2014: A game of adaptation
There can be no underestimating the immense changes Formula One faces in the upcoming months. The teams and engineers will be pushed to their limits on a regular basis, forced to think in completely new ways each and every race to compensate for the evolution the cars will undergo that the newness of the regulations allows for.
But which drivers will thrive under these circumstances? That is as hard to discern as deciding which team will come out of testing as the team to beat, for that role may belong to a few, if not several, teams over the course of the season. Here are a few of the drivers who I believe will prove perfectly suited to the fluctuating nature of Formula One in 2014.
There is no denying this man’s talent. But how good is he at adapting to change? Judging from history, he’s pretty darn good. In 2009, he used the quickly improving Red Bull, allied to the new regulations, to challenge for the title in only his first season at a top team. In 2010 he built on that knowledge, with the added challenges of the re-fueling ban and a much more competitive field, to take a hard-earned first world title.
In 2011, Pirelli entered the fray and Vettel duly took the world title in a most dominating manner, winning 11 of 19 races and finishing no lower than 4th all season. Again in 2012, Vettel adapted to the lack of exhaust blowing to take his third world championship in a final-round showdown against Fernando Alonso. The same happened in 2013, when the German adapted to a mid-season change of tires to win every single race after the summer break. That is nothing to scoff at, especially considering the drivers he was up against all those years.
In 2014, Sebastian will have his greatest challenge. Allied to the daunting regulations, he is paired with a new teammate, a young teammate. A teammate that should prove much more tricky to beat than Mark Webber ever was. A scary thought (for Sebastian, at least) considering how hard Weber could push Sebastian on his day.
I expect, however, for Sebastian to take all of this in his stride. He has an uncanny ability to alter his driving style constantly and, quite often, in the moment of driving. That should come particularly in handy considering the way power will be delivered, stored and distributed next year. Most drivers have talked about how the challenges will be many and the adaptation constant in a way that makes them seem worried of what is to come. With Sebastian, you get the sense he is quietly confident about his prospects. Should the Red Bull be as competitive as most expect and reasonably reliable, there is no reason he can’t run away with a fifth consecutive championship.
Talk to anyone at Mercedes, anyone in the sport for that matter, and they will tell you just how smart Nico is. He has an extensive background in engineering and contributes more in the development process than is probably expected by the team. It shows. While Lewis Hamilton struggled (relatively) early on in the 2013 season, Nico stormed to three pole positions and two wins, firmly establishing himself as a championship contender when the conditions are right.
This is why I expect Nico to shine in 2014. Lewis may have the edge on natural ability and skill in the car, but Nico is no slouch himself, and allied to his immense knowledge of what is actually happening under the hood of his car he should be a formidable character in the narrative of 2014.
Much of the outcome of the 2014 season is the car. Mercedes are by no means guaranteed a competitive car next year. Odds are that they will, but the fact that no one can bank on any type or rock-solid certainty just emphasizes how much more important the drivers will be next season. If that is the case, then Nico may finally prove to the watching world that he is more than just a few-times Grand Prix winner.
My assumption here is more emotional than rational (though it is not without its reason), but there is something about the young Finn that screams champion. Perhaps that is down to the fact that he already is one. GP3 is miles away from F1, obviously, but there is something to be said about someone going into such a major shift in regulations who has experience beating a whole field of drivers in equal machinery. That speaks volumes.
Valtteri is no stranger to adapting to change in his career, for as late as the United States Grand Prix this past season he was being introduced to a very different car than the one he had driven the race before. For that race, the Williams’ troublesome Coanda exhaust system was set aside for a more conventional setup, and Valtteri duly cracked the top-10 in qualifying, even going fastest in Q1. To react to such a major change so late in the season with such grace and sure-footedness is an admirable quality, and one that cannot be underestimated heading into the new frontier of 2014.
The Finn will have his work cut out against Felipe Massa, but considering the impending changes, a new teammate may be the least of his worries.
The other Nico of the Formula One field is no stranger to adapting to change. 2014 is actually the first year in which he is racing for a team he has already raced for. Williams to Force India to Sauber and back to Force India is hardly the trajectory Nico imagined taking when he first set foot in a Formula One car, but it hasn’t been without its successes.
In fact, Nico’s entire 2013 season was a success, for he performed flawlessly each and every race, taking advantage of a slowly improving car to stun and shock those watching. We will never forget the confidence with which he defended from Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton during the Korean Grand Prix last year to take an astounding fourth place.
This is why I expect Nico to do well next year. His whole career up to this point has been about adapting to new environments, teams, engineers, teammates, power trains and more, and he has done an excellent job the entire time.
Look out for a list of drivers who may be on the back foot in the upcoming season.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic