Formula One races into the unknown

New rules and engine changes look set to herald Formula One into a new era as the 2014 season takes off in Melbourne.

Will Sebastian Vettel win a fifth successive crown? Many experts do not think so [GALLO/GETTY]

While Formula One wrangles with financial issues away from the circuit, the one thing that does hold the fans’ love is competition.

Even that, in F1, had been slipping away in recent years. Money has dominated proceedings – Bernie Ecclestone’s court cases and, around the track, talk often revolves around technical complexity and the likelihood of a tyre wearing away.

Sebastian Vettel has won four titles in a row, echoing the ruthless domination of compatriot Michael Schumacher between 2000 and 2004. Drastic changes were needed to spice up the sport and there is no doubt that these have been made. 

Focus on Vettel

The 2014 season is shaping up to be one of the most anticipated of recent years. Several big rule changes have been shaking up the status quo – changes that have not been kind to Vettel or Red Bull if pre-season testing is anything to go by.

While things might improve for him as the season goes on, it's already clear Vettel won't win the title this year

by Adam Cooper, Formula One journalist

“Over the last two or three years, the ongoing success of Vettel hasn’t captured the imagination,” said F1 fanatic and journalist Adam Cooper, who has been at every F1 race since Japan 1994. “While things might improve for him as the season goes on, it’s already clear Vettel won’t win the title this year.”

The main rule-change sees the arrival of a new engine (or as the professionals call it, power unit).

“It’s safe to say that the Mercedes-powered cars look better than those with Ferrari or Renault power units. But which of those teams will win the first race is uncertain,” Motor Sport magazine journalist Ed Foster told Al Jazeera.

Powered by a Renault engine, Red Bull have struggled throughout pre-season testing in Jerez and Bahrain with their longest run throughout the winter was just 20 laps. Hamilton enters the race as favourite – especially after topping the opening practice on Friday – but this is a Grand Prix where anything can happen.

“Without doubt this is one of the most unpredictable seasons of recent years,” added Foster. “Whenever there’s a major rule change, there are big winners and losers – it’s a bit like wiping the board clean.”

While ruling out Vettel seems premature to him, Foster agrees Melbourne is up for grabs.

“Australia is a massive opportunity for smaller teams to score some points because the retirement rate is going to be higher than normal. I’d say the chances of half the cars finishing is slim.”

This provides an exciting, if slightly daunting, challenge for the sport and it remains unclear how fans will respond to retirements of their favourite drivers.

Changes galore

The new power-unit is just one of several major changes the 2014 season will witness.

“There are a lot of aerodynamic rules that the teams have to adapt to, and that will be a big area of development over the season, and will probably play a major role in determining which team ultimately comes out on top,” said Cooper.

Hamilton has been touted as favourite to win the season-opening race in Melbourne, especially after coming out top in the practice session [Reuters]

Double points for the final race in Abu Dhabi has created some controversy – the idea was to keep the title battle going but majority of fans and F1 insiders hate it. Less contentious is drivers having the same car number for the rest of their career, a nice touch for fans and handy for marketing purposes.”

Fuelling drama

The F1 circus flies around the globe so to suggest that the sport is green is plain ludicrous. However, fuel management has never been more important and the new engines are up to 40% more fuel efficient with every drop of energy expected to be utilised.

“This year the cars can only use 100kg of fuel during a race which is about 60kg less than last season,” said Foster. “The big issues this year will be trying to finish the race on the amount of fuel they have and also trying to explain how all the technology works to the fans.”

Many fans will be hoping that the tiring tyre talk (TTT) – which climaxed at Silverstone when six tyres blew up – will not dominate proceedings.

“I really hope we’re not talking about tyres as much this season as we have been. I don’t think we will hear so much about tyres because the compounds are slightly harder.”

The first race of the season is usually a game of trial and error, but Cooper says Melbourne is looking trickier than ever.

“Australia always has a high retirement rate because there are lots of incidents. Even in a normal year, cars are still unproven and thus potentially fragile mechanically at the first race. Testing showed that none of the teams can be confident about avoiding reliability problems and everyone will have their fingers crossed until the very last lap.”

Right now, Formula One is anything but boring and this could win back a few fans who are sitting on the fence.

Source: Al Jazeera