F1 Preseason Testing: 5 Storylines to Watch in Jerez

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistJanuary 28, 2015

F1 Preseason Testing: 5 Storylines to Watch in Jerez

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    Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes dominated in 2014—will that dominance continue this year?
    Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes dominated in 2014—will that dominance continue this year?Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    The first Formula One preseason test starts on Sunday, February 1 at the Circuito de Jerez in southern Spain.

    It has only been two months since Lewis Hamilton won the 2014 world championship in Abu Dhabi, but we're already on the cusp of a new season.

    After a winter of chatter regarding engine-development loopholes, when Hamilton will sign a new contract and Jenson Button's wedding, the first test will finally start to answer some of our questions about the new season.

    Can anyone catch Mercedes? How powerful is Honda's new engine? Is Sebastian Vettel the answer to Ferrari's woes?

    Here are five storylines to watch in Jerez.

Missing the First Test

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    Lotus missed the first 2014 test and were on their back foot for most of the season.
    Lotus missed the first 2014 test and were on their back foot for most of the season.Andre Penner/Associated Press

    Force India have already confirmed they will miss the first test in Jerez (although that did not stop them from revealing their new livery in Mexico last week).

    The Silverstone-based team retain the same driver lineup from 2014—the experienced Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez—but with testing so limited in modern F1, missing any track time hurts.

    Last season, Lotus missed the first test and then suffered through a terrible season, scoring just 10 points. That poor performance was not a result of missing one test, but missing the test showed the team was behind schedule, and they never quite caught up.

    Meanwhile, at Milton Keynes, Red Bull are in a race against time to have their new car ready for Jerez.

    On Tuesday, team principal Christian Horner told reporters the RB11 was not ready yet, but, "We're flat out into car build at the moment. ... The car being produced in the shortest time ever, with the design (team) hitting all their deadlines and targets."

    The first test last season was a disaster for Red Bull, as problems with their Renault power unit limited them to just 21 laps, per the official F1 website, the fewest of any team.

    A better start to this season is imperative if the team wants to reel in Mercedes.

How Much Faster Are the 2015 Cars

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    Pirelli's Paul Hembery predicts a big improvement from 2014.
    Pirelli's Paul Hembery predicts a big improvement from 2014.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

    Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery is predicting much quicker cars in 2015, the second season of the new hybrid-engine formula.

    He recently told Autosport's Jonathan Noble:

    The teams have had the ability to change things over the winter, particularly on the powertrain front, and we anticipate by the time we are in Melbourne, or at the latest China, we will see some pretty significant jumps compared to last season.

    We know we are always chasing a moving target—and I think we are talking about maybe being two to three seconds per lap quicker than last season. That is a massive difference.

    The Jerez test will be our first clue as to whether that bold prediction is correct. Testing times are notoriously unreliable, as teams are rarely running flat-out—especially at the first test of the season. Still, a comparison of lap times with the first test from last season should give us an early indication of just how much the 2015 cars have improved.

    Last year's Belgian Grand Prix was the first race in which 2014's fastest lap was quicker than in 2013, the last season of the old V8 engines. This year it could be a regular occurrence.

Is McLaren's New Honda Engine Powerful and Reliable?

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    McLaren's Fernando Alonso and Ron Dennis are hoping a new Honda partnership will bring a championship back to Woking.
    McLaren's Fernando Alonso and Ron Dennis are hoping a new Honda partnership will bring a championship back to Woking.Handout/Getty Images

    There was great excitement when McLaren and Honda announced they were reuniting the partnership that produced four straight titles from 1988 to 1991. Now we will finally start to see whether that enthusiasm will translate into on-track results.

    The Japanese manufacturer was last seen in F1 in 2008, limping to a ninth-place finish in the constructors' standings before withdrawing from the sport.

    McLaren has been down recently as well. Their last victory came at the end of 2012, and despite having the best engine on the grid last season, the team managed just two podium finishes. Now they will try to improve with an untested power unit.

    There are two possibilities for Honda: With an extra year of development and a chance to observe the other three power units in 2014, they could be quick right out of the gate...or, missing a full year of race and testing data and experience, they may take some time to match their rivals' performances.

    The Jerez test will show us which of those scenarios is more likely.

Have Ferrari and Renault Closed the Gap on Mercedes?

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    Will extra time to develop their engines help Renault and Ferrari catch Mercedes?
    Will extra time to develop their engines help Renault and Ferrari catch Mercedes?Michael Probst/Associated Press

    This is the million-dollar question.

    Mercedes ran away with both championships last season, and for the sake of an exciting championship battle, most people outside of Mercedes' Brackley base (and those of their engine customers) are hoping that Renault and Ferrari have been able to close the gap in power-unit performance.

    Renault managing director Cyril Abiteboul recently said, per ESPN F1, "We believe we have made a very big step in performance and will be more reliable. We do not know where the others will be; we may not have erased all the gaps, but we are confident that we have gone a long way to making up the deficit of last season."

    Abiteboul also told French cable channel Canal+ (via Crash.net) that Renault are targeting five victories for their power units this year. Last season, they scored three—all from Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo.

    Meanwhile, Ferrari spent the offseason making massive personnel changes in Maranello after their first winless season since 1993. Technical director James Allison recently spoke to Ferrari's official website (h/t official F1 website) about their 2015 challenger, saying there is "still a lot of opportunity for finding performance in the power unit—and equally true on the aerodynamic side."

    Next week, we will get an idea of just how much work remains to be done at Ferrari and Renault.

Rookie Watch

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    After one year in F3, Max Verstappen will become the youngest driver in F1 history.
    After one year in F3, Max Verstappen will become the youngest driver in F1 history.MAX NASH/Associated Press

    Plenty of eyes will be on Toro Rosso's 17-year-old rookie Max Verstappen next week. After a spectacular first year in Formula Three—he won 10 of 33 races and finished third in the championship—he is making a big leap to F1.

    Helmut Marko, who is responsible for the Red Bull Junior Team, compared the young Dutchman to F1 legend Ayrton Senna in an interview with the official F1 website last year. Meanwhile, Verstappen's meteoric rise has already helped triggered a change to the FIA's Super Licence regulations, limiting the ability of future prodigies to make early jumps to F1.

    Verstappen held his own when he got behind the wheel of a Toro Rosso for a few late-season Friday practice sessions in 2014. Now he is less than two months away from his first grand prix—and you can bet his performances in testing will be closely followed.

    Aside from Verstappen, there are two other potentially exciting rookies on the 2015 grid. One is his teammate, Carlos Sainz Jr. The 20-year-old Spaniard won the Formula Renault 3.5 crown last year, earning him a seat at Toro Rosso when Daniil Kvyat was promoted to Red Bull.

    The last rookie is Felipe Nasr, who finished third in GP2 in 2014. He also spent last year as Williams' test driver before snagging a Sauber race seat.

    With Toro Rosso and Sauber likely to be fighting it out near the back of the grid in 2015, there could be a great battle between the three rookies. The Jerez test will provide a preview and perhaps show us which of these young men is most prepared for his first F1 season.

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