Three-time Grand Prix victor and Sky Sports F1 analyst Johnny Herbert believes the factory Mercedes Formula One team hold the strongest hand going into this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix.
Following the biggest technical shake up the category has seen since the 80s, Formula One is about to enter the 2014 season with a renewed power dynamic, as the Renault-powered teams struggle in unison.
Based on the three pre-season tests filled with unreliability and inconsistent pace, reigning world champions Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel appear to have ceded their place at the top of the sport.
With issues surrounding the new-for-2014 Renault power units, aligned with Adrian Newey’s typically tight design package which has created cooling issues, Red Bull have endured a torrid pre-season run in.
However in an exclusive chat with TheMotorsportArchive.com, Herbert is adamant that the Austrian powerhouse should not be discounted. “When I started in the early 90s, there used to be only about 60 people in the team, so it took longer for things to get fixed,” says the 49-year-old. “Now the ability to fix things almost overnight is right there. A rather sharp development pace in going to come into play, so instead of seeing a rather gradual linear [improvements], you are going to see massive spikes coming in.
“It’s what you expect – it’s a typical Adrian sort of packaging. Adrian has said they have not packaged it correctly and it may bite them at the start of the season,” before adding, “I do understand that they had some better running when they did their two filming days. That’s where the technology of Formula One has changed a lot, even when I raced, because when we had an issue, it took a bit of time before it got sorted. Lewis is worried about them – whether he is genuinely worried, I don’t know – it may have been some mind games.”
A victor of the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hour Race, Herbert is well aware of coming from behind to win. On that occasion, the Briton’s Mazda entry trailed the race leading Sauber’s by four laps, when Swiss / German car developed a race ending alternator problem, bringing Herbert and teammates Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler into a winning position.
In 2014, Herbert is wary of discounting the reigning F1 champions, knowing that reliability may cast its fickle hand across the field in the early races. “You have got to base it on reliability, which McLaren have come out and said that all are aware that reliability is going to be the issue. It’s not going to be raw speed; you have got to get from A to B.”
While the engine regulations have seen a massive overhaul, alterations to regulation governing the transmission may also prove a stumbling block, as Herbert explains: “There is four times the amount of torque that they had last year – I know the gearbox is pretty much standard in shape and size, but you still have to go through that test. There are the eight gears that are in there and I’m sure they would have been trying use those gears, because you are going to give them a punishing time before you get to Monaco – which may be the first time they use that first gear.
“We saw it in Spain with the Mercedes and it carried on in Bahrain. I know they had their gearbox issues in the latter part and I’m guessing that they pushed that box to its limit and beyond to see how far they could push it to find the limitations of the gearbox with all the new transmission systems that they have now.”
Looking to the races themselves, Herbert concedes that while the racing may be somewhat different to previous generations, he is confident that it will not be so different as to turn off the fans. “Everyone says, ‘well, it won’t be good because they’re not racing at 100%’, but even in the early-90s, qualifying was about giving it everything you had and getting that pole position, which is what Sebastian [Vettel] does, then in the race, it was a different situation, a different tool set; you still have to push hard, it’s not about backing way off. It’s only backing off about three-tenths; well the good ones who can feel it – Fernando [Alonso] is one of those, Lewis [Hamilton] is one of those, Kimi [Raikkonen] and Sebastian – they feel what is going on underneath them.”
The former Benetton driver is also quick to calm fears that the F1 cars will be too slow. “It will develop, it will change – the pace they have in Australia, if they went back a year later, will be completely different to what they had in the beginning.”
Which such drastic changes, Herbert contends that the Formula One that viewers and fans will see in 2014 is certain to be the most driver intensive for several years. “It’s not just about raw natural talent. Those days have long gone – it is about having that raw natural talent, it’s having that raw speed, but that’s not enough anymore. That won’t win you a world title, because it’s about getting the best from the car itself and that means working with the engineers in simulators and so forth.”
He adds further: “Everything’s new. They learn; they know what to do as drivers; the engineers have their job to do, the aero guys have their job of improving the aero and the drivers have the […] ability to understand what they are doing in the simulator to get the best from the car from the differential settings, understanding where they need to use the ERS-H,” before concluding: “Break balance is going to be a big factor, because of the way that the ECU calculates how much pressure they are putting on the pedal. They’re probably going to be locking up in the early laps, because that is the way the system is and that’s good, because then it is down to the driver to react.”
Asked who will lead after the initial flyways, Herbert is clear as to who will lead the way. “I think Mercedes, because I think they have the advantage. The one I’m not sure about yet, but have heard very positive things about, is Williams. But I hope Lewis.”
The 2014 Formula One World Championship begins this weekend with the 79th Australian Grand Prix. For those in the UK, “Sky Sports F1 is the only place to watch all 19 Grands Prix weekends live on TV, Sky Go and Now TV”