Feature image: Sutton Images
It’s finally here. The most anticipated season of Formula One in recent memory is just around the corner.
The beautiful thing heading into this season is no one knows what to expect. Yes, we’ve had a taster in winter testing, so we have a fair idea who’s on the pace and who’s not but you can’t call what we saw in Barcelona definitive. Teams hold back/run heavier and new parts arrive in between/at the first grand prix. So you can expect some teams to slide up and down the order that we saw in testing when it comes to pace.
Can anyone halt the raging Silver Arrows from taking their fourth consecutive drivers and constructors titles?
Quite a few changes to note around the F1 paddock.
The most obvious/talked about changes are the regulation changes. In short, cars should fly much faster thanks to fatter tyres, a lower rear wing and a larger diffuser.
Nico Rosberg does not return to defend his crown after announcing his shock retirement just days after winning the title showdown in Abu Dhabi (some say his arse cheeks are still clenched, and I wouldn’t blame him to be fair). Mercedes filled the void he left with Williams’ Valterri Bottas.
Stoffel Vandoorne replaces the outgoing/retiring Jenson Button to partner Fernando Alonso to create what promises to be a very interesting driver lineup at McLaren-Honda. The last time Alonso was paired with a highly rated rookie/young driver (sorry, Nelson Piquet Jr.) was 2007 and we all know what happened then…
Other driver changes include the return of the retiring Felipe Massa, who was called upon as soon as the possibility of Williams losing Bottas to Mercedes was realistic. Massa joins paydriver and rookie Lance Stroll. The Canadian is going to have his hands full and, if winter testing was anything to go by, it could be a long year indeed…
Elsewhere, the Manor team will not be taking to the grid this year (the team went into administration in January) and its drivers, Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon were forced to look elsewhere for race seats. Ocon netted the much better gig of the two, landing a seat at Force India seat, vacated by Nico Hulkenburg who joined Renault. Wehrlein, meanwhile, signed for Sauber replacing Felipe Nasr. And, finally, Kevin Magnussen departed Renault and signed a three-year deal with Haas and he replaces Esteban Gutierrez.
Bernie Ecclestone is no longer calling the shots. F1’s new owners, the Liberty Group, are now in charge. Chase Carey is the man now, flanked by marketing guru Sean Bratches and the legendary Ross Brawn, formerly of Mercedes and Ferrari.
There are two changes to the F1 calendar. The German Grand Prix is knocked off the schedule due to financial issues while Baku, Azerbaijan are still hosting a race, however it will be called the Azerbaijan Grand Prix instead of the European Grand Prix as it was last year.
A number of key technical personnel swapped places during the. At Williams, Pat Symonds steps aside and he is replaced by Paddy Lowe, who
was ousted from leaves Mercedes and rejoins his first team (1987-1993, his first stint with the team). At Mercedes, former Ferrari technical director James Allison joins the Silver Arrows after having left Ferrari last year.
There’s an interesting new rule brought in regarding wet-weather restarts following a safety car. When a safety car is called upon to begin a race, the fans lose the excitement of a wet-weather start. We all want to see it. Now we will. Once a wet track is deemed safe enough to race on at full speed — and no longer requires the safety car to guide them around — the safety car will peel into the pit lane and the cars will form up on the grid and will prepare for a standing start. We can all agree this is a much happier solution for the fans, who get to see a standing start in the wet no matter what.
There are quite a number of livery changes this season. Some good, some not so good.
(Who have also switched their engine supplier from Ferrari to Renault)
(Better late than never)
New regulations, more problems?
A lot of people are excited for the new regulations and hoping that they will create a more competitive race to the silverware. But could they actually reduce the number of overtakes?
To start, with the cars now being able to take more speeds into the corners meaning — in theory — that braking points should be even later than they are, meaning the overtaking car is going to have to use straight line speed — with the help of DRS — to position himself on the inside line in order to overtake into a corner, rather than dive-bomb right as the braking zone approaches. That could be an issue, not to mention that cars actually wider, since the tyres are wider.
The other issue is that no one really knows how well these cars follow each other on the track. In testing, Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes was trailing a Haas and Hamilton said he found it very difficult to follow the Haas.
I’m very concerned. Overtakes are such an important aspect of this sport. If these cars can’t overtake each other the races are not going to be fun, no matter how many teams are contending. Time will tell.
Drivers champion: Lewis Hamilton
I really wanted to tip a Ferrari driver to win the title but I do think Mercedes have been holding back and, as such, still have the best car and I just don’t see Valterri Bottas besting Lewis Hamilton over the course of a season. I just can’t imagine any other driver winning the title other than Hamilton. I would love to be wrong, I really would but I guess we shall see…
Constructors champion: Ferrari
While I think Lewis Hamilton is going to have a great season, I do not predict the same for Valterri Bottas (shades of Heikki Kovalainen come to mind) and I think Ferrari have the better driver lineup to take advantage. If Mercedes are ahead, I do think Ferrari are going to be close and I expect Raikkonen and Vettel to better Bottas over the course of a season and, as such, take the constructors title.
Best driver of the rest: Sebastian Vettel
This is assuming that Ferrari haven’t lost all of their pace by the time the lights go out in Australia. Vettel has had a few frustrating seasons now and it’s easy to forget, in the midst of mediocrity, that he’s four-time champion. I think this is the season that he reminds every one of that fact. Whether he actually wins the championship is another thing, but people will be talking about Sebastian Vettel at the front of the grid this season.
Best team of the rest: Williams
When I say “best of the rest” when it comes to constructors, I’m talking about fourth place behind Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari. Even though Williams don’t have the strongest drive lineup, they showed some good pace in testing and Felipe Massa knows his way around. They may not finish fourth in the standings (on account of Lance Stroll probably crashing out of a few races), but I think they’ll have the fourth fastest car.
Best in-team fight: Daniel Ricciardo vs. Max Verstappen
These two have been pretty friendly toward each other but put them in a car that can compete for championships and it’s going to be a different story. These two have shown they don’t back down for anyone…there’s a fire in both of them and they won’t back down for each other that’s for sure. It would make for a great battle but it won’t happen if the car isn’t competing for titles.
Most one-sided in-team fight: Felipe Massa vs. Lance Stroll
Not much to say here. Massa is going to crush the inexperienced Stroll. The whole paydriver thing, added to a shaky winter testing showing, worries me greatly.
First driver to be replace this mid-season: Daniil Kvyat
If there was a driver who was going to be replaced mid-season, I would guess it would be Daniil Kvyat. When you look around the grid, Lance Stroll won’t be let go, he’s paying Williams too much money. Marcus Ericsson is also paying for his ride and Sauber need that money. The only other driver who could be in contention here if things don’t go well might be Renault’s Jolyon Palmer.
With Kvyat, he’s already on a bit of a slippery slope after last season’s unfortunate collapse and with Red Bull reserve driver, and 2017 GP2 Champion, Pierre Gasly waiting in the wings, the pressure is going to be on Kvyat all season.
Most improved driver: Jolyon Palmer
Palmer ended the 2016 season with a good set of results: 10th in Malaysia, 12th in Japan, 13th in the US and 14th in Mexico suffering just one retirement in the final seven races.
Some would consider it luck that it was he who Renault retained and I think Palmer will prove critics wrong this season in an improved Renault but he will have his work cut out going up against a much more experienced Nico Hulkenburg.
Most disappointing driver: Valterri Bottas
This isn’t to say Bottas won’t have a good season, but in comparison with Lewis Hamilton and what that Mercedes could achieve, I don’t think Bottas will be able to outperform expectations. In my opinion, it’ll be Bottas mixing it up with the Ferrari’s and Red Bull’s while Lewis Hamilton will be running away at the front. Again, shades of Heikki Kovalainen.
Most improved team: Renault
Having had time to develop their own car, rather than re-paint the 2015 Lotus, and having a bit of cash to inject into the new car you’d imagine that Renault will make a decent leap this season. You’d imagine they’ll be contenting for regular points finishes and with a driver like Nico Hulkenburg, you’d imagine that will come to be.
Most disappointing team: McLaren
We’ve had a glimpse of McLaren’s woefully poor pace in testing and, unless things have changed dramatically since winter testing, you’d imagine that McLaren are still going to be slow in Australia. Fernando Alonso will work his magic and Stoffel Vandoorne will impress a lot of people but it’s not going to be enough to hide McLaren’s disappointment on a season that promised to be full of hope and progress.