for his future. It all seemed to get his card marked by the stewards for a time, and while the reputation he established may have been on the harsh side the Dane did indeed a few times push the boundaries, most gaudily in running Alonso off the track at 200mph in Belgium. But with some polishing there likely is a fast, and good, F1 driver in there - Australia we've mentioned while his Austria, Germany, Russia, Japan and USA efforts were all strong as was his raw speed on show in a few other places that were for some of the reasons outlined not converted to good results. There's a lot for him to improve but equally there was enough there to convince that he's too good to be given up on just yet.

Kimi Raikkonen was another to have a disappointing season; indeed his was desperately so. And unlike Magnussen's his opening round was a portent, him binning the car in wet qualifying on an in-lap - admitting it was down to a lack of concentration - and never getting near team mate Fernando Alonso. Improvement from then on was glacial and in the main his campaign comprised more destruction by the (admittedly very good, especially in these circumstances) guy across the garage. Indeed only once did Kimi finish a race in 2014 as the lead Ferrari when both made it to the end, and Nando got a penalty that day. Only three times did he qualify ahead. He also peppered his campaign with slightly sloppy errors - in addition to Australia he spun in Canada as well as erred significantly in his big smash on lap one at Silverstone. There was the odd better day - such as on his favoured tarmac in Spa, in Monaco wherein he looked good for a podium appearance until picking up a puncture against Max Chilton as the latter unlapped himself behind the safety car (though Chilton also claimed Kimi cut across on him) as well as in Brazil where the softer than required tyres suddenly gave the Ferrari the front end he craved. But they all rather proved false dawns. We're aware of the lines of defence - that the agricultural Ferrari and its wayward front grip didn't suit his fingertip style, but is it not reasonable to ask that he shows more of a capability to adapt? After all is that not what just about all of the greats have done? Indeed, when was 'the car doesn't suit him' ever said of Moss? Or Senna? Or Alonso for that matter? Still Kimi gets an opportunity to redeem himself next year, largely you suspect because Ferrari wasn't keen to give him a second weighty pay-off.

Pastor Maldonado
Photo: Octane Photography
Pastor Maldonado though spent the year being not quite as bad as everyone said. The common associations with his season are his lairy practice mishaps especially those in China (twice) and Spa; each appearing a result of amateurish lack of concentration. His Spain qualifying crash was regrettable too as it was the solitary weekend of 2014 in which the Lotus looked competitive. But less well-recorded is that come the races Pastor tended to keep a lid on his antics - even though just as with Grosjean the awful E22 was no machine to judge him in - and proceed at least respectably until the car let him down. His rap sheet from Sundays consisted of a big misjudgement in tipping Gutierrez into a barrel roll in Bahrain (another error of his that is referenced repeatedly by his detractors), though Pastor was correct to point out that the Mexican slightly confused matters by over-running his entry into the corner. Otherwise he banged wheels with Ericsson in Spain and Bianchi in Hungary. Hardly terrible, in total. But as noted in previous years Pastor has never been one to get much benefit of the doubt from the gallery. He didn't however let that he'd timed his Williams to Lotus move badly (another fact that many didn't let him forget) get him down apparently. Neither that he seemed conspicuously to suffer the worst technical reliability out there. And as for being out-paced by Grosjean for the most part, well Pastor rarely was too far off and we know how highly-rated the Frenchman is. As mentioned the vast majority of his races were solid, and some indeed deserve to be filed under good, such as those in Austria, Germany, Monza, Singapore (where he looked good for points until late on) and then probably his best run of the year got him his first points, for ninth in Austin. Without a couple of penalties he may even have gone one better.

Adrian Sutil's continuing involvement in F1 this year was a strange one. Possibly alone he didn't fall easily into the modern sport's three prevailing categories of top-drawer talent, young up-and-comer and pay driver. And the strangeness continued with his slightly curious sideways step to Sauber for 2014. Worse for him the step proved to be one into an open trap door as the C33 was a dog, and one not in the least helped by the poor Ferrari power unit. Even so Sutil didn't impress, he almost never left team mate Esteban Gutierrez behind and indeed for much of the year was shown the way by the Mexican. Also, and in a trait that's always dogged Sutil, there seemed a few too many errors and crashes in there, especially for one of his experience. In Monaco and Japan he crashed out, in Singapore looked a little culpable in his collision with Perez and looked similar in colliding with this team mate in Russia. A number of qualifying laps were spoiled by mistakes, including sticking his car in the boonies at Silverstone when the conditions gave a rare opportunity for a high starting slot. Picking high points is near-impossible, though in getting into Q3 in Austin he was superb. But he never got close to that sort of performance elsewhere. He is out for next year, despite his claims to having a contract Sauber has had to dash for cash in its driver selection. But even without this it wasn't especially clear what Sutil was offering. His only future in the sport now is in a possible legal wrangle with his former employer.

