F1 2015 preview: Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg still streets ahead

With the grand prix season just a week away, David Tremayne runs the rule over the drivers and teams of 2015 and wonders whether anyone will be able to play catch-up with Mercedes?

Q | It’s not been a great off season for champion Lewis Hamilton away from the track has it?

A | His very public split with Nicole Scherzinger will have been traumatic for him and may have an ongoing effect during the season, but he says that he has spent time working on his music and relaxing with family and friends and that he is in a good space. It remains to be seen how the split will affect him.

Q | OK and won’t his team-mate Rosberg be distracted this season too?

A | He’s about to become a father, so it’ll be interesting to see if that affects his commitment. But it’s worth mentioning that less than a month after Nico was born, father Keke set the first 160mph lap of Silverstone.

No, Rosberg is this writer’s tip to bounce back even stronger than he was last year, which was strong enough to challenge Hamilton right to the final chequered flag. Disappointment will only have made him more determined than ever.

 

Q | Should be tasty. So have Rosberg and Lewis made up?

A | They have always been friends, albeit not in the buddy-buddy manner often assumed by the media. They’ve known each other for years and raced each other since childhood, so there’s not much they don’t know about one another.

Their relationship became very strained at times last year as they fought for the championship, notably in Monaco, Belgium and, to a lesser effect, prior to the race in Abu Dhabi.

But Rosberg’s heartfelt congratulations to the victorious Hamilton in his championship moment at Yas Marina went a long way to smoothing things out. Perhaps if they each learned something important last year, it’s to respect each other fully.

Q | So, is it Mercedes’ title again or do any other teams look hot in testing?

A | Consider this: Mercedes focused on getting all the important stuff, such as set-up, engine development and race simulations, right throughout testing. Others grandstanded testing with fast runs on soft and supersoft tyres which, of course, are quicker than the hard tyres Mercedes chose because their less durable compounds give greater grip.

But their race distances times were faster than anyone else’s and, when they finally switched to some runs on the soft-compound tyres in the last two days, both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg immediately went quicker than their rivals had on the faster supersofts. And both said that the chassis set-up was not yet perfect. The way things are right now, it’s Mercedes’ title to lose.

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Hamilton, right, and Rosberg pose with the new Mercedes W06 car in Spain

Q | So, can anyone challenge them this season?

A | Later in the season, perhaps. Look what Williams managed as Felipe Massa chased Hamilton home in Abu Dhabi last season. But on current form from testing, it’s unlikely Mercedes will be beaten by anything but reliability issues.

Williams, Ferrari and Red Bull have all been very hard at work over the winter. Williams have honed a great car and worked on operational shortcomings; Ferrari have undertaken one of their periodic revamps; and Red Bull have been urging Renault to give them a decent engine. It looks very close between the three of them – and each will be waiting to pounce if the Mercs hit trouble.

Q | How is Fernando Alonso?

A | Well, the reports in Spain on Thursday – that he suffered memory loss so severe that he forgot he was an F1 driver and thought it was 1995 – are incredibly worrying.

El Pais reported the McLaren driver responded to routine questions about his identity by saying: “My name is Fernando, I race karts and I want to be a Formula One driver.”

He has since been seen smiling cheerfully in hospital, though, and the medical imperative to avoid the risk of a secondary cranial impact so soon after such a big crash provides what seems to be a valid reason for his enforced absence from the opening race. But these fresh reports cast doubt on his return to duty for the Malaysian GP later in the month – and in the longer term.

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Alonso waves as he leaves hospital

It’s been a strange off season for him: he wasn’t electrocuted prior to crashing his McLaren during testing in Barcelona in February. It’s also unlikely that he suffered some sort of fit which made him crash. Obfuscation, and the inevitable media frenzy in the aftermath and the absence of firm answers to probing questions, blew things out of proportion.

Q | What’s going on at Ferrari?

A | A bit of a revival, if testing performances are to be believed. Sebastian Vettel is settling in well (though he has a lot to do if he is to emulate Nigel Mansell, Kimi Raikkonen and Alonso and win his first race with the Scuderia). And Raikkonen, himself, was seen smiling in testing in Jerez and Barcelona.

The new car has a much better engine and a front end that goes where the drivers point it. And the new management is also heading in the right direction. Mercedes have their eye on the red cars, while Williams and Red Bull expect them to challenge them hard for “best of the rest” status in the early going.

Q | Is this season going to be anything more than a farewell tour for Jenson Button at McLaren?

A | Absolutely, provided he gets a car that is driveable and competitive. And so long as he keeps Kevin Magnussen in his place when his 2014 team-mate – whom he beat to the 2015 seat to partner Fernando Alonso – stands in for the Spaniard in Australia.

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Jenson Button has re-signed with McLaren

Q | Are there any up and coming drivers we can expect to make a name for themselves over the next eight months?

A | Two to watch who have race seats are the rookies at Toro Rosso. At 17, Max Verstappen will become the youngest-ever driver to start a grand prix in Melbourne. The son of former F1 racer Jos, he’s been likened to Ayrton Senna by Red Bull’s Helmut Marko, who signed him to the energy drinks’ satellite team. Carlos Sainz Jnr is also the son of a famous racing dad, former rally champion Carlos.

Watching how they progress, and how they interact, will be one of the fascinations of the year, as will Daniil Kvyat’s graduation to Red Bull, where he hopes to do to Daniel Ricciardo what the Australian did to Vettel last year.

Elsewhere, British rookie Will Stevens gets his chance at Manor, while fellow countrymen Jolyon Palmer – son of former F1 driver Jonathan – at Lotus and Susie Wolff and Alex Lynn at Williams get their Friday morning opportunities as development drivers to show what they can do.

Q | Are there any rule changes this year?

A | Yes, but not many. After a lot of lobbying, Ferrari and Renault have been allowed to bypass the engine development “freeze” in an attempt to close the gap that Mercedes opened up in 2014 through superior engineering.

Additionally, there are minor changes to the rules regarding penalties when a driver has to change an engine. In the past that meant grid penalties, which could roll on to the next race. Now, if a driver gets a 10-place penalty but has only qualified 15th, meaning he has five places still to pay, he’ll get a commensurate time penalty added to his race time instead of a grid place penalty next time out.

Otherwise, there are minor changes to the rules on aerodynamics and rear suspension and stronger cockpits.

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Manor Marussia will be on the grid come Australia

Q | Can miracles still happen in F1?

A | Well, the last one was probably Pastor Maldonado’s victory for Williams in Spain in 2012 – until Graeme Lowdon and John Booth raised Manor Marussia phoenix-like from the ashes of the old Marussia team. These guys are pure racers who do things properly (see the honourable and resilient way in which they handled Jules Bianchi’s brutal accident at Suzuka last October).

Nobody really expected them to survive terrible financial issues, let alone to get their cars to Melbourne. But with the help of energy magnate Stephen Fitzpatrick and with former Sainbury’s chief executive Justin King as interim chairman, they have. That just goes to show that it’s not all bad within the sport.

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