The 2017 GPR Season Preview

“It’s like an aspirin, it fixes pretty much everything” said Sebastian Vettel to Motorsport.com, delivering an analogy that Alan Partridge would be proud of. Instead of the usual grumbling from Formula 1’s contingent of drivers, the majority are overwhelmingly positive about the raft of changes that have come into force for 2017. Over the winter, the cars have seemingly gorged on turkey and Christmas pudding; several inches have been added to their waistlines, and the addition of wider tyres has resulted in a mean-but-not-so-lean set of machines.

Then, of course, there’s the lingering doubt that F1’s actually taken a step backwards. Numerous figures from the sport have predicted reduced overtaking on-track, and the increase in downforce (which is expected to contribute to earth-shattering lap records at a multitude of circuits) will make cars harder to follow on-track. Tyres are also far more durable this year, which will delight the fan who wants everyone to push 100% of the time, but will simultaneously disappoint those who enjoy the slightly more nuanced game of pitwall tactics. It’s almost as if “what the fans want” doesn’t always end up being the same thing.

After F1 gained a team at the start of 2016, 2017 brought the winter of discontent for the late Manor team. Erstwhile owner Stephen Fitzpatrick closed the doors for good having been unable to find a suitable buyer, disappointing those who had hoped for Ricardo Gelael to bring his chicken expertise to the grid. With Manor’s demise, the tense fight for 10th place in the constructors’ championship is gone, and chances for young drivers in F1 have dwindled ever so slightly.

For now, let’s focus on who and what has made the journey to 2017. Thankfully, that doesn’t include elimination qualifying.

Mercedes

mercedes

After winning three pairs of titles on the bounce, the Mercedes team was just getting over the celebration hangover when world champion Nico Rosberg dropped the bomb that he was to retire from F1. After he had made the choice to swap champagne and chequered flags for nappy-changing, Rosberg’s departure left Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda with a very big hole to fill in their lineup. The rumour mill was in overdrive for a few weeks, and although some exotic names were linked to the team, the Silver Arrows made the low-risk option of prising Valtteri Bottas from his Williams seat. Bottas’ placid nature should help the team avoid any conflict between their new charge and Lewis Hamilton, who often butted heads with the occasionally-prickly Rosberg.

Of course, Hamilton is once again the title favourite, and Mercedes’ testing form seems to suggest that they won’t be far off from where they were last year. The rest is up to Bottas; if he can sufficiently raise his game, he can become the match for Hamilton that his predecessor once was. If not, then his one-year deal may start to look shaky…

Prediction: 1st – It’s difficult not to put Mercedes first here. Hamilton and Bottas may be a different lineup, but they should be able to pick up from where the team left off in 2016.

Red Bull – TAG Heuer

rbr

After discarding Dany “The Russian Rocket” Kvyat in exchange for Max Verstappen after four rounds last season, the Dutchman turned up at Barcelona for his first race for the senior Red Bull squad, returning home with a win after profiting from the two Mercedes drivers tripping over each other. Daniel Ricciardo also grabbed a second win at Malaysia after Lewis Hamilton’s engine famously gave up at Sepang. Although two victories among a sea of Mercedes dominance is no mean feat, Red Bull will be striving to make its own luck in 2017.

In Ricciardo and Verstappen, Red Bull probably possesses the hungriest line-up on the grid. The technical team – as ever – is quite content to push the technical regulations to the limit, and an innovative snorkel nose to control the airflow at the front of the car is another such example of the engineering brilliance on show under Adrian Newey’s leadership. Renault has also impressed Red Bull with the improvements made to their power unit, and so the ingredients for success are certainly there; whether the team can mix them together is another matter entirely.

Prediction: 3rd  – In the past few seasons, 3rd place has been a by-word for “best of the rest”, but a closer front pack should allow Red Bull to challenge for victories. Ferrari may be too strong for them, though.

Ferrari

ferrari

Last year was yet another season of internal strife in the Ferrari camp, and a reshuffle behind closed door was a contributing factor in James Allison’s switch to rival Mercedes. The performances on-track last season were also a disappointment; the Scuderia fell behind Red Bull in the pecking order, which ultimately culminated in Sebastian Vettel’s radio transcript from Mexico receiving the bleep-button treatment from most corners of the F1 media. This was an example of the frustration which seemed to set in often at Ferrari, and although Vettel often wears his heart on his sleeve when racing, even Kimi Räikkönen was occasionally heard voicing discontent across the airwaves.

2017 represents a fresh chance for Ferrari to start over, and if early whispers are to be believed, then the Prancing Horse seems to be a lot more ready to gallop than last year. Reports suggest that the car is more stable in the corners than the new Mercedes, and consistency on the driver front ensures that Ferrari will have a clear idea of what Vettel and Räikkönen require from their cars to succeed. However, it almost feels like this was last year’s assessment…

Prediction: 2nd – It’s too early to buy into the hype that Ferrari will make the difference to Mercedes, but the evidence for them to challenge on a regular basis is quite compelling.

Force India – Mercedes

forceindia

After achieving its best championship finish in 2016, snatching 4th from Williams in the final few rounds, Force India is pretty in pink for the new year. Water treatment specialist BWT has showered Vijay Mallya’s squad with enough money to ditch the insipid grey scheme from testing, creating something of a stir on social media in the process.

The team has also had a lineup change for the first time since the start of 2014; Nico Hülkenberg’s unexpected defection to Renault opened up a seat for 2015 GP3 champion Esteban Ocon, who will be Sergio Pérez’s new team-mate for 2017. Although Ocon has only half-a-season under his belt, an impressive performance at a rained-out Interlagos last year highlighted the Frenchman’s talents in a top-level racing car. Furthermore, Pérez’s stock is on the rise once more after collecting further podiums and outscoring Hülkenberg for the second year in a row. This is his first opportunity as the de facto team leader, and he must rise to the challenge if he is ever to return to a front-running team. The new car seems to be middling at best, and weight issues appear to have taken a little nibble out of the overall performance. That said, the Silverstone-based team has worked wonders on a limited budget before, and should be a capable force by the season’s end.

Prediction: 6th – 2017 promises to have a very full-on midfield battle, and Force India may get caught in the crossfire at the start of the year. However, Andy Green’s talented technical team should be able to iron out issues over the course of the season.

Williams – Mercedes

williams

After an emotional end of the season, Williams bid a fond farewell to Felipe Massa, who had decided to retire from Formula 1 at the end of the 2016 season. Within a few months, Massa was back in the fold and ready to race once again. Thanks to Mercedes’ late swoop for Valtteri Bottas and Martini’s demand for an over-25 driver to partner the financially-gifted Lance Stroll, Massa was one of the few names available with experience of contemporary F1 machinery. Expectations were low, and the perception seemed to be that an aging Massa and a barely-of-age Stroll would struggle to keep their heads above water in a tight midfield.

However, things seem to be a little rosier after testing.  Performance chief Rob Smedley believes that the new regulations suit Massa’s driving style, and could be capable of reprising his performances of 2008 if all goes well. Stroll seemed to be a little wild in his first week of testing the FW40, giving the mechanics some repair work to do, but a steady second week showed that the Formula 3 champion is capable of learning quickly. He’ll need to work out where the limits are early if he’s to avoid the full weight of the mainstream media on his back.

Prediction: 4th – If Smedley’s glowing comments are to be believed, Massa may return invigorated from his short-lived retirement. Stroll will almost certainly crash a few times, but has the talent to succeed in F1 as long as he’s willing to learn.

McLaren – Honda

mclaren

It’s been a painful couple of years at Woking, and the recently-renewed relationship with Honda has been fruitless so far as the Japanese engineers have been playing catch-up with their competitors. Making the decision to drop their much-maligned “size zero” concept, Honda became very interested in a Mercedes-style configuration of a split turbo and compressor within the power