Marcus Ericsson spent most of the year as F1's pariah of choice, perhaps even more so than Pastor Maldonado. For the first two-thirds of the season it was common to see him hanging off the back of the pack, and when he wasn't doing that he was crashing. Sometimes he was solid enough, but often the gap to Kobayashi seemed too big even taking into account their respective levels of experience. His Monaco qualifying error, taking out Massa as he did so, was noticeable, as was his big smash in the Hungary race. He also crashed in Malaysia, Canada and Britain's qualifying sessions. And then he reached his nadir when in Spa and then in Monza it seemed that whoever hopped into the other Caterham at however short notice (first Lotterer and then the returning Kobayashi) was immediately putting heavy manners on him, with best qualifying times around a second quicker than his. The instant response of many was to decry Ericsson as not good enough, but there was nothing in his GP2 record to suggest that he is an idiot (albeit not a world-beater either). But his Singapore race was something of a turning point - qualifying was difficult but in the race he battled hard, and held off Bianchi on much older rubber to for the first time top the B class. Caterham replacing its brakes/harvesting system with something more conventional from before meant the car became much more to Ericsson's taste. In Russia and Japan (despite an embarrassing spin behind the safety car in the latter) he too gave a much better account of himself; all of a sudden beating Kobayashi into the bargain. But then just when it was getting good for him Caterham left us. Nevertheless Ericsson himself will be back next year, at Sauber. It owes a lot of money, with the Swede's backing being hefty - thought to be around $18m, roughly double what Perez brings for example. But still there were also some reasons in 2014 to think that he's not necessarily only as good as his cash.

Esteban Gutierrez
Photo: Octane Photography
Esteban Gutierrez this year expanded somewhat on his iffy debut campaign. As with Sutil across the garage the evil C33 made it hard to judge him. Yet there rarely was much to choose between the Mexican and his much more experienced team mate; indeed often Gutierrez led the way in qualifying and the races. And some of his runs were genuinely good, particularly late in the season such as in Singapore, Russia, Brazil and in Abu Dhabi. He drove well too in Hungary's treacherous conditions and looked good for points before his car let him down. There were a few times when he looked a bit off it though, such as in Austria and Italy. Furthermore a self-inflicted retirement in Monaco, clipping a barrier, when on for points was a major blot, while an off in Silverstone qualifying then spearing Pastor Maldonado in the race the next day wasn't much better. But it doesn't now look like he'll get a chance to expand any further, with it being all change on the pilot front at Hinwil next year. Gutierrez is one of course whose F1 career was aided by money, thus he had a problem when two guys came along offering more of it then he. Live by the chequebook; die by the chequebook.

Max Chilton had one more year of existing rather than thriving at Marussia. Almost never was he on Bianchi's pace in the other MR03, and those fairly rare occasions when he qualified or finished ahead all owed to unusual circumstances compromising the efforts of the Frenchman. Many times Chilton failed to extract the most from his car on a qualifying lap. His races tended to be a little better but they tended to not get beyond solid. He even lost his record of finishing every time in his F1 career, and worse did it with a collision with his team mate, that the stewards blamed Chilton for. He managed to bin it in the Monza race later too. Getting P13 on the Silverstone grid before a penalty was applied was his highlight. His in-out-in again early weekend at Spa, with his management claiming unconvincingly for a time that he was vacating the seat selflessly to let the team raise revenue from it, was the lowlight.

Kamui Kobayashi
Photo: Octane Photography
Kamui Kobayashi made a welcome return to F1 this season, sealing his drive via the rather novel method of fans' funding. Sadly though he'd have been forgiven for wondering later if it was all worth it as he was merely the latest to find out that a Caterham drive is quite the modern F1 graveyard shift. Not only in a car that's not much good but also lingering in a competitive vacuum, usually far ahead of a team mate there because of cash but not close to other teams either. It's particularly ill-fitting for Kobayashi, who has based a lot of his star on dare-devil racing. It all started well though with his getting through Q1 in Melbourne, but then crashing out of the race immediately with a brake problem was something of a sign of what awaited him. He also did as much as he could in the races, executing them well and being robust but not silly in battle. But it became clear before long that he was on a hiding to nothing. Then of course he was dropped for Spa, which bewildered Kamui as much as anyone. That he jumped back in at little notice at Monza and performed superbly was to his credit. But in Russia he reached a low point, not only by now being shown the way by Ericsson who'd sorted out his car problems but suggesting in public that he'd been asked to park a healthy car in the race so to save mileage. It says a lot about the Japanese though that he helped the team out a few weeks later by driving in Abu Dhabi, when the outfit had nowhere else to turn.

