|After the drudgery and disillusionment of the 2013 season, a change was always going to be as good as a holiday. And what change has come upon Formula One! In terms of a shift in engine regulations that affects the entire field and renders previous technology obsolete, the move from 2.4-litre normally aspirated V8s to 1.6-litre V6 hybrid turbos is probably the biggest revolution in 50 years, since some of the engine-related rule changes in the 1960s.
But coupled to other changes in the aero and sporting regulations, it is arguably the most sweeping shake-up that Grand Prix teams have had to confront over an off-season in the history of the sport. And with only a wickedly limited amount of testing over the last six weeks, no one really has much of a clue as to how things will turn out in the first few races or perhaps even over the course of the whole 2014 season, although a rough pecking order has already emerged after the 12 days at Jerez and Bahrain.
Some (greetings to you, Bernie Ecclestone) might be appalled by the notion that many of the teams will arrive in Melbourne underprepared and not ready for the challenges of a race weekend to varying degrees. And, dare we say it, looking slightly amateur. But arguably, that line of thought stems from a modern belief that the objective of F1 is to be a showcase of clinically professional performance in order to attract corporate revenue and blue-chip sponsors, and in order to be appealing to the masses.
It is also the latter belief which has largely driven the switch to hybrid turbos, with their two separate energy recovery systems, to give F1 a greener image. For the cynical amongst us, whether F1 really is that green - given the incredible cost of developing these engines, and given the fact that the majority of this season's races are once again fly-aways - and whether this year's technology is really that relevant to road cars, is open to debate. If you truly want cutting edge tree-hugging cred, try Formula E.
And so, if the aim is for Formula One to be an environmentally-friendly, ultra-professional, mainstream form of mass-entertainment, the sport might well miss the target in the initial stages of 2014. Perhaps even for the whole season, before the teams in their infinite cleverness come to grips with what constitutes the optimal recipe for success that combines all the mechanical, aerodynamic and strategic elements. Much of this season may well be spent by the teams in - gasp! - trial and error.
But, inadvertently, what the 2014 season might dish up as a result is what the purist aficionados have been calling out for. A return to old-school values, if you will. Where close lap times and DRS-assisted passes don't matter as much as a genuine battle for men to tame machines, where simply finishing is half the challenge, where mechanical elements are more of a determining factor than aerodynamic ones, and where drivers might be able to make more of a difference than they have in past seasons.
F1 still has many issues to confront, like its increasingly oligarchic governing structure, the self-interested, almost immoral exploitation of the sport by the commercial rights holder, the parlous financial state of many of the teams, and the ill-conceived attempt to target transient audiences without cultivating real passion for motorsport or motoring. But, in this season of change, it seems like there is much for the die-hard fans to be glad about. Here are 14 things we're looking forward to about season 2014.
Finally, there's hope for those who have been praying for something other than DRS, aero efficiency or tyre degradation to determine a race outcome. This year there's also engine performance, whether teams can push their motors to the max, fuel conservation, how drivers manage all that extra torque under their right foot, different (but locked-in) gear ratios, and - hallelujah! – unreliability, especially of the engines and all their components. The potential for something to go wrong just went up exponentially.
Let's face it, apart from the introduction of KERS in 2009 the basic engine philosophy hasn't changed since the 1980s. Whether or not you understand their intricacies (and we don't pretend to!), the introduction of the turbocharger, ERS-K and ERS-H certainly gives fans plenty to get used to. Not to mention the throatier note of the new engines, unusual sounds on gearshifts as drivers maximise turbo torque, and ERS-boosted top speeds in a straight line well over 330kph. It's a voyage of discovery for everyone.
The poorly-worded nosecone rules may have resulted in some laughable monstrosities (yes, we're looking at you Force India), but at least all the design solutions are different - for now, at least. It's refreshing compared to recent times when almost all cars looked like they had come from the same mould. With fuel and tyre conservation in the mix, strategies are likely to be varied for the first half of 2014. Expect a variety of points-scorers, podium-finishers and even race-winners throughout the year as well.
4. Williams: the old school feelgood factor
With Williams looking like it could be a real contender early on, there's endless good news stories for this team of traditionalist racers. There's the rebound from last year's disaster. The redemption of Pat Symonds. A new no-bull Flying Finn in Valtteri Bottas. The presence of Susie Wolff. The return of Martini and their iconic racing stripes. And, like him or not, a chance for Felipe Massa to prove his detractors wrong in a new team. If nothing else, Williams will be hard to beat in the popularity department this year.
