20 Burning Questions Ahead of the 2014 Formula 1 Season

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2014

20 Burning Questions Ahead of the 2014 Formula 1 Season

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    Paul Gilham/Getty Images

    The 2014 Formula One season kicks off in a little over two weeks with the first test at Jerez.

    Sweeping regulation changes mean this is set to be the most unpredictable season in recent memory, and no one is entirely sure what to expect.

    Is Kevin Magnussen the real deal? What's the new Sochi circuit like? Are the new engines going to sound awful and explode all the time?

    And can Sebastian Vettel make it five in a row?

    There are certainly more questions floating around than answers. Here are 20 of them.

Will All the Teams Make It to Melbourne?

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    Paul Gilham/Getty Images

    Only five of the 11 teams in F1 are in a financially secure position. Red Bull, Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren are going nowhere, and Red Bull wouldn't allow their sister team Toro Rosso to fold.

    The other sixLotus, Force India, Williams, Sauber, Caterham and Marussiaare somewhat closer to the edge of oblivion.

    Force India are part-owned by the huge Sahara Group, which probably makes them the safest of the six. Lotus are owned by a venture capital company and their debts are mainly to their shareholders, not banks, so they should be OK too (unless the owners get tired of losing money).

    Sauber received a large investment from Russia last year, which secured their future for the short term, and Williams' financial statements show they appear to live within their means.

    That leaves Caterham and Marussia. The former don't publish accounts in the UK (and if they publish in Malaysia I couldn't read it), but their owner, Tony Fernandes, has an estimated net worth of $625m, according to Forbes. They should be OK.

    A check of Marussia's financial status presents an awful picture, but accounts are only available up to the end of 2012. According to The Times (subscription required, also reported by ESPN) their situation now is much rosier, after an investor wiped out their debts.

    So we should have a 22-car grid in Australia.

Can McLaren Get Back on Track?

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    Clive Mason/Getty Images

    McLaren, the second most successful constructor in F1 history, had a woeful 2013. They didn't manage a single podium for the first time since 1980, and finished fifth overalla staggering 474 points behind champions Red Bull.

    Needless to say, they'll be looking to do much better this time around.

    It will be a transitional year of sorts, as the team prepares for the arrival of Honda engines in 2015. And for now at least, Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen is not a driver pairing that will strike fear into the hearts of their rivals.

    But in recent years, McLaren have tended to bounce back from a poor season with a much stronger showing in the next.

    In 2004 they built a dog; in 2005 they had the fastest (if not the most reliable) car. In 2009 they came a distant third, but produced a title-challenger in 2010.

    Surely they won't mess up again. Expect a much better showing from McLaren in 2014.

Is 13 an Unlucky Number in Venezuela?

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    Dave Concepcion, another Venezuelan sporting 13.
    Dave Concepcion, another Venezuelan sporting 13.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Pastor Maldonado has picked 13 to be his permanent driver number. In many countries this is considered an unlucky number.

    Venezuela doesn't appear to be one of them. 

    I understand that #13 means 'pride' in Venezuela. #Maldonado#F1 thx @mcrisever

    — Darren Heath (@F1Photographer) January 10, 2014

    Maldonado won't be the first prominent Venezuelan sportsman to carry the number.

    Among others, there was a rather good baseball player called Dave Concepcion, who wore jersey number 13. He spent his whole MLB career at the Cincinnati Reds, who retired his number in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the team

    Baseball is very popular in Venezuela, and Maldonado thinks he was good enough to have been a professional in the sport.

    He could have got a very nice bat for $30m...

What Will the Engines Sound Like?

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    When the V10s departed, fans lamented the demise of their beautiful engine note, dreading how puny the incoming V8s might sound.

    Now, it's the turn of the V8s to be the treasured incumbent.

    There'll certainly be a new sound from the V6 turbos. The presence of the turbo and extra gear change (new gearboxes will have eight forward gears, not seven) are obvious difference-makers, but maybe not to the extent some have feared.

    Mercedes engine chief Andy Cowell explained it to Autosport:

    As soon as you have any restriction in the exhaust system, you reduce the volume of the noise because the turbine wheel is designed to recover energy from the exhaust flow, which naturally reduces the volume of the noise coming out.

    But because it's six cylinders firing into a single tailpipe, instead of four into each pipe on the current engines, the frequency will be very similar to the current 18,000 rpm.

    So we will have a similar frequency but lower volume because of the energy being recovered from the exhaust stream.

    So if we turn our TVs up, it should be fine?

    The sound will be different, but not necessarily in a bad way. After a few races, most of us will be used to it.

