Can anyone stop Mercedes’ F1 steam-roller?

Williams, Ferrari and Red Bull closest to the all-conquering Mercs ahead of Melbourne

Mercedes-AMG looks to have F1’s 2015 season sewn up before it even starts.

Mercedes-AMG looks to have F1’s 2015 season sewn up before it even starts.

 

The key questions to ask ahead of the first race of the Formula One season opener in Melbourne this weekend is not who will be quickest or who will win, but how far ahead is the Mercedes-AMG team going to be? And how many runners and riders will still be standing at the end of the season in November? Or at the end of the second race, for that matter.

While Formula One enters the new season in the virtual certainty that the Mercedes team will once again be the one to beat, the uncertainty surrounding the teams towards the back of the grid will swirl for some time, and part of that uncertainty is doubt and debate over the very future of the sport itself. Of the two teams which fell under the financial guillotine at the end of 2014, one has managed to make a partial comeback. Marussia, named for an partially sponsored by a Russian car maker, has returned to the grid re-badged as Manor (the smaller, lower-formulae team from which it original sprung in 2010 as Virgin Racing) with a much-modified 2014-spec car.

While erstwhile rival Caterham folded and is currently having its assets sold at auction to interested bidders, Manor has scrabbled around looking for support both financial and political and has, for now, succeeded.

Whatever happens, it’s unlikely to trouble the sharp end of the grid though. Once again, all through winter testing, Mercedes looked ominously quiet and confident. Team manager Toto Wolff is playing the cautious card, saying that “fundamentally, making predictions at this stage is like trying to read a crystal ball, which is not what we want to do. Eventually, we are going to find out where we stand in Melbourne and the races afterwards, but as of right now we haven’t been racing and this is the only true test.”

Mercedes faster again

Wolff’s comments reflect the man’s in-built caution, but even he must know that the Mercedes team is reckoned to be almost a second faster per lap than even its closest competition. Its drivers, reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton and son-of-1982-champ-Keke Nico Rosberg are among the best on the grid and spent most of winter testing running specific programmes on reliability and systems checks, rather than going for glory, headline-grabbing laps. While Rosberg is a precise, analytical and blindingly fast driver, personally I wouldn’t be betting much salary that he’ll get one over the more naturally-talented Hamilton this year. It will likely be a close-run season between the two again this year, but it’s Hamilton’s title to lose.

The chasing pack is largely made up of Williams (which enjoyed a return to almost-winning ways last year), Red Bull (which may struggle again this year with under-fed Renault engine) and Ferrari (which looked to be the most-improved team of winter testing, relative to its dire 2014 performance).

McLaren revival?

And what of McLaren? The once-so-successful team is looking for a major comeback this year and has partnered with its iconic 80s and 90s engine supplier, Honda to try and trigger a revival. Testing has gone disastrously though, with poor engine reliability and an accident that has seen star ex-Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso told to sit out the opening race because of concussion. McLaren is a team that has the resources and expertise not merely to succeed, but to dominate. If it fails to do so, and soon, then the partnership with Honda could become poisonous and the lack of major sponsors on the side of the car will become ever more of an issue. Team boss Eric Boullier said that “it is obviously disappointing that we weren’t able to do as many kilometres in testing as we had hoped, but we are undeterred and working relentlessly to improve the reliability of the MP4-30, and ultimately, make progress in terms of our raw pace. Despite our difficulties, our package shows a lot of promise; we completed a lot of valuable system checks and set-up work during testing, and the data from Jenson [BUTTON]’s 101 laps on the second day of the final test in Barcelona is very encouraging.”

Mid-field, Red Bull’s junior team Toro Rosso could spring a surprise or two, as could a potentially-rejuvenated Lotus, now running the all-conquering Mercedes engine. Lotus could still fall foul of financial issues though – it’s running on a tight budget and if podiums and points finishes don’t come its way then things could start to look bleak again. For the likes of Force India, Sauber and Manor, survival could well hinge on the smallest of happenstance. Their collective backs are to the wall, in money terms and it’s more or less expected that at least one will not last the 2015 season distance.

F1 moneymen

Much of which is due to Formula One’s byzantine and murky financial setup. Because the sport’s governing body, the Federation International de l’Automobile (FIA) gave Bernie Ecclestone’s Formula One Management company the rights to sell F1 to a global audience, the value of the sport has been traded time and again until we find ourselves in the current setup. Which is that F1 is essentially owned by a venture capital company, CVC Capital Partners. CVC effectively employs Ecclestone to run the sport and this he does with something of an iron fist. Revenues from the sport, chiefly from TV rights and trackside advertising, run to around $1.5-billion per year. Of this, CVC takes almost $1-billion, leaving the rest to be divided between the teams. Theoretically, this should be sufficient to keep all teams happily afloat, but there’s a catch – the amount of revenue a team receives is dependent on its prior success, length in the sport and more. Basically, it means the bigger, more successful teams (Ferrari especially) get a big chunk while the smaller, more desperate teams get crumbs. It’s Darwinian selection at 330kmh.

Critics both within and without the sport are calling for changes – for CVC to re-invest in the sport it’s bleeding dry and for Ecclestone to finally, at last, depart the sport he has done so much to build and mould. If radical changes to the financial management of the sport are not made, and made very soon, those small teams will fall by the wayside, putting pressure on the remaining teams to field extra cars to prop up grid sizes.

Interestingly, its is small, frail Manor that could hold the key to a post-Ecclestone era. Part of the team’s new management is Justin King, a former head of supermarket giant Sainsbury’s whose son Jordan has been appointed to the team as a development driver. King’s name was repeatedly raised during the acrimonious bribery court case which almost saw Ecclestone toppled from his throne last year, and his succession to the Bernie role was allegedly approved by CVC boss Donald Mackenzie. So far, King has demurred on any questions of a role beyond Manor, telling Autosport magazine that “I have always been clear, I have never applied for a job where there isn’t a vacancy – and there isn’t a vacancy. I intend to do something a bit different from what I have done in the past. I am working on a few things - my interest in the sport is now because I am involved in Manor. I understand why people made a connection with F1 but that is because of my son.”

The appearance of a potential Ecclestone successor, working closely with one of the smaller teams which need significant changes to be made to F1 for them to survive will have chins, lips and tongues wagging and flapping the length of the pitlane at Melbourne. At some point amidst all this, a race will hopefully break out…

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