Winter is behind us, despite what the weather may suggest, and like a bear I emerge crusty-eyed and irritable from hibernation; I stretch my back, uncork my backside and prepare for the season ahead…
I speak of course about the coming Formula One season rather than hunting season or whatever it is bears do between March and next winter — salmon fishing or eating honey, I suppose – and in what is becoming somewhat of a tradition, I consider what we can expect from the latest Grand Prix year, team by team, and deliver my thoughts.
So, on the eve of the opening Grand Prix weekend and in no particular order, here we go…
The loss of Manor from Formula One over the winter may not have a seismic affect on
the quality of the racing in 2017 but the loss of the little independent back-of-the-grid team is quite a sad affair. The team joined the F1 fold in 2010, albeit under a different guise, and has had its share of highs and the lowest of the lows. Who could forget Jules Bianchi’s incredible drive to ninth place in the Monaco Grand Prix of 2014 and then the tragic circumstances of his death following his crash at that year’s Japanese GP?
Manor’s time in F1 may have been brief but their contribution to the sport is something the plucky British team should be immensely proud of.
Like a corduroy pillow, McLaren have been making all the headlines over the winter, sadly for the Woking-based squad, not always for the right reasons. Having given Ron Dennis the boot at the back end of last year, McLaren have sought to give an impression of an all new outfit, with fresh management, fresh ideas and a fresh look; they had many purists squirming with giddy pleasure in front of their computer screens when they revealed the new-for-2017 McLaren MCL32 was adorned with the team’s historic papaya orange but the same old troubles still exist.
Woeful reliability during the eight days of winter testing showed that the McLaren/Honda partnership is still struggling, despite entering their third season together in the renewed relationship. And while drivers Fernando Alonso and highly-rated rookie Stoffel Vandoorne undoubtedly form one of the most talented and exciting driver line-ups in the field, they face a year saddled with a slow and unreliable car. There’s no doubt that both drivers will eek the most from the MCL32 but it’s likely to be for little reward.
It’s come to light that McLaren have approached Mercedes regarding a possible engine partnership, suggesting McLaren and Honda’s second marriage to each other is to be a short one, set to end with a dismal whimper, one that shall also bring about questions regarding Alonso’s future at the team. His contract is up at the end of the year and with Mercedes only signing Valtteri Bottas on a one-year contract for 2017, is Fernando set to move back to the front of the field with a move to the current champions?
2017 is a big year for Sauber. Not only does the Swiss squad celebrate a quarter of a century in Formula One but they need to prove themselves as genuine, consistent mid-field runners. The two points scored by Felipe Nasr in last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix may have elevated them to a vital 10th in the constructors’ championship – and arguably hammered home the final nail in the coffin of Manor Racing – but they were the only two points the team scored all year.
Another all-but-pointless year in 2017 could be disastrous for Sauber and it’s perhaps ironic that they’ll tackle the season without that man Nasr. Instead, Sauber have opted to keep Marcus Ericson and teamed him with Pascal Wehrlein, a driver considered too immature and lacking in key areas by both Mercedes and Force India, both of whom overlooked the young German in favour of other options.
It will have stung Wehrlein a great deal to lose out on the Force India drive to the relatively inexperienced Esteban Ocon but the finest way Wehrlein can prove them wrong is to put in a hard shift and faultless year with Sauber and beat known quantity Ericson.
Renault have got a deep-rooted racing pedigree and to judge them solely on last year’s performances would be foolish. The Renault team of 2016 were widely considered to be operating on the back foot, having taking over the struggling Lotus operation and the end of 2015. For 2017 however, that excuse can be thrown out with all the Lotus branded merchandise.
As a fully-fledged factory-team Renault can consider themselves in the same company as Mercedes and Ferrari but in terms of performance it will be somewhat ambitious to consider themselves a threat to either. With the brainpower, finances and resources at their disposal however, a minimum and realistic target for Renault must be fourth in the constructors’ championship.
