Calm Before The Storm: Formula 1 2016 Season Preview

The offseason is always an interesting time for Formula 1. It’s surprisingly short with a mere 3 months off, yet even when the cars return for testing, cards are held closer to their respective players’ chests than a World Poker Tournament.

Last season’s story was predictable but fraught with drama. Mercedes won early, with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg exchanging victories, save for an opportune drive to the checkered flag from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in Malaysia, and continued to dominate through the season.

2015 had its fair share of strange as well, from Mercedes’ inexplicable pit error costing Lewis Hamilton a relatively easy win in Monaco (partially driver’s fault as well, to be fair), Williams jumping out to an early lead at Silverstone before pit strategy bungled their hopes at victory, and an anomalous lack of pace in Singapore from the Silver Arrows.

Most strange of all was Lewis Hamilton’s middle season dominance seemingly switched off after winning the championship at a rainy United States round. Nico Rosberg won – resoundingly – in the final three races. That late season resurgence sets up big questions ahead of 2016 for who has the right mindset to win the championship.

With radical changes on the horizon once again for the 2017 season, 2016 will likely be the third and final season of a similar pattern of results, but maybe there is room for a surprise or two.

Will Ferrari finally be level with Mercedes? Can Williams find the magic combination to pull off an upset win? Which Mercedes driver will win the battle on the track and the psychological war?

To possibly find answers for those questions, let’s take a look at the field ahead of the 2016 season:

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Mercedes AMG Petronas

Challenger: Mercedes-Benz F1 W07 Hybrid

Drivers: Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg (Reserve: TBD)

Relatively few changes to the rulebook this year means all eyes are once again on Mercedes and their recent history of dominance. Ever since the era of the split turbo, Stuttgart’s massive investment into F1 has paid off, and if winter testing is any indication, it will continue.

Yes, all teams were sandbagging at least a little, but the team’s focus on long runs stunned the paddock. Overall pace was at the top of the time sheets, but with more than 200 laps in the books (675 total) over second place Toro Rosso, the Mercedes was near-bulletproof; an ominous sign for their competitors in 2016.

With a laser-like focus on eliminating reliability problems and strategic problems like last year’s pit stop debacle in Monaco, the question is: could the Silver Arrows become even more dominant? Let’s see if Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg can avoid a literal fistfight first, as tempers boiled over multiple times last season.

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Scuderia Ferrari

Challenger: Ferrari SF16-H

Drivers: Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen (Reserve: TBD – Possibly Jean-Eric Vergne)

I wrote last year that Maranello’s finest had a success-at-all-costs attitude, but with newcomer Sebastian Vettel, things were notably more upbeat around the team. 3 victories last year had the team in a humble reverie, when similar results in previous years would result in heads rolling (metaphorically, we hope).

But make no mistake, Formula One is the alpha male of motorsports, and the series’ most successful team will not be content with yet another year as second-best. Winter testing has shown Ferrari very close to Mercedes, with a slight advantage on the new “ultrasoft” tires.

Reliability was there, albeit not in the same flagrant display as Mercedes, and the team was not shy about staying at the top of the time sheets. Ferrari does have a history of doing things a little bit differently, though, and I would expect more wins in 2016.

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Williams Martini Racing

Challenger: Williams FW38

Drivers: Felipe Massa, Valtteri Bottas (Reserve: Paul Di Resta)

Last year’s British GP at Silverstone saw heartbreak for the Grove squad. After coming close to victory in 2015, all eyes were on the team as they leapt past Mercedes at the start – a first for 2016. Whether it was a flaw in strategy or the inevitable, hopes were crumpled up and thrown away as the team slipped down the order – snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, as they say.

Without the deep pockets of Mercedes or Ferrari, it’s a wonder the team is able to remain so competitive. With improvements from the top teams, it’s all but certain that Williams needs a trick innovation like a Brawn double-diffuser or Mercedes split turbo, to overcome the challenge – and simply, I don’t see it from the FW38, which will receive its 2016-spec nose only at the Australian GP, not during testing.

Improvements aren’t easy to see, but involved a lot of heavy revisions to the rear of the car – all aimed at improving handling (especially in the wet). Williams has had a penchant for great straight line speed in recent years, hopefully they’ve improved handling this year to challenge at the front of the field.