Will Stevens too made a surprise appearance for the surprisingly-appearing Caterham in that final round in Abu Dhabi (though in a non-surprise reportedly he stumped up £500,000 for the privilege). And despite being thrown in with no immediate preparation and indeed modest experience of an F1 car in total, he by no means disgraced himself. In qualifying he was only around half a second off Kobayashi's best and while the pace gap was bigger in the race Stevens did better as the afternoon went on. It's a pity though that the Alonso/Andrea Stella radio exchange about him will likely go down in history as his F1 high point.

And last but far from least we have Andre Lotterer, possibly the most curious driver appearance of the year. Not because he lacks talent, more that he doesn't lack talent, as demonstrated with his WEC title and three Le Mans victories. And to add to his endangered species status for a debutant he was 32 and didn't bring money. But still he was there in Spa only in a Caterham, and moreover didn't have the habitual not-waving-but-drowning experience of those thrown in at short notice, as he right away looked like he belonged and indeed cut the beam in qualifying a full second under the similarly-equipped Marcus Ericsson's best. His race however barely got going as he lost power terminally in lap two, possibly due to running wide over a kerb. Unsurprisingly given he was in F1's ultimate dead end slot he rebuffed later efforts of the team to tempt him back.

Monday, 8 December 2014

New F1 Times article: Lewis Hamilton 2014 World Champion - not built by this season; revealed by this season

Photo: Octane Photography
In my latest article for F1 Times I pay tribute to the recently-crowned 2014 world champion Lewis Hamilton, and look at the key factors behind his latest title.

This includes him getting into the right place at the right time for this campaign as well as - more importantly - how Lewis developed into something like a complete F1 performer this season.

You can have a read here: http://www.f1times.co.uk/news/display/09641

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Saturday, 6 December 2014

My Top Ten Drivers of 2014

Here is my personal rating of the top ten F1 drivers of the 2014 season, seeking to take into account their performance in their circumstances as well as the machinery that they had access to. 

A run down of my views on the drivers who didn't make the top ten will follow in the next few days.

Photo: Octane Photography
1. Daniel Ricciardo
What do we know. A guy said by some only in a Red Bull so not to pose a threat to his world champion team mate. A guy whose skill set on display in the Toro Rosso was considered by few to be complete. There were good qualifying laps of course, a Button-like smoothness and precision too. But could he race? Yet what do we know as I said? In 2014 Daniel Ricciardo is in with a shot - straight to the top of the pile.

Throughout the campaign the perma-smiling Australian demonstrated that he is a driver without much recognisable weakness. The smoothness continued and this with his related gentle touch on the Pirelli tyres allowed him most times to employ longer race strategies than his team mate Sebastian Vettel, and usually to lap more quickly as he did them. While the quali pace proved to be stunning. Indeed he managed to beat qualifying master Vettel by 12 times to 7.

Yet even within the first few rounds of this year he squeezed in confirmation that he's good at just about everything else too. He was flawless under pressure in his run to second place (on the road) in Australia and in robustly repelling Fernando Alonso in Malaysia. He was excellent in the wet, such as in Melbourne qualifying as well as later in his Hungary win. In Bahrain in his radio communication as Vettel held him up he demonstrated just how rapidly he'd got his feet under the big team's table. This was no callow new boy.

As for his ability to race? Well his crisp overtakes, usually immediate, often creative, were virtually a race-by-race occurrence. They fall from the tongue: around the outside of one Williams then the other in the wet Suzuka esses; double shuffling and smartly outbraking Vettel in Monza and Alonso in Austin; vaulting past Hamilton on the outside exit of Hungary's turn two; his unorthodox move at Bahrain's fast turn 11 on Nico Hulkenberg, allowing his opponent to block the inside line on entry so that he could cut underneath him smartly in the corner itself..

And in a season wherein the Mercedes W05 domination was exasperating, Ricciardo and only Ricciardo beat them to the chequered flag in first. Moreover he did it three times. Each of his wins were cut from the same cloth: all pace, consistency and sympathetic tyre management supplemented by neat and timely passes, and cemented by blitzing the rest at a vital juncture.

Like all good showmen he kept his strongest performance for last; from a pit lane start in Abu Dhabi he ghosted to fourth by the end without it being immediately obvious how - all pace and other-worldly tyre longevity.

Even a devil's advocate search for flaws in his canvas doesn't give us a great deal. He binned it in Suzuka practice, but homing in on that only underlines just how rare errors from him were. Possibly the closest is that - like his predecessor Mark Webber - his race launches were rather iffy. Perhaps in a car good enough to challenge for the title this would have been punished more ruthlessly.

Maybe his perma-smile and engaging personality meant a few of us were guilty of underestimating Daniel Ricciardo before this season. No one his underestimating him now.

Photo: Octane Photography
2. Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton's F1 career, and his 2014 F1 campaign in many ways, are very distinct from Daniel Ricciardo's. But this year Lewis just like the Australian demonstrated that nobody knows anything.

