Who Can Topple Mercedes Superiority?

During the winter, two story-lines have dominated the headlines. Following their entry into administration at the end of last season, Manor Marussia’s hopes of making the grid have been a feature of the back pages, alongside the mystery surrounding Fernando Alonso, post second test shunt. However, one fundamental question has been at the forefront of all F1 related discussions; can Mercedes, who dominated the 2014 campaign with an unrelenting grip, be toppled in 2015? If so, which team is best placed to take the spoils?

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Mercedes’ Mighty Winter

Ultimately, the safe answer would be that the form guide will remain stable as the paddock heads to Melbourne, with Mercedes clasping a sizable advantage over the opposition. In fact, Nico Rosberg’s 1:22.792, set on the soft compound tyre, could be a pre-cursor to the W06 enjoying a superior performance margin than that of its predecessor. In a year of evolution rather than revolution, it is to be expected that the dominant team of last season open this campaign with the fastest package. As such, the odds of success are stacked against their rivals, even at this early stage.

Total Pre-Season Mileage 2015

The statistics to illustrate the strength of Mercedes’ pre-season are astounding. On the very first day in Jerez, Rosberg managed 157 laps; a record number for the opening day of testing. A feat of that magnitude has never been achieved before. In addition, the team managed to surpass 6,000 kilometers of running despite a programme based on “experimental set-up work” on the final two days, which saw them spend long periods in the solitude of the garage. Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton’s fever and Nico Rosberg’s ‘pain in the neck’ ensured that their drivers spent at least part of the winter at sub-100%.

Ominous signs then for any team looking to topple the Brackley based squad, yet there are candidates to take on the task of Merc-beaters.

Williams Employ Stealth

With their heroics in 2014 and a resurgence fit for the big screen, it is in part surprising how quiet Williams have been during the winter months. Their Friday running in 2014 was characterized by a lack of glory runs. They would silently complete a programme and let their pace emerge when it mattered on a Saturday afternoon. On the basis of pre-season, I would expect this trend to continue into this season.

It was a stealthy operation from the squad in pre-season, particularly in the first two tests. Both Felipe Massa and Vatteri Bottas made appearances at the head of the timesheet in the final week, but even then, the team ran a discreet programme. The fact that they began packing up in the hour before the chequered flag fell on the final day in Barcelona suggests that they were more than content with their winter running. They may have covered 1,000 kilometers less than the Silver Arrows, but the FW37 has seemingly completed every task that was asked of it this winter.

Meanwhile, in Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa, the team have one of the best driver pairings on the grid. Complementing each other perfectly, both drivers demonstrated the potential to take a victory in 2014 and while the top step ultimately eluded them, they are surely set for an elevation this season. Since the US Grand Prix of 2013, the team’s trajectory of improvement has been near vertical.

As such, I would cite Williams as the biggest threat to Mercedes dominance this season and if a championship challenge present’s itself, it would be a close fight between Valtteri and Felipe. The Brazilian may have ended last season 52 points in arrears of his opposite number, but it was a season tarnished by unfortunate incidents which cost him valuable points. In addition, Massa has experienced the intensity which characterises a title tilt before and despite having Mika Hakkinen in his contact list, this is experience which Valtteri Bottas would be unable to draw upon directly. However, being an ice cool Finn, Valtteri should have the mental strength and composure to deal with a championship chance.

In short, both Williams drivers are well equipped heading into 2015 and their chances will largely be dictated by how much ground the engineers at the team have managed to claw back from Mercedes over the past few months.

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The German Job

The pun may be poor, but the point stands; Sebastian Vettel has left Red Bull and joined Ferrari at the perfect time. Much was made of the German’s lackluster performance against the Aussie sensation Daniel Ricciardo last season and another year of being consistently beaten would have been disastrous to Sebastian’s market value. As such, a move away from home was necessitated.

The overhaul at Maranello has been completed and for the first time in a long time, a clear management structure is evident and in Arrivabene, the team have found the strong leadership which is essential to success at the team. In Vettel, they have found their new Schumacher. A figurehead, who has the potential to drive the team into a new ear of success.

The early exchanges in the testing season perhaps overstated the pace of the SF15-T. Ferrari spent much of the Jerez test with short run performance in mind, while the likes of Mercedes and Williams placed an emphasis on gauging long run credentials.

However, the term ‘flatter to deceive’ is not yet on the radar. Undoubtedly, appearing at the top of the timesheet for three days from a possible four in the first test was an overstatement, but Ferrari are set for a much better campaign in 2015 compared to 2014 and perhaps even 2013. Wins seem possible in a much improved car. In addition, the team now have two drivers capable of taking the top step, with Kimi Raikkonen proclaiming his satisfaction with the steps taken to provide him with a car which meets his narrow requirements. Sebastian Vettel has looked immediately at home in red overalls.

There is of course, plenty of work to do and as such, Ferrari are not likely to return to championship glory in 2015. 2016 and beyond on the other hand, is a very different story. This season should be a springboard for the Vettel-era at Maranello and a brace of victories would be just the tonic that the Italians crave after a win-less season.

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Red Bull Power-Limited

Tokens are essential to Red Bull’s chances in 2015, as pre-season has highlighted flaws which remain in the Renault powertrain. Following a winter where reliability has been prioritised, it seems that the French manufacturer has failed to close the power chasm that exists between them and their rivals. Christian Horner has cited that the RB11 will be 80bhp down on the Mercedes in Melbourne and Ferrari’s excellent powertrain development over the winter would suggest to me that a similar void exists to the Italian squad.

80bhp is a substantial loss to attempt to recover with aerodynamic efficiency. The RB11 certainly looks impressive, with aggressive packaging to the rear suggesting that it will create typical amounts of Red Bull downforce, but as became apparent throughout the 2014 campaign, Mercedes are just as capable of constructing a chassis equal to that of the four time champions.

Red Bull’s most powerful asset, therefore, is the man piloting their machine. Daniel Ricciardo’s race craft last season was impeccable and the manner in which he claimed victory in Hungary was simply breathtaking. Along with the equally impressive Valtteri Bottas, he is a champion in waiting. However, based on his team’s pre-season, the wait looks likely to continue past 2015 for the popular Aussie.

A race winner, most certainly, but a W06 beater over the course of a full season, the RB11 is surely not.

Ultimately, 2015 looks set to be another duel between Hamilton and Rosberg. However, challenges could be mounted by either Felipe Massa or Valtteri Bottas, while Ferrari and Red Bull seem destined for podiums and occasional victories. Let me know what you think on Twitter, @KGibbsGP, with your predictions ahead of the 2015 season.

Images Credit: "https://www.flickr.com/photos/rachelc/sets/72157650713847908"
By Rachel Clarke via Flickr
[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/legalcode]
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