With the racing of the 2014 German Grand Prix on July 20th, the 2014 Formula One season officially passed the half-way point with 10 of 19 races completed. At this point in the campaign, it remains a largely two-horse race between Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Odds-makers have the two drivers as top favorites to take home the Drivers’ Championship and only a bold gambler would wager against anything else happening. That said, anything can happen in this sport, just ask Lewis Hamilton. At the German GP Hamilton suffered brake failure during qualifying and slid off the track into the wall. Starting well back in the grid the Englishman made up considerable ground but could only finish third, giving first-placed Rosberg a 14-point lead in the Drivers’ standings.
In addition to the battle between Mercedes teammates, this 2014 F1 season has provided many exciting moments and talking points. So far, there have been a number of spectacular crashes, including Kimi Raikkonen at Silverstone and the coming together of Sergio Perez and Felipe Massa at the Montreal GP. Additionally, three crashes have involved airborne cars at Bahrain, Austria and Germany. Tempers and arguments are common after every hotly contested GP and this past German GP at the Hockenheimring was no exception with Jenson Button venting frustration at Lewis Hamilton following the Mercedes driver’s contact during one turn in the race.
Individual races and talking points aside, the season as a whole has so far produced a number of surprises. New engines, the dominance of certain teams and drivers, the struggles of others and the re-emergence of former F1 powerhouses have all produced an intriguing first half to this 2014 season. The following list looks at six of the biggest surprises that have come out of this season’s F1. With a little under half of a season left to play out, there are bound to be more.
6 Mercedes Powering Teams Up the Ranks
This season, perhaps the biggest change to take place involved the switch from a 2.4L V8 motor to a 1.6L turbocharged V6. Ferrari, Renault and Mercedes all developed their engines leading up to this season and the big question was which manufacturer would get it right. So far, Mercedes are winning the race (pardon the pun) with their PU106A Hybrid engine. Nine out of 10 GP winners and nine out of 10 runners up are using the Mercedes engine. Mercedes engines claimed four third place finishes, just behind Renault with five.
It is obvious the new engine is working well for Mercedes AMG Petronas, but what is telling is how other teams, like Williams and Force India, are benefitting from it. From 2008 to 2013, Force India’s best overall finish was 6th and no team driver had ever been able to achieve more than six consecutive top 10 finishes in a season. This season, Force India are using the Mercedes engine and currently sit 5th in the constructor standings with 98 points. More importantly, team driver Nico Hulkenberg has finished in the top 10 in every race this season. Yes, as with any statistic, the driver and chassis play a big role, but these statistics convincingly suggest that Mercedes has the advantage in developing the new 1.6L engines.
5 Raikkonen Struggling
Before the 2014 season began, the media hyped the imminent battle between Ferrari teammates Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso. What was supposed to be a dramatic fight between the red cars of Scuderia Ferrari never came to be as both drivers have struggled to keep pace with Mercedes. To make matters worse, Raikkonen has not finished above Alonso all season and currently sits in 12th in the driver standings, 78 points behind teammate Alonso and 171 points behind leader Nico Rosberg. The best the Finn has managed so far this season are a couple of 7th place finishes. In comparison, by the same point last season, Raikkonen had managed one GP win and five runner-up positions.
So what are the problems? According to those in Ferrari, this season’s car has more torque, less aerodynamic grip and less aggressive tires. Ferrari’s chassis has also been criticized for lagging behind the competition and its engine is definitely not as fast overall as the Mercedes. While the car’s engine and design can take some of the blame, it is also clear that Raikkonen has not adapted as quickly to the changes as his teammate. Over the coming months, the Fin will need to start finishing above Alonso if he wants to drag himself up the standings.
4 Williams on the Rise
Back in 1997 Jacques Villeneuve drove his Renault-powered car of the Williams team to victory. The Canadian won the Drivers’ Championship and Williams claimed the Constructors’ title. For Williams, this was the last time they took home the title. The years that followed saw the British racing team fall from top spot, but remain competitive. The last several years have not been as kind. The team has hovered around 7th to 9th in the Constructors’ category, dominated by teams like Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull. With a new engine, came a new Williams.
