F1 2015 Season Preview: Drivers and Teams

For the third day of our 2015 Formula One season preview is a look at the drivers and teams that are contesting this year’s World Championship. We’re down one team from 2014 as Caterham has closed up shop despite a crowdfunded last ditch effort to pick up some prize money at Abu Dhabi. There are also a few driver changes at the head of the field to go over as well. It’s not a completely overhauled grid but there some big changes that you’ll want to go over before the Australian Grand Prix.

f1-2015-preview-mercedes-w06Mercedes AMG

#44 Lewis Hamilton
#6 Nico Rosberg

Nothing of note changes at the champions for 2015. In fact, Lewis Hamilton didn’t even change his car number to #1. That’s how much things aren’t changing at Mercedes. Of course, in IndyCar, they consider the #1 on a car to be a jinx. However, this will be the first time that I’ve been able to find where an active champion won’t be running #1.

Based on the result of pre-season testing, it looks like this season will be a runaway Constructors’ Championship win for Mercedes with Hamilton and Rosberg duelling for the Drivers’ Championship. While it might get a little repetitive to see the same two cars up front the whole season, we can hope for some more intra-team battles and reliability issues to spice things up during the 2015 season.

f1-2015-preview-red-bull-rb11Red Bull Racing – Renault

#3 Daniel Ricciardo
#26 Daniil Kvyat

Red Bull undergoes a major driver change for the second year running but it’s the better driver from the previous season who stays once again. After a subpar 2014, Sebastian Vettel leaves RBR for Ferrari. In his place is Daniil Kvyat who will make the Red Bull A-team after only one season in F1.

This year will be the first where we can properly see the depth of the Red Bull Junior Team driver development program. The program was put in place to get their drivers into F1 but only Sebastian Vettel had any staying power. Ricciardo was really only the second driver to have any success at the end of the development road. Now, Kvyat is being thrown into the deep end and Red Bull doesn’t really have a backup plan if he fails miserably.

The concerns this season are several at Milton Keynes. Adrian Newey is still inside the Red Bull family but is no longer in charge of designing the RB cars and had only limited involvement in the RB11. The Renault engine seems to still be down on power relative to the Mercedes and Ferrari engines which won’t help Red Bull’s competitiveness. And Ricciardo admits to hating testing which makes me slightly concerned about how much help he will be with development of the RB11.

f1-2015-preview-williams-fw37Williams – Mercedes

#77 Valtteri Bottas
#19 Felipe Massa

Much like Mercedes, the second-best Mercedes-powered team hasn’t changed much of note in the off-season but it looks like that will be enough to promote them to second in the World Constructors’ Championship.

It’s interesting to see Williams return to the form that we knew they could have. After on and off success through the 80s, 90s and 2000s dependent on engines, Williams turned around its fortunes in 2014 after a disastrous 2013. Part of that is the engine. Part of that is bringing in a top new driver in Massa along with Pat Symonds and Rob Smedley who helped change the culture of the team back into a successful one.

Given the team’s pace at the final test, it wouldn’t surprise me to see some more podiums for Massa and Bottas. One of the two might even pick up a win for the team. I think that’s the next logical goal on #BO77AS’ list.

f1-2015-preview-ferrari-sf15-tScuderia Ferrari

#5 Sebastian Vettel
#7 Kimi Raikkonen

We didn’t think that it would actually happen despite the long-rumoured pre-contract for the 2015 season but here we are with Sebastian Vettel wearing the red for Scuderia Ferrari. I believe around 2012, it was rumoured that Vettel had a pre-contract for the 2014 or 2015 season and he’s cashed in and jumped ship to Maranello.

Alongside Vettel is on-again, off-again Ferrari squeeze Kimi Raikkonen. Fernando Alonso has shown that he has to be the top dog at a team so keeping him with Seb was never going to work. The problem is that Raikkonen is expected to retire when his contract expires following this season. His seat was due to go to Jules Bianchi but that obviously won’t happen. Much like Red Bull, a succession plan is lacking at the Scuderia but they are believed to covet Nico Hulkenberg going forward.

The other big change at Ferrari is the arrival of new team principal Maurizio Arrivabene. Already, he seems to be a favourite son of the paddock. The mood at the Scuderia is said to have changed with people already likening it to that of Ferrari’s glory days. Arrivabene is also already challenging Bernie over fan access to teams, drivers and the paddock and the season hasn’t even started. I think we may like this guy.