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Red Bull TAG-Heuer

Challenger: Red Bull RB12

Drivers: Daniel Ricciardo, Daniil Kyvat (Reserve: Pierre Gasly)

While there was one team that had an absolute debacle of a 2015 season, Red Bull came in a pretty close second. The Renault powerplant was immediately lacking, leading team boss Dietrich Mateschitz to openly criticize the French manufacturer – repeatedly.

Things were on the rocks for a long time, with Red Bull vowing to not run Renault engines in 2016 and making the team scramble for a new partner. At first, it was a sign for Volkswagen to enter the sport as a new engine manufacturer. Dieselgate destroyed that dream and later, Mercedes, Ferrari, and Honda all decided not to give any advantage to a typically competitive Red Bull team.

And so, in 2016 the team had to crawl back to Renault, who agreed to let them use 2016-spec engines with TAG-Heuer branding. On one hand, with Renault returning as a works team, the new engine will be better, but so much time wasted in deciding what would fit in the back of this year’s car will no doubt have a negative effect on the team this year. Early indications from testing are good, fortunately.

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Sahara Force India

Challenger: Force India VJM09

Drivers: Nico Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez (Reserve: Alfonso Celis)

After lugging a slightly reworked version of 2014’s car to crucial championship points in the first half of 2015, their “B-Spec” car saw a notable improvement. Sergio Perez carried the team to solid points finishes and despite a lack of development, Force India impressed.

But all is not well for the team’s finances. Team founder Vijay Mallya is wanted by the Indian government for $1 billion in unpaid loans, while chairman of Sahara India (the “Sahara” part of the team’s name) Subrata Roy currently sits in a jail cell. The VJM09 is a reflection of that internal turmoil, as an updated version of the VJM08B with little changes.

Perhaps it’s not all doom and gloom, though. Winter testing was promising, with the team running just a few tenths behind Ferrari through multiple sessions. The driver lineup is strong and the engineers have once again built a competitive car. It’s unclear if the team will be able to do much development until (if) a rumored tie-up with Aston Martin goes through, but Force India always is good for a few surprising results during the season.

Australia F1 GP Auto Racing

Scuderia Toro Rosso

Challenger: Toro Rosso STR11

Drivers: Max Verstappen, Carlos Sainz (and definitely don’t add “Jr.”) (Reserve: TBD)

Long the “junior team” of Red Bull, Toro Rosso took advantage of their sister team’s struggles. Thanks to the emergence of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz, the team regularly impressed and occasionally shocked their higher-budget compatriots at Red Bull.

However, due to the internal power struggle (literally) from Red Bull, change has come to STR. For 2016, the Renault powerplant will be replaced for a late-2015-spec Ferrari engine; certainly no slouch, but F1 is as much an innovation sport as it is a development sport, and it’s hard to tell how last season’s 2nd strongest engine will perform against the 2016 ones. It was also a late decision, which certainly will have an effect on the optimal packaging that the STR11 could have had.

James Key’s STR10 was, on occasion, diabolical, with driver Max Verstappen showing up his much older and more experienced competitors. Here’s to hoping the car can once again carry both young drivers to thrilling duels on the track in 2016 to keep the “show” of F1 at its best.

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Sauber F1 Team

Challenger: Sauber C35

Drivers: Marcus Ericsson, Felipe Nasr (Reserve: TBD)

Sauber was the surprise of the paddock early last season. Great race pace and a good find in driver Felipe Nasr helped the team to successful points positions. However, as the development race got underway, they struggled to keep up, and eventually wound up running towards the back of the grid.

Financial struggles continue to dog the team, and unlike the infusion of cash from Renault to the former Lotus team, or Mercedes’ support for Manor, Sauber doesn’t have the angel investor it so badly needs. Even Ferrari, a long-time partner, has turned to the new Haas outfit for a stronger technical partnership.

Technical Director Mark Smith departed just prior to the first race of the season, further compounding the team’s struggles. Sauber is a prime candidate for a buyout, but all is quiet from manufacturers like BMW and VW. Short of a time-shortened development miracle with the C35, this might be a rough one for the Swiss team.

