2017 Formula 1 season preview: Brave new world
The only thing that is constant is change, said Heraclitus. Well, it's certainly true of Formula 1. And 2017 sees the biggest set of rule changes that the sport has undergone in the past three seasons. Along with these rule changes comes the hope that many of the complaints that fans have had - lack of overtaking, lack of noise - will soon be overcome. But before we get to the sporting regulations, technological changes and driver changes, there's another pretty significant twist in the F1 tale.
No more Bernie Ecclestone in the F1 paddock
Formula 1 has finally said goodbye to Bernie Ecclestone. Yes, the man who transformed F1 into a multi-billion dollar industry has, somewhat reluctantly, bid the sport adieu. Ecclestone was gently elbowed out after Liberty Media took control of Formula 1, with Chase Carey, Formula 1's chairman also appointed chief executive officer. Ably assisting him in the task of revamping F1 and restoring the sport to its former glory are Ross Brawn (of Ferrari, Brawn GP and Mercedes F1 fame) who has been appointed managing director, motor sports, and Sean Bratches (formerly with ESPN) who will handle the commercial side of F1. But the long-term effects of the new management aren't likely to be seen for a while. Instead, what we will see in 2017, as was on display at testing in Barcelona, are drastically different cars. How you ask?
Lower and wider front and rear wings on the Mercedes-Benz W08
Let's start with the fact that the cars look rather different to the machines that we've grown used to seeing in F1 since the start of the 2014 season. The cars will run on those much-talked-about thicker tyres, will be wider, and will feature wider front wings, and lower and wider rear wings.
Since the 2017 cars will rely quite heavily on aerodynamics, an increase in downforce, wider tyres, and a reduced overall weight, it does mean that they'll go faster, and as was in evidence during the first test session at Barcelona, they do go faster. Valtteri Bottas broke the lap record at Catalunya by clocking a 1min 19.705sec at the track on the third day of testing in the new 2017 Mercedes-Benz W08.
Going faster, however, doesn't solve the problem of overtaking in F1 though. So far, the Drag Reduction System (DRS) has been heavily criticised since it's something that motorsport fans consider inorganic. Some teams believe that the increased downforce will mean that chasing cars will be affected more than before by the dirty air coming off the back of the cars that are ahead of them. Drivers like Daniel Ricciardo have said that the fact that the cars are wider might mean a decreased chance of overtaking on narrower tracks.
Meanwhile, here's a look at the teams and the driver line-ups for 2017:
To begin with, the team's got a missing reigning champion. Nico Rosberg, having successfully beaten Lewis Hamilton to the 2016 F1 driver's championship, hung up his helmet.
Hamilton is free to set out in pursuit of his fourth F1 title
This means that Lewis will be free to set off in pursuit of his fourth championship title, without the annoyance of having his team-mate as the defending champion. There's no question about Hamilton's form, which means that he's very likely to emerge a strong contender for the 2017 title.
Valtteri Bottas joins Mercedes for the 2017 season of Formula 1
It's really his team-mate who ought to be a little worried. Valtteri Bottas replaces Rosberg at Mercedes. The Finnish driver has proved that he can churn out good results - he's been on the podium in the past, but that win still eludes him. Bottas has said that he believes he has what it takes to beat Lewis. And his pace during testing proves that he's got what it takes - that 1min 19.705sec certainly was a measure of his powers. But Bottas is going to have to get used to the new team and the new car in a very short period of time. There are more changes at Mercedes though. The team's technical chief, Paddy Lowe has headed off to Williams, and has been replaced by former Ferrari man James Allison. Whether this will have a huge impact on the team or not is yet to be seen.
Red Bull Racing
Red Bull's fastest time during testing was clocked by Daniel Ricciardo on Day 3, when he set a time of 1min 21.153sec. Ahead of testing we thought that Red Bull was going to be the team to watch out for, thanks to the fact that the regulation changes seem to have put a massive grin on the face of their chief technical officer, Adrian Newey. That aside, before the tests Newey was confident about the chassis and aero work on the new Red Bull, but was also being rather cautious, saying that the engine would play a huge role in the outcome of race results.
