By Kieran Rudrum (@Kieran_Rudrum) and Jake Dewbery (@JakeDewbery)
The New Formula One season is almost upon us, and unlike last year, everything isn’t doom and gloom. Yes viewing figures dropped again last year, yes Bernie Ecclestone ludicrously gave Sky Sports exclusive rights to every race, rather than just half the races, and yes Mercedes dominated again in 2016. But this year the sport has new ownership, and they’re saying everything fans like ourselves want to hear. If pre-season testing is anything to go by, we also have a multi team championship fight on the horizon with faster, more dramatic looking cars; much like what was the case in the mid-2000s. So unlike last year, instead of moaning about all the issues in the sport and how to fix them, we are going to do a good and honest season preview and team by team guide. We shall start with the reigning champions.
Is a Hamilton-Bottas combination perfect for a Constructors fight?
Firm favourites again this season?
KR: For the first time since 2012, it appears we may have a title fight on our hands which doesn’t just involve one team. With the choice of Bottas, it’s almost like Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda saw this threat coming. When Bottas was chosen as Nico Rosberg’s replacement, I, as many, was sceptical at the choice, feeling that Mercedes missed the chance to get a star like Alonso or Vettel, or even bring through a young gun like Wehrlein or Ocon like Red Bull did with Ricciardo when Webber retired. However, going into the season, Mercedes may have the perfect balance. Analysts have gathered through testing that Bottas is about 2 tenths a lap slower than Rosberg was compared to Hamilton each lap, meaning he will be less of a threat, but still be in striking distance to score big points for the team. This means Mercedes effectively have a clear number 1 driver in Hamilton to lead the charge in the drivers’ championship, and a reliable, steady driver in Bottas to help in the constructors, a luxury their perceived rivals won’t have. Hamilton will be out for revenge this season, after not winning last season’s championship through reliability, and he is certainly my preseason favourite.
JD: Bottas definitely didn’t join this team to be a number 2 driver and he will relish the opportunity to prove all of his doubters wrong. However I fear Hamilton and the potential pressures of a title will cause him to succumb to our initial reservations. Should this happen then Mercedes will have a distinct driver hierarchy which I believe will give them the upper hand on the chasing pack helping them to secure both titles yet again.
Verdict (KR, JD)
Mercedes: 1st, 1st
Hamilton: 1st, 1st
Bottas: 5th, 5th
Red Bull: The Unknown Quantity?
KR: Nobody quite knows where Red Bull are right now. The team look behind Ferrari and Mercedes in pace but are bringing big updates to Australia. Their engine is behind Mercedes and Ferrari, but promises more in the opening race of the season. It seems we won’t know where Red Bull will be until we get to Australia itself, and with probably the strongest, certainly the most exciting driver line-up on the grid, you would hope they will challenge. Wherever they end up, one thing to watch out for is the inter team battle with Ricciardo and Verstappan, both tipped as future world champions.
JD: Despite Renault apparently making big performance upgrades over the winter Red Bull looked rather timid in preseason testing and seemed to be lacking that quiet confidence that Ferrari and Mercedes have oozed. Nevertheless the base performance of their car looks strong, which combined with the grids strongest driver line up and an in season development team arguably second to none will surely see them pick up at least race podiums. If Red Bull are within 0.5s of Mercedes on average after the first three rounds then I would count on them to secure wins and challenge for the title by the season conclusion. Despite this, I think both titles will elude Red Bull for at least another season.
Verdict (KR, JD)
Red Bull: 3rd, 2nd
Ricciardo: 3rd, 2nd
Verstappan: 4th, 4th
Will Ferrari’s Drivers and Strategists let down their impressive car?
Ferrari have not won a championship since 2008
KR: For me, it is clear, Ferrari will arrive in Australia with the fastest car for the first time since 2008. Despite not much noise coming from Maranello before pre-season, the attitude of the Italian team is now one of growing confidence. However, as seen in many races last season, there are a couple of things which could let the prancing horse down. Kimi Raikkonen is widely regarded to be past his best, and has struggled for consistency in recent years, while the once all conquering Sebastian Vettel was absolutely horrendous in both 2014 and 2016, making Red Bull’s cars in his glory years look to have as much as a pace advantage as Mercedes have had in the last few seasons. The other issue Ferrari may have is strategy; in two different occasions last season (Australia and Canada), Ferrari threw away the chances to win races with poor strategy calls. These factors together could make the difference between contenders and champions.