As for the team, they could very well jump as high as second in the WCC this season. The Ferrari engines seem to have clawed back some of the power deficit to the Mercedes though I doubt they’re close to overtaking them. The Ferraris were fast at the first test but once action shifted to Barcelona, it was the Mercedes cars back on top. I doubt we’ll see a reversal of fortunes in Melbourne.

f1-2015-preview-mclaren-mp4-30McLaren – Honda

#14 Fernando Alonso
#22 Jenson Button
(#20 Kevin Magnussen)

That might be an all-star driver lineup but I wouldn’t hold my breath hoping for success out of McLaren in 2015. All of the reliability issues that McLaren has had during the pre-season makes me think that success in the first half of the season would be finishing races with scoring points the focus of the second half. It’s very likely that points will come if they finish races but reliability needs to be the focus.

So after being sent packing by Ferrari, Fernando Alonso returns to McLaren after a controversial one-year stint that saw him battle with Lewis Hamilton. Jenson Button can still put in a decent performance but he isn’t (and never was) close to Hamilton’s level so Fernando should be mentally set. However, Alonso is going to miss at least the first race of the year with a concussion following a crash in the second pre-season test. Kevin Magnussen, who was the odd man out for the team after 2014, will get to return to the circuit where he finished second in his debut Grand Prix.

For McLaren and Honda, it’ll be growing pains for 2015. They’re going to be building for a challenge next year and beyond to get close to a championship. However, unlike the V10 era, I don’t think Honda will be waiting until year five to get to best of the rest before pulling out. When the going got tough, they were certainly willing to get going. Will that experience eliminate any staying power Honda has this time out?

f1-2015-preview-force-india-vjm08Force India – Mercedes

#27 Nico Hulkenberg
#11 Sergio Perez

Ahead of the 2015 season opener in Melbourne, Force India was one of three teams to receive a £6.5 million advance on their prize money from the FOM. Without this advance, there was a possibility of only 12 or 14 cars making the grid for the first race and Bernie is obliged to have at least 16 cars in each race.

If that wasn’t proof SFI needed money, the fact that they didn’t show up with their 2015 car until the final test was pretty good evidence. However, their car seems to be reliable out of the box with a higher average daily distance than any other team in testing. That allowed them to run as much in three days and Honda did in three weeks.

So after scoring another 6th place in the WCC and the team’s most points ever in a season, now could be the time for them to crack the top five. With McLaren not looking strong on the reliability or drivability fronts, Force India could be the biggest beneficiary and get an almost default promotion to 5th in the WCC.

Hulkenberg and Perez return for another season. With F1 planning a return to Mexico in November, Perez’s presence on the team could help the team find much-needed sponsorship. Speaking of drivers, while Hulkenberg will be expected to lead the team again this year, one has to imagine that he’ll be very coveted in the off-season depending on the comings and goings of drivers in the top teams.

f1-2015-preview-toro-rosso-str10Scuderia Toro Rosso – Renault

#33 Max Verstappen
#55 Carlos Sainz Jr.

Red Bull’s second team is also the second-generation team. With Daniil Kvyat going to RBR proper and Jean-Eric Vergne’s time in F1 deemed over by Red Bull bosses, it’s time for two second-generation drivers take the wheel at Toro Rosso.

The more famous, or is it infamous, of the two is 17-year-old Max Verstappen. The son of former F1 driver Jos Verstappen will only be 17 years old when he starts his first F1 Grand Prix. He comes in fairly inexperienced with only one season in single-seater formula cars but he did manage 10 wins from 33 starts in last year’s European F3 championship. While he was going to make F1 sooner or later, the question is whether he needed a season in GP2 or Formula Renault 3.5 before making that jump to F1. I suppose that we’ll find out very quickly if he’s ready or not.

Coming in less heralded but with better credentials is 20-year-old Carlos Sainz Jr. He is the defending Formula Renault 3.5 champion so you can’t claim he hasn’t earned a spot in the field. Unlike Verstappen, Sainz’s father is a famous World Rally Champion so Carlito or Chili or which ever name you prefer, just don’t call him Junior, will be carving out his own name.

One description that seems to follow the STR10 is difficult to drive. Observers have suggested that the car’s back-end has looked very lively under breaking and acceleration which won’t make life easy on the two rookies. Combine that with that underwhelming Renault engine and I don’t see improvement in the cards for Toro Rosso in 2015.

f1-2015-preview-lotus-e23Lotus – Mercedes

#8 Romain Grosjean
#13 Pastor Maldonado

The second of three privateer teams who are known to be in dire financial straits, Lotus has found themselves in the best position to improve in 2015.

While Pastor Maldonado is still in Formula One thanks to his PDVSA backing, he and teammate Romain Grosjean will be helped immensely by the switch from Renault engines to Mercedes. McLaren’s move to Honda opened up Merc’s 4th engine supply contract opportunity and Lotus made the clever move to drop the underpowered Renault for Mercedes.

