Nick Westby: New year brings familiar tale of misery for Yorkshire’s F1 rivals

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton.
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton.
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Three years ago at the launch of Marussia Virgin Racing’s car for the upcoming Formula 1 season, team principal John Booth declared that he hoped that by 2014 his team would be celebrating their first podium finish in the sport at the inaugural Russian Grand Prix.

Booth, who is as Yorkshire as they come, then added the words “with the Russian national anthem playing in the background”.

The alarm bells rang instantly. A little over a year into the Formula 1 dream for this county, and already it was being whisked away.

The Formula Renault operation that he started in his own double garage in Rotherham two decades earlier, that he had developed into a team capable of sharing a paddock with the richest manufacturers in the world, was being lured away before we could get comfortable.

Russian motor sports company Marussia had bought into the venture that Sir Richard Branson had helped make a reality, and by the end of the 2011 season, Booth and his team at Dinnington in South Yorkshire had packed up and shipped off to Banbury in Oxfordshire. Formula 1’s Yorkshire dalliance was over.

Two years on, and as the 2014 season dawns in Melbourne, Booth’s team enters its fifth season, still under Russian ownership, but still no nearer to fulfilling the team principal’s ambition to satisfy those backers.

After missing the first two days of pre-season testing in Jerez due to build issues, the following six days – two more in Jerez and four in Bahrain – yielded a miserable total of laps completed by their two drivers, Englishman Max Chilton and Frenchman Jules Bianchi.

It left Booth to concede that his team would not be quite ready for the start of the new season. It will not have been lost on a man who has done well to hold onto his position in the paddock, that he has had to admit such a shortcoming ahead of each of the previous four seasons.

What Booth is obviously finding is that no matter the depth of Russian rubles the team now has at their disposal, it is as hard to close the gap today as it was when they embarked on the adventure back in 2010, when everything was new and greeted with wide-eyed enthusiasm.

They have made strides – albeit not quickly enough to close the gap on an ever-improving grid. Marussia increased their reliability last season, with Chilton achieving the notable feat of crossing the line in every race. But the introduction of a raft of new regulations – notably the 1.6-litre V6 turbo-charged engines replacing the 2.4-litre V8s – for 2014 means problems have continued to dog them.

Consequently, a team that once had a tiny White Rose painted onto the cars’ bodywork – such was their pride in representing their home county – is unlikely to be rising to the national anthem of the Russian Federation when the Sochi Grand Prix takes place on October 12.

That is the 16th of 19 races in 2014. It begins at Albert Park for the Australian Grand Prix next week, with the biggest question being can anyone stop Sebastian Vettel.

Ironically, the best team for the last four years has suffered similar acclimatisation problems to Marussia and the fellow back markers in testing. It has meant that those left asking whether the German’s dominance has been purely down to driving the best car might finally get their answer.

For as well as the return to turbo power for the first time since 1988, Formula 1 has undergone its most radical rules overhaul since its inception in 1950. The reforms include changes to the gearbox, exhausts and bodywork, as well as the introduction of a new energy recovery system.

Aesthetically, drivers will also have their own numbers on their car, which harks back to the days of Nigel Mansell in the No 5 of Williams. But it is the man in the No 1 car who enters the season under a cloud.

The Red Bull would appear to leave a lot to be desired. In pre-season testing only Marussia completed fewer kilometres.

The advent of the new regulations has led to Red Bull being beset with problems, some of their own making, some that can be placed at the door of power-unit supplier Renault.

As it stands, Vettel and Red Bull will be fortunate to see the chequered flag in Melbourne.

One of the new rules that could restrict Lewis Hamilton, pictured, in his search for a first world title since 2008, relates to the fuel regulations as each car will start with a 100kg limit, as opposed to 150kg in the past. Driver strategy will now focus on fuel management as opposed to flat-out speed, which arguably negates the great strength of Hamilton, who regularly put his Mercedes on the front row last season, but failed to translate that into wins.

Quickest in testing, Hamilton has been installed as the bookies’ favourite to win the title. F1 fans will be intrigued to discover if the rule changes have indeed levelled the playing field.

And another thing...

Knees were jerking uncontrollably from Colombia to Great Britain last week.

How can the all-conquering men’s British track cycling team fail to win one medal at the world championships?

It’s Dave Brailsford’s fault for not being there, was the loudest shout from the detractors. Those young riders who joined Ed Clancy for the team pursuit are just not up to it, was another refrain.

All of which was a little too far-fetched for me. British Cycling has rarely been the dominant force at the annual world championships.

Success every four years at the Olympic Games is their mission statement, and to be fair, they have done a damn good job of it.

After numerous conversations with Clancy – who we can forgive a few off days after 10 major titles in the last decade – it is clear that British Cycling is ALL about the Olympics. World championships are staging posts. The time for trial and error is now, not in an Olympic year. There is no need to panic, just a need to knuckle down.