You only need to go back two-and-a-bit years to when most of us were convinced he'd committed career suicide by dumping McLaren for Mercedes. Yet the silver egg he laid then hatched this season, and turned out to in fact be golden. Lewis six years on added finally to his World Championship total.

Early in the season it looked for all the world indeed like he was going to achieve that well ahead of time. His car failed him immediately in Melbourne, but then he won the next four races - imperious in two and solid in defence even though his team mate Nico Rosberg looked quicker in the other two.

But then of course we had Monaco's qualifying. And after it we were witness to the closest we got this year to what might loosely be termed the bad old Lewis. It was clear what he thought of it all, and whatever the cause and effect it preceded a run of tough qualifying sessions: two in which he pushed too hard and then one, notoriously, in which he gave up too early. Dumping salt into an open wound he then barely featured in the next couple of Saturdays due to mechanical failures. They all contributed to him spending much of the year with points ground to make up. Generally indeed, curious tying up in the final throes of Q3 was something that dogged Lewis for much of the season, with it featuring again in the final round in Abu Dhabi.

Each time however he bounced back immediately and was stunning in the race. By his own admission in previous years he would not have been nearly as well equipped so to do. Once the red light had gone out he tended to be one without equal; faulting him on a Sunday in 2014 is a largely unrewarding task. He was the habitual pace setter and mistakes were few, though his spin in Brazil was a major one. And in the late rounds when he finally allowed everything to flow he was as close as is possible to unstoppable, just like early in the campaign.

And if Monaco was where Lewis's dark cloud arrived, Spa was where it passed. It was well-concealed at the time, given the clash with Nico although the German's fault benefited Rosberg to the tune of 18 points. But it all changed the mood somehow; Lewis returned to his best and his subsequent run of wins this time totalled five. In three of them he hunted down and overturned Rosberg ruthlessly. In the other two he was in a race of one. After that the title was his barring disasters, which never arrived. And his towering total of 11 victories in the campaign is hard to argue with.

Even more generally than that, in 2014 we saw apparently the most balanced and content Lewis out of the car than we had in a while, possibly than we had ever. The occasional curious behaviour and moods appeared largely shorn. And the evidence is that it had a benign impact on his driving.

Lewis also was able to demonstrate this year that, contrary to some views, he's about much more than driving fast and making stunning overtakes. For all of the expectation that his team mate would have the wood on him in understanding the new complex cars, and in nursing tyres and fuel, there in fact was almost nothing to choose on any of these. Indeed you could make a case that Lewis was superior. These days he's close to a complete top-level F1 performer, and you suspect that 2014 was just the start of something.

Photo: Octane Photography
3. Fernando Alonso
If this list was a literal ranking of what was achieved this season with the machinery to hand then Fernando Alonso would likely be top; perhaps comfortably. But also in my rankings - and while this is no way Alonso's fault - some premium is placed on being in the fight for wins and titles. So this, combined with the sheer closeness of the consideration at the top, means that with a heavy heart the magical Spaniard is placed but third.

But what Alonso did with the F14 T this year should never be underestimated. Short on downforce, wayward on the turn-in, woefully short on power, as well as with a horrid loose rear end which had a knock-on impact of chewing its tyres. Having to be sprung stiff as a board to get any sort of lap time. Simon Arron likened it to a Routemaster bus. Calling it the fifth best car out there over the piece is probably as generous as is possible. Kimi Raikkonen - a guy supposed to really challenge Alonso - as we saw for the most part could do nothing with it, and that was shown mercilessly in results from whichever angle they were viewed. Fernando alone managed somehow to make the Ferrari look just about respectable. And how. It's easily forgotten that at the time of the summer break he was even in the mix for third place in the championship; only a run of foul luck, combined with the Ferrari seeming further away from competitiveness than ever, meant that was beyond even him. Even then he was still in the thick of the scrap for fourth come the final race. Not for the first time what he did with the red machine he was handed amounted to something close to F1 alchemy.

The fact that he can maintain such an imprint on our consciousness in a year that earned him but two podium appearances, neither a win, says a lot. Alonso, time after time on the car's very outer limits, bullied his recalcitrant red machine into halfway competitive lap times, and once again did it with almost nothing in the way of conspicuous error. His familiar blend of ferocious opening laps, extreme will and consistent pace was on show in pretty much every round. He also as usual gave us some of the season's most breathtaking wheel-to-wheel action, most notably in his desperate wrangle with Vettel in Britain.

He even damn near won a race. His effort at damp but drying Hungary was astonishing, first in his combativeness to get to the front and then to stretch out the life of a single set of softs far beyond what anyone thought humanly possible. In the late laps as he gave away near-nothing to quicker cars piling up behind it all was genuinely reminiscent of Villeneuve, Jarama and all that. Only Ricciardo sneaking past with three laps left deprived him. Still it was possibly the drive of the season.

