Sunday, 10 August 2014

The 2014 mid-season review

Unlike previous years I’m just doing the one review. It’ll be mostly racing, with a bit on betting at the end.

We’re 11 races into a possible 19 (Russia seems likely to go ahead but could yet be suspended, delayed or abandoned before October depending how the situation in Ukraine develops). Because of the mentally challenged decision by F1 bigwigs, the final race (Abu Dhabi) will be worth double points (this may end up determining who wins the title).

So far the majority of races have been hugely enjoyable. Racing has been tight with engine variabilities and tyre degradation combining to provide lots of on-track action, and we’ve had a couple of real classics (including, bizarrely, Bahrain).

Throughout the season, Mercedes has been the team to beat. Sportingly, they’ve let their drivers race (ignored team order in Hungary aside). Even more sportingly, they’ve had their cars break down on several occasions to give the other teams a chance.

The title began as a private duel between old sparring partners Hamilton and Rosberg and I feel it’ll end the same way. Rosberg has been serially underestimated during his career, and still is. Whilst Hamilton is slight favourite, I feel Rosberg has a very realistic chance of taking the title.

Hamilton has had the lion’s share of bad luck, but perhaps by less of a margin than the consensus would have us believe. Whether it’s down to driving style or sheer bad luck, the Briton is further along with most components as well, meaning that when they next fail he’s nearer than Rosberg to exceeding the limit and receiving grid penalties. Recent drives have shown he can cut through the field with relative ease, but such occasions will still give an advantage to Rosberg in an extremely close title fight.

Williams started off with great potential but never seemed to be able to deliver in the races. Compared to recent seasons (the 2012 Maldonado win aside) it was still fantastic, but in the last few races Bottas got three podium finishes in a row, and the team now aspires to displace Red Bull from second. That’s not impossible, but it will be challenging. If they fail to beat Ferrari to claim third that should be considered a failure, but given how bad they were in 2013 the whole season will do wonders for Williams’ morale. It’s also rather nice to see them doing well.

Red Bull found themselves in a position to which they are not accustomed: getting their arse kicked like a Frenchman at Agincourt. In testing, their car broke down at the drop of a hat and seemed well off the pace. It’s recovered significantly since then. In fact, I’d argue it has the most downforce and best chassis of any car (Mercedes close in second). However, its power is weak. At various tracks (perhaps most notably Canada, where Vettel was trapped behind Hulkenberg for many laps) this has cost them a lot. Ricciardo’s driven very well, but Vettel’s misfortune (unlike Hamilton’s) has been seriously overlooked. He’s suffered almost all reliability failures as well as on-track misfortune (he could have won in Canada, and it was bad luck more than anything else he didn’t). I expect them to cling onto second, but Williams won’t make it easy for them.

The Ferrari’s a dog, again. The engine’s perhaps even worse than the Renault, and if it weren’t for Alonso’s stellar performances the prancing horse would be at the knacker’s yard already. They’ll really struggle to hold onto third. They also have a serious problem, in that the work they can do to improve the engine each season will decline (ie if they don’t fix it for 2015 they’ll have less technical freedom and capacity to do so from 2015 to 2016). One suspects they’ve got Bianchi’s number ready.

McLaren is a bit weird. They scored (after Ricciardo’s disqualification) a double podium in Australia, and since then have slid backwards. They seem to have recovered somewhat, but are tussling with Force India to avoid being the worst Mercedes-powered team. Given the substantially greater resources of McLaren, that’s not good enough, especially after an awful 2013. Button may well end up getting axed.

Force India have been having a cracking season. First podium for a few years, and Hulkenberg’s been the second most consistent driver (after Alonso, the only man to score points at every race this year). The car’s reliable, and fast. It’s been surpassed by Williams and is in a tight battle with McLaren. Upgrades will probably dictate who’ll win that duel. Force India also benefits from a decent driver lineup (although I rank Hulkenberg above Perez).

