Seldom has there been an off-season in any sport, let alone Formula 1, that has seen such change, development and unpredictability as the 2013/2014 winter break. At the end of last year, we in the Sett had become rather accustomed to a certain finger-wagging German taking the plaudits every weekend, race in race out. But lo! 4 months later and things going into Australia look different – very different. Here’s part 1 of our review of this season’s challengers.

Red Bull Racing – Are Beaten?
Lets start with the reigning champions. At some point toward the end of 2013, let’s say Singapore (where Vettel won his third race on the trot and was looking pretty secure at the top of the drivers’ championship), someone in Red Bull’s Milton Keynes base probably suggested that they should focus a little on the following year’s RB10. Whether or not this happened, or whether this person was listened to, is unknown; however based on the pre-season testing times of the 2014 challenger, this Badger would assume it didn’t. The aggressive approach taken to Red Bull’s previous all-conquering machines worked well in the era of the ever-reliable V8, but the new engines supplied by Renault are anything but bullet-proof, and the new car may have benefited from a slightly more cautious approach to design.

That being said, with Sebastian Vettel and Daniel (can’t wipe the grin off my face) Ricciardo, they have a very strong, and young driver pairing who will no doubt make the most of the car if/when it comes good. Still, you get the feeling Mark Webber knew it was time to get out!

Tough times ahead for seb?
Tough times ahead for seb?

Ferrari – Prancing Horses or Wild Stallions?
When you are the oldest and most successful team in Formula 1 history, and have on your books what many would argue as the best all-round driver on the grid, success is not so much aspired to as expected. Despite the car looking like a terrible cross between a hoover and a leaf blower, it doesn’t appear to suck or blow but be moderately, if not spectacularly, quick.

2014 sees a change of tack for the Italian stable, with the Sheriff/Deputy model of Alonso and Massa replaced by a more equal footing of two World Champions as Kimi Räikkönen joins from Lotus. This is probably the most interesting driver relationship on the grid, with Kimi famously having fallen out of love with Formula 1 in his previous stint with Ferrari, and Alonso only ever having had serious competition across the garage once in his F1 career. That of course was when a young rookie Englishman joined him at McLaren, and we all remember how that ended.

Cool as Ice?
Cool as Ice?

Force India – May the force be with you
Force India have managed to pull of a bit of a coup. Not only have they managed to draft in the not-too-shabby Pérez from McLaren, but also welcome back the highly rated and covetted Nico Hülkenberg after a year’s sojourn at Sauber. Added to that they’ve retained Mercedes engines and look to have built a solid 2014 challenger. The car has appeared pacey and relatively reliable, so they will be wanting to capitalise on this early season advantage and get points on the board before other teams catch up.

Hulk smash?
Hulk smash?

Toro Rosso – Red-faced bulls
At the end of last year, the choice to jump engine suppliers from Ferrari to the Renault power of bigger-sister team Red Bull Racing must have seemed a sensible one. Similar chassis, similar engines. Both will be quick, right? Well, no. As it turns out the Renault engine has been a pig in pre-season and Toro Rosso have been hampered as a result.

While very young and lacking experience, Daniil Kvyat has managed to handle himself well in the limited running the STR9 has achieved, though questions as to the long-term purpose of Jean-Éric Vergne in the team may be raised come the close of the season. We quite like JEV here in the Sett, but it seems unlikely that he is going to take either of the drives at Red Bull, so why not give the likes of António Félix da Costa a go instead?

Toro Rosso will be hoping that Renault come good
Toro Rosso will be hoping that Renault come good

Williams – Shaken and now stirring
What do you do if you suffer the worst couple of seasons in your history? Change leadership, change drivers, change designers, change engines and rise from the ashes like a beautiful Martini-sponsored phoenix. This is exactly what Williams seem to have achieved in what has been, quite frankly, a remarkable couple of months for the Grove outfit. The 2014 challenger was the first to break cover, and has confounded recent season form to top the times on numerous occasions throughout winter testing; it also appears almost bulletproof in terms of reliability.

Indeed, Ferrari outcast Felipe Massa must be wondering if he is the luckiest man in F1, with the car seemingly an outside bet for the title. Added to the highly rated Valtteri Bottas, a Williams rejuvenation must be on the cards? Please?

Promising pre-season pace
Promising pre-season pace

Caterham – The green goblin
This Badger isn’t one for judging books by the cover; after all, beauty is only skin deep, right? Well, whoever first said that had obviously never laid eyes on the Caterham CT05. Wow. Much nose; very box. For a car that was apparently in development for the best part of last season, it looks very boxy (one member of the Sett likened it to the stillborn 90s DAMS project), and that nose… only a mother could love it. But perhaps this boxy approach is the way to get the best out of the Renault engine, with Caterham managing the most laps of any French-powered team, even if they were several seconds off the pace.

Sweden’s Marcus Ericsson did well in GP2, but was never particularly exciting. That being said, he probably deserves a shot at Formula 1. They have also signed the exciting fan favourite Kamui Kobayashi, who knows this is the last chance saloon. If he can impress here then he might – might – land a drive elsewhere. It was a calculated gamble with the regulation changes for 2014, as there was a chance Caterham would have been higher up the pecking order. Little did he know they were taking design tips from Minecraft.

Argghhh my eyes!
Argghhh my eyes!