Come the second part of the year as mentioned hard luck kicked in with a penalty in Belgium, two mechanical retirements (his first in upwards of four years) plus in Singapore he looked well on the way to second place before being mucked around by a safety car appearance. And long before the season was out his Ferrari relationship was, unofficially, officially over. Yet still it was hard to cite occasions on which he gave up, or indeed provided anything sub-optimum from his machine or in battle.

It of course is a matter of huge regret that his five-year Ferrari partnership, that promised so much, did not deliver the world title that both driver and team clearly considered a minimum expectation. But Alonso has nothing to reproach himself for. Indeed when it comes to his legacy his years of hauling his red car to places it had no right to be, and consistently, will surely ensure his place among the sport's very best ever. Alonso, in 2014, as well as before at Ferrari, made even the sport's most sober observers accept the incredible as normal.

Photo: Octane Photography
4. Nico Rosberg
It seems extremely odd now to think that for years we wrestled with the 'how good is Nico Rosberg?' question. We knew he was clever; talented too. But what of his outer edge of pace? And his ability to battle? Was he, some of us wondered, much more than a better version of Nick Heidfeld?

The reply to such questions in the thumping positive for Nico started in 2013 and had its full stop provided by his 2014 campaign, one which he oh-so nearly ended as world champion. He was once again with the same equipment able to go toe-to-toe with Lewis Hamilton, never giving him a moment's rest, performing almost everywhere, and having a knack throughout of when he looked finally down and out suddenly jumping to his feet to deliver a counter-punch. There was little to choose between him and his revered stable mate on any front, and for all of the narrative of Lewis's raw pace over a single lap it was indeed Nico that was ahead in the qualifying match-up of all things. His nursing home of a sick car in Canada is right up there among the drives of the season from anyone.

For much of mid-summer Nico looked every inch a man having his time in the sun. A year in which nothing would go wrong for him, and that it would total up indeed almost inevitably to the World Championship. Lewis was having his ill-luck of course, but Nico could not at all be faulted for driving the ball firmly into the open nets presented to him.

But things started to unravel in the Hungary race when while leading an ill-timed safety car left him in the pack, then of course we had Spa - a real turning point. While the error therein was undoubtedly Nico's (and if Lewis is correct that Nico felt the need to 'prove a point' then you really have to ask why?), the reaction of his team to what appeared merely a misjudgement was excessive. And whatever was the case Nico seemed to lose a little of his swagger after that. Being taken to the cleaners by Lewis at Monza - the pivotal point being Nico leaving the track - changed the mood. Then Singapore wherein Nico barely got started due to car woes changed the mathematics. He added another vital error at the first turn in Russia. By the time Nico rediscovered his mojo the title was as good as gone.

Perhaps though the season's latter part wasn't that much of a departure, as while Nico wasn't nearly as cruise and collect as his detractors might have it he also even before Spa wasn't quite as error-free as his defenders claimed (see Monaco qualifying, Canada, Austria and in Hungary both in qualifying and the race). The only difference in the latter part was that suddenly the mistakes started to bite him. Possibly therefore it reflected merely the law of averages catching up.

But whatever your polemic of choice regarding Mercedes driver politics this year what likely deprived Rosberg of the title more than anything was that of his impressive total of 11 poles but three were converted to race wins; but two (one at Monaco...) when Lewis started alongside. It seemed that while his qualifying pace - built up analytically over a weekend - was devastating come the race with others cars around and where improvisation was more required he seemed to lose something relative to his team mate. And he admitted as much after the year ended. While others pointed out for him that not once had he made a pass on the other Merc stick in 2014.

Perhaps the irony is that while Rosberg has demonstrated by now that he is much more than a better Nick Heidfeld, it was one of the reasons we suspected he might be so in the first place that contributed most to the 2014 drivers' crown remaining out of his reach.

Photo: Octane Photography
5. Valtteri Bottas
As mentioned the contenders at the top of this ranking were tightly-packed, more so indeed than I can remember in years. And this very much applies to Valtteri Bottas, who deserves consideration and commendation alongside any of the first five. But in a competitive field small things make a difference and Bottas's slightly slow start to the campaign more than anything nudges him down to fifth place. In most other years though a season such as his would have placed him higher. In some it would have made him a contender for top spot.

The 2014 F1 season had a lot of the changing of the guard about it, and Bottas was a conspicuous part. Indeed there were a few parallels between his year and Daniel Ricciardo's; of course both are young stars that burst into an intense light when given access to a competitive car. But in addition just as Ricciardo did the Finn demonstrated that he's a pilot apparently without glaring weakness, who belongs absolutely at the front. Indeed a Finnish colleague likes to tell all that Bottas is just like Mika Hakkinen, except more intelligent.