This year has, so far, been surprisingly different. Equipped with the Mercedes PU106A ‘power unit’, Williams’ cars have grabbed 13 top-10 finishes and 121 points. These results have been enough to push the team into third spot in the Constructors’ rankings, somewhere Williams hasn’t been in several years. Helping lead the team up the rankings is 24-year-old Valtteri Bottas. The Finn has finished in the top 10 of nine of this season’s races, including two second place finishes in Germany and Great Britain. Not too bad for only his second full season in the Championship.
3 Sebastian Who?
Remember the 2010 to 2013 seasons when Renault engines were the best, Red Bull Racing was dominant and Sebastian Vettel couldn’t be stopped? It’s amazing what rule changes and an engine swap can do. Outside of three retirements, Vettel hasn’t had a terrible year. In the seven races the German has finished he has never finished lower than 5th and has finished 3rd three times. Despite this, he is still a massive 108 points back of the leader, Nico Rosberg. If Red Bull is going to give anyone wings, Vettel is no doubt hoping it’s him, and soon.
Yet, that’s not even the most surprising thing about Red Bull Racing this year. What is surprising is that Vettel is now 24 points back of teammate Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian is the only non-Mercedes driver to stand atop the podium after winning the Canadian GP and has strung together a number of impressive performances this season. Prior to this season, the 25-year-old never finished higher than 7th in a GP. This season, so far, he hasn’t finished lower than 8th and already has 80 points more than his previous seasonal best. If Vettel doesn’t adapt quickly he may find himself permanently playing second fiddle to Red Bull’s new leader.
2 The V6 Engine Sound
At a party on the weekend I got into a discussion with a friend about the 2014 season. Inevitably the topic switched to the engine and sound (or lack thereof) it produced. My friend produced an iphone with two clips he took from the 2013 (2.4L V8) and 2014 (1.6L V6) Canadian GP in Montreal. The sounds between the two seasons were noticeably different, but then again, everyone who follows the sport knows this has been a major criticism of F1 for past several months. From the general fans to F1 driver Sebastian Vettel to F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone, criticism over the sound coming from the new ‘power unit’ is everywhere you look. There was even an attempt to change the exhaust to alter the sound, but this was discarded before the Spanish GP.
Some critics and journalists have said the sound isn’t that different and even said that fans watching at home on television won’t notice a big difference. Unfortunately, anyone using more than the stock television speakers will notice a big difference between the V8s and V6s in terms of sound. The problem isn’t the ‘loudness’ or decibals. In fact, studies show the V6’s decibal rating can be as high as the V8's. The big difference is the variation and pitch in the sound. Whereas the old engines sounded like a swarm of angry screaming bees, the new turbo V6 has more of a low bassline growl.
1 The Dominance of Mercedes AMG Petronas
Of course this was going to be number one. Mercedes have had a strong presence in F1 for many decades. In large part, this was through their engines which were utilized by a variety of teams. In team accomplishments, however, Mercedes have only two Drivers’ titles which were both won by the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio in 1954 and 1955. In terms of Constructor titles, Mercedes have never claimed a title. Brawn GP Formula One, the team that turned into Mercedes GP, won the title in 2009. However, in the world of F1 that counts as a Constructors’ title for Brawn, not Mercedes.
This season, almost everything has gone right for the team. The PU106A engine, covered in more depth earlier in this article, has performed very well for every team who uses it, including Mercedes. The chassis, something which continues to trouble many teams, appears to be well sorted by the Mercedes development team. In terms of drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg have really ‘clicked’ this year. The spirit of competition and rivalry may make it seem like they are enemies at times, however, this environment is pushing both drivers to the advantage of Mercedes right now. As it stands, Mercedes looks a good bet to claim its third Drivers’ Championship and its first-ever Constructors’ Championship.