Before anything else can be said about the 2014 Formula 1 season, it is necessary at this point in time to preface with a sincere hope that Marussia driver Jules Bianchi of Nice, France experiences a full recovery from his severe injuries sustained in his crash at the Japan Grand Prix in Suzuka. Motorsport is dangerous—Jules knew this far better than most of us can—and yet he regularly strapped himself into a Formula 1 machine that was never going to win a race, simply because (and I can find no other way to express this) motorsport is glorious, too. Indeed, all of the very best to young Jules and his family.
The 2014 Formula 1 season raised the curtain on a new era. F1 has forever been the most scientifically advanced racing series, and in 2014 it would raise the technological bar to never-before-seen heights. Leaving the V8s of 2013 behind, the new “power units” (it would be a vast oversimplification to call them “engines”) output nearly the same energy as their forebears, but while using 35% less fuel. They accomplish this by incorporating a turbocharged 1.6L V6 and two massively complex electric propulsion systems: one connected to the V6’s crankshaft, and one mounted to the turbocharger’s turbine shaft. Both of these provide both energy capture and energy output. For example, the turbine shaft system (MGU-H) generates electricity created by the spinning of the turbo (which is motivated by the engine exhaust gases) and can send that power to the other electric system (MGU-K), which can add up to 120kW to the driven wheels. Alternatively, the MGU-H can expend collected energy by keeping the massive turbo spinning while exhaust gases are NOT flowing (i.e., the driver is off-throttle while slowing for a corner). Thus when the driver reapplies power exiting the corner, there is no waiting for maximum power from the turbo since it never slowed its spin.
Of course this is all much more easily stated in words than physically made to happen. The electronics assemblies in the cars must be meticulously programmed to make all of these parts do the right jobs at the right places and right times, optimally in a manner completely transparent to the driver, all while being thrashed around a track, wheel to wheel with other cars, at speeds up to two hundred miles per hour.
It sounds preposterous. Nigh impossible. And yet with each passing race, we see the F1 teams come out and put this technology to use. And in the case of the Mercedes AMG Patronas team, we see it put to use in a manner which has proved better than all others.
In this age of such stunning technology, there was concern the machines would overshadow the men piloting them. That has not been the case. In fact, far from being the relative snooze-fest that was the 2013 season, 2014 has been utterly gripping. Both Mercedes teammates, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, are at the top of their game, battling against each other lap by lap, race by race, for the driver’s championship.
Lewis last won the title in 2008 with McLaren, the team that brought him into the sport. He surprised many by leaving McLaren at the end of the 2012 season for Mercedes, whose cars were hardly competitive in the era prior to 2014. He’s proven that the move was a masterful one, both for him and the Silver Arrows.
Nico started in F1 with Williams and performed solidly enough to generate interest at Mercedes, who signed him for the 2010 season. While often overshadowed as a result of being teamed with 7-time world champion Michael Schumacher, Rosberg frequently earned the better result of the two. Now, he’s overshadowed again by being paired with Hamilton, who hails from the UK—the seat of power in F1. It hasn’t dulled his ability to win.
At the 2014 season opener in Australia, Hamilton was forced to retire with engine trouble while Rosberg crushed the field, winning by 24 seconds. Next up was Malaysia, where Hamilton took the top step of the podium, besting his teammate by 17 seconds. This was the first of a string of four wins for Hamilton, the most thrilling of which took place in Bahrain, where he and Rosberg dueled wheel-to wheel so fanatically that during a period of yellow flag, Mercedes’ team technical director Paddy Lowe implored Hamilton to “make sure we bring both cars home.”
Rosberg dominated Memorial Day weekend at Monaco, taking the top step of the podium at F1’s most glamorous race for the second year in a row. In Canada, the Mercedes cars encountered reliability problems. Hamilton was unable to finish the race due to brake failure, while Rosberg nursed his car to the checkered flag with an MGU-K problem, managing second behind the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo. Brake problems again plagued the Mercs in Austria, requiring constant attention from both Nico and Lewis, with Rosberg notching another victory over Hamilton, who finished second.