Many have noticed the similarity, with his understated and uncomplicated persona allied to an unmistakably steely focus as well as an ability to let all bounce off him, displayed for example in the Germany and Austria races in both of which he was utterly imperturbable under severe pressure. Then there's his stunning speed and robust abilities wheel-to-wheel - seen especially in great drives in the pack in Australia, Silverstone, Monza and Abu Dhabi among others. And as for his brain power, his ability to coax life from the Pirellis has people at Williams raving.

Bottas's campaign as intimated was a little bit of a slow burner. In the season-opener in Australia while a finish in sixth (that became fifth) from 15th on the grid looks good on the face of it, that he tagged a wall and that it cost him a podium appearance was a black mark. For a while too his efforts were mainly in the fairly good category and some reckoned that he over-drove on occasion, though he was unlucky at points also and in Spain he was excellent. But it was in Austria that things really picked up for him; as the Williams improved Bottas like all top drivers stepped up to the plate. It was the start of three consecutive podium runs, each highly impressive in their own way. And from that point on indeed in 2014 only on rare occasions was he not a factor.

And while Ricciardo finished as the first non-Merc in the table Bottas can claim possibly to be the silver cars' most consistent threat on pace all things being equal. His stellar and spirited run to third in Austria, just eight seconds from the winner, was the closest anyone came to the Mercedes this season without unusual circumstances disrupting their progress, while in Russia he came oh-so close to snatching pole from under their noses and kept them well in sight for the race's duration.

Bottas's first Grand Prix win surely is only a matter of time. And as far as a few are concerned his first championship has something like the same status.

Photo: Octane Photography
6. Jenson Button
All smooth and smart performances, with a complete lack of ostentation. And even though our attention might have been taken a few times by fireworks elsewhere he claimed a gluttonous feast of points, that far exceeded those of his fast young team mate. The 2014 campaign was more of the same for Jenson Button; at something like his best.

Unfortunately for him, and just like last season, he suffered by association with an underperforming McLaren. As was the case in the latter part of last season too for a time a vague sense of disappointment at Jenson's drives emanated from the top of the Woking squad, which Ron Dennis decided to firm up by issuing a very public shot across his charge's bows mid-year. Quite why this view was held was not at all clear to outsiders, given even then Jenson was bagging the clear majority of McLaren's points, as well as was doing a lot right and not a lot wrong. Some reckon that the Jenson-Ron relationship has been a distinctly cool one for a while.

But almost as if the criticism extracted renewed determination from him Jenson performed at greater heights as the year went on. Indeed as the grapevine got louder in the late rounds that he was out of McLaren, and by extension of F1, the affable Englishman seemed to take ever-increasing pleasure at waving two fingers at the absurdity of it all. Or perhaps it was the case that he was performing all along and it was merely that the MP4-29's improvements meant his efforts became more noticeable.

All-in it was hard to fault Jenson's year. As mentioned he well and truly trounced the young team mate in the form of Kevin Magnussen where it really matters in the points column, his advantage proportionately being not too far short of even Alonso's over Raikkonen. His advantage was aided especially by his vastly superior ability to manage the Pirellis over a race stint. Yet too he even emerged on top in the McLaren qualifying head-to-head - not these days thought of first as Jenson's strong suit.

As ever errors were close to non-existent, as were tantrums (though he was heard grumbling about his strategy in Austin). He showed his habitual speed of thought to vault several places around a safety car appearance in Australia and Japan. And despite what was said in the opening paragraph his ability to race was as sharp as anyone's, such as in plundering two places in one swoop in Canada's late laps as well as in his battles with Alonso in Britain and the USA. It does not seem hyperbole to say that this season, particularly in its latter part, he was driving as well as ever. The only major downside was his familiar over-sensitivity to handling on occasion, which contributed to days when he wasn't close to Magnussen on raw pace, relatively common mid-year.

At the time of writing his place in the sport for 2015 remains uncertain. One can sympathise with McLaren, given Alonso's arrival has left it with a classic here and now versus future potential conundrum in choosing between Button and Magnussen to fill the one remaining ride. Plus contemporary F1's warped ways means there's nowhere else for the discarded one to go. But whatever is the case it cannot be denied that if the curtain is indeed about to be brought down on Jenson's F1 time it is an act years in advance of when it should be.

Photo: Octane Photography
7. Sebastian Vettel
Sebastian Vettel is another to reflect that just as a week is a long time in politics, a year can be an age in F1. As Daniel Ricciardo's star rose Vettel's plummeted at the same rate, and the two were related as the four-time champion was for most of the season made to look a little ordinary by his new whipper-snapper team mate.

The sane statistics of the 2014 Red Bull driver match-up speak for themselves, and would in March have read like something from outlandish fiction. He who we thought the modern sport's standard bearer in pressure-on qualifying laps was beaten 12-7 by his team mate on the Saturday match-up while in races matters were even more stark, being 13-6 to the Australian (and without the Melbourne disqualification it would have 14-5). Perhaps bad luck with reliability and the like for Seb exaggerated the gaps, but with an even hand dealt it would have remained a fairly clear win for Ricciardo. Watching Ricciardo smoothly move clear in races with crisp passing and much superior tyre longevity became almost an expectation. It was exposed most pitilessly of all in the season-closer in Abu Dhabi.

