Seeking answers to what lies ahead for teams in the 2014 Formula One season

Gary Meenaghan evaluates the main contending marques and where they stand ahead of the opening race, the Australian Grand Prix, on Sunday.

Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso have lot of points to discuss for the new season even with rival teams Red Bull and Ferrari. Hans Klaus / EPA
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Q. Are Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull really as far behind on their preparations as they appear?

A. With the exception of Marussia and Lotus, the latter of which missed the first test, no team completed fewer laps than Red Bull Racing this preseason. Vettel and teammate Daniel Ricciardo had persistent issues with their Renault engine, as well as front-end mechanical problems as the four-time constructors' champions struggled to get ready for this weekend's season-opening race in Melbourne.

On the penultimate day of testing in Bahrain earlier this month, Vettel managed just four corners and a stretch of pit-lane; the following day, his car failed him and he spun off after 44 laps. While the German is a master of downplaying his chances, there seems a sense of genuine concern when he says success in Australia will simply be “getting to the finish line”.

With Renault copping much of the blame, Helmut Marko, the Red Bull adviser, said his marque are “at least two months” behind schedule. Christian Horner downgraded the alarm bells with a more optimistic evaluation of being “10 days behind”.

Ricciardo did at one stage show the car can be competitive pace-wise, but if the reliability is not there by Sunday, any hopes of collecting points let alone a podium will be a distant dream. Yet with the genius of Adrian Newey operating from the garage and the sport’s youngest four-time champion behind the wheel, Red Bull can never be discounted.

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Q. What now for Lotus?

A. Lotus have taken 24 podiums in the past two seasons, but having lost their technical director, their lead driver and their team principal in quick succession, this year promises to be make or break for the Oxford-based marque.

First, Romain Grosjean must step up as lead driver following the departure of Kimi Raikkonen to Ferrari. Gerard Lopez, the team owner and man who replaced Eric Boullier as team principal, rates Grosjean as one of the best drivers in the paddock. But while he performed well at the tail end of last season, the Frenchman has yet to win a grand prix. Pastor Maldonado, the team’s new recruit from Williams, must also iron out his moments of madness.

The loss of Raikkonen will hurt, but arguably more disappointing will be the departure of Boullier, the French team principal who defected to McLaren-Mercedes. Boullier, an unflappable and calm presence in the paddock, was building Lotus into a real challenger and was expected to continue this season. Does his departure set the entire project back? Lopez, together with new technical director Nick Chester, will hope not.

With Lotus – like Red Bull – reliant on Renault engines, Chester acknowledges it could take his team a couple of races to catch up with the likes of Mercedes, the early favourites. If things have not clicked by the time the F1 circus arrives in Bahrain in April, it could be a long season for the black and gold.

Q. Is this the year of Williams' renaissance?

A. Williams have won just one race in nine years and not claimed the constructors’ championship since 1997. The past three seasons have been largely forgettable save for Maldonado’s surprise victory at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix, and the marque reached its nadir when, approaching the end of the worst season in the team’s history, their Venezuelan driver accused his team of sabotage.

Yet this could be the season when Williams return to the limelight. Maldonado has gone, replaced by Felipe Massa, the Brazilian who came within a lap of the 2008 world championship. The team have also signed an engine partnership with Mercedes, who appear to have the best power unit of the sport’s three suppliers. Add to that Pat Symonds, the chief technical officer who arrived last summer, and Felipe Nasr who has joined as reserve driver and helped attract more sponsors, and Williams are well placed to, initially at least, to return to the front end of the grid.

Massa and teammate Valtteri Bottas clocked up more than 4,800 kilometres during pre-season testing, with Massa finishing top of the time sheets during the final test in Bahrain. With a tight budget, they are likely to find their rival teams outspending them as the season evolves, but if they can carry their preseason form into Melbourne at least, Williams could be set to grab some early headlines.

Q. Can Raikkonen and Alonso maintain harmony for the greater good at Ferrari?

A. Fernando Alonso has had everything his own way since moving to Ferrari in 2010. As the Italian marque’s lead driver, Alonso has been the sole focus of car development and benefited repeatedly from team orders. It has yet to bring him a third title, but he has finished second behind Vettel in three of the past four years.

Second-best is not good enough for a team such as Ferrari. When Stefano Domenicali, the team principal, announced the recruitment of 2007 champion Raikkonen, it showed ambition but it also immediately sparked questions as to whether the two lead drivers could coexist in such a competitive environment.

All those inside Maranello insist it will not be an issue, but the teammates have yet to lock horns in the white heat of battle. When Alonso raced alongside a competitive Lewis Hamilton at McLaren, the relationship ended acrimoniously. The Spaniard is older and wiser now and he will know that in Raikkonen he has a teammate deserving of respect.

The two drivers share three world drivers’ championships between them, though only Raikkonen has won with Ferrari. There is no doubt they are the strongest driver pairing in the sport. How each reacts to being beaten by their teammate – and how much they are willing to sacrifice for the benefit of the team – could determine whether Ferrari end their five-year barren spell without a title.

Q. Will Force India prove a dark horse and gallop up the field?

A. With Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez recruited in the off-season, Force India boast arguably the strongest driver line-up not to include a world champion. The team have enjoyed a fruitful preseason where reliability has proved solid and they managed to accumulate the second highest number of laps during the final test in Bahrain.

Powered by Mercedes, Force India should have the engine to muscle their way further up the grid and could even fight for race wins at the start of the season should the likes of Red Bull and Lotus fail to get their acts together. For a team whose best result in six years is fourth, this could be the season when they take a giant leap in the right direction.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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