The GPR 2016 F1 Season Preview

2016
Little optimism surrounds the dawn of the 2016 F1 season, with journalists and fans alike anticipating another Mercedes benefit concert as the other teams battle with each other for pride rather than wins. However, there are many reasons to suggest that the Silver Arrows will have a little more cause to look in their mirrors this season, especially as the Prancing Horse looks to have finally awoken from its slumber.

The technical regulations are thankfully rather settled in comparison to the tumultuous past few seasons in which change has been something the fanbase has begrudgingly become used to; for 2016, the only big changes include a wastegate exhaust independent of the main tailpipe (which should increase noise by 12%, according to Williams technical chief Pat Symonds) and a new, convoluted tyre system which includes a new Pirelli ultra-soft compound, characterised by its pink-purple lettering on the sidewall. We’re also due to have a tweaked qualifying system which will bring in eliminations of the slowest driver over time in a session, rather than knocking out five or six drivers at once with the intention of keeping all of the teams on their toes to ensure the maximum of on-track running.

For the first time since 2010, a new team joins the fray; the Haas F1 Team have impressed many by quietly getting on with the job of building up their organisation from scratch after receiving an entry in 2014. The American team have a comprehensive technical tie-up with Ferrari and it remains to be seen how much both sides will benefit from the agreement, especially now the FIA have closed any loopholes that allowed teams not yet on the grid to conduct aerodynamic testing on behalf of another team in the sport (which Haas and Ferrari used extensively, if reports are to be believed).

What will happen this year is difficult to accurately predict; just like any season, teams have run their own programs in pre-season testing with enough to try and wrong-foot the teams around them on the grid. I can guarantee that some teams have done low-fuel, glory runs to attract some more sponsors, whilst others will have “sandbagged” in order to deceive the opposition. Let’s have a look at the individual teams in a bit more depth, if only to try and make sense of it all.

Mercedes

Mercedes

One would imagine that about 99% of the F1 audience is expecting another year of Mercedes dominance, whilst the remaining contingent is hoping for a sterner challenge than that faced in the past two seasons. The truth, I suspect, will be somewhere in between; straight-up fights between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg will potentially be F1’s bread and butter in 2016, but you have to imagine that they’ll receive the occasional kick up the bum from the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel. Rosberg – after a strong end to last season – will be hoping to continue that run and put a more cohesive championship challenge together. He can definitely match Hamilton, but it seems that the more Rosberg focuses on beating his team-mate, the harder he finds it to do so. Hamilton is arguably the more naturally gifted of the two and on paper should claim a third title in a row, but there’s always that question over whether he can keep his emotions in check. He’s been fine the past couple of years, but if he gets beaten a few times early on he might start to show some signs of weakness (remember 2011?).

In perhaps an ominous showing the team have had almost flawless reliability in testing, managing 1,294 laps of the Barcelona circuit over the two weeks and resorting to swapping drivers during the day as to not tire them out. Impressive, no?

Prediction: 1st – Mercedes should have a considerable advantage within the Constructors’ Championship, although Ferrari will pose their biggest challenge yet. We can but hope.

Ferrari

Ferrari

After fulfilling Maurizio Arrivabene’s target of three wins last season, Ferrari are targeting titles. For the first time since they became the bow of the F1 ship, Mercedes are scared – so frightened are they that they’ll lose top spot that they’re ramping up development significantly. As explained before, Ferrari have had Haas to call on to help bolster their aerodynamic development; as Haas are not subject to the regulation on data generated from CFD simulations, it’s been alleged that Ferrari were able to use that to their advantage. Whether there has been any discernible gain from such activity it remains to be seen, but Ferrari’s shift in philosophy has been underlined in the launch of their new car. A return to pushrod suspension and the addition of a “stubby” nose are some of the more noticeable changes, as well as a tighter rear end.

The addition of a white engine cover evokes images of the successful 312T family of Ferraris from the 1970s, and the team will be hoping for a repeat of this over the coming years. Sebastian Vettel will continue to lead the team, and the German seems invigorated by his move to the Scuderia last year. His goal must be to take race wins away from the Mercedes duo, and make a real fist of a title fight. Kimi Raikkonen will remain his rear gunner, although he must start beating the Mercedes drivers too if he’s to be effective in this role. It’s been apparent that the Finnish driver doesn’t quite have the same fire in his belly as he did a few years ago, but the more responsive front end may spark a renaissance from the king of soundbites.

Prediction: 2nd – Ferrari will have more about them this season, and will take the fight to Mercedes far more than we’ve seen previously. With Vettel, the team will be looking to challenge the Mercedes duo for a Drivers’ Championship, but Raikkonen won’t help much in the Constructors’ unless the switch to pushrods gives him the balance he likes.

Williams-Mercedes

Williams

After a miraculous recovery in 2014 saw Williams break into the top three for the first time since 2003, the team were content to consolidate for 2015. Whilst a second consecutive 3rd place may have come as good fortune after Ferrari and Red Bull passed each other on the championship stairs, Williams have identified their issues with the aim of providing a far more consistent challenge to Mercedes (and Ferrari too, presumably) over the course of the season. On the face of it the new FW38 doesn’t look much different to its predecessor, but on closer inspection the team have tightened up their aerodynamic package. Most changes will be under the skin with focus on their dismal performances at low-speed circuits like Monaco, as well as in wet weather in order to provide their drivers with something that’s a bit more of an all-rounder.

The team keep faith with their partnership of a rejuvenated Felipe Massa and an improving Valtteri Bottas, the latter of whom is beginning to show a little more steel on-track (of which compatriot Kimi Raikkonen has become familiar with). A settled lineup should continue to bear fruit, but it begs the question of at which point stability becomes stagnation. The team have drawn criticism for their conservative approach to on-track strategy, but can you blame them? The team are all too familiar with the dark times they faced a few years, and would prefer a stable platform on which to build long-term success rather than a few short-term dalliances at the sharp end.

Prediction: 3rd – Williams still won’t have enough to challenge the front duo regularly, but should remain ahead of the likes of Red Bull (of course, depending on Renault’s overall progress).

Red Bull-TAG Heuer

RedBull

After a disappointing 2015, the fault was squarely placed by Red Bull at Renault’s door; the power unit apparently wasn’t good enough for the former champions, and overtures were made towards all three of Mercedes, Ferrari and Honda. Mercedes seemed initially willing to work out a deal before backtracking, Honda were blocked from talking to Red Bull by Ron Dennis, and Ferrari were only willing to sort out a customer deal for Toro Rosso. Horner, Mateschitz, Marko and co were forced to do the unthinkable; after a presumably heartening “please, please baby, take me back” speech to Viry-Chatillon’s finest, Red Bull remained with Renault. Except not quite; Renault gave their blessing to Red Bull to rebadge their power units with the TAG Heuer moniker, bringing back memories of the McLaren-TAG partnership of the 1980s. Will Red Bull achieve the same levels of success? At this stage, it doesn’t appear so, although Renault will want a stronger engine now they’re funding a full works program after their Lotus buyout; Red Bull need to accept that they may have to put longer-term plans in place if they’re to return to their glory days.

Both drivers are young and hungry for success; Daniel Ricciardo is a gutsy, determined driver who will be dreaming of adding to his three race wins, whilst Dany Kvyat came on leaps and bounds over the course of 2015 after a surprise promotion to the team initially caught him out, and will be looking to better his excellent 2nd place at Hungary last season. Both drivers will be able to make the most of any chances that come their way, should the overall package be up to it.

Prediction: 4th – The car seems to be strong – as we expect from the Red Bull design team – but Renault know they have work to do. Their hopes of pushing up the grid rest with the development of their power unit, and Christian Horner is predicting pain early on before a more agreeable second half of the year.

Force India-Mercedes

ForceIndia

To borrow a footballing idiom, 2015 was a game of two halves for Vijay Mallya’s team. The original VJM08 was not particularly quick, and amounted to little more than the previous year’s car updated to the new regulations. When the B-spec car appeared at Silverstone, the team’s fortunes began to improve drastically. Having had access to the Toyota Motorsport wind tunnel in Cologne, Force India are aiming to pick up from where they left off, and testing seems to indicate that they might be more of a match for Williams and Red Bull over the coming season. The Silverstone-based squad will be hoping their car is quick enough to transcend the usual midfield battle, which may be more congested in 2016 compared to seasons past.