Toro Rosso are slightly in a No Man’s Land. Whereas Mercedes are having a private duel for the title, Williams, Red Bull and Ferrari are battling for second, third and fourth, and Force India/McLaren are tussling for fifth and sixth, Toro Rosso is a little way ahead of Lotus but miles behind McLaren and Force India. The car is reasonable in pace terms but has been pretty lacklustre when it comes to reliability. Vergne’s been driving well, but it’s Kvyat, the young Russian newcomer, who has garnered the most headlines. He’s really hit the ground running and it’s not hard to foresee him ending up in a faster team sooner rather than later.

I wonder how Maldonado feels about leaving Williams for Lotus now. The Enstone team seems highly likely to get eighth, ahead as they are of Marussia and Sauber but nine points adrift of Toro Rosso. The pace has been missing for all but a handful of races and reliability, especially for Maldonado, has been dire. After last year, it’s a huge comedown and can only be partially attributed to the Renault engine. Losing their top engineer and driver to Ferrari and team principal (early this season) to McLaren has harmed the team, but serious funding issues may be more important than the personnel changes.

If Lotus are almost distraught at eighth, Marussia must be ecstatic with ninth, but will they hang onto it? The team have consistently outperformed Caterham and even managed to surpass Sauber when Bianchi got a ninth place finish for two points. Sauber may yet score (I hope so) but Marussia has a real chance of ninth, which would be worth tens of millions to them. Bianchi has been driving rather well and if Raikkonen decides to drive off into the sunset at the end of the year it’d be easy to see him getting a phone call to join Alonso.

It’s only a couple of years ago that Sauber were enjoying multiple podium finishes courtesy of the good pairing of Kobayashi and Perez. Last year the car wasn’t so hot, and this year it’s one of the worst on the grid. For the first time ever, the team may not score a point in a whole season. Sutil’s an average driver, and Gutierrez’s greatest attribute appears to be the funding he brings. On top of that, the Ferrari engine isn’t great and the car seems very twitchy. They may yet escape the PR disaster of not scoring at all, and I hope they do, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they end with no points.

Caterham, alas, remain rooted to the back of the grid. The team’s been taken over by a Swiss-Middle Eastern consortium which has changed the team principal and axed 40 jobs (leading to a lawsuit and counter-suit). As yet, no real progress has been made on track, but the consortium might be the injection of cash and desire that will see Caterham finally stop being pointless. It’s also nice to see Kobayashi back in F1.

So, that’s the racing so far. But how about the betting?

I should state that I’ve considered the UK to be the final first half race, for a more even split (whether Russia is axed or not). On that basis, the first half of the season has gone fairly well. It was more profitable overall to bet-and-forget rather than hedge, but either way the result for H1 was green.

However, whilst the races have generally gone well, qualifying is red on either measure. I have bet less often on qualifying than in the past (only twice in the first half). The trend overall for race weekends has been for moderately positive results, with nothing dire or spectacular. I’m very happy with that, especially after 2013 began so poorly.

On title bets, these are also mostly good. Whilst Magnussen (backed at 50/1) won’t be winning the title, Rosberg (16/1 and 24/1 with Ladbrokes and Betfair respectively) may well. I’ve been able to back Hamilton at evens to end up green whatever happens in the Drivers’.

On the Constructors’ front things are a little less happy, as I backed Williams for the title around Australia. This won’t happen, but given the Drivers’ situation I’m not too displeased, overall, with title bets.

I’ll also be keeping a firm eye on the possibility of drivers moving from one team to another. I could see one or possibly both Ferrari chaps leaving (Raikkonen to retire, Alonso to go elsewhere), Button may be axed, and Williams may be tempted to shove Massa overboard if Alonso decides they have a chance at the 2015 title. Bianchi or Hulkenberg could move up to Ferrari/McLaren. There’s also a possibility Grosjean could replace Button (Boullier, McLaren’s sort-of team principal, was not only his team principal at Lotus but, I think, also manages him as a driver).

Looking ahead to 2015, a bet I’d consider would be Bottas to win the Drivers’ title (unless Alonso gets a seat with Williams). I think the Finn’s very quick and, unlike the Mercedes pair, he doesn’t seem to have a team mate quite capable of challenging him consistently.

I expect the latter half of 2014 to be just as exciting, and perhaps more fraught, than the first. My only fear is that the double points nonsense of Abu Dhabi may end up determining the title.

Morris Dancer

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