What's ERS?

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    For a few years up to 2013, F1 cars had KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System). An electric motor stored kinetic energy generated through braking and gave it back to the drivers in the form of a boost of around 80 horsepower for a little under seven seconds per lap.

    ERS stands for Energy Recovery System. The K has gone because the system now uses kinetic and heat energy. The kinetic side is known as the MGU-K (Motor Generator UnitKinetic).

    It works as it did before, helping to slow the car and gathering kinetic energy as it does so.

    The other part is the MGU-H (Motor Generator UnitHeat). This absorbs excess heat energy from exhaust gas at the turbo and converts it to electrical energy.

    The recovered heat and kinetic energy together are used to power the MGU-K's motor (it's a generator and a motor) to provide a boost of around 160 horsepower for 33 seconds per lap.

    The drivers don't control this boost like they did with KERSit's all done electronically.

Who'll Have the Best Engine?

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    A V6 Renault being driven by an F1 driver.
    A V6 Renault being driven by an F1 driver.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    There will be three engine suppliers in 2014, all of them with a rich history in the field. Ferrari engines have powered 222 race winners, Renault's 165 and Mercedes' 99.

    The V8 engines we're saying goodbye to were extremely similar in terms of performance because they'd been around so long. Performance development was frozen in 2007, and the FIA took steps to make each engine as equal as possible.

    If anyone was lagging behind, they were allowed to make changes so their engine was at the same level as their rivals.

    The 2014 V6 turbos are entirely new engines, so they won't all be the same. There has even been talk of the season ending up as a one-manufacturer race as teams powered by the other two are left behind.

    That sounds extreme but it's a huge unknown we're stepping into, so it could happen.

    The rumour is that Mercedes have done the best job. Whether that's true or not, we shall see.

Is Kevin Magnussen the Real Deal?

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    "You'll need some permanent sunglasses if you want to be an F1 driver."
    "You'll need some permanent sunglasses if you want to be an F1 driver."Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    A rookie doesn't usually get a shot in a front-running team unless he's something very special indeed. So McLaren's decision to replace Sergio Perez with Kevin Magnussen raised several eyebrows.

    Magnussen has a good (but not mind-blowing) record in the lower formulae, which is often a good indicator of a driver's F1 potential.

    More notably he impressed McLaren with his work at the Young Driver Tests in 2012 and 2013, and according to their simulator work he's already faster than Perez.

    The young Dane comes across as extremely relaxed and confident, and McLaren wouldn't have made the decision to let him loose in their car without having a lot of faith that he could get the job done.

    It's unlikely he'll burst onto the scene with the instant pace of McLaren's last rookie (Lewis Hamilton), because testing is much more restricted these days.

    But it won't take him long to settle, and anything less than equalling teammate Jenson Button will be considered a disappointment.

Can Felipe Massa Rediscover His Form?

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    Clive Mason/Getty Images

    Felipe Massa is a driver who thrives in the right environment and flounders in the wrong one.

    At Ferrari, Fernando Alonso arrived in 2010 and stamped his authority on the team. Massa was an afterthought, and his performances since then have been mostly poor.

    When it was announced he was leaving, a weight seemed to fall from his shoulders, and he experienced an upturn in form.

    The Brazilian will (at the start) be considered at worst an equal No. 1 at Williams, and Valtteri Bottas doesn't come across as a domineering character. Williams have more of a family atmosphere than Ferrari, and that should suit Felipe.

    It's not unkind to say that his best days are almost certainly behind him, but we should expect a happier, quicker and more consistent Massa in 2014.

Is Engine Reliability Going to Be a Huge Factor

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    An oldie, but a goodie.
    An oldie, but a goodie.Handout/Getty Images

    When turbo engines were first introduced to F1 at the end of the 1970s, they tended to go bang with alarming regularity.

    As development continued into the 1980s they became more reliable, and in 1988the final year turbo engines were permittedthere were still a handful of engine-related retirements per race.

    Fast-forward two-and-a-half decades to 2013. Engines don't really fail any more, and the sight of a magnificent plume of white smoke billowing from the rear of a car is a collector's item.

    But those engines are now gone. Are we going to find ourselves back to the 1980s, with engines and turbos failing left, right and centre?

    Probably not, because technology has progressed a long way since the 1980s. The early races may see a lot of failures and it's likely we'll see more than a few races decided by reliability, but we're not going back to the days of just five or six finishers.

Can Red Bull Survive the Brain Drain?

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    Paul Gilham/Getty Images

    Much is made of Adrian Newey's role in the success of Red Bull, and there's a very good reason he's paid a reported basic annual salary of at least $10 million, according to The Guardian.