Sergio Perez has seemingly grown in confidence and ability after the abject disappointment of his time at McLaren, and upstaged the highly-rated Nico Hulkenberg with his brilliant tyre management skills and electric pace. The Mexican will be looking to collect podium positions on a more regular basis, whilst Le Mans winner Hulkenberg will be hoping for no repeats of the issues that seemed to plague him during 2015 and to return to the form he had showcased in the two seasons prior to last.

Prediction: 5th – Force India don’t have the finances available to Red Bull and Williams, and so will struggle to provide a consistent challenge over a whole season. More podium placings are achievable.

Renault

Renault

After the French marque concluded their negotiation with the financially-challenged Lotus team at a late stage, the Renault name returned to the signage around the Enstone facility for the first time since 2011. Whilst the original lineup of Pastor Maldonado and Jolyon Palmer was seen as perhaps the weakest bar the then-unannounced Manor duo, the turmoil surrounding Venezuela’s economy and the drop in oil prices saw PDVSA unable to uphold their end of the bargain. Thus, Maldonado was without a seat, and in came Kevin Magnussen after being let go by McLaren – allegedly by email on his birthday.

Renault have also appointed former ART chief Frederic Vasseur as team principal; he brings masses of experience in motorsport and a good eye for talent, and will work with Renault Sport MD Cyril Abiteboul and Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn in their endeavours to return to the front of the grid. In anticipating a transition year, the engineers at Enstone have developed the new RS16 car as an evolution to the previous E23. Their testing program has been interrupted by a few technical glitches, but they certainly shouldn’t suffer the same problems as McLaren did last season. That said, don’t expect too much from Renault in 2016.

Prediction: 8th – Renault should have enough to mix it in the midfield, but they most likely won’t be chasing results. We know Magnussen is quick, but the jury’s still out on Palmer who certainly has something to prove.

Toro Rosso-Ferrari

ToroRosso

The youngest duo on the grid ever surprised their detractors; most were expecting crashes galore, but instead the swashbuckling overtakes of Max Verstappen drew many headlines, whilst Carlos Sainz Jr also earned plaudits for his intelligence and flair behind the wheel (although had arguably more bad luck than his younger team-mate too). The Toro Rosso technical team under the watchful eye of James Key produced a fantastic car, and most are expecting a similar level of performance from the Red Bull junior team; their intentions have been underlined in testing by their desire to bring a heavily updated STR11 to the second test, despite the original package looking strong once again.

The team have acquired a supply of 2015-spec Ferrari engines, and whilst these are a step up from the old Renault units it remains to be seen whether the team will drop back towards the middle of the season as developments in the works engines ramp up; if not, then the team can expect to throw their weight around in the top half of the standings. The drivers – with a year of experience under their belts – should catch the eye of the media and spectators again, but in which regard? Will they raise their game and prove themselves as the next F1 elite, or will second-season syndrome set in?

Prediction: 7th – Toro Rosso will most likely make a strong start, but there’s the development of the 2016-spec engines to factor in. One suspects they will be consistent points-scorers, but the second half of the year will present more of a challenge.

Sauber-Ferrari

Sauber

2015 was, for want of a better word, a messy season for Sauber off-track. Having ditched their 2014 lineup for ex-Caterham driver Marcus Ericsson and GP2 front-runner Felipe Nasr, it emerged that former test driver Giedo van der Garde had a valid contract to race with the team. He got as far as donning Ericsson’s race overalls, but eventually elected to settle the matter with Sauber out of court, receiving some compensation for the breach of contract. This threatened to overshadow an excellent Melbourne for Sauber; Nasr managed a spectacular 5th whilst Ericsson finished a strong 8th, meaning the team had beaten their previous tally of, well, nul points in one go. Their future forays into the points would be occasional, and it was clear that the team didn’t have the funds to develop at the same rate as the rest of the field.

2016 will most likely be a similar story as last year; keeping Nasr will do the team the world of good, and if Ericsson can raise his game to match his team-mate then the team will have every chance to make the most of any opportunities that come their way. The new C35 didn’t make an appearance until the second pre-season text, but Nasr immediately reported “a step forward in everything”. Thing is, everyone else will have made considerable gains too…

Prediction: 10th – The team should be able to pick up some good points whilst everyone else is scratching their heads in the early stages, unless they’re affected by any teething problems from the late debut of the new C35. The team won’t have the funds for meaningful during-season development, and so the second half of 2016 will be a trying time.

