Formula 1's Latest Rumours: Wolff's Prediction, McLaren's Worry and More
After Lewis Hamilton's convincing win in a head-to-head battle with Nico Rosberg in the Malaysian Grand Prix, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has swam against the tide by claiming that it is inevitable that his drivers, friends since childhood, will become enemies as the 2014 Formula One season progresses.
Wolff was speaking after a race which saw Mercedes maintain their performance advantage from Australia into Sepang—something which can't be said for McLaren, whose drop in performance is a sign of things to come if Eric Boullier, the team's racing director, is to be believed.
McLaren's sudden, sharp drop in performance has offered renewed hope to Lotus, who completed their first race distance of the year in Sepang, suggesting the worst of their reliability problems are now behind them.
Romain Grosjean held off former teammate Kimi Raikkonen for 11th place in Sepang, with Stefano Domenicali—the latter's team principal—left to explain Ferrari's anonymous start to F1's new era.
Closing this week's roundup is the story that two reserve drivers will be handed opportunities to impress over the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend before taking part in the post-race test session in Sakhir.
Mercedes Boss Expects Hamilton-Rosberg Battle to Turn Nasty
Despite his drivers going on record to say their relationship will remain strong, Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff believes it is only a matter of time until Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg clash.
With two races of the 2014 Formula One season completed, Hamilton and Rosberg have one win apiece and appear to be the main contenders for this year’s title. Both drivers have repeatedly insisted that their friendship, which stretches back to their teenage years as teammates in karting, will be unaffected—but Wolff, their boss, believes otherwise.
The Austrian has claimed that the team are already preparing for the day when Rosberg and Hamilton, the 2008 world champion, come to blows, telling ESPN F1:
We are spending quite some time discussing those things, discussing scenarios and discussing situations. It's Mercedes and it's the team that comes first, but one day it will be rubbish. It's all academic and we will run into situations where we have to manage - they are still very competitive creatures.
The intra-team rivalry has been there since the beginning. It's been there since last January. What makes a difference is that these guys have known each other for such a long time and they have a fair relationship with each other, but it doesn't mean that they are not extremely competitive and that they will try to use every advantage they can.
What is important is that we try to make it very clear from the beginning that the team has come from very far off, we have been fifth [in the championship in 2012], and you saw it last year in Malaysia that we ran into a situation that we didn't manage in the way we should have managed because we were surprised how competitive we were, compared to our own feeling.
The situation Wolff refers to from the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix, of course, is the moment Rosberg reluctantly accepted the request of Ross Brawn, Mercedes’ team principal at the time, to stay behind Hamilton in fourth position despite believing he could lap much faster.
That was considered acceptable when Mercedes were beginning to establish themselves as a front-runner last season, but in 2014—with the biggest prize of all now on the line—would either Hamilton or Rosberg be willing to sit behind the other car? You doubt it somehow.
McLaren Feeling the Heat as Rivals Catch Up
After what became a double podium finish in the Australian Grand Prix after Daniel Ricciardo’s exclusion, expectations were higher than they’d been for some time as McLaren arrived in Malaysia at the top of the constructors’ championship.
The momentum of Melbourne, however, could not be replicated in Sepang, with Jenson Button finishing a distant sixth and Kevin Magnussen back in ninth after an early tangle with Kimi Raikkonen.
And Eric Boullier, the team’s racing director, fears McLaren’s drop in performance will not prove to be a one-off but indicative of the team’s level for the coming races, telling Autosport's Ben Anderson:
I don't think it's going to be a one-off, that's the problem. We said in Melbourne we were happy with the result because we had been opportunistic.
But obviously we knew the others were going to massively catch up once they started to fine-tune their balance and ride and everything on their cars, especially the electronic parts. It's exactly what happened.
This is the down spiral when it's very hot. Our lack of downforce is making the car slide more and when the car slides more the tyres get hotter, and if you pass the limit of the surface temperature you get in trouble.
This is exactly what happened to us. It was very hot and we were struggling with the grip.
