Clean Slate: F1 2017 Season Preview

For those wanting a shake-up to the modern Formula 1 formula, the answer from pundits, drivers, and officials was the same for years: wait until 2017.

Less downforce, more mechanical grip, wider tires, and louder engines would lead a series of sweeping changes. Those changes would bring a more exciting spectacle and possibly spoil the fortunes of Mercedes’ domination after winning the previous three championships.

Well, here we are…

The tires are wider, the rear wings lower – oh, and Liberty Media (Sirius-XM, Charter Communications, Viacom – among other interests/assets) bought F1, head honcho Bernie Ecclestone has been deposed, and after winning the 2016 World Championship, Nico Rosberg retired five days later.

It was a fitting mic-drop for the German driver. After charging to victories at the tail end of the 2015 season, he continued his roll in 2016 with 4 straight wins. Consistency was his signature, even while Lewis Hamilton came storming back to lead the championship in the middle of the season.

Despite that surge, Hamilton was always be on the back foot. Numerous engine problems and struggles with the clutch during race starts meant Hamilton had to fight against the odds. There was no denying his talent, as he sliced through the field all season, but a late race engine failure at Malaysia was basically the final nail in the coffin for his championship hopes.

Rosberg benefitted from his teammate’s poor starts and bad luck, but his consistency held Lewis’ feet to the fire all season. As we all know, an F1 car is a fast, yet potentially brittle fiend when pushed to the limit.

Looking ahead to this season, everything has an unnerving feeling of excitement mixed with anxiety. While Rosberg’s retirement means the sport needs a new running narrative, a battle of old and new is brewing ahead of the 2017 Formula One season.

 

MB

Mercedes AMG Petronas

Drivers: Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas

The Brackley squad has been F1’s powerhouse team, easily winning the driver’s and constructor’s championships for the past 3 years. The ingenuity of their twin-turbo V6 engine gave them (and their customer teams) a distinct performance edge starting 3 years ago and a little bit of everything else has kept them at the front.

Two world-class drivers, top-tier engineering and strategy talent, a healthy budget, and clever innovations each season have consistently left other teams scrambling to keep up. But 2017 is a little bit of a question mark. New regulations have allowed the potential for other teams to close the gap and early indications are that a team championship won’t be an easy feat.

After Rosberg’s departure, the team had the most coveted seat in motorsports, but the worst timing possible (coming after other teams had signed their drivers for 2017). Rumors swirled of big names like Vettel and Alonso potentially joining the team, while sensible in-house names like Wehrlein and Ocon were the obvious choices for a promotion.

In the end, the seat went to Williams driver Valtteri Bottas, whose manager is Mercedes F1’s team boss, Toto Wolff. It isn’t a flashy move, but it gives the team a clear rallying point behind Lewis Hamilton, and a solid, known quantity for their second driver.

And from testing, while Mercedes doesn’t appear to have a distinct advantage, they appear to be at the front of the field and with no signs of slowing down. Expect a difficult, but still wildly successful season in 2017.

Fer

Scuderia Ferrari

Drivers: Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen

There may be no team more frustrated than the one from Maranello. After 3 wins in 2015, the team was held off the top step of the podium in 2016, and found themselves behind Red Bull in third place. Team leader Sebastian Vettel blew a few fuses throughout the season and Raikkonen, who some predicted to retire once again after 2016, ended up the more consistent driver.

It has now been over a decade since the team has been dominant and nine years since their last championship. The “win at all costs” attitude that has seen team principals dismissed and staff reshuffled seems to be in the past and the team’s cautious approach this year appears to be working.

World Championship-winning drivers return, the budget is healthy, and 2017 begins scandal-free. Performance in testing looks good as well, with times close to, if not faster than, Mercedes. Even Ferrari’s rivals have admitted they may be the team to watch.

It’s clear the team doesn’t want to get ahead of themselves, but the change in regulations may have been just enough to get them level with Mercedes and with a chance to win the team and/or drivers championship.

After a quick exit in the first day of the Race of Champions in Miami, Sebastian Vettel stormed back with dominant pace to win the ROC Nations Cup on the event’s second day. It always helps to start the season on a winning note and Seb is undoubtedly hoping to continue that roll into the F1 calendar.

With an entire country and legions of fans across the globe cheering the Scuderia on, no team expects more each season, and this may finally be the year they get back to their winning ways.

Will

Williams Martini Racing

Drivers: Felipe Massa, Lance Stroll

Williams certainly had an interesting off-season that was a lot more up-and-down than what they were expecting. After saying obrigado to Felipe Massa, newcomer Lance Stroll was expected to join Bottas in another pursuit of a top-five position in the championship.