Heading to Silverstone for the British Grand Prix, the storyline revolved around hometown crowd favorite Hamilton barely hanging onto his championship hopes. Rosberg seemed to have weathered the previous races’ reliability storm a bit better, and had built a significant points lead in doing so—165 to 136. With the Mercs’ nearest competition far behind and eleven races remaining in the season, it seemed that Hamilton could hardly depend upon recovering the lead conventionally, were he only able to claw back seven points at a time (first place pays 25 points; second pays 18), allowing for some inconsistency.
Hamilton seemed to seal his fate at Silverstone when during qualifying he set a great lap time, only to relax on his final lap before time expired in the belief he could not better his time. Track conditions were improving, however, and Rosberg (as well as four other drivers) pounced, relegating Hamilton to sixth on the starting grid. Lewis had no explanation for not playing to the proverbial whistle, looking visibly staggered in the post-qualifying presser and calling it “my mistake.”
Hamilton charged back through the field on race day and was pressuring Rosberg, but further drama was unnecessary; Nico’s gearbox failed. Hamilton went on to win, narrowing the points gap from 29 to 4 in one fell swoop. The UK crowd was delirious to see this play out before their eyes.
The competition remained tight through the German and Hungarian GPs, with Lewis dogging Nico’s every step. In Germany, Hamilton suffered a wince-inducing crash in qualifying due to a brake malfunction, then battled up through the field on race day to achieve a third-place finish while Nico breezed to a win. Hamilton battled yet more adversity at the Hungaroring when his car was consumed by fire in qualifying—he still managed to finish third, with Nico fourth. Then, at Spa in Belgium, the drama intensified yet another notch: while battling for the lead, the two Mercedes cars touched, and Hamilton got the worst of it, coming away with his left rear tire cut and deflated. Unable to finish the race, Hamilton watched as his teammate took the win, returning his points lead to 29. After the race, Rosberg admitted culpability and was “disciplined” by the team.
At Monza in Italy, Hamilton’s car bogged down at the start. Rosberg leapt into the lead, but twice during the race missed the chicane at the end of the start/finish straight (the second time while under intensifying pressure from Hamilton, and after saying to his engineer “do not tell me the gap [between Lewis and I]”). Rosberg’s gaffe enabled Hamilton to regain first position and take the victory over his teammate by three seconds.
Two weeks later in Singapore, the two Mercs qualifying times were separated by a mere seven-thousandths of a second. Rosberg suffered an electronics failure on the race starting grid, however, and ultimately retired after thirteen slow, frustrating laps. Hamilton battled hard in the heat and humidity with the Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo, ultimately maximizing his tires over a long fast stint to build a lead large enough to survive a late-race pit stop for fresh rubber. Vettel overtook Hamilton as Lewis exited the pits, but only just, and the Mercedes car spent only one lap behind the Red Bull and its spent tires before blasting past into turn seven. Hamilton then pulled away and logged a victory by a margin of thirteen seconds, vaulting him back into the overall points lead for the first time since the Spanish GP more than four months earlier.
Race day on the stunning Suzuka Circuit in Japan brought significant rain from the fringes of Typhoon Phanfone. Rosberg had qualified in the dry two-tenths faster than Hamilton, but complained of oversteer in the wet race conditions. Hamilton proved faster, overtaking his teammate into turn one midway through the race, which saw two periods of red flag. “Lewis was quicker today and deserved the win,” Nico said afterward. It was Hamilton’s third first-place finish in a row.
All of which brings us to the present. Four grands prix remain: Russia, USA, Brazil, and Abu Dhabi. Somewhat ridiculously (2010-2013 world champion Vettel called it “absurd”), the winner at Abu Dhabi will score double points, that is, 50 instead of the usual 25. So as if there was not enough drama in the season thusfar—after fires, malfunctions, collisions, drifts, pit lane starts, crashes, some epic saves, and some incredibly tight, flat-out wheel-to-wheel racing—it seems very likely that the championship will remain undecided until the final race. After early-season concern that the new cars might not sound good enough, the on-track product his been so compelling that that discussion has fallen out of the collective consciousness entirely (well, almost entirely).
While some decry the hybrid era, this author welcomes it. It’s pushed F1 back to the forefront of powerplant technology as well as brought on some spectacular competition. Here’s to a great 2014 season, here’s to a great final sprint to the checkered flag, and here’s to the health of Jules Bianchi.