JD: It would appear from early testing that the sinking ship that was Ferrari last season has finally been resurrected, however only time will tell if they can make it through a full season without collapse. I personally don’t think they can, as much as I’d love to see the Iceman secure a second championship title I fear it will continue to elude him, through a lack of sustained top level pace, desire and team strategy. And I don’t think Vettel is currently the driver to stand up and spearhead a Ferrari title challenge either. His innate frustration at the team and others over the last two seasons have been reflective of a broken man who’s lost control of his emotions when it’s not going his way. Maybe success will calm and cure him to reignite his Formula One reign, or maybe those title winning Red Bull’s simply flattered his success. I can envisage Ferrari actually winning the first race of the season and really pushing Mercedes for the title early on before spontaneously combusting midway through the season and losing out to Red Bull too. Ferrari, if you are reading this humble East Anglian blog post, then please prove me wrong.
Verdict (KR, JD)
Ferrari: 2nd, 3rd
Vettel: 2nd, 6th
Raikkoneon: 6th, 3rd
Can Force India keep up the momentum?
What were they thinking with this monstrosity?
KR: The best pound-to-pound team in the sport return with a hideous paint job and an equally ugly car design. Force India managed to finish 4th last season despite having only the 9th largest budget, but with new rules, and teams like Renault and Williams looking fairly rejuvenated, I see repeating this achievement unlikely for this coming season. It will also be interesting to see how Force India fair without Hulkenberg. With Perez-Hulkenberg, Force India had undoubtedly the best line-up possible for a midfield team, and although they still have Perez, Ocon is an unproven quantity who did nothing last season to suggest he was a superstar. Force India will still be pumping above their weight this season, but they might not be able to quite punch as high as last season.
JD: I largely agree with KR, Force India were superb last season and I believe they will be again this season too, however through no fault of their own they’ll slip down the constructors order. I think this simply because the midfield around them is so so tight that any shortcomings become magnified tenfold, and Force India have two gaping shortcomings. One is the lack of budget, and two is their driver line up, whilst Perez will probably excel again but Ocon is an unproven quantity, who could falter or prosper. Should he do the latter then Force India could again claim some big team scalps.
Verdict (KR, JD)
Force India: 5th, 7th
Ocon: 12th, 16th
Can Williams Overcome their line-up weakness in transitional season?
KR: It has been all change during the pre-season for Williams. While head mechanic Pat Symonds has left, Mercedes key man Paddy Lowe has been drafted in as a replacement, something which can only be described as a coup. All change as well in the driver line-up, as 17 year-old Canadian Lance Stroll gets a debut while following the loss of Bottas, Williams elected to call Massa out of retirement instead of going for a second unknown quantity like Wehrlein or Giovinazzi. You would imagine this will be Massa’s last season in the sport, and that a driver as young of Stroll (one with a reputation for being erratic in junior formulas as well), this will be a season of transition for Williams. One thing is clear though, Williams have a strong car, it is just a case of will the line-up reach its potential. Massa looked like the initial decision to retire last season was perfect timing in corresponding with his declining ability, and Stroll looks set to struggle with the increase of performance of the 2017 cars. Williams will need to hope that they’re rather exaggerated version of youth and experience doesn’t backfire.
JD: As mentioned above Williams will go either one of two ways this season, and after initially seeing their very conservatively designed car I did think it was going to be backwards. Fortunately preseason testing has looked largely positive, with Massa not looking ‘past it’ just yet. Whilst Williams will likely start strong I can see them dropping away as the season wears on, with their success likely to hinge on Stoll finding his feet and taking over from a wilting Massa.
Verdict (KR, JD)
Williams: 6th, 4th
Massa: 9th, 9th
Stoll: 16th, 12th
Can Honda save its relationship with McLaren and Alonso?