This instantly jumps Lotus from 8th to up to 5th with Toro Rosso and McLaren being the most likely to fall victim to Lotus’ new engines. Depending on money and development, they could vault past Force India since we know that Lotus is capable of developing a winning car that is capable of consistent podiums. They did in 2013. They’re more than capable of scoring consistent points in 2015 with their current package. The current second driver, though? I have a little less faith.

f1-2015-preview-manor-logoManor Marussia – Ferrari

#28 Will Stevens
#98 Roberto Merhi

Despite not being on the grid for the final three of the 2014 season and Bernie threatening to pull them from the 2015 entry list, the former Marussia squad says they will be in Australia for the first round of the 2015 season. Now under the name Manor Marussia (so the team is eligible for prize money and entry under the FIA’s endless red tape) and with the backing of Stephen Fitzpatrick, head of the energy firm Ovo, Manor looks set for 2015.

There are several questions facing Manor for 2015. If we take the money question out of the equation, there’s the matter of taking a car to Melbourne untested. This isn’t a question of whether they’ll finish the race but will they be allowed to make the race if they can’t qualify at 107% of the fastest Q1 time.

As for Will Stevens, he might officially be a rookie but he has one F1 Grand Prix under his belt. He reportedly paid £500,000 to drive for Caterham in the final race at Abu Dhabi last season. Prior to that, Stevens was a Marussia reserve driver so he’s really returning to the fold. One would assume that he’s also paying a couple of dollars to get a race seat with Manor this year.

In between writing the news roundup post and this one, Manor announced Spanish driver Roberto Merhi as their second driver. He’s not completely unheralded and probably comes in with better credentials than Stevens. He’s a member of the Mercedes-Benz Junior Team development programme and finished 3rd in last year’s Formula Renault 3.5 series. He doesn’t scream instant success but he has gotten a look at from Caterham and Manor in a test/development driver role. There’s potential there to be a competent hand but maybe not a superstar.

f1-2015-preview-sauber-c34Sauber – Ferrari

#9 Marcus Ericsson
#12 Felipe Nasr
(#TBA Giedo van der Garde)

For better or worse, the interesting part of Sauber’s season will be off-track. The team’s current money struggles are well-known and that will be the big story of 2015. After their first points-less season in team history, Sauber hired two pay drivers and got an advance on their prize money to help them get to the first race of the season.

To recap Sauber’s current estimated financial situation that has been documented previously on this blog, the team has brought in two pay drivers to supplement the existing sponsorship and prize money. It’s estimated that Sauber won $58 million for its 10th place WCC finish. Marcus Ericsson is said to have $18 million in personal backing while Nasr’s Banco do Brasil sponsorship is estimated to be worth $24 million. The estimated cost of running a mid-pack team is $120 million so there’s about a $10 million gap that is likely to be filled by existing or new sponsors brought in by Sauber. So it’s possible they could survive the season but a financial collapse would surprise no one.

Not helping matters for Sauber is that there are several unhappy people with Nasr and Ericsson driving the car. Last year, Adrian Sutil said he had a contract for a 2015 race seat but is on the outside looking in. Sergei Sirotkin signed with Sauber in 2013 with an eye to a 2014 race seat thanks to Russian backers but is running GP2 this year. And Simona de Silvestro was supposed to have a 2015 race seat but was let go when her sponsors stopped paying.

And there’s also Giedo van der Garde who launched legal action to get a race seat in 2015. Shockingly, on Wednesday, the Australian courts upheld his legal challenged and ordered that Sauber must run him in the Australian Grand Prix. Who knows how this affects Sauber going forward? As of writing, the team hasn’t nominated who their two drivers will be. We also don’t know how long the court’s ruling is enforceable for so it’s entirely possible that Gary is only in for this race. If it’s enforceable for the whole season, that will have a major impact on Sauber’s sponsorship package.

While Nasr is paying more than Ericsson for his race seat, the Brazilian also seems the more likely to score points. He has been in the top five of the last two GP2 championships which is better than Ericsson. Ericsson does have that year of F1 experience under his belt, though.

The Sauber C34 doesn’t look like the most inspiring car on the grid. It doesn’t look like a tightly packaged car like the other cars on the grid but it didn’t stop the car from being fast early in testing. That seems to be down to the Ferrari engine. However, this is the most promising that a Sauber has looked since 2012.

For the Swiss team, the goals for 2015 are three-fold: 1) Complete the season. 2) Score points. 3) Don’t finish last in the Constructors’ Championship. Assuming Manor is completely behind after missing testing, #3 should be easy. They’ll need some luck for the other two.


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