As we know even as he accumulated his towering records there were those who maintained Seb wasn't all that. This year doesn't necessarily vindicate them, as what he did before then cannot be disregarded entirely, but his previously pristine image has taken a hit undoubtedly. As to what happened, the most probable explanation remains that it was his abilities with a blown floor (and in the case of the Red Bull, a very good blown floor) that set him apart. Now that in 2014 cars were more conventional his trump card was removed, just as in those spells before when the blown floor was less powerful there was in fact little to choose between Seb and his then team mate Mark Webber. Indeed Seb in 2014 appeared guilty of fighting the last war, with an aggressive turn in no longer able to be controlled by throttle blasts, and contributing to the excessive tyre wear that as mentioned was a bugbear.

For a man who'd built his haughty image in part on a cerebral and holistic approach it seems odd that he never found a way with the RB10. He nevertheless kept his calm out of the car at least and didn't bin the thing while in it, and remained even with Ricciardo's success the team's fulcrum. Next year, choosing to be the latest to try to lead Ferrari from the gloom, he'll need such characteristics more than ever. In some ways it suits too - the challenge of making sense of the Scuderia as his hero Schumi once did has enticed clearly, and Seb is one more than most mindful of his place in history. This season too there were flashes at least of the old form in there, with them happening with more regularity towards the year's end, such as his pace and battling in Singapore as well as in the Suzuka rains, him gobbling up the road late on in Austin as well as with a grid slot his car probably didn't deserve then a feisty race in Brazil.

It's worth however reflecting on what a few cynics reckoned was the main reason that he'd timed the Ferrari move as he had - as another year being beaten his his team mate would leave him likely consigned in most minds as damaged goods.

Photo: Octane Photography
8. Nico Hulkenberg
Nico Hulkenberg like his partial namesake Rosberg was another to have a 2014 campaign conspicuously divided into two.

Up until Hungary his season was one in which of all his talents that we've grown to admire were on show. Having returned to Force India one could hardly see the join as it was brilliant business as usual. He immediately was extracting as much as anyone could expect from his wheels with a series of Q3 qualifying showings and mid top 10 race finishes. He demonstrated too that he lacks nothing for a racer's spirit, with his frenzied battling with the sport's star names in Malaysia and Canada as well as a great opportunistic pass of Kevin Magnussen at Monaco's Portier - not a likely scene of overtakes. Heading into Hungary only he and Fernando Alonso had scored everywhere. Like Alonso too he always looked quick as well as was one not given to off days.

But his Sunday on the Hungaroring's perfidious surface featured him losing a load of places after running wide and then managing to slide into the side of his team mate Sergio Perez in trying to get one of them back, and thus removing himself from proceedings. This heralded a succession of mediocre drives, often far behind his team mate, and only really come Brazil did the impressive guy of before return properly (though he was pretty good at Suzuka too).

It may have been a hangover from his Hungary error, but others near-at-hand noted that for all of the Hulk's talents looking after his rear tyres is not one, and is something that he's less skilled at than Perez. And this was shown up more as Force India slid further back in the development race as the year went on, and the team as a result became more reliant on stretching out longer race strategies. But it can't have been entirely that, as Hulk only qualified ahead of Perez three times from eight in the season's second part (compared to 9-2 in the first).

Still, his early-year advantage contributed to him being well ahead of Perez on points, by a trouncing 96 to 59.

For 2015 Hulkenberg faces another year at Force India; yet another year shunned by the top teams. This omission continues to baffle many. Some say that the lack of a single stand-out result counts against him (indeed Perez took the Silverstone team's only podium finish this year); rather absurdly his relentless brilliance instead of flashes in the pan appears to be counting against him. But his not being snapped up owes much to misfortune too - him never quite being in the right place at the right time for a much-mooted Ferrari drive for one - as well as occasional odd thinking from certain team principals. You worry now though that since he's been on the shelf for so long - combined with that he's just put in a year marginally less strong than the two that preceded it - that's now he's condemned to remain there.

Photo: Octane Photography
9. Felipe Massa
Anyone who remembers Felipe Massa's qualifying lap in Singapore in 2008 knows what skill lays within the Brazilian. Indeed much of that season, particularly its latter part, likely will go down as Massa's finest time in F1. The challenge with him has been extracting that sort of thing consistently, with his biggest obstacle apparently being him believing that he can. As we headed into this season 2008 seemed both literally and metaphorically a long time ago for the pleasant Felipe.

