Formula One begins this year with even more anticipation than usual. The reason? They’ve changed the engines.
For Grand Prix enthusiasts, this potentially means an end to Red Bull’s dominance, with the champion team struggling in the pre-season testing. For Australians, there’s also the added excitement of a new local with the potential to be at the top of the grid, Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo.
So here’s what you need to know about Formula One.
What happened to the cars?
They look ugly and the sound is different, but the real change is in the engine. It might be hard to tell in an F1 car, typically going about 300km/h around Albert Park, but this means the vehicles are going to be a bit slower.
The new engine sees the reintroduction of a turbo V6 for the first time since 1988 – seen by commentators as bringing the sport out of a time warp and into the modern era with greater fuel efficiency.
To offset the loss of 20 per cent power and the need to manage fuel, this year’s engines are coupled with a complex kinetic energy recovery system (KERS), also in use last year, that captures heat previously lost through braking and exhaust fumes and converts this into power, offering a boost for up to 33 secs per lap.
There is an added restriction on the amount of fuel – 100 litres max for the entire race, compared to 160L last year, adding to the reliance on KERS.
Balancing KERS and fuel use will be the key to a podium finish – a wrong step and we might see an F1 car running out of petrol. Jenson Button emerging from the pits with a jerry can? Not a good look.
And the ugly nose? Also part of the new regulations – they’re lower to avoid becoming airborne during collisions.
Will Red Bull dominate?
Pre-season testing form would indicate that the answer is no, but don’t write off Daniel Ricciardo and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel just yet.
During the second half of last year, other teams such as Mercedes developed, while Red Bull, which is powered by a Renault engine, focused on winning the 2013 championship. That has meant a difficult pre-season, only managing a handful of laps at the first test session in Jerez, Spain, with ongoing difficulties with their engine and new systems.
One thing is for sure, the team’s chief technical director, Adrian Newey, is one of the smartest guys in the game. He’s won more races than any other F1 engineer as well as the constructor’s title for four years running, and he’ll be pulling out all stops to make sure the team is challenging for the podium again. And no one can deny Vettel’s talent and desire to win continues to make him a contender for his fifth championship.
If not Red Bull, then who?
Two years after splitting as teammates, McLaren’s Jenson Button and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton could once again be going head to head and vying for the championship, if testing is anything to go by.
The Mercedes and McLaren teams are both powered by the latter brand’s engines which, after sacrificing the last half of 2013 to fine tuning, look like the strongest on the grid. Button has won at Melbourne before and is considered a strong contender to win again.
Team mates and rivals: Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo
— Daniel Ricciardo (@danielricciardo) February 15, 2014
Vettel comes to Australia with locals still smarting over his treatment of Mark Webber in last year’s Malaysian Grand Prix. Daniel Ricciardo, who is in his first season for Red Bull, is young, very fast and for the first time in his career driving for a top flight team.
The relationship is fresh, but with the size of Ricciardo’s talent, and Vettel’s ego – the question is will there be room for both in the Red Bull garage or will they bump heads like Ricciardo’s predecessor?
Last year, Vettel needed to assert dominance over Webber and the rest of the grid but it is unlikely we’ll see tensions simmering over in the Red Bull garage just yet.
But as defending four-time world champion and potentially having a car off the pace, the German will not be giving an inch to anyone, teammate included.
Ricciardo isn’t the new Mark Webber
They are, however, very different drivers and the fact that Webber and Ricciardo are both Australian is more a coincidence than a matter of filling an Aussie F1 quota.
Ricciardo comes into Red Bull at a time when it seems the team’s dominance might have peaked. A graduate of the team’s development program, he fought for his position last season against Jean-Eric Vergne, with the team also considering a plethora of choices including previous world champions Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso.
Webber also fought for his spot, but was a late starter – joining Red Bull at 30 after racing for numerous lower grade teams.
It’s too early to tell how Ricciardo’s driving style and finesse will compare, but there will be hundreds of thousands of fans hoping the Sandgroper will make it into the first corner without losing a position. And also hoping he’ll finish as close to the top of the podium as Webber typically ended races.