The rare sight of a McLaren with something other than smoke behind it
KR: We are both deep down, Norwich fans in football, and McLaren fans in Formula One, and currently, it’s hard to tell which one infuriates us the most. After the cue against Ron Dennis (the Arsene Wenger of Formula One), McLaren come with a fresh new leadership, and from the sounds of Alonso and new team principal Zak Brown, a great chassis. However, as well publicised, there is one huge problem with McLaren, and that’s the continuing failures of Honda power. From the outset, the Honda-McLaren relationship has been an understanding of short term pain (2015) as Honda played catch up, for long term gain. Unfortunately if pre-season testing has anything to go by, things are only getting worse. Brown, Boulier and star driver Fernando Alonso, possibly the best driver not to ever have driven the best car in the field at any point of his career (maybe with the exception on 2007), are getting more vocal of their criticism of Honda, and from the sounds of it, if Honda don’t sort things out by mid-season McLaren will leave them for Mercedes.
Either way, I expect a slow start for McLaren and for them to be competitive late in the season, and hopefully Alonso, and Stoffel Vandoorne, who will surely be the best rookie on the grid this season, will be able to show their talent at some point.
JD: I don’t know how many more seasons I can watch this fallen Mclaren shaped giant dragging its feet across the floor as it flounders to recapture the former Mclaren-Honda glories days. After first seeing the pictures of the new car I thought this might be the season they strike back, with a design as aerodynamically intricate as only the current big three the signs looked positive. Unfortunately in order to race in Formula One an engine is needed to accompany the elegant body, and as has been the case for the last two seasons the Honda power unit has waned chances again. ‘No power’ and ‘no reliability’, I fear for the amount of P45’s that will be issued. After a slow start I do believe that Mclaren will again surge up the midfield towards the end of the season, with Alonso the leading beacon and Vandoorne not shining too dimly behind him.
Verdict (KR, JD)
McLaren: 7th, 8th
Alonso: 10th, 11th
Vandoorne: 13th, 14th
Can Kvyat save his career in this year’s striking Toro Rosso?
KR: Personally, I don’t like the new Toro Rosso paint job, but at least now we can tell the difference between it and the Red Bull. The junior Red Bull team embark on what will almost certainly be a season of strong expectations which will be eventually crushed by a lack of development later in the season, but what is more interesting for this team has always been the brutal rivalry between drivers over who is the future for Red Bull Racing. After a disastrous 2016, Dani Kvyat is under pressure straight out of the blocks to perform more on the level of his highly rated teammate, who Red Bull turned down offers from Renault and Williams regarding a drive this season. If Sainz dominates Kvyat again, the Russian could find himself replaced by GP2 champion Pierre Gasly before the season is over.
JD: I think James Key has done a very good job at Toro Rosso overseeing their technical development and I think that he will continue to do so, helping them to build on their strong successes of last season; where they only started to struggle once their year old Ferrari engine lost competitiveness. With this in mind they have a solid foundation to build upon and with the new Renault engine they should have a competitive engine for the whole season. This combined with one of the best up and coming young drivers in Carlos Sainz Jr should yield some very high points scoring finishes. If Kvyat can recapture the form which led Red Bull to sign him in the first place then Torro Rosso could go very far this season indeed.
Verdict (KR, JD)
Torro Rosso: 8th, 5th
Sainz: 11th, 7th
Kvyat: 17th, 13th
Would improving on their opening season be too much to ask for Haas?
KR: In their second season, Haas have one of the best looking cars, and also have a very solid driver line up. with Kimi Raikkonen out of contract at the end of this year, lead driver Romain Grosjean will be a desperate for a good season to make himself the lead candidate for a Ferrari drive next season, while Dane Kevin Magnussen, a marked improvement on Esteban Gutierrez, will need to prove he can match his teammate to secure a long term future in Formula One. Haas will also be helped by their links with Ferrari. Even so, with Renault in particular looking stronger this year, and concerns on brakes which plagued Haas last season were still ripe in testing, improving on last season’s 8th in the constructors looks difficult for the American outfit.
