Early Predictions for the 2015 Formula 1 Season
As our advent calendars ticked through their third week, an important milestone for all Formula One fans was reached. The first race of the 2015 season is on March 15—now less than three months away.
The first test is even nearer, due to be held on February 1 at the Jerez circuit in southern Spain.
Mercedes will be hoping to carry their dominant form into another year of racing. Lewis Hamilton's eyes are undoubtedly on a third world championship and Williams can approach a season with confidence for the first time in many years.
At the other end of the scale, McLaren and Lotus will be praying they can avoid another dismal campaign.
Predictions are never an exact science; making them so early and without seeing the cars on track could be considered rather foolish. But my then-colleague Fraser Masefield tried it last year and didn't do too badly.
So here are my six very early predictions on how the 2015 season will shake out.
Mercedes Will Again Be on Top
An easy one to start—Mercedes will once again be the team to beat.
Toward the end of the 2014 season, their race pace lap-time advantage over even their nearest rivals was at least half a second. When pushing, they could extend this margin to a full second or more.
Part of this advantage came from their power unit. According to comments reportedly made by a Lotus engineer to Auto Motor Und Sport (h/t grandprix.com for the English translation), it has an 85 horsepower advantage over the Renault and weighs 18 kilograms less.
But the V6 turbo hybrid wasn't the only factor—the lead Mercedes had over their customer teams shows their chassis was very good as well.
The law of diminishing returns suggests at least someone should be a little closer in 2015—but even if Mercedes stood still, it would be tough to bridge the whole gulf.
And they won't stand still. The masterpiece that is the PU106A engine will be developed into something even better and the W06 chassis will be a step forward on its predecessor.
On top of that, Mercedes also have one of the best driver pairings on the grid, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
All the ingredients for another season on top.
Lewis Hamilton Will Claim His 3rd World Title with Relative Ease
With his Mercedes team remaining on top, Lewis Hamilton will have a golden opportunity to become a three-time world champion.
Though the points table for much of 2014 suggested the battle between the Brit and team-mate Nico Rosberg was super-tight, the reality is that it wasn't. The final gap, 67 points, was more representative of the year.
Rosberg did indeed produce the better qualifying displays, but Hamilton's race performances were on a different level.
If the German can improve his long runs, we might see another close fight.
But it's more likely we'll see Hamilton fix his qualifying issues (specifically the lock-ups), start on pole more often and drive away to another title win.
And much to the disappointment of casual or neutral fans the world over, this one will be decided before the last race of the season.
McLaren Will Not Be Regular Podium Contenders
McLaren have been also-rans for the last two seasons. Even with the all-conquering Mercedes engine, they only managed two podiums in the whole of 2014.
In 2015 they'll lose the Mercedes, replacing it with a brand new Honda power unit. It's unclear exactly how good this is going to be, and no clues were provided by its disappointing debut at the end-of-season Abu Dhabi test.
Per BBC Sport's Andrew Benson, electrical issues limited the team to just five laps across two days. But such teething issues affected every manufacturer when they first ran their own engines, so it would be foolish to write Honda off based on that.
Without any solid evidence, we must rely on the balance of probability. Speaking in September, Honda motorsport chief Yasuhisa Arai told Formula1.com, "I have confidence that we will match Mercedes."
But can we really expect a company which has been out of F1 since 2008 to turn up and immediately roll out a power unit equal to one which so completely outclassed the efforts of Ferrari and Renault?
Or rather, equal to an improved, 2015 version of that power unit?
The probability needle settles on the "no" side.
But 2014 taught us that engines are a huge factor in F1 today. Don't expect race wins or regular podiums for the Woking boys—this will be a foundation year before a real title push in 2016.
Max Verstappen Won't Set the World on Fire
Max Verstappen has a lot to live up to.
The then-16-year-old was a little more than halfway through his first-ever season in proper single-seaters when he was named by Red Bull as a Toro Rosso driver for 2015. Speaking to Formula1.com, Red Bull adviser Helmut Marko described him as "an exceptional talent that comes along only once in decades."
Marko then added, when asked if Verstappen could be compared to anyone:
Most likely Ayrton Senna. And in such a case you must not look at his age. He has been talking with people who are experts when it comes to the development of youngsters and they all say that (in terms of) his mind he is more like 22 than 16. And regarding his skills behind the steering wheel, he has been racing since he was four years old—professionally. So we expect him to be competitive from the first race. We are not playing the lottery—we know what we are doing. And success proves us right.
Verstappen ended the year third in the Formula Three Euroseries.
He's good, he does indeed seem ahead of his years and will be the quicker of the two Toro Rosso drivers. Though he won the Formula Renault 3.5 series title this year, Carlos Sainz Junior's prior record doesn't inspire too much confidence.
But the young Dutchman's performances won't provoke further comparisons with Senna. Modern F1, with its complex engines and unique tyres, will be an alien world to Verstappen. A world he needs to learn to walk in before he can start running.
Daniil Kvyat did well in 2014 without looking like a megastar. If Verstappen can do as well as the Russian, it will be considered a job well done.
Lotus Will Be Back in the Points, but There'll Be No Return to the Glory Days
Lotus won races in 2012 and 2013, but they fell back spectacularly in 2014. Most of the blame was placed on the doorstep of engine supplier Renault, whose power unit could not compete with the Mercedes lump being used by many of their usual midfield rivals.
But we can't forget that Red Bull were usually the second-best team, and even Toro Rosso were points contenders at almost every race. Renault did indeed produce a poor engine, but Lotus put it into a poor car.
A switch to Mercedes engines will see their fortunes improve next season, but there'll be no return to podium contention.
Lotus just have too much work to do on the chassis side; without a massive budget to play with, the E23 will have more than a few of the E22's flaws. Though Romain Grosjean should be capable of a few strong runs and Pastor Maldonado can get the job done on his day, too many teams will be quicker.
On the bright side, they should score at least 10 times more points than they did in 2014.
Williams Will Have Another Good Season
Williams don't have the same budget as teams like Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, so there's a chance their excellent 2014 could be a one-off.
But I think they'll be able to carry their pace through to 2015.
The team moved forward during the year, making a mediocre start before progressing up the field to being regular podium contenders throughout the middle of the year and all the way to the end. That serves as proof that Williams can develop a car without a huge pile of cash.
What then, will they do with a slightly bigger budget? The extra they will receive for coming third in the constructors' championship—around $30 million, per Joe Saward's excellent chart—will be spent wisely.
In Valtteri Bottas they have a driver with the ability to reach and occasionally go beyond the limits of the car, and Felipe Massa can also be mighty on his day.
Maybe Red Bull will be too quick, but Williams should again be able to aim for regular podiums and third or fourth in the standings.