In the 64-year history of Formula One, the beginning of a new season has never been met with anything like the extreme anticipation gripping teams and fans as the series prepares to open its 2014 championship next weekend at the Rolex Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. With the introduction of regulations aimed at producing cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars and engines, the question for many Formula One observers is whether this attempt to keep pace with the environmental thinking of our times will mark the 2014 season as a technological fiasco for a series that truly has no technological peer.
In internet discussion groups, in conversations among fans and throughout the paddock itself, everyone is trying to predict not only which team and driver will win the championship this year, but also how many of the 22 cars that line up on the grid in Albert Park this weekend will actually finish the first race without breaking down - to say nothing of the 18 Grands Prix that will follow, ending with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in late November.
Stability has been the name of the game for some time. For four years, one team and driver - Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel - won every title and dominated the pack, and for eight years car and engine reliability have reached their highest levels in the series' history (nearly every car on the grid was able to finish races). But this year has introduced some uncertainty. Predictions have ranged from 50 percent of the cars dropping out of the first race - as Christian Horner, the Red Bull team director, suggested in January - to no cars finishing the race, as one cynical fan recently commented on a racing forum.
After nearly a decade of a freeze on engine development, Formula One has introduced radical new engine and power-train regulations. Some critics of those regulations, including the series' promoter, Bernie Ecclestone, say they fear that the series has not only bitten off more than it can chew in the arena of technology, but that it has possibly removed the very ingredients that have made the series one of the most exciting technological challenges between man and machine.
From a V-8, 2.4-liter, normally aspirated engine that produced 18,000 rpm and 750 horsepower, the series has reduced engine size to 6-cylinder, 1.6-liter, turbo-charged engines limited to 15,000 rpm and 600 horsepower. But the aspect of the power train that is at once the most revolutionary and the most troublesome is the use of two different energy-recovery systems, or ERS, one drawing energy from the kinetic source of the brakes and the other from the heat source of the turbo exhaust system.
After years of technological stability, during which all of the teams, no matter their level of budget, could create reliable engines and chassis, the new regulations have forced teams to build a type of racing car that has never existed before. The new engines are smaller, less powerful, less noisy and more environmentally friendly than any the series has ever produced. It is with these innovations that Formula One is hoping to maintain its cachet as the producer of the world's most advanced racing car.
"The new engines will represent the absolute cutting edge of internal combustion engine technology," said Rob White, director of the Renault engine program last year when it was deep into researching production of the new engine.
"They will achieve fuel consumption and performance levels that are much, much better than anything that exists anywhere in motor sport and probably better than anything that exists on the road," he added. "The engines that we are going to develop are absolutely as cutting-edge and as close to the limit as mankind knows how to do as the present generation of engines."
What has made for all the preseason furor is that after the three engine manufacturers in the series - Renault, Ferrari and Mercedes - each spent the last few years secretly working to produce the fastest, most reliable engine in keeping with the new regulations set by the International Automobile Federation, the series' governing body, the results have now been displayed during winter testing. For the moment, after several testing sessions in Spain and Bahrain, Mercedes appears to be the clear winner, while Renault has come out the loser, and Ferrari sits in the middle.
That news has led fans who want change to rejoice: The dominant Red Bull team uses the Renault engine. No matter how strong Red Bull is on the human side, if its engine and ERS systems break down or do not provide as much power as the other teams' engines, the team will not dominate this season.
"The power unit is such a fundamental change and so complicated that it is a game-changer in Formula One," Horner said. "We will be relying extremely heavily on our engine partner. Power unit and reliability will be the decisive factors this season."
Virtually all of the teams had problems during winter testing. Several had little track time for their cars as they sought to resolve other unforeseen problems, and even the teams with the Mercedes engine do not feel entirely confident.
"We are pushing everything to the limit and we still have a massive challenge in front of us during the last three days of testing," said Nico Rosberg of the Mercedes team last week in Bahrain during the last period of preseason testing. "I'm optimistic, but confident? Speed doesn't help if you don't get to the end of the race. Everything needs to fit together. We're not there yet, and there's just a few days left. I hope we're ready for Melbourne. It's going to be close."
The new regulations affect more than just the engines and may also affect the nature of race strategy and, ultimately, even what type of driver is best suited to race.
Environmental concerns have led to fuel limits. Cars will be allowed to use only 100 kilograms of fuel during a race, compared with about 150 in recent years.
This will mean drivers will have to have an intelligent, measured approach to racing to conserve fuel. Sometimes a driver might race conservatively early in the race in order to preserve fuel for a push at the end, when he could overtake another driver who had been less conservative. The driver who seeks top speed from start to finish may be a breed of the past.
The energy-recovery systems, too, will require understanding and skill from drivers. Without the system, lap times would be as much as four seconds slower than with it, so not using it would mean certain failure to compete effectively.
The Pirelli tire company has provided a new rubber compound, which means drivers and teams must learn how best to use the 2014 tires.
There are many unknown factors ahead, and the projected disaster scenarios have included the possibility of a racing grid highly depleted because of the rule that eliminates cars if they fail to qualify within 107 percent of the lap time of the fastest car. Under the new regulations, some cars seem likely to miss qualifying.
"If we take a look at the four-day session's standings and time sheets, we realize that only 14 cars would have been qualified - if we compare the test times they recorded with Nico Rosberg's best time," said Giancarlo Minardi, former owner of the now defunct Minardi team, referring to the first session in Bahrain two weeks ago, when Rosberg had the fastest time.
The stakes are high for the teams, sponsors and engine manufacturers in this global sport that is constantly under the glare of the media. Given the size of the investments by the involved parties, it seems certain that every effort will be made to do everything to ensure that the show not only goes on, but that it thrives.
In the end, the main beneficiaries of the coming season's unpredictability are likely to be the spectators, who have endured one or two seasons too many of highly predictable Formula One racing.
© 2014 New York Times News Service