McLaren-Honda

McLaren

Unlike last season, McLaren were able to put in some reasonable running in pre-season testing, barring a few hydraulic leaks. Whilst 2015 was very much a development year for the McLaren-Honda package, it didn’t stop tempers flaring between Ron Dennis, Eric Boullier and Honda chief Yasuhisa Arai. After a management reshuffle, Arai no longer leads Honda’s motorsport operations and the mantle now falls to Yusuke Hasegawa, whom the McLaren management will be hoping is easier to get on with in business terms. 2016 should not be a repeat of last season, and both sides will have pulled out all the stops to move closer towards the front of the grid.

The new Honda package still appears to be down on power according to reports, but the reliability has drastically improved from the hand-grenades of power units past. It also has a distinctive sound, evidenced from some footage from proceedings at Barcelona. Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button seem more optimistic about the season to come, and in their advancing years need a competitive package before they think about upping sticks. Even if the early season brings a few problems, you’d expect everything to fall into place sooner rather than later. Having a fully-functional ERS this year will only come as a bonus.

Prediction: 6th – McLaren and Honda, benefiting from a strengthened working relationship, should be able to make overtures towards the likes of Toro Rosso and Renault at the start of the year, but should have the resource and expertise to climb above them towards the closing stages…as long as everything goes well.

Manor-Mercedes

Manor

After being rescued from the brink at the 11th hour last year, Manor had to make do with a 2014 chassis modified with a spacer at the front of the bulkhead to fit the new-specification nose geometry, as well as having to use the 2014 Ferrari power unit. Whilst the team couldn’t really do anything other than participate, the support for the team grew as evidenced by the increasing number of sponsor logos appearing on the car over the course of the year. Now, the team seem reinvigorated and ready to challenge for points. The team have secured Mercedes power units and Williams transmission, quite the coup for a team who were dead and buried just over a year ago.

In exchange for using Mercedes’ wind tunnel, Manor have agreed to give reigning DTM champion and Mercedes protégé Pascal Wehrlein a seat; the German has shown promise in his tests for the world champions, and should be expected to lead the team’s assault on the points placings. After deciding to pass on 2015 drivers Will Stevens and Alexander Rossi, the management have signed Rio Haryanto who becomes the first Indonesian driver in F1. Haryanto had a breakout year in GP2 last season after a few lean years, and helpfully brings plenty of money from Pertamina and the Indonesian government. Manor look in much better shape than they did a year ago, that’s for certain, and with an attractive blue and orange livery they’ll stand out at the very least.

Prediction: 11th. Whilst Manor should score points in 2016, they’ll be battling with Haas and Sauber over the last few places in the championship. It’ll be close run, but Manor probably have fewer resources than the others.

Haas-Ferrari

Haas

Gene Haas and Günther Steiner seem to have done this right; after receiving their entry to join F1 midway through 2014, they deferred until 2016 in order to painstakingly build their infrastructure across three countries from scratch. In doing so, the team have built a strong alliance with Ferrari to ensure that Haas will be competitive from the get-go. The team impressed Romain Grosjean so much he decided to leave Enstone, his stomping ground for the past few years, in order to throw his lot in with the first American team since, erm, Haas Lola in the 1980s (needless to say, they’re not related, and we’re not counting US F1 since building a nosecone does not make a race team).

With the bond to Ferrari the second seat has been occupied by their former tester Esteban Gutierrez, who’s back with a vengeance after two rather impotent years at Sauber. In testing the car seems predictable and reasonably quick, and both drivers gave positive reviews of the VF-16, although like any new team there have been plenty of issues to iron out over the course of pre-season. All eyes will be on the team to see if they deliver on that early promise.

Prediction: 9th – Haas look primed to be the most successful newcomer since perhaps Stewart in 1997. As long as the team can overcome any reliability issues in the early stages, Grosjean and Gutierrez may be able to get the jump on more established opposition.

Photos: Sutton Images