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In Bahrain, particularly after the late safety car, most of the field was racing two by two with the majority of battles being between team mates in identical machinery.  Through F1 history this has often happened, usually at times where the circuits require high power and when teams have had big differences in engine performance.  In the latest F1B podcast #363, Todd and Grace discussed whether this intra team battle was enough to keeps fans interested given the domination shown so far by the Mercedes team.  The obvious parallel season to draw on is 1988, where the McLaren team won 15 out of the16 races that season, Senna winning the championship from Prost by three points after winning eight races to Prost’s seven.

There are a few examples where the racing produced a team formation:
in Mexico the finishing order was McLaren, McLaren, Ferrari, Ferrari, Arrows, Arrows, Benetton, Benetton;
in France it was McLaren, McLaren, Ferrari, Ferrari, Lotus, Benetton, Lotus, March, March.

This two by two formation wasn’t limited to the finishing order, qualifying as well produced its share of similar instances:
in France they qualified McLaren, McLaren, Ferrari, Ferrari, Benetton, Benetton, Lotus, Lotus;
in Britain (odd that the pole wasn’t a McLaren) we had Ferrari, Ferrari, McLaren, McLaren, March, March;
in Belgium they lined up McLaren, McLaren, Ferrari, Ferrari, Williams, Benetton, Benetton, Lotus, Lotus, Arrows, Arrows;
in Italy we had the grid with McLaren, McLaren, Ferrari, Ferrari, Arrows, Arrows, Lotus, Benetton, Benetton.

Other similarities exist with 2014, Ferrari were struggling with fuel economy, the cars looked and sounded similar to today’s examples (the high noses wouldn’t start to appear until Tyrrell introduced the 019 in 1989, and although some had 3.5 litre V8s the front of the grid was powered by the 1.5 litre turbo engines.

The differences are also interesting, it was the large capacity V8’s that were more economical than the small turbos, and active suspension* was just being introduced – Lotus having had it on the car in 1987, and Williams starting the year with it before famously converting Mansell’s car overnight to passive specification for the British Grand Prix.

By most peoples reckoning the 1988 season was a classic, with the two best drivers of the day battling it out in identical cars, with the championship battle going down to the final race.  If we had such a season this year, would this be enough to rank the 2014 season alongside 1988 as a great year?  OK, the two Mercedes drivers are arguably not the best two drivers in current Formula 1, as there are four other World champions on the grid and hopefully one or two who have yet to win the championship, but they are two evenly matched drivers who have so far been allowed to race each other.  Prost and Senna spent the whole season taking turns to win races, but through the entire year only over took each other during the following events:

Canada – once, Senna spent the first 18 laps within a second of Prost before passing and pulling away;

France – twice (once due to pit-stops, then 14 laps for Prost to catch Senna, ten laps with Prost within a second of Senna before passing and pulling away);
Japan – once, Senna caught Prost on lap 19, and took until lap 27 to pass before pulling away.

The only other occasion when the two got close, but no overtaking took place was in Hungary – lap 48 – 58 within a second before Senna pulls out to a six second advantage before the flag.

So already in one race, we have seen more racing between the two drivers in the fastest car than during the whole of the 1988 season.  What made 1988 great was the constant change in which of the two McLaren drivers won, and therefore lead the championship.  We have seen this year that there have been occasions where Hamilton has been faster than Rosberg, and where Rosberg has been faster than Hamilton.  If the relative speed of the two Mercedes drivers continues to ebb and flow, there is no reason why we shouldn’t get the pair of them sharing the race wins even if the team maintains its advantage over the rest of the field.  As a bonus, if we occasionally get a repeat of the race in Bahrain (where the slower of the pair successfully manages to hold  back the faster) then we could be in for an  excellent season regardless of what the rest of the field do to catch up to the silver team.

While we are a long way from knowing if Mercedes can equal McLaren’s domination by only dropping one race this year, I can see a situation where late in the season (say Monza) a Mercedes drops out with engine failure and the other car is taken out late in the race when lapping a backmarker.  With Maldonado in the field we don’t even need a stand in sports car driver to be the offending driver.  What I can’t quite see happening is Ferrari being in a position to pick up a one two should both Mercedes fail to finish, however there is a lot of development yet to do on this years’ cars, so never say never.