Daniel Ricciardo or Max Verstappen? Which of the two Red Bull Racing drivers will prove to be better in 2017?
This, because the more downforce the drivers have at their disposal, the longer they are able to stay on the throttle. Newey had also said that he was quite happy with the work that Renault had done in terms of the powertrain so far, but that testing would reveal exactly where they stood. But, as always, Red Bull seems to be keeping their cards very close to their chest so far. It's expected that during the second test we will see a more complex version of the RB13. Which means we could expect Ricciardo and team-mate Max Verstappen (whose fastest time was 1min 21.769sec on Day 4) to go faster. Over the course of the season, we're expecting close battles between the two team-mates.
Fourth and sixth is where Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen finished in the 2016 driver's championship. Not the ideal result for the Scuderia, and one that they'll be hoping to put behind them soon. Sergio Marchionne, Ferrari's president, was very determined that the team would perform much better in 2017.
The 2017 Ferrari SF70H with extra wings on the top of the engine cover
And to this end the Maranello squad went and redesigned their car. While the rear end of the car is tighter and the gearbox is smaller, the biggest change has been made to the engine and Ferrari are now able to squeeze 50PS more power out of it. There's also that prominent T-wing seen atop the shark fin engine cover. But, despite the massive overhaul, F1 insiders, like former F1 driver Pedro de la Rosa, believed that Ferrari would stay the same in 2017, not able to really challenge Mercedes and Red Bull. Testing so far proves otherwise. The SF70H ran very close to Mercedes all through the Barcelona tests, with Sebastian Vettel clocking a time of 1min 19.952 on Day 3. While Kimi Raikkonen clocked a best time of 1min 20.872sec on Day 4. Ferrari and Mercedes could well be neck and neck over the course of the 2017 season.
Sahara Force India
The big change at Sahara Force India is that Nico Hulkenberg has finally left. Which means that the driver line-up at the Silverstone-based squad sees a change. Replacing Hulkenberg at Force India is Esteban Ocon, who took part in nine grands prix last year, driving for the now-defunct Manor F1 outfit. Ocon, who has in the past won the European F3 Championship and the GP3 Series, has clearly impressed.
Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez will pilot the VJM10 that's been completely designed in-house by the engineers at Sahara Force India
But beating his more experienced team-mate Sergio Perez might be a tall order. The truly big change at Force India is that the VJM10 is the first car that has been completely designed solely by the team itself. Have they got it right? Well, the team only managed to be seventh fastest in the first test session at Barcelona, with Esteban Ocon clocking a best time of 1min 22.509sec on Day 2. But the Force India crew seem relaxed. More after the second test session, then.
Williams Martini Racing
The way the privateer outfit always holds its head up in Formula 1, despite being squarely beaten by the big teams with big money, endears Williams to fans around the world. But they'll be the first to admit that their 2016 season was forgettable. A single podium at the Canadian GP, courtesy Valtteri Bottas, was the high point. But now Bottas has left for Mercedes.
Paddy Lowe's move to Williams might help pull the team out of the doldrums
Which meant that Williams needed a driver with experience, and someone who also knew how the team itself worked. Which is why they pulled Felipe Massa out of retirement and enlisted him for their 2017 campaign.
Lance Stroll during testing at Barcelona, before he ended up in the tyre barriers, putting the Williams FW40 out of action for the rest of the test
Paired with Massa is Lance Stroll, the Canadian driver who has made rapid progress in the last few years. Stroll won the Italian F4 Championship in 2014, the Toyota Racing Series in 2015, and the European Formula 3 title in 2016. But there's been some talk about how the 18-year-old landed his F1 gig. Lawrence Stroll, Lance's father, reportedly coughed up $80 million to get his son the cockpit at Williams. If there's one thing that Williams can look forward to, it's the fact that Paddy Lowe is now working for them. Should help pull the team out of the doldrums.
How did the first test session go for Williams? Well, the team did fairly okay, with Felipe Massa clocking a time of 1min 22.076sec on the first day. After that Stroll went and crashed the car, damaging it so badly that they had to cut short their test session. Which means there is plenty for Williams to do in the second test session. And also means that Lance Stroll, 80 million USD or not, has a lot to prove!
