I don’t know about you but the finale to last season’s Formula 1 World Championship under the floodlights of the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi in late November seems so long ago.
Remember it? It was a belter for British sport, let alone British F1 fans, in which Lewis Hamilton lifted his second world title in a winner-takes-all showdown with Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg.
That crazy day in the United Arab Emirates capital, when Hamilton became only the fourth British driver to lift the title more than once, joining Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart, also signalled the end of one 19-race campaign and the agonising wait for the start of the next, on March 15 in Melbourne.
Fortunately, there have been plenty of distractions during that time to help hurry the wait along.
I’m referring, of course, to F1 launch season – that period of late nights and high hopes during which teams hurry to get their new challengers ready for unveiling to an expectant audience before winter testing gets under way.
Gone are the days of glitzy ceremonies in far-flung, exotic destinations, with snazzy backdrops to perfect those cheesy press-pack photos. Now, sensibly, we get to see the cars in effortless yet effective online reveals or, as seems to be fashionable these days, from under a black sheet (pulled away at the right moment by the drivers) in the pitlane of the circuit about to host the first pre-season test.
The build-up to the 2015 season, which will be played out over 20 races for only the second time, brought with it extra launch fervour. And there were two good reasons for that: one, for the first time in a good few years we had unfamiliar driver/team tie-ups to get excited about, and two, thanks to regulation changes brought about in part as a reaction to outcry, the horrible noses of the 2014 cars have been banished to the ‘aesthetically challenged racing car’ scrap book that we’ll all pull out and laugh at in 20 years time.
On the new names/new faces front, we’ve had four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel leaving Red Bull Racing and accepting ‘the calling’ – the one that all great drivers insist they get – from Ferrari. Images of Vettel in red alongside Kimi Raikkonen will take some time to get used to, but the German topped the (mostly meaningless) times from the opening day of testing at Jerez in southern Spain yesterday to at least land the first psychological blow.
Elsewhere, Fernando Alonso made way for Vettel at Maranello with a fairly high-profile falling-out with the team after five title-trophy-free years. His return to McLaren after, er, falling out with the Woking squad after just one season because he couldn’t beat rookie Hamilton in 2007, was unthinkable a few years back, but the Spaniard joins Jenson Button in a new-look, Honda-powered team. We’re told that the uninspiring livery revealed online last week, which hasn’t allowed the team to fully shake off its 20-year association with Mercedes, will change. Perhaps a title-sponsor announcement may influence the colour scheme…
Among the other big-hitters, it’s ominously same-as at Mercedes. Hamilton and Rosberg remain, the dominant W05 gets a few tweaks, including a better nose, to become the W06, while the team has a year’s understanding of the technology race under its belt, which may well lead to more domination. Especially after Rosberg put 157 laps on the W06 at Jerez yesterday, 84 more than any other car.
Red Bull has promoted Russian sensation Daniil Kvyat from its ‘junior team’ Toro Rosso to replace Vettel. He joins Daniel Ricciardo, who probably helped Vettel to make up his mind about leaving by thrashing him last year. The perma-smiling Australian put the first mileage on the RB11, which appeared in the Jerez pitlane with no formal launch sporting a distinctive black-and-white camouflage livery. Only the team knows why, but full marks for being a bit different.
Another team enjoying a bit of driver line-up and livery continuity is Williams. The British squad, which finished a fine third in the makes’ race last year, has retained Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa and those superb Martini stripes for its Mercedes-powered FW37. Who wouldn’t want to see that car win a race or two in 2015?
What of the four other teams, Force India, Lotus, Sauber and Toro Rosso? Force India opted not to run at Jerez because its VJM08 isn’t ready and the team, which U-turned on a plan to use its 2014 car with 2015 parts on it, doesn’t rate the circuit as a testing venue anyway. Seven other teams obviously don’t agree.
Lotus, which has switched to the dominant Mercedes engine for 2015, didn’t get to Spain on time to run its E23 on Sunday, but thinks it may be ready for tomorrow (Tuesday). At least the black-and-yellow machine looks good, now that its twin-tusk nose concept has been outlawed. Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado stay on and they need to lift Lotus back up to the front after a tricky 2014.
Sauber and Toro Rosso did make it to Jerez. Between them, they’ve got all-new line-ups this year. Sauber revealed a blue-and-yellow colour scheme that some wags decided was only missing its IKEA logos. There is a Swedish connection, however, with Marcus Ericsson, formerly of the defunct Caterham outfit, on the driving strength. He’ll be joined by Brazilian rookie and former Williams test driver Felipe Nasr. It’s a big year for the Swiss squad, which didn’t score a single point in 2014, it’s worst season ever. Things couldn’t really be any worse, frankly.
Toro Rosso, which let Kvyat take up that coveted Red Bull seat, has replaced him with 17-year-old Max Verstappen, while Jean-Eric Vergne has lost his ride to Spaniard Carlos Sainz Jr, son of world rally hero Carlos Sr. These two F1 first-timers have a combined age of 37, which has caused all sorts of ageist consternation among the rulemakers and paddock gossips. They’ll just need to let their driving do the defending.
With drivers switching teams, cars being built around different engine suppliers and new liveries to get used to, there’s a lot to take in during F1’s traditional winter warm-up this time round. The truth is, however, that we won’t really know who’s armed with a winner and who’s fighting over the wooden spoon until the circus decamps to Australia in six weeks’ time.
What’s that well-known motorsport adage? ‘When the flag drops the bullsh*t stops’.