The first of the 2014 Formula One pre-season tests is only a week away.
As is often the case at this time of the year, news is somewhat thin on the ground.
But Caterham are helping out by announcing their driver line-up today, with Kamui Kobayashi and Marcus Ericsson set to be confirmed.
Tomorrow is the last chance for the teams to ditch the deeply unpopular double points rule before the new season begins. Bernie Ecclestone says it will stay, but his influence has surely been weakened by his recent legal issues.
For once, he might not get his own way.
Ericsson in 2009's Young Driver Test. He's been knocking on the door a while.
It's long been rumoured that Kamui Kobayashi will be Caterham's lead driver for 2014. The Japanese missed 2013 largely due to the influx of pay drivers, but he has raised some sponsorship cash of his own.
It's not as substantial as the brown envelopes carried by the true pay drivers, but coupled with his talent it should be enough to secure him a seat.
The second berth is the real money-spinner for the team, and it looks set to go purely on finances. Caterham chief Cyril Abiteboul has ruled out Charles Pic, telling French TV station Intersport+ (quote from Sky F1):
Unfortunately Charles won't be with us next season. It's a pity that the adventure between Caterham and Charles is ending. On a personal level I want to thank Charles for the work he achieved last year.
Despite having a ridiculously rich future father-in-law, Giedo van der Garde also looks to be on his way out. His personal sponsors McGregor, Beelen and Regus have performed a vanishing act from Caterham's list of partners on their website, and that sort of thing doesn't happen by accident.
So it looks like Marcus Ericsson will get the drive.
The Swede has spent four years in GP2 without setting the world on fire, but he has produced some impressive drives. With 94 starts to his name, he has three wins, two poles and four fastest laps.
His best finishing position in the championship was sixth last season. He has a mixed record against his team-mates in the series—Sam Bird beat him in 2011, but Ericsson came out on top against Jolyon Palmer (2012) and Stephane Richelmi (2013).
The third driver slot is also up for grabs, with 2012's Formula Renault 3.5 champion Robin Frijns—probably the highest-rated young driver around—a front-runner. Reports (including one from nu.nl) from the Dutchman's home country state he has definitely got the job.
An official announcement on the line-up is expected later today.
The F1 Strategy Group meets in Geneva on Wednesday. On the agenda are two highly contentious topics.
The first is double points. In December, it was announced the final race of the season would award double points, in an effort to keep title races going for longer.
There had been talk of it being scrapped, but Autoweek reports that Bernie Ecclestone believes the rule is here to stay. What will apparently be discussed is the idea of extending it to cover the final three races—not just one.
I have got it on the agenda for the next meeting. I want to start three races again.
If everybody that has entered the championship agrees we could do it now. We need unanimous agreement with the teams that have entered the championship.
Most fans are strongly against double points, and they'll be pleased to know unanimous agreement is highly unlikely.
More likely (but not probable) is that the rule will be scrapped entirely.
The second key item up for discussion is introducing a budget cap. This idea has been floating around for years and a half-hearted optional budget cap was almost introduced in 2009.
The new proposal is still vague and the teams are not even close to coming up with a concrete figure, but the aim is again to ensure running an F1 team is a sustainable, maybe even profitable business for everyone.
Some teams also feel it would be a positive thing to give more teams a chance to be competitive. Lotus boss Eric Boullier told Autosport (via paywall-free Eurosport):
In principle, we have to understand that you have maybe three or four teams who can afford to spend twice the average budget of the rest of the grid. For me the problem is not what they spend because the more they spend, the better it is for F1 in some ways.
But we need to have a competitiveness that allows most of the teams to fight for podiums. If you have the same winner, as we have had in the past, it could be dangerous for F1.
We have to make sure we bring some stability in the paddock to most of the teams and make sure we can have more teams involved in fighting for the championship to make the racing exciting.
Whether this view is shared by the likes of Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull—key Strategy Group members who perhaps enjoy the status quo—is unclear.
Ross Brawn has emerged as the leading contender to replace Martin Whitmarsh as McLaren team principal. Since the rumour broke there have been no moves by McLaren or Brawn to shoot them down, which suggests they may well be accurate.
McLaren had a wretched 2013 season, failing to score a single podium and ending up a distant fifth in the overall standings behind Red Bull, Mercedes, Ferrari and Lotus.
The situation got worse last week with the news that the team are likely to miss the first test at Jerez. The people at the top obviously believed change was needed, and Ron Dennis replaced Whitmarsh as McLaren Group CEO.
His position as team principal is now also in jeopardy.
Brawn, who left Mercedes (half jumped, half pushed) at the end of the 2013 season, had previously said he'd be waiting until the summer before making a decision on his future.
But—especially with his past links to McLaren's future engine partner Honda—this opportunity may be too good to turn down.
Kimi Raikkonen does not believe the new breed of F1 cars will be too different from their predecessors.
My feeling is that it’s not going to be as different as people think, but I might be wrong. Hopefully we'll find out that it's pretty simple. For sure it is difficult for all the technical people to make a new engine, new gearbox, all this stuff, but as a driver it's not affecting the driving so much I don’t think.
We have new buttons and new things to follow, but let's wait and see. It’ll be much easier to say after the first test.
Raikkonen's views are in contrast to those aired by Jenson Button late last year. He thought the new cars would be significantly different, saying (via ESPN F1):
It's not like now with so much downforce and so little torque that you can just floor it and even if you run a bit wide you just understeer off the circuit. But with the 2014 car if you floor it in a corner like Turn 3 at Barcelona, you don't just drive off, you immediately lose the rear because there is so much torque.
It's not a balance issue, you have torque and we've never had that before.
I don't think it will be more exciting to drive. We are going to be fighting for grip the whole time, so I don't think that will make it more exciting.
Both men were speaking after simulator work, so either Raikkonen is just more comfortable with how the new cars feel, or their respective teams have very different simulators.
Or maybe Kimi just didn't fancy explaining it, so he brushed it off.
We'll find out more after Jerez.
McLaren unveiled their 2014 official team merchandise on Monday. Hopes that the team may revert to their traditional orange were dashed—the clothing is white and grey.
But the most interesting thing to note is the lack of a title sponsor to replace Vodafone, who departed at the end of last year.
The images on the team's webstore have the usual logos of Mobil 1, Mercedes-Benz and Hugo Boss, but there's no big headline name.
However, no photographs have been published—only drawings.
So that could mean a title sponsor is going to be unveiled at the car launch this coming Friday, and the team clothing adjusted afterwards.
Yet another reason to watch it.