As the Formula One season comes to a close in Brazil on the weekend, many in the paddock will be looking to 2014 and hoping to prevent Red Bull's wunderkind Sebastian Vettel from racking up his fifth consecutive title next year.
The good news for the F1 field is that several major technical changes coming into force next season may negate much of Red Bull's advantage and help lower the possibility of Vettel running away with another crown.
Although the young German’s dominance has much to do with his driving talent, there’s no doubt that putting a supremely quick Red Bull under his bum makes him tough to beat. That should change with the adoption of two key regulations in 2014.
The first is the banning of blown exhaust, which uses the car’s aerodynamics to direct hot gas from the tailpipes in a way that increases rear downforce. Red Bull has pretty much perfected the technique, which gives it a huge traction advantage over its competitors.
A good illustration of how much a difference an effective blown exhaust system can make on performance is the Sauber team. The Swiss outfit was nowhere in the first half of the year, but has found itself at the pointy end of the grid since improving its use of the technique. Its top driver, Nico Hülkenberg, only managed to make it to the Top 10 in qualifying three times in the first 10 races, but has only missed it twice since upgrades to the car following the summer break improved its blown exhaust’s effectiveness. He has scored 40 of his 47 points this year in that eight-race stretch.
While the loss of its blown exhaust will be biggest for Red Bull, its design team – led by F1 legend Adrian Newey – continues to find innovative ways to get the most out of the regulations. While it may hurt, it would be silly to expect the team will be fumbling around near the back in 2014.
But the elimination of blown exhaust – combined with smaller wings that will also lessen aerodynamic effects and the introduction of new engine regulations – may shift the advantage in F1 to the manufacturer that can produce the best powerplant-energy recovery package.
In the second significant change, engines go from a normally-aspirated 2.4-litre V-8 to a 1.6-litre V6 turbo. The new power units are expected to produce about 150 fewer horsepower than the 2013 motor’s estimated 750. In addition, the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) will be replaced by a Energy Recovery System (ERS), which uses braking and the heat from the turbos to generate energy that drivers can release when needed. Some estimates have it offering a 160-horsepower boost for around half a minute per lap, which is about double they now get from KERS for five times longer. Simply put, the engine manufacturer which gets these two things right should be sitting in the catbird seat.
As the 2013 season draws to a close, that manufacturer is thought to be Mercedes. Many in the paddock feel the silver-arrows-paring of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg will be the drivers to beat when the Australian Grand Prix comes around next March.
As for sitting in race seats, it doesn’t look like Hülkenberg’s late season surge will be enough keep him at Sauber, which needs a well-heeled driver to help pay the bills. He won’t be alone, with several other drivers out of jobs when the chequered flag flies in Sao Paulo on Sunday. Among them are Paul Di Resta of Force India, Williams’ Pastor Maldonado, and McLaren’s Sergio Pérez.
Along with Hülkenberg, Maldonado and Pérez have been linked to the seat left open at Lotus by Kimi Räikkönen, who has a deal to return to Ferrari – where he won the 2007 world championship. Who will be in the Lotus when the music stops is anyone’s guess, but it will likely come down to the driver who shows up with the biggest wallet.
Although there are a few other spots open lower down the grid, the only one that would be hugely attractive to the four unemployed drivers would likely be the one at Lotus.
Should Lotus not call Di Resta, he is thought to be in the running to move into the Target chip Ganassi seat left open by the retirement of his cousin Dario Franchitti. The Scot may be joined in North America by Mexican driver Pérez, who would probably be a great draw for the series. For Hülkenberg, the only move may be a return to Force India, where he raced last season.
The German’s seat at Sauber will go to untested Russian Sergey Sirotkin and his bags of family cash. In addition to Sirotkin, other new faces on the grid will be Danish racer Kevin Magnussen at McLaren, and another Russian, Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso.
Several others will be swapping seats in 2014, including Felipe Massa who starts his last race Ferrari on Sunday after eight seasons with Scuderia before a move to Williams next year and Daniel Ricciardo, who graduates from the Toro Rosso squad to Red Bull Racing, replacing the retiring Mark Webber.
Fans of the Australian veteran might want to follow Webber’s @AussieGrit Twitter feed where he has been tweeting highlights of his career under the hashtag #MadeMyMark. Webber will join Porsche’s new Le Mans program in 2014.
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