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McLaren Honda

Challenger: McLaren MP4-31

Drivers: Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button (Reserve: Stoffel Vandoorne)

Token, Andrea Moda, Life. There have been some bad performances in F1 over the years. And while 2015 wasn’t quite that bad, the tie-up between McLaren and Honda was a bit of a minor disaster.

One of the most powerful names in the automotive world combined with one of the most successful teams in F1 and lacking pace and reliability from the start. It dragged on too, with promises of better performance just around the corner, and optimistic answers from drivers Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button ultimately proving empty.

Eventually, it all boiled over with two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso calling the Honda engine a “GP2 engine” over a radio broadcast at the manufacturer’s home race in Japan. If there’s one thing the Japanese do not like – it’s putting out a product so bad it brings shame to their country. Yikes.

So, as we head into the 2016 season, it’s all about reassuring the legions of McLaren fans. 2015 was a development year and while 2016 may bring improvement, they’re really targeting championships in 2017. I don’t know if the fans can handle another dismal season, so let’s hope Honda has found a way to really let their engine roar.

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Haas F1 Team

Challenger: Haas VF-16

Drivers: Romain Grosjean, Esteban Gutierrez (Reserve: TBD – Possibly Jean Eric Vergne from Ferrari)

Once more, Formula One has a new team. Unlike the last round of newcomers (Team Lotus/Caterham, Virgin/Marussia, or Hispania/HRT), owner Gene Haas (of Stewart-Haas Racing fame in NASCAR) took a radically different approach.

A strong technical partnership with Scuderia Ferrari means the VF-16 shares many components with the SF16-H, including the engine, transmission, and suspension. Haas also decided to delay entry into the F1 championship by a year, allowing for further development.

If winter testing is anything to go by, it has helped, with moderate reliability and decent pace. Landing former Lotus F1 driver Romain Grosjean was a coup for a brand new team and many of their competitors are both and anxious of the threat Haas could present. One thing’s certain, it’s great to have a new team in F1, especially a well thought-out operation based out of America.

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Manor Racing

Challenger: Manor MRT05

Drivers: Pascal Wehrlein, Rio Haryanto (Reserve: Alexander Rossi)

Manor – formerly the Marussia team – had one of the most tumultuous starts to the 2015 season. It wasn’t even clear if the team would contest the season, but joined after missing the Australian GP, and had one major accomplishment throughout the season: decent reliability (only 3 DNFs).

Woefully underpowered and underdeveloped, Manor struggled, but things have changed in 2016. Thanks to landing a Mercedes engine and forging a technical partnership with Williams, the team is a sort of junior Mercedes team (also acquiring Mercedes hot-shoe Pascal Wehrlein in the process) and a significant bump in pace is expected.

Not all was rosy, however. Team Principal John Booth and Sporting Director Graeme Lowdon both departed prior to winter testing. Drivers Will Stevens, Roberto Mehri, and Alexander Rossi were replaced, with only the latter rejoining as a reserve driver. 2016, then, could be a different story for Manor compared to previous years, but a lack of continuity may hurt the team’s growth.

Australia F1 GP Auto Racing

Renault Sport F1 Team

Challenger: Renault RS16

Drivers: Kevin Magnussen, Jolyon Palmer (Reserve: Esteban Ocon)

A lot of what this season would have in store hinged on what Renault was doing with background politic – and we now have our answer. After a public dust-up with their top customer team, Red Bull, Renault returned as a works team.

Thanks to being named a “Historic Team,” a little extra financial help from the FIA (and the axing of the Nissan P1 program, some might argue) helped the French manufacturer buy out the Lotus F1 Team. Also in were a new pair of drivers, with Renault reserve driver Jolyon Palmer joining the returning Kevin Magnussen.

Those who follow F1 will recognize the ferocious hunger the new Renault team has for success. After being called out for a lack of pace, engineers will have worked tirelessly on a more improved engine to counter Red Bull’s claims. Jolyon Palmer, a junior driver passed over for a race seat after winning the GP2 Championship, and Kevin Magnussen, dropped from McLaren for 2 different drivers, will both come into 2016 with chips on their shoulder.

A late buyout from Renault may have hampered the potential development of the RS16, but this is a team that wants to win – if not in 2016, then certainly in 2017.

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