As for Renault’s drivers, both face an important year ahead. For Jolyon Palmer this is the crucial sophomore year, the difficult second album. He stacked up well against Kevin Magnussen in 2016 and quite often it was easy to forget he was a rookie. Now though he finds himself in his second year with a factory outfit with big ambitions and lofty targets so any mistakes that once could have been put down to his rookie status must be banished, only consistent points, maybe a podium, will suffice.
Palmer teams up with the highly-rated Nico Hulkenberg, who enters his eighth season in F1. It’s hard to believe but in all that time Hulkenberg has yet to record a single podium finish and has just the one pole-position to his name. Assuming Renault gives him a competitive car, and it looks like they may have, podiums must be Hulkenberg’s target as this could be his last chance to prove he is still one to consider when contract-signing season come around.
In recent years Toro Rosso have established themselves as a firm mid-field runner, no mean feat for the small squad that used to run under the Minardi banner. With hefty backing from Red Bull, impressive performances should be expected but the junior Red Bull team have struggled with consistency, owing largely to a roster of young and tempestuous drivers.
Now though, as Toro Rosso continue with the same driver pairing of Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz Jnr, the team have two racers of exceptional talent and reasonable experience. In Kvyat they have a driver who knows he’s lucky to still be in Formula One following his demotion from Red Bull’s A team early last year and will now have the necessary fire in his belly to focus himself and earn a permanent place on the grid.
With Carlos Sainz Jnr I truly believe they have a star. His skill and talent are every bit the match for the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen but perhaps unlike those two he doesn’t have the wild streak that leads to errors on the track or an unsavoury attitude off it. If the Toro Rosso goes as well as its new livery looks, I expect big things from Sainz.
2016 was the team’s first season in Formula One and frankly — and this point shouldn’t be undersold in any way — it was sublime. Consider the previous three teams to enter F1: Virgin, Lotus and Hispania. The first survived under Virgin and later Manor until the end of 2016 and scored just three points while Lotus became Caterham and withered by 2014 having scored zilch. As for the Hispania Racing Team, well, the less said the better.
Haas meanwhile, in their first season, scored 29 points and from the get-go appeared at home in the cutthroat world of F1. What’s more, Gene Haas is a real racer, race fuel runs through that man’s veins and that’s great for Formula One; to have a guy like Gene with the racing heritage his name carries brings a certain nostalgia back to a sporting world that I believe needs it.
As for the Haas drivers, Romain Grosjean stays on for a second year with the American outfit and is joined by Kevin Magnussen, the latter having left Renault and replaced the ousted Esteban Gutierrez. I rate Grosjean highly but even I’m not blind to his faults; another year of growing the team around him and showing what he can do behind the wheel while keeping his head will serve the Frenchman well.
As for Magnussen…I’m not sure. More than any other driver on the grid, I struggle to figure out what I make of the Dane. He’s talented, undoubtedly, and like the rest of the world I was blown away by his podium finish in his first ever Grand Prix back in 2014 but he hasn’t set the world alight since. Also, none of the top teams where clambering over each other to secure his signature for 2017 suggesting Magnussen is destined for a career in the mid-field, not a bad thing, but not great for an ambitious racer like K-Mag.
If Haas follow up on their impressive debut year with yet more consistent points, they should consider it a success. Although, it won’t be easy; the mid-field looks set to be exceptionally close and competitive in 2017.
Make no bones about it, 2016 was a disaster of a year for Williams. Not only had they fallen out of touch with the top three teams of Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari but they slipped to fifth in the final constructors’ championship, behind Force India. Correcting that in 2017 is a priority.
The drivers to do that, so say Williams, are the briefly retired Felipe Massa and eighteen year-old Canadian rookie, Lance Stroll. Massa is a known quantity and despite having tasted retirement for a month or so, he is certain to perform consistently at the peak of the car’s performance, wherever that may be in comparison to the other teams.
Stroll on the other hand is Williams’ wild card. An unknown quantity, courtesy of his rookie status, Stroll finds himself under immense pressure to get to terms with the new cars. In winter testing he suffered a series of embarrassing incidents but performed well when everything was pointing in the right direction. It’s Stroll’s performances, backing up a solid effort by Massa, that will be key to Williams regaining their place back within the top four, maybe even challenging the top three in the title race.