Instead, their presumptive lead driver was plucked by Mercedes-AMG relatively late in the off-season, and the Grove squad needed to lure back the retired Brazilian. It will certainly be an odd situation, as the world won’t forget the send off the crowd at Interlagos gave to their countryman after he crashed out right before pit lane, but maybe Massa – and Williams – will be more resolved for the future when the team expects another driver change for 2018.

Despite losing Bottas, the team has continued to develop the car and early signs point to a stronger package than last year, when they lost pace to Force India at the tail end of the season. Bolstered by new hire Paddy Lowe (ex-Mercedes F1 executive) and with a substantial cost reduction on their Mercedes engines, the team could surprise with a few podiums throughout the year.

Lowe believes the car may even be better than what Mercedes can offer in some areas, but that’s still a bit optimistic. Expect a few podium results if the car can finally find the balance between top speed and race pace – as well as a substantial learning curve for newcomer Stroll.

RB

Red Bull TAG-Heuer

Drivers: Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen

Without Red Bull, last season truly would have been a procession. They’ve been an occasional thorn in the side of Mercedes AMG, but this year they’re hoping to become a delicately sharpened dagger at their backs.

After joining the team mid-season, Dutch driver/superhero Max Verstappen put on an absolute clinic – winning his first race at Catalunya, and constantly pressuring the Mercedes duo. It culminated in a drive for the ages at Interlagos, with his outside passes and overall blistering pace in the rain emulating comparisons to legends like Senna and Clark.

And their other driver, Daniel Ricciardo, is the one who soundly beat 4-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel in their last year together as teammates. Together, Red Bull has the most potent driver combination for years to come, and their potential is only tied to what Renault can do with their 2017 engine.

While other teams have opted for tiny maelstroms of aerodynamic components, the engineers at Milton-Keynes have crafted a tidy, clever package. It’s a very smooth design, with details tucked away or coated in an obscuring black paint. We’ve seen tidy F1 cars lead to both success and failure in recent years and it remains to be seen where this one will land.

The team is saying that Ferrari and Mercedes have the edge by a few tenths, but Red Bull is always excellent at developing the car over the course of a season, and could be a strong choice to win the championship.

FI

Sahara Force India

Drivers: Sergio Perez, Esteban Ocon

This is a team that always seems to surprise. Whether it was their two podiums last year, or their victory over Williams in the constructor’s championship, it is becoming a tradition for the Silverstone-based group.

While we had to wait until after testing for this year’s surprise, it ended up being a quite… colorful one. The traditional silver/black scheme remains on the team’s overalls, but the car itself gets the full treatment from new sponsor BWT. Already dubbed the “Pink Panther” this year’s Force India car will be looking to continue the team’s tradition of being at the top of the mid-pack.

Sergio Perez leads the team, while Mercedes protege Esteban Ocon steps up from the now-defunct Manor team. It’s a strong pairing, with two young drivers rich with talent and top-team experience (Perez was also a member of the Ferrari Driving Academy). The car also continues with Mercedes power and technical support, so the pieces are there for another battle behind the top 3 teams.

As for anything more, it’s possible with the lucky break here and there. But from testing times and the speed trap numbers (towards the back of the pack), this might be a difficult season to remain at the top of the midfield.

TR

Scuderia Toro Rosso

Drivers: Carlos Sainz, Daniil Kyvat

After a year of struggling with a 2015-spec Ferrari engine, the Red Bull junior team is set for better fortunes in 2017. No longer needing to be on the receiving end of the top dog’s spat with an engine manufacturer, this year will feature the latest spec Renault engines, and a renewed sense of purpose.

It’s a story of mixed fortunes for the team’s drivers. Max Verstappen’s early promotion to the Red Bull squad was immediately justified as he won his first race with the senior team in Spain, while Daniil Kyvat’s demotion led to a tail-spin of incidents on the track.

For Carlos Sainz, consistency was passed over for (slightly more) youth and the Spaniard will be left to ruminate over his chance to move to a top team. While Sainz might not have dominated over his Dutch ex-teammate, he was on-par, or at least very close in pace. If Sainz has anywhere near the same caliber of talent, expect him to be snatched up by a leading team soon.

Kyvat, on the other hand, was given a surprise second chance. Early departures from names like Alguersuari, Vergne, and Bourdais, highlight how the Faenza-based team is not known for keeping underperforming drivers around. However, instead of offering a seat to one of the Red Bull juniors like Pierre Gasly, they’ve opted for experience. But, make no mistake, Kyvat’s seat remains one of the warmest in motorsports.

Looking ahead to this year, things are looking positive. The new engine appears to deliver and the team’s pursuit of being at the top of the mid-pack seems abundantly possible. Expect a lot of 6-8th place finishes as Toro Rosso cements itself as a consistent points finisher over the course of the season.

Sau

Sauber F1 Team

Drivers: Marcus Ericsson, Pascal Wehrlein

2016 was a dismal season for the Swiss team, lagging behind Manor until the second to last race of the season, where a 9th place finish from Felipe Nasr brought the only high point of the year.