We know performance-wise we have to massively catch up and aggressively develop the car.
Lotus Hoping Malaysia Finish Is a Turning Point in Season
The prospect of Lotus catching McLaren, Eric Boullier’s new employers, was deemed laughable following the Australian Grand Prix, but trackside operations director Alan Permane believes the Woking team are now a realistic target.
Romain Grosjean completed the E22’s first race distance of 2014 when he finished 11th in the Malaysian Grand Prix after resisting a late charge from the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, with both Lotus cars enjoying a trouble-free Saturday in Sepang for good measure.
And Permane believes the team’s promising result in Malaysia is just the beginning of Lotus’ recovery as the team looks to expand more from their chassis as well as the Renault power unit.
He told Edd Straw of Autosport:
Racing for tenth is not what we want to do, but when you look at where teams like McLaren are, they certainly look very catchable.
We don't need to stick a great deal [of performance] in to do that. We know we have an awful lot coming power unit wise, so we know we can certainly react to them and although we are far back, it won't take a lot.
To catch Mercedes or Red Bull is very difficult, but I'm pretty sure that we can be regularly going into Q3 and scoring good points.
We know what we can do to improve things with the power unit and we are working hard with Renault to do that. We will make a step next race, we will make another step in China and we will make another step in Barcelona, so things are happening.
And it's not just the power unit, as we have got problems with our braking [by wire] system because we haven't used it much and are now discovering it.
We have got some tests going on back at Enstone and we hope to learn a lot more about that.
Reflecting on a winter which saw the team’s financial issues made glaringly public through losses in high-profile members of staff, including Boullier, Permane added:
It's been as tough as it ever gets. It's very, very hard for everybody.
All the engineers and the mechanics here are doing incredibly long hours and for everybody back at Enstone it's soul-destroying not to see the car on track after all the work that's gone in.
The work only gets harder when it's bad, but that's why we have a good bunch of people who keep their heads down and get on with it.
There's no magic button. There is only one way out when you are in trouble and that's to put your head down and work.
Domenicali Explains Ferrari's Disappointing Start but Relaxed over Future
After an average start to the 2014 season in which neither Fernando Alonso nor Kimi Raikkonen have secured a podium finish, Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali has discussed the team’s need to improve.
In a revealing interview with the official Formula One website, Domenicali explained that disadvantages in aerodynamics were preventing Ferrari from scoring heavy points before being asked which specific areas the team needed to improve upon, to which the Italian replied:
Basically everywhere. I don’t think by fixing one problem you fix the whole performance - so we need to work to have a more efficient car; we need to work to have a better engine; we need to work to exploit better the balance between electric power and traditional engine power. Everywhere!
Domenicali added that it would be “very difficult” to match Mercedes if the current world championship leaders continue their form of winning the opening two grands prix. He then claimed that he is not concerned for his future despite Ferrari’s failure to win a world championship since 2008, stating:
I don’t care what people say, because there are so many people wanting my job. It is a privilege to be in this position, but once it is over, don’t worry, I will be around - not here, but in another place.
That is not a personal problem. Say to all those jealous people wanting this job: they have to fight for it!
Robin Frijns and Giedo van der Garde Get Bahrain FP1 Outings
Ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix, it has been announced that Robin Frijns and Giedo van der Garde will take part in the first free practice session for Caterham and Sauber, respectively.
Frijns, who drove Caterham’s 2014 car in pre-season testing, will also take part in one of the two days of testing that follow the grand prix. Van der Garde, meanwhile, will replace Esteban Gutierrez for FP1 and take part in the second day of testing next week after Sergey Sirotkin, the Russian teenager who is still in the process of earning a super license, drives on the first day.
I'll drive the FP1 in Bahrain for @CaterhamF1, very happy with that! :)— Robin Frijns (@RFrijns) April 1, 2014
Van der Garde, who competed for Caterham last season, will be making his Sauber debut in Bahrain while Frijns, who has previously tested for Sauber and Red Bull Racing, will be making his first on-track appearance on a race weekend.