    But Alexander the Great couldn't have conquered his own back garden if his army had consisted of 20 rejects from the local archery school and a couple of Shetland ponies.

    No leader has success unless he's guiding the right people.

    Red Bull have lost aerodynamicist Shaun Whitehead (to Williams), head of vehicle dynamics Mark Ellis and chief engineer for simulation Giles Wood (both to Mercedes in June 2014).

    Also set to leave in 2015 is chief aerodynamicist Peter Prodromou (to McLaren). Gardening leave may lie in his future.

    Engineers switch teams all the time, but that's a lot of talent to lose at once. Newey is still the top man, but are his new people going to be as good as the old ones?

Will the Cars Be Ugly?

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    Getty Images/Getty Images

    The platypus/gharial-like 2012 cars were somewhat visually unappealing little beasties.

    They looked that way because the regulations mandated a maximum nose height and maximum front bulkhead heightand there was a difference of seven-and-a-half centimetres between the two.

    Most teams wanted the chassis as high as possible for maximum airflow under the car, so they added the ugly steps in the nose to bring it down to the maximum height.

    This year, the nose must be significantly lower. But only a thin middle section of it at the front. F1 technical superman Craig Scarborough did a sketch of what he thinks the Red Bull might look likeand it isn't pretty.

    And he did this one for the Caterham:

    Here's a quick sharpie sketch of the @MyCaterhamF1 CT04 based on todays crash test video http://t.co/LLZOz7bFNL pic.twitter.com/Cjaq7qLvxC

    — Craig Scarborough (@ScarbsF1) December 13, 2013

    Hot or not?

Who'll Be Driving for Caterham?

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    Clive Mason/Getty Images

    So far, 20 of the 22 slots on the grid are filled. The only two left are at 2013's wooden spoon-winning Caterham.

    Acquisition of said spoon is perhaps the reason they're looking to bring in an experienced face. Kamui Kobayashi has been mentioned several times, and last year's third driver Heikki Kovalainen is probably still in contention.

    For the other seat, it's likely to be money that triumphs, with one of last year's drivers getting the nod. Giedo van der Garde did better than expected in his debut season (though expectations weren't exactly sky high), and overall he and Charles Pic came out looking equally (un)attractive options.

    But van der Garde has a larger sponsor fund available, thanks to a somewhat useful sugar daddy-in-law.

    His soon-to-be-wife's father is Marcel Boekhoorn, a businessman with a net worth estimated at €1.3 billion euros. One of his many interests is in McGregor, a Dutch fashion company whose logos feature prominently on the Caterham.

    So if you ever meet Giedo, get him to pick your lottery numbers.

What's the Sochi Track Like?

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    Ria Novosti

    A new race will grace the calendar in 2014, with the first ever Russian Grand Prix taking place at the Sochi International Street Circuit. It's set in the Olympic Park (built for the 2014 Winter Olympics), which was partly designed with the track in mind.

    The circuit was designed by Hermann Tilke, but if you looked at the track map before reading this that won't surprise you at all.

    It has two long straights (which aren't straight) book-ended by slow corners, two follow-the-leader infield sections and one nice-looking cornerTurn 4.

    The circuit looks interesting (as new ones always do) but not especially fun to drive or watch racing on. DRS-assisted overtaking shouldn't be a problem but it doesn't look very receptive to passing outside the "designated" zones.

    On the bright side, it looks much better than Abu Dhabi and Singapore and we won't know for sure what it's like until we see it properly.

    On the dark side, it's a Hermann Tilke street circuit.

    Maybe if they add a ski jump...

Will Pirelli Get It Right?

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    Clive Rose/Getty Images

    In 2013 Pirelli didn't actually do a terrible job. With no opportunities to test their tyres properly, they did what F1 asked of themproduced fragile tyres which didn't last very long.

    Only trouble was they were a little bit too fragile.

    The torque (turning force) produced by the 2014 engines is significantly higher than it was last year, which means the tyres will need to be tougher. How much tougher? No one knows.

    It's likely Pirelli will aim for safety. The last thing their reputation as a tyre manufacturer needs is another season of controversy and criticism.

    But don't expect the whole season to go by without at least a bit of tyre-related drama.

Will Ferrari Regret Signing Kimi Raikkonen?

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    Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Ferrari's decision to get rid of Felipe Massa was no surprise, but their decision to replace him with Kimi Raikkonen raised more than a few eyebrows.