In a new abode at Williams, confessedly relieved to be away from Ferrari polemics as well as from a stable mate put on the planet possibly to make the other guy look average, Massa improved as the season went on, both in mood and in driving, and by the time the year ended plenty could see a few creeping parallels with his balmy glow of six years ago.

It was tempting at the season's mid-part to assume that little had changed for him since his Scuderia time, other than that Fernando Alonso's name had been supplanted by that of Valtteri Bottas, but such a conclusion was on the harsh side. A series of accidents - many off the line; many not his fault - rather undermined his progress, as did a botched pit stop in China. His season's low point was in Hungary, when the repeated crashes meant he had to drive an old-spec car, contributing to yet another weekend firmly cast as the other Williams.

Still, there were some things in there that you could reproach Felipe for too. Of the accidents mentioned he looked a little careless in the one in Germany, arguably in the one in Canada too, while the latter race more generally could go down as win that got away, him looking a little timid in traffic when it mattered. At one point he forget to deploy his DRS when lining up Vettel. Indeed for the most part of Massa's career it has been a legitimate criticism of him that the odd, often slightly baffling, mistake rarely feels too far away.

As we have seen before with Massa though it appeared that a single good result heralded something of a breakthrough, and it arrived this time at his 'other' home race at Monza, where he staked third place behind the Mercs after a flawless drive. And it begat a strong end of season run. He followed his Italian result up immediately back at his former happy hunting ground of Singapore with possibly his best weekend of the season. On a track that didn't suit the FW36 he was habitually quicker than Bottas and nursed his car and tyres home in the race for a fine fifth place, leaving his team mate to hit the cliff. And he sprinted through the line at the season's end with two more podium finishes, first off with another third at home at an Interlagos track on which he's always found extra urge (though he made a couple of pit stop errors that would have cost him on other days), while in Abu Dhabi he went one better with second place. Indeed the way that he hunted leader Lewis Hamilton down in the late laps on an aggressive strategy was vintage Felipe. Without a battery problem he might even have ended his win drought - another run that stretches all the way back to his lauded 2008 campaign.

He's not quite in 2008 spec, but both in and out of the car Felipe Massa finished this season looking a lot closer to it than he had in a good while.

Photo: Octane Photography
10. Jean-Eric Vergne
For a few reasons the Red Bull young drivers' programme and its way of doing things isn't universally loved. But it cannot be denied that these days it's producing some rather good driving talent. And deserving of his place among them on the basis of 2014 is Jean-Eric Vergne.

We all know that he missed his opportunity knocks chance of a step up to the Red Bull big team last season. Probably it left him on a hiding to nothing. But while a few as a result placed him in a mental recess for this campaign Vergne himself didn't give in and this year we saw a more complete performer than at any point before in his brief stay in F1. Plenty who have worked with him rate him highly. He's a proper and willing racer; blessed with fine car control. This campaign he adapted to the demands of the new machines much more effectively than most. And while his fast young team mate Daniil Kvyat had the edge in qualifying come the races, wherein the Frenchman was far superior at managing the tyres, Vergne outscored him by close to three-to-one.

In Australia and Canada he maximised the car and bagged healthy hauls of points. And the race in Hungary was perhaps his best of the lot, him ambushing no less a figure than Nico Rosberg and staying ahead for several laps, running as high as second for a while, on the way to a ninth-place finish beaten only by quicker cars - a drive he reckoned was perfect.

Indeed his bag of points might have been even weightier. A haughty finish in Monaco was lost to the car stopping before the end (and in that case to an unsafe release too); technical gremlins struck in Malaysia, Bahrain qualifying, Spain practice (an errant wheel resulting in a grid drop) and Austria.

His reward for his fine Hungary drive was the sack; his three-year lifespan coming to its end and him being forced to make way for the fledgling Max Verstappen. But just when we suspected that he was drifting almost unnoticed out of F1 in Singapore his race was supreme, gobbling up the road and several opponents - particularly in scintillating final laps - to overcome two penalties and finish sixth. He gave a fairly good account of himself for most of then-on, including a brave effort in Japan's rain.

In the debit column however he had a few subdued weekends, such as in Austria, Germany and Brazil as well as, perhaps understandably, in the couple of rounds that followed his unceremonious ditching, in Belgium and Italy. He also had too much first lap contact - seen in Malaysia, Bahrain and Silverstone.

But what really shows Vergne in a good light is that last year essentially the only difference between him and Daniel Ricciardo paired at Toro Rosso was in qualifying in the dry. And qualifying Vergne by his own admission focussed on and sorted to a large extent this campaign, with a run of top ten qualifying slots particularly early in the year as well as rarely giving too much away to Kvyat. So, given how Ricciardo has wowed us in 2014, you do the maths. But now with the Australian riding a wave and Vergne apparently stranded ashore, another thing that we can take from the comparison is that the margins between success and failure in modern F1 are absurdly thin.