JD: This season will arguably be even tougher for the Haas team than their opening venture last season, and despite possessing two very capable mid table driver talents I can see them struggling this year. Like Force India I feel that Haas will through no fault of their own struggle to contend with the likes of Renault and Williams and in an incredibly tight mid table battle, resulting in them languishing near the back of the pack.
Verdict (KR, JD)
Hass: 9th, 9th
Grosjean: 14th, 15th
Magnussen: 18th, 17th
Hulkenburg’s time to shine in first de-facto Renault car since return?
KR: After soldiering on with a subpar car designed by a broke Lotus team in 2016, Renault return with their first de-facto effort since taking over the Enstone outfit for the 2nd time in its existence. Looking at pre-season testing, this effort looks far stronger than last season, it looks reliable, in terms of pace at the front of the midfield and the engine looks stronger. It must also be remembered that last time they were in F1, Renault were famous for being able to out develop other teams throughout the season, and that their budgets are among the highest outside the top 3. They also have the man who up until he was beaten by Perez last season was season as the best midfield driver money could buy; Nico Hulkenberg. It is amazing to think that the Hulk has never got on the podium in his career, and surely, knowing he is the clear lead driver going into this season, it is his chance to get on at the very minimum the 3rd step of the podium. On a side note, expect 2014 GP2 Champion and Ipswich Town fan Joylon Palmer to be beaten by Hulkenberg even more emphatically than he was by Magnussen, and for him to bow out of Formula One at the end of the season.
JD: As discussed above I fully expect the Renault to be contending for the coveted 4th position Arsenal trophy; with Hulkenberg leading the line and obtaining his first Formula One podium this season as he dominates the midfield and his teammate. I was very surprised that Palmer was retained by Renault for this season, and I think this decision will ultimately cost them 4th in the championship, in this very close midfield brawl.
Verdict (KR, JD)
Renault: 4th, 6th
Hulkenburg: 7th, 8th
Palmer: 15th, 18th
Year of transition for Sauber
KR: After struggling to stay afloat since 2013, Sauber finally have a stable backer behind them to give them some financial footing. The bad news for them is that it has come far too late for the design of their new car, and you would expect Sauber to be running round at the back again this season. Instead of keeping Nasr, who’s points in Brazil effectively led to Manor folding, Sauber have elected to keep the lowly rated Marcus Ericsson as one of their drivers. Mercedes loanie Pascal Wehrlein, probably still bitter from being snubbed by Mercedes, Renault and Williams this season, knows he has to absolutely annihilate Ericsson this season in an attempt to put him as a frontrunner for the likely vacancies at Renault and Williams at the end of the season. To add to Wehrlein’s pressure, he has one of his main rivals for those seats, highly rated Italian star Antonio Giovinazzi, as Sauber’s third driver, a man who’s Friday performances in comparison to Ericsson and Wehrlein will be watched by the whole grid this season.
JD: Initial impressions of the Sauber suggest that whilst they appear to have designed and adjusted to these new regulations well they’re still a long way behind the closely contested midfield. It’s going to be another tough season for them as they seek to scrape the bottom end of the points paying positions and remain competitive. As mentioned above this is a make or break season for Wehrlein, who desperately needs to live up to the hype surrounding him and focus on breaking into the midfield and not looking behind him at the ever looming Giovinazzi.
Verdict (KR, JD)
Sauber: 10th, 10th
Ericsson: 20th, 20th
What Will This Season Bring?
JD: Whilst I think we all hoped these new rules would upset the established order and promote some unpredictability within the race results I don’t feel that’ll be the case. Mercedes look to have done a tremendous job in terms of their power unit and intricate aerodynamic design, which I think will yield them another title double over the much closer chasing pack.
KR: This preview could turn out to be completely wrong, as in previous years where there have been massive rule changes (2009 springs to mind), nobody knew exactly where each team were until Australia Qualifying. Whatever the result, hopefully we will be in store for an intriguing season.
(All Pictures Courtesy of Autosport)