F1's gone on a banishing spree, it seems. Ron Dennis, the man who was at the helm of McLaren, aiding the team to as many as eight championship titles, has been dismissed. In his place is Zak Brown, who the shareholders believe can help turn the McLaren team around. But it's going to take more than just a management change to help the fortunes of the ailing Woking team.
It's going to be another long and painful year for the McLaren team if the results of the first test are anything to go by
Honda, the team's engine supplier for the last two seasons, claims that they're able to ensure exactly that much-needed change. They've redesigned their power unit, while McLaren engineers have redone the chassis. Overall, there was word from within the team that the combination will be effective in 2017. And the one man who was hoping that this would be true was Fernando Alonso. Alonso is joined at McLaren by Stoffel Vandoorne - the most celebrated rookie in F1 since Max Verstappen - who replaces Jenson Button. But things didn't go very well for McLaren during testing. A time of 1min 22.576sec is all that McLaren could manage, courtesy Vandoorne on Day 4. Which also means that McLaren ended up second last on the timing sheets, and also in terms of number of laps completed. This does not bode well for the Woking based team. It looks like the orange livery is the only thing fiery the team has on offer this year!
Scuderia Toro Rosso
Another team with a year that they'd really like to put behind them once and for all. Scuderia Toro Rosso's STR12 might be a good looking car, but is it really the car they need to help them put a dismal 2016 season behind them? It doesn't look like it is, even with the new Renault engine.
Carlos Sainz in the Scuderia Toro Rosso STR12 during testing at Catalunya
Drivers Carlos Sainz Jr and Daniil Kvyat will continue for the season, and will hope for better results, even though they ended testing right down at the bottom of the timing sheets, with a best time of 1min 22.956sec courtesy Kvyat on Day 2. An interesting aside - Toro Rosso's approach to 2017 has moved beyond just their drivers. The team's made all members of the crew undergo a rather rigorous exercise regimen to ensure that they are fighting fit for anything that swings their way in the 2017 season. Good thing, they're going to need all the help that they can get!
We'll admit right away that we didn't think Haas was going to be able to finish eighth in the constructor's championship in 2016. They pipped Renault, Sauber and Manor to that spot in the standings.
Romain Grosjean tests Haas F1's 2017 machine - the VF-17 - at Barcelona
A big part of their success in their debut season was Romain Grosjean. Grosjean's 2016 team-mate, Esteban Gutierrez, has been replaced with Kevin Magnussen. Haas seems to be on track ahead of the 2017 season, with the VF-17 clocking a best time of 1min 22.118sec on Day 3, with Romain Grosjean at the wheel. They're likely to be able to take the challenge to the other mid-field teams in 2017. Not too bad for a team that's just a year old in F1.
Renault Sport F1
Nico Hulkenberg and Jolyon Palmer get behind the wheel of their respective Renault Sport F1 cars for the 2017 season. Their strength will be Hulkenberg's experience.
Nico Hulkenberg in the Renault RS17 at Barcelona
The team has to score points in more than just a couple of races if they want to become a midfield pack again, instead of being relegated to the back of the field. Palmer's goal, then, will be to consistently break into the points. Hulkenberg will prove to be a very worthy foe. The best time the team managed to eke out during a rather tricky test session came via Palmer, who clocked 1min 21.396sec on Day 2. But there's plenty to still do for the team - maybe the second round of testing will go better for them.
The other prominent privateer team in F1, Sauber had a terrible 2016 season. They'll be looking to put that season firmly behind them - the team barely survived financially, and didn't impress on the racetrack either.
The Sauber C36 during testing at Barcelona
With a little more money being pumped into the team in 2017, there could be small but significant steps in the right direction, even though they are the only team using 2016 engines this year. Driving one of the Saubers is Marcus Eriksson, now in his fourth season in F1, who clocked the team's fastest testing time of 1min 21.824 on Day 3. Team-mate Pascal Wehrlein has one season behind him. The two youngsters will need to work hard to eke out better performances from the car. And from themselves.