It’s June, with eight races done the 2014 Formula 1 season is well underway and nearing halftime, and just last weekend, had returned to the Österreichring (which is now know as Red Bull Ring).
If we are to take a look at the results so far, “Red Bull” is a good introduction, because this very team, having previously won four consecutive team and, with Sebastian Vettel, four consecutive driver titles, is the big surprise, and the Austria result (with Vettel retiring due to continued technical problems and Ricciardo just finishing 8th) is a good indicator of the season so far.
Yes, it was Red Bull, but incidentially not Vettel but Ricciardo, who won the only race so far that the dominating team of this season didn’t win, but apart from that, it was all one big Mercedes show – fortunately they keep it still somewhat interesting with the battle between Rosberg and Hamilton.
So why did Mercedes improve so much, and why did Red Bull take such a dive? Is it only due to the most obvious fact, namely that, different from Red Bull, Mercedes had retained both of their drivers? Or is it something else?
A Team Overview
Chart 1 shows us a comparison of all team’s performance over the last four years (i.e. 2011-2014). (Note that teams who haven’t scored a single point are absent from that graph). The score you see is the per-race average for each season, that is the team score divided by the number of races.
At first, it becomes apparent that Mercedes’ rise does not come as a complete surprise: they simply continue a trend they already started in 2013, albeit at a somewhat increased pace.
The same is true for Ferrari, who continue their downwards trend from last year. All in all, no big surprises here.
Incidentially, Red Bull has been zig-zagging for the last few years from “high” to “very high”, but with a slow downwards trend (if we also consider the 2010 result, that’s 26.2, which is below the 2011 and 2013 results, but above the 2012 one). Still, as with Mercedes just the other way round, the rate of change was accelerated.
However if we look at the diagram, we find quite some teams below the Top 3 who have suddenly generated new trends from last year – some of them in a very pronounced fashion.
On the one hand, we have Lotus, who have, coming from a level just below the Top 3, taken a steep dive as well.
On the other hand, there’s McLaren, who have turned a two-year-long descent into a slight rise. And finally, both Force India and Williams, who have turned a year-long stay in the bottom half of the rankings into a steep rise – most prominently with Williams, who have risen from a 0.26 to a 10.26 average.
So, the big question remains: what is responsible for a trend that makes Mercedes, McLaren, Force India and Williams big winners, while Red Bull and Lotus are losing ground?
…And New Technologies
The 2014 saw a wealth of new technical regulations in Formula 1, most of which dealt directly or indirectly with the engine: there’s the move to 1.6 litre V6 turbo engines, there’s the bigger ERS-K/MGU-K (aka KERS), which now forms an integrated unit with the engine, and there’s the fuel limit.
Many experts judged those as the biggest changes in regulations for a long time, and also predicted that the engine would play a bigger role than in recent years.
Chart 2 again shows average score per team and per race – only this time, grouped by the engine manufacturers: Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault.
What we see comes hardly as a surprise, considering the preceding chapter: there’s a huge rise for the Mercedes engines (as there has been for the Mercedes-equipped teams of Mercedes, McLaren, Force India and Williams – the latter having switched from Renault to Mercedes just now), and an equally big drop for the Renault engines (found in the Red Bull, and in the Lotus).
A surprise? I wouldn’t think so. First of all, Daimler management obviously want to see results, and for that, they are willing to carry larger costs. On the other hand, such a strategy also often means that if it continues not to pay off, then that engagement could be terminated quickly – so the team knows they need to deliver. Daimler is also a company with a big portfolio of turbocharged high-performance powertrains, some of them with hybrid components, so there’s some knowledge available from other parts of the corporation. Add to that the fact that in addition to their own team they work as a supplier with McLaren which, current results nonwithstanding, is still an experienced team, and you get a good combo to turn that aforementioned regulation change into a change for the better.
And of course, the situation for Renault is diametrically opposite: ever since Renault has stopped running its own team (which sets it apart from the other two engine suppliers), the efforts that went into the race engines have been slowly declining. Already in past years, it was known that the Renault engines were inferior to both the Mercedes and Ferrari ones with regard to peak performance, and it was argued that Red Bull had won most of its titles not because, but in spite of the Renault engines.
