The opening race of the 2015 F1 season could be more about what is happening off the track and less about Sunday’s excitement. Sauber, Fernando Alonso and the return of Manor/Marussia are the hot topics ahead of the Melbourne weekend.
Mercedes are expected to romp home in Melbourne. Little from pre-season testing suggested any teams have closed the gap enough to mount a serious challenge. There is still cause for optimism for the neutrals however.
Part 2 of the Hamilton/Rosberg battle is still going to be intriguing. There are points to prove on both sides of the camp and question marks still linger over how Mercedes handled their drivers. Just because the team did not implode last season does not mean they did a good job.
Once again Hamilton may or may not be distracted by another split from his on-off girlfriend whilst Rosberg appears to have left no stone unturned in the quest for the tiny margins that often separated the Mercedes boys last year. Even if the rest are still fighting only for ‘best of the rest’ the intra-team battle at Mercedes will be fascinating.
Expect Williams to still be closest to Mercedes in Melbourne and for Red Bull to be in contention. Ferrari have improved over where they finished last year but their headline grabbing times in winter testing were just that – headline grabbing. And then there is McLaren.
For all the problems in testing, the slow times and the ongoing issues with Alonso you just have a feeling that in qualifying at least, McLaren could spring a surprise. In the race they will struggle with a lack of data and set up knowledge. Plus the likelihood is very high something will break on the car fairly quickly come race day.
Whose seat is it anyway?
Earlier today Sauber lost their appeal against an Australian court ruling in their contractual battle with Giedo van der Garde. On the eve of practice, Sauber have 3 contracted drivers and only 2 seats available. So the only question now is who will vacate their seat this weekend?
Nasr will race this weekend. The extent and profile of Banco do Brasil sponsorship on the Sauber confirms where the majority of the rumoured $40m of cash Nasr and Marcus Ericssen brought to the team comes from. Van der Garde brings cash to Sauber but it is rumoured to be much less than Ericssen. With Sauber still understood to be teetering on the financial brink, you would assume the Swede will race. However can the team afford to contravene not one but three separate court rulings (1 in Switzerland, 2 in Australia) in favour of van der Garde driving?
In all of this focus on who keeps their race seat, no one (yet) is wondering about Monisha Kaltenborn’s seat. Her position may be unshakeable as owner of 33.3% of the team (Peter Sauber owns the remaining controlling stake) but as team principal Kaltenborn has presided over the worst season in the team’s history, multiple contract battles and the unwelcome shift from a team that pays drivers to one that needs cash for both seats.
Fernando Alonso’s absence from this weekend is a big disappointment. As arguably the biggest name in the sport, the prospect of him plus the McLaren-Honda return was tantalising.
The nature of Alonso’s crash, his extended hospital stay and lingering after effects are adding up to a conspirators dream. Talk of an underlying health problem and an untraceable mechanical fault are worrying. Watching the two-time champion’s attempts to win a third title over the last few seasons have been a highlight for F1. For that to be taken away prematurely would be tragic for the Spaniard and his immense talent, and for those fans who believe he should go down in history as a multiple World champion.
For a sport that prides itself on being at the very cutting edge of technology, the prospect of allowing a previously bust team back in to the sport with a year old car is comical.
Despite the good news of jobs saved, the principle of allowing a year old car to enter is not sound for F1 and sets a tricky precedent. The insistence that all teams design their cars from the ground up is part of the reason the likes of Manor/Marussia and Caterham have gone bust. When more realistic options like customer cars could be readily implemented (and benefit the health of a sport that is not exactly beating new teams away with a stick) this appears to be a convenient fudge in order to shore up rules that are no longer relevant to the sport.
Whether Manor can actually qualify for the race remains to be seen. The team passed scrutineering today and is free to participate in practice but it will likely rely on the good will of the other teams if they are to take to the grid on Sunday.
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It will be interesting to see whether Manor will be able to make the 107%.