Heading into 2017, there sadly isn’t much more optimism. Nasr, and his Banco do Brasil money, is gone, leaving the team with a very empty white space on the side of the car, and another financially-skeptic future. One upside may be that the team landed Mercedes protege Pascal Wehrlein, but it’s important to note he was passed over for the almost-obvious promotion to the Mercedes AMG seat alongside Lewis Hamilton.

Despite a quiet offseason and being the first to reveal their new car, Wehrlein brought the team some extra anxiety after a sloppy crash at the Race of Champions. The rollover in his Polaris Slingshot led to minor neck and back injuries, putting the German in question for the start of the 2017 season. A long rest period and multiple doctor’s visits later, Wehrlein has the all-clear, but it was a nervous few weeks, and there have to be lingering concerns with cars that are faster and put more strain on their pilots.

The team will also be following in Toro Rosso’s footsteps by running last year’s Ferrari engine. Sauber hopes it will bring reliability as they develop the aerodynamics of the car, but there’s more to the story than what the team has told the general public. A current-spec Ferrari engine isn’t cheap and as Haas F1 has overtaken the Swiss squad as Maranello’s pseudo-junior team, there might not be many breaks in 2017 or the years ahead.

Mc

McLaren Honda

Drivers: Fernando Alonso, Stoffel Vandoorne

There isn’t a team in Formula One that has seen its fortunes fall further than McLaren. It has been almost a decade since the team has won a driver’s or constructor’s championship. Realistically, it has been at least 4 years since they were anywhere close to competitive.

The switch to Honda was supposed to evoke the glory days of the 80s and 90s, but it has been the opposite. Fans were told to be patient as the team got up to speed, with slightly higher goals each successive season. First, it would be a race distance, then it would be a few championship points, and maybe by year three (2017), they’d be competitive enough to have a chance at winning races.

So far, 2017 is not looking good. Reliability problems continue to plague the team and when the car is able to run, it’s way off the rest of the field in top speed. Rumors are swirling of an unhappy Fernando Alonso, an unhappy partnership with Honda, and an unhappy outlook for the upcoming season.

Perhaps most surprising of all was the shock sacking of McLaren-supremo Ron Dennis, as the team adopted new leadership alongside a host of other changes. There’s lack of a steady hand at McLaren and a slow car this year could force a complete wiping of the slate. That could certainly happen with lead driver Fernando Alonso, who is in the last year of his contract and longs for one more chance at a championship drive.

Alongside Alonso will be Stoffel Vandoorne, a GP2 champion who has a history of dominating his rivals, and someone who has already scored points in his singular outing with the team. The Belgian was good enough to keep as the team elected to have Jenson Button take a retirement/sabbatical from F1 for 2017.

Haas

Haas F1 Team

Drivers: Romain Grosjean, Kevin Magnussen

F1’s newest team certainly examined every inch of the F1 rulebook in their debut. Unlike teams in the past who had tried to build their own car, Haas utilized a partnership with Ferrari and Dallara to have the engine and mechanicals from the former, and a chassis designed by the latter.

Funded by Haas Automation’s substantial pockets (as opposed to a shadowy investment group), the team scored points on debut and continued their roll in the early part of the season. Although they were passed by in the second half of the season, with brake problems snarling their chances at further points, they somewhat rebounded towards the end of the season.

A series of 11th places weren’t enough for Esteban Gutierrez to be retained, but Frenchman Romain Grosjean and newcomer Kevin Magnussen are hoping to build on the team’s very successful debut season. Team boss Gunther Steiner also admitted that development shifted to the 2017 car very early in the previous season, so there is reason for optimism for the American team.

Aside from continued issues with the brakes, the pace of the car is good, and Haas appears to be in contention for mid-pack points in the opening rounds. That’s a good sign, as previous newcomers may have struggled to adapt to a new set of rules and regulations in their second seasons.

Ren

Renault Sport F1 Team

Drivers: Nico Hulkenburg, Jolyon Palmer

Renault’s relatively late return as a constructor for the 2016 season was always going to be a large hurdle to get over, but the Enstone squad decided to focus solely on 2017 as their formal return.

The team hopes their poor form in 2016 (scoring only 8 points) is an aberration. By signing Nico Hulkenburg as their lead driver, Renault is hoping to build back to their championship-winning days of 2005 and 2006.

For years, the knock against the manufacturer has been substandard engine performance, but as Red Bull showed towards the end of last year and the early parts of pre-season testing, things are improving quickly.

Although top talent will continue to flock to Red Bull over Renault, the team now has a top driver, a stronger engine, and a long period of development that has all gone into their 2017 championship hopes. From testing, they are near the front of the midpack, and with strong manufacturer backing, they may easily overtake the teams around them in the season-long development race.

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