Enter the change in regulations, and you can see that a team without proper top management support, from a carmaker more known for inferior small family cars than for high performance sports cars at that, would face a challenge, to say the least.
Was this to be expected?
Definitely, yes. From everything explained above, it was clear that there would be a shift in the engine rankings – that it became such a devastating landslide may still have surprised some, though.
If we look at race and season results, I would at this point already claim that it is highly plausible that Mercedes will win the constructor’s championship. Interestingly, as Ferrari failed to improve as well, it also looks as if Red Bull will finish in place two.
The field from the current place 3 to 6 looks interesting, though: led, for the moment, by Ferrari, we have the Mercedes-powered Williams, Force India and McLaren on their tail. How much on their tail? There’s a total gap of 26 points between places 3 and 6 – that’s less than one sixth of the difference between Mercedes and Red Bull!
I really see two possibilities here: either Ferrari will find some more pace either in their car or their engine, and that would secure them place 3, or they don’t and the Mercedes engine improves even more, in which case Ferrari would be overtaken by (I would assume) Force India and Williams – a deserved result, some might say, as Ferrari’s veteran number two driver got the boot to make room for Räikkönen and moved to Williams (currently with 30 vs. Räikkönen’s 19 points).
And speaking about this, a Räikkönen living up to expectations could be a possible boost for Ferrari as well, and finally let’s not forget that overall (including car, engine, and of course driver), the Ferrari is by far the most reliable of the top 3 teams, with no retirement so far (vs. 2 by Hamilton for Mercedes, 3 by Vettel and 1 by Ricciardo for Red Bull, and a further tech-related DSQ for Ricciardo).
It’s more interesting in the driver field, and that is also due to the fact that Hamilton and Rosberg have so far made the battle for the lead in the driver rankings highly interesting, without making it ugly. But while Hamilton had scored more victories yet (4 vs 3), he has also suffered more retirements (2 vs 0), not entirely by his own fault or by tech issues related to his driving style. Add to that the fact that the drivers obviously are free to challenge each other on the track, and this looks like an interesting competition up to the finish line of the last Grand Prix (and remember: there’s double points for the season finale!)
Of course, double points or not, nobody seems to assume that anyone other than these two will fetch the title, and with Rosberg currently at 165 vs the 3rd-placed Ricciardo’s 83 (i.e. about twice as much) this is understandable.
However, what happens behind is interesting: there’s Alonso right on Ricciardo’s tail (79), and behind them, there’s Vettel (60), Hülkenberg (59) and Bottas (55). So who will make this race for the (even less impressive) 3rd place title? Now this is really something where it’s too early to tell, at least for me – but I would give the nice Nico Hülkenberg my best wishes!
Which brings us back to: The Engines
As for the engines, I don’t see any big shifts during the season. What was said before for the teams is also true for the engines, namely who behind Mercedes will do his homework if not properly, then at least a little. But then again, it may be small changes which make the decision – if only for the ranking between places 3 and 7.
And Consequences – again?
But, will there be any consequences with Red Bull, the team which has suffered from the most serious dive in performance? I mean, the fact that this team (and the Toro Rosso team as well) is just one of many toys of the owner of a soda company shouldn’t suggest that it isn’t a highly professional and results-oriented business.
As said, even the previous Renault engines weren’t the best in the field, and the risk of that dive in performance was obvious and pretty high. Were there alternatives? Will anyone get axed?
There’s a good chance that there haven’t been alternatives that Red Bull team management wanted to take. Even if they had been able to secure an engine from Mercedes, they may not have wanted to be in a situation where Mercedes had access to that much of their data – and vice versa. The same goes probably for Ferrari, the fact that this choice may not have been much better nonwithstanding.
Interestingly, Red Bull recently announced that Adrian Newey, the designer behind many title-winning cars of many teams, will take on other responsibilities within Red Bull – a statement that read strangely similar to the one published by McLaren before Newey got axed there.
So is it that? Does Newey have to go because executive management have made a grave mistake? If that really is the case, I don’t believe it’s for the best of Red Bull, as the comparison with McLaren shows…