    Since 1996, Ferrari have operated with one clear lead driver and one clear backup. It went a bit wrong in 2008 when Raikkonen inexplicably lost pace and ended up being Felipe Massa's wing man, but that aside it's how they do things.

    Not any more. In 2014 the Italian team will have two top drivers. Fernando Alonso is (probably) the best driver on the grid, but Raikkonen is considered to be in the same class.

    He's a fairly passive presence around any team and tends to steer clear of politics, but on the track he has more than enough ability to at times match and even beat Alonso.

    This might cause a few problems.

Can Sebastian Vettel Make It 5 in a Row?

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    Clive Mason/Getty Images

    Sebastian Vettel won the final nine races of 2013 to secure a fourth consecutive drivers' championship.

    Whether he can make it five in 2014 will be mainly down to two factors.

    The first is Red Bull. They have the best aerodynamicist in the business in Adrian Newey, and a huge budget. One has to expect them to again produce a car which is capable of challenging.

    The second is Renault, and the confidence here is a bit lower. If the Renault engine can't match the Mercedes or Ferrari, the car would have to be substantially better to make up for it.

    Of course he's one of the best drivers, but it doesn't matter how good you are if the car isn't fast enough.

Can Caterham and Marussia Break Their Ducks?

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    Samir Hussein/Getty Images

    Caterham and Marussia have been in F1 since the start of 2012, and neither have managed to score a single point.

    If we include their time spent with different names (Caterham as Team Lotus and Marussia as Virgin), they've each competed in 77 racesagain, without a point.

    Neither team has much of a budget to speak of, so points finishes on pace alone look unlikely.

    But each will have a driver of some quality. Jules Bianchi is confirmed at Marussia, while Kamui Kobayashi looks like he'll be the lead driver for Caterham.

    Neither are world-beaters (though Bianchi is perhaps a star of the future), but they're both capable of keeping a car on the track and driving it close to its potential.

    Reliability problems are likely this year, and especially so in the early races. So if they've built cars which can last the race distance (and as long as their engines hold up), both teams have a great opportunity to get some points on the board.

Will Nico Hulkenberg Have the Last Laugh?

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    Clive Mason/Getty Images

    Nico Hulkenberg missed out on a seat at Lotus thanks to Pastor Maldonado's giant sponsorship package from PDVSA.

    But is "missed out" really the right way to put it?

    Hulkenberg ended up at Force India, who gave up on their 2013 car very early to concentrate on the 2014 VJM07. This should work in their favour, and they also have Mercedes engines (rumoured to be the best).

    Lotus on the other hand seemed to work longer on their 2013 car as they tried to secure second in the championship. They've lost several key team members and are missing the first test at Jerez as their car isn't going to be ready.

    It's not inconceivable that Force India could be ahead of Lotus this year.

Will Ferrari Get It Right This Time?

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    Clive Mason/Getty Images

    Or, "Is Fernando Alonso going to receive another duffer, give up on the reds and go to McLaren in 2015?"

    Ferrari are in a rut. The last time they produced a car capable of competing for the title on speed alone was 2008. Alonso somehow went into the final races of 2010 and 2012 with a chance of winning the title, but that was in spite of, not because of, the car.

    Having suffered from correlation issues with their wind tunnel, it's been upgraded and is now back in action, meaning they won't have to use the old Toyota facility in Cologne anymore. Engineering director Pat Fry told Autosport:

    It's being 100 per cent used now, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the normal thing.

    We have certainly made some reasonable improvements there. Time will tell if we are exactly where we would like to be but the signs are good at the moment.

    Ferrari are still the "biggest" team in F1, and a drive there remains the ultimate career goal for most of the men on the grid.

    But after falling behind Red Bull under the previous set of regulations, they really need to produce the goods this time around.

Are We Going to See More Fuel Saving?

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    Getty Images/Getty Images

    Few things are more painful for fans or drivers than "fuel-saving mode." Each drop of fuel adds weight to the car and makes it slower, so the teams start races with as little as possible.

    Last year (and in many others before), this led to drivers having to drive slower than they could to reduce their fuel consumption at certain points during the race to ensure they finished.

    For 2014 the maximum fuel allowance will be 100kg. It was unlimited before, but teams generally used around 140-160kg.

    The V6 turbo engines won't use as much as the old V8s, and there'll be the electric motor to help. But there still won't be enough fuel to finish the race driving flat-out.

    Ferrari think it could have a significant impact on race results, while Renault and Mercedes disagree.

    But no one really knows for sure, so we'll just have to wait and see.

    And now for one final question just for fun...

Are We There Yet?

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images


    The first race is the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, which will take place on March 16th.

    Only two months to go...