Right now, Formula 1 teams are toiling away building new cars for the 2015 season that gets underway in Australia on March 15. Just like 2014, there will be plenty of intrigue and drama, including three burning topics: radio bans, the re-surging Williams team and teenage driver Max Verstappen.
At the Singapore Grand Prix last September, the FIA announced it would strictly enforce the regulation: “The driver must drive the car alone and unaided.”
As such, the FIA forbade a wide range of radio communications from the pits to the driver that would improve the performance of the car or the driver. After tense discussions with the teams, however, the FIA backed off. While it still restricted driver aid-related radio messages, it did permit some car-related messages for the balance of the 2014 season.
This was a case of the FIA making a sweeping rule change without realizing the full implications. Quite simply, the 2014 cars are very complicated things. With a brand-new power unit and things such as energy levels in the batteries, or fuel consumption, they need to be monitored by the engineers who can then inform the drivers. There would have been times when drivers would not have been able to finish races without this vital information.
As for the driver coaching side of things, many of the drivers said they didn’t care, but they welcomed the changes because they could now prove their skills. Secretly however, some are dreading the changes, like one driver who frequently asks if he is in the right gear for a particular corner.
So while the FIA relaxed its radio rules for the rest of 2014, the teams will be very restricted in the amount of technical information they can deliver to their drivers in 2015.
The idea is to make the drivers’ job more difficult by forbidding, for example (as fans often heard on TV last year), chatter from the Mercedes pit informing Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg where one driver is gaining or losing speed on the track compared to the other.
Some of the drivers had to go back to school during the off-season to learn things that have been fed to them by radio communication in the past. Among the messages now banned: telling the driver how to manage his tires, race pace, fuel consumption use and/or engine settings.
“We will have to go to the bigger (steering wheel) dashboard in 2015 as that can display more information, and perhaps in terms of what we can send to the dashboard,” notes Williams Head of Vehicle Performance, Rob Smedley. “We are going to have to get heavily into driver training, not only in the simulator but in winter testing as well. The way that we operate on the pit wall will have to change as well.”
Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo believes the drivers will adapt.
“Go-karting was great,” he says. “Just by ourselves, the steering wheel and the pedals and that was it. It was probably more peaceful. As you grow up through the formulas, you start with radios, it is the first thing, and then you get more, and buttons, and this and that. You get used to it and adapt to it. Regarding the radio ban, it will be fine. If there is a bit more on us, then so be it. We will adapt.”
In the past, if a driver was told his teammate was going five km/h faster in a corner, then he did not have to explore the limits himself because he knew the car could do it. It certainly is going to be more difficult now to extract all the speed out of the cars, but the cream always rises to the top.
After scoring a paltry total of just five points in 2013, Williams made a huge step in 2014 when it consistently earned points and battled with Ferrari for third place in the constructors’ championship. Can Williams make similar progress from 2014 to 2015?
“It gets harder,” concedes Williams’ Chief Technical Officer, Pat Symonds. “The jump from ninth to third or fourth in the constructors’ championship is a very difficult one, but the jump from third or fourth to first is probably twice as difficult. What I want to do is not think too much of 2015 at the moment, but of 2016. I am very ambitious for 2016 – I want that 2015 to be a good dress rehearsal for 2016.”
What are The Team Plan's for 2016?
“We have to be in a position to challenge for the championship,” Symonds answers. “People ask us what are your targets? Of course your targets are to win the championship, that’s everyone’s target, but it is not realistic. What is a real target for 2016, if we win the championship or not, to be able to say: ‘Yeah we fought for it.’”
McLaren and Ferrari were not up to their usual standards in 2014. If they can get their acts together during the off-season with a new engine package and driver lineup, then Williams will face much stiffer competition in 2015. Then again, Williams is a much stronger team than it has been in years.
Age is Just a Number
Max Verstappen will make history at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix when, at age 17, he will become the youngest-ever driver to start a Formula 1 race. He will obliterate the mark set by Jaime Alguesuari, who made his debut at age 19 years and 125 days.
Alguesuari’s Formula 1 career fizzled out after just two-and-a-half seasons. On the other hand, Sebastian Vettel was 19 years and 350-days-old when he started his first Grand Prix. He amassed four consecutive world championships by just 26 years of age.
Each of these three drivers are products of Red Bull’s Young Driver Program, which will ruthlessly drop drivers it does not believe have the talent to advance. Verstappen will drive for Red Bull’s junior team Toro Rosso, just like Vettel and Alguesuari did.
Verstappen, son of ex-F1 driver Jos Verstappen, is remarkably mature and immensely talented.
“I’m just calm,” he says of the upcoming F1 season. “The only thing you can do is your best. If you don’t have the talent you won’t get here. The age does not matter.”
Kimi Raikkonen was in a similar position when he jumped from karting to Formula 1 in 2001 after just 23 races in formula cars. Ignition asked him if it was better to learn on the job in Formula 1, or if would it have been better to spend another year in a junior series? At the time, Raikkonen had offers to race for Sauber in Formula 1 or in the Japanese F3 series.
“It was not very hard to choose between those two,” he said. “You take a chance because it might be the only chance you get to go to F1. I did pretty well out of it. I don’t think it would have made me any more ready for F1 to have done another year of some other series. Luckily, I had one year of Formula Renault with the wings so it helped a bit.”
Fernando Alonso, when asked by Ignition about young drivers getting into Formula 1, summed it up nicely. “Sometimes you’re ready for Formula 1 [at age] 17,” he says. “Sometimes only when you’re 29, and sometimes you’re never ready!”
Will Verstappen succeed? Only time will tell.