Over the last few years Force India have performed minor miracles as they slowly but surely worked their way up the ladder. Last year they finished an incredible fourth in the constructors’ championship; for a small team with limited funds that is nothing short of astonishing.
Their driver line-up for 2017 is pretty promising too. After his false dawn at McLaren in 2013, Sergio Perez has bounced back with remarkable form, proving that he is still deserving of a top seat. The Mexican got the better of Hulkenberg during their tenure as team-mates but now needs to see off the challenge from the young, talented upstart that is Esteban Ocon.
Ocon competed in a handful of races during the second half of 2016 but seemingly showed enough of himself for Force India to choose him over the more experienced Pascal Wehrlein. Ocon will need to show that they made the right decision and he’ll need to prove it in the first few races of 2017. This is the young Frenchman who beat Max Verstappen to the Euro F3 title in 2014 and that perhaps says all you need to know.
With Perez and semi-rookie Ocon, can Force India repeat their fourth place finish in 2017? It will be difficult, owing to the competitive mid-filed battle that will surely rage but I see no reason for them not to. Also, the car is pink now, which I like.
Let’s assume the 2017 Red Bull is a good car if not great, with Adrian Newey having once again been the mastermind behind its creation, the real story with Red Bull this year is going to be about which of the two drivers comes out on top.
For the most part is was all smiles between Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen in 2016. Both claimed one victory each with Daniel claiming a pole-position at Monaco too. But rumblings of an intense rivalry were beginning to come to the fore, tensions were beginning to rise just a touch.
For me, Ricciardo still has the edge over Max. He’s frightfully fast, the finest, most well rounded overtaker in the business and can rely on a few more years’ experience too. It will be close though, I’m sure, I hope. Remember that mega, wheel-to-wheel battle between the two in Malaysia last year? More of that, please!
Remember Nico Rosberg? Mercedes certainly will but now he’s shocked the world and retired, will they miss him?
Unlikely, I think. In Valtteri Bottas they have a fine replacement. He’s quick, polished, focused, the complete article and every bit capable of matching Rosberg’s performances. But can he match his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton? Pundits aren’t so sure and right now, neither am I. We’ll have to wait to see how that plays out.
Of course, another question is over the car itself. In the hybrid era Mercedes have been the benchmark and the new Mercedes enters 2017 as the title favourite, owing to the previous incarnation’s incredible successes. In winter testing however, despite bullet-proof reliability, things appeared far from peachy; the car appeared to be less stable than that of Ferrari, for example. Have Mercedes left the door slightly ajar for one of their main rivals to swoop in take top spot?
If they have, you can bet top dollar that Mercedes, with all the resources available to them, won’t be behind for long. In fact, any issues they may have with car performance are likely to have been corrected before the first race in Australia.
I’ve left Ferrari until the end intentionally because I wanted to consider the following claim carefully — I’ve been wrong many times before.
Ferrari, in the eyes of this humble fan and wannabe pundit, enter 2017 as the true favourites. The car seems phenomenally planted, powerful and quick, more so than even the mighty Mercedes. There appears to have been an attitude change at Ferrari too; over the winter they have been remarkably quiet. Gone are the days of lofty, well publicised ambitions and arm waving from the likes of Luca di Montezemolo. Instead, Ferrari, under the watchful eyes of Maurizio Arrivabene and Sergio Marchionne have quietly gone about their business back home in Italy and have potentially produced a world beater.
Likewise, their drivers, never a pair to make much noise away from the track, Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel have been quietly confident of the season ahead and certainly at least one of them should be; the changes made to the regulations this year see the downforce levels, grip and speed return to similar levels as those of the mid-2000s when the cars where setting lap records yet to be beaten. And who was widely considered to be the fastest driver of that era? A certain Mr. K. Raikkonen.
For me, Kimi is the dark horse and the one to watch; no doubt Vettel will be watching extremely closely. If the Ferrari is half as good as it seems, both drivers will have a shot at the title, Vettel for his fifth and Kimi for his second.
Of course, all of this is based on what has been seen in winter testing, the first true test will be in Australia this weekend where no doubt every team will have brought new parts to their cars.
As always though, it’s set to be a thrilling season.