* Active suspension is being talked about now as a cost cutting measure.

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A long time fan of Formula 1 and grass roots motorsport, I am interested in the engineering aspects not only of F1 but the 'men in sheds' who develop homemade specials to take on the products of the big racing car manufacturers.
  • I always like your articles. Great job once again.

    There’s only one minor point I’d like to put my finger on: It’s easy to say that in 1988, the two best drivers were battling it out when they did have the best car. Don’t forget that we also had drivers like Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell on the grid. Had they been driving for McLaren, we might have easily said the same.

    Similarly, who’s to say that 25 years from now, people won’t say that in 2014 the two best drivers were battling it out? Hamilton is already seen as a special talent and if Rosberg’s career takes off, this might well be seen as the year we finally saw the true Rosberg. Maybe Alonso and Vettel will be seen as the Nelson Piquets of this age whereas someone like Hülkenberg could be the modern day Mansell, as of yet without a title but wildly talented and bound to win it eventually.
    Of course that is just wild speculation, what I’m trying to say is that being in the right car has always been part of the game. Had Senna never won a title due to being in slow cars, he might be as well remembered as Stefan Bellof is today. Known to enthusiasts but not to the wider public. He might well have been the best driver of 1988, but nobody would have noticed. And today we would be talking about the great Mansell vs. Piquet battle of 1988.

    • MIE

      You make a good point, it is hard to say who will be judged as one of the all time greats until their career has finished. However both Senna and Prost appear in many people’s top ten drivers, which is unusual for drivers of the same generation. I’m glad you enjoy the articles.

      • Yes, Senna and Prost certainly do appear in many top 10s. What I’m saying is that their choice of car definitely helped. Which is not to say that they don’t deserve to be there.

        But a different question: Does it really matter how posterity will judge the current crop of drivers? Is our excitement dependent upon superlatives? Will only The Best™ do?

        I mean with the movie Rush having been released recently, that was a tremendous battle right there, but while Niki went on to become one of the all time greats, Hunt lucked into one title only to sink into nowhere afterwards. Does knowing that change anything about that battle in that season though?

        I have a feeling that all those critics who moan all the time don’t really care about the racing, they only want something to moan about. Be it about Vettel or now about Mercedes.

        • MIE

          I think in many cases, we don’t realise how good the racing is at the time, and so far this season looks pretty good to me.

          You could be right about some people always wanting to find something to complain about.

  • Kudos F1B for increasingly posting up alternating viewpoints. Whilst I agree with MIE’s (and Grace’s initial) leanings towards teammates battles, I also appreciate NC’s impression; it’s all about the debate, hearing others’ perspectives, so thanks.

    I personally avoid seasons; we can find parallels, yes, but feel it sets up expectations which then leave us open to disappointment when the inevitable divergence comes. That includes in-season expectations; some found Mel/Sepang boring and Bahrain stunning, with each upcoming race becoming a lynchpin on which to assess how “good” the season is.

    There are always going to be “exciting” races; in turn, there are always going to be “processional” tediums; it’s the nature of sport. Whatever constitutes “exciting/processional/boring” for a fan is going to occur, so I choose to concentrate on the bylines if a race proves dull.

    When I look at this year in isolation, I see:

    -Closely-matched teammates/
    -New tech regs providing distinct tech obstacles for the teams= unique cars and performance levels
    -Controversy: FFM’s, reg-change debate, small v. big team friction, Bernie’s pending case
    -New blood: Haas, team staffing, prospective new PU manufacturer(s)
    -Unpredictable trending: Besides Merc, where do the teams stand in relation?

    For me, the above has lent F1 its most exciting season in memory, but acknowledge one might dislike some/all aspects. As mentioned, we’re inherently resistant to change when we claim ownership (listen to Grace proclaim herself an anorak and bemoan FIA changing “her sport” in the podcast), so if comparing it to a fondly-remembered event helps, so be it. For me, I’m already salivating over the PU upgrades Ferrari/Renault will make for ’15, am curious whether Honda’s entry will prove competitive. We fans have another paradigm shift to anticipate.