5. Mercedes: a contrast of styles
Ferrari's much-vaunted line-up of Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso is really a combination of two brilliant, relentless racers who have both lost their edge in outright speed. For a genuinely intriguing team-mate battle, look at Mercedes' Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. Here you have, on paper, a fight between Rosberg's stealth and Hamilton's speed, although that underplays Nico's own turn of pace. What raises the stakes even higher is that this is likely to be the battle for the drivers' title as well.
6. Force India: two drivers with a point to prove
Nosecone appendages aside, the Force India is potentially the third or fourth best car coming into the Australian GP. How Nico Hulkenberg must now be glad that he didn't get picked up by Ferrari or Lotus! A first podium or even a win must be a real possibility. Except that his team-mate, Sergio Perez, will be equally determined after his star faded and his reputation took a hammering in his one season at McLaren. Two young guns, both desperate for success ... something is going to have to give.
7. Ronspeak returns!
From what he said in the press, Martin Whitmarsh seemed to be Mr Reasonable. But perhaps a touch too nice and lacking in mongrel. The return of Ron Dennis to a prominent place in the structure of the McLaren F1 team at least polarises opinion. Not to mention Ron's delightful mangling of the English language into incomprehensible business-talk, and you just know McLaren will be good for a headline again in 2014. Whether it makes any difference to their on-track performance is another question ...
8. Red Bull's reality check
We all know about the woes suffered by the Red Bull "Are-Beaten" in testing. So too the fact that they and Renault will eventually rebound. But, for the time being, enjoy seeing Sebastian Vettel not having everything his own way and having to prove his real worth in fighting for scraps. Enjoy seeing a genius like Adrian Newey get flummoxed by the fact that aero isn't everything in 2014. And even though Daniel Ricciardo's dream drive is starting as a nightmare, the no-pressure beginning might just prove to be a godsend.
9. Survivor: Lotus
Lotus enter 2014 without their team principal, without many key technical staff, without the Quantum investment, and with an underprepared car using an undercooked engine. It's trial by inferno for Romain Grosjean, but spare a thought for Pastor Maldonado who has left a potentially winning Williams for this mess. You sense that this situation will implode ... or explode. Forget about outwitting, outplaying or outlasting their rivals, merely keeping one's dignity (and job) in this scenario will make for compelling viewing.
10. Sauber's test drivers
In truth, there's nothing exciting about this year's C33, nor the driving line-up of Adrian Sutil and Esteban Gutierrez. The most interesting Sauber subplot is how, yet again, they are keeping their head above water, this time by signing three development drivers and counting. They are tapping into the Dutch market with Giedo van der Garde and the Russian market with Sergey Sirotkin, and they have arguably the best female road racer in the world in Simona De Silvestro. But five into two won't go for 2015 ...
This year's freshman class provides three captivating stories. Kevin Magnussen appears to be the real deal, but can he do what his father Jan couldn't and convert ability into results? For Daniil Kvyat, being Red Bull-backed and Russian is both a blessing and a curse, all at the age of 19 - and yet he seems strangely unfazed. Another Iceman in the making? And despite being a GP2 veteran Marcus Ericsson is something of an unknown, and that in itself provides a point of interest.
12. Marussia's coming of age?
Marussia has the advantage of the second best engine at the start of the season in the form of the Ferrari. Although the MR03 has experienced all manner of glitches in testing, the basic package appears to be well thought-out, and according to Autosport the adjusted best laps for Max Chilton and Jules Bianchi in Bahrain were well in the midfield. The early races could present a real opportunity for points and, if Renault's woes continue, this could be year Marussia entrenches itself as a legitimate player.
13. The Sushi Chef's Son from Amagasaki
Two words: Kamui Kobayashi. OK, so he's driving a contender for the ugliest car of the year, and arguably the slowest car in the field which he has described as tardier than a GP2 machine. And team boss Tony Fernandes has threatened to quit if Caterham show no improvement this year. So Kamui gave up a plum simulator role with Ferrari to do this for free? But that's the spirit which makes us all love him. Just a late-braking move or two and a few moments of banzaiosity and Kamui-mania will be back in full flight.
No, we don't think that the gimmicks for this year are themselves worth looking forward to. Double-points-last-race, permanent numbers and the pole trophy are all frankly cringeworthy. What we are looking forward to is how everything else going on in the field will render these gimmicks completely unnecessary, thus sending the message loud and clear that F1 doesn't need to superficially spice up the show. What it really needs is a riveting human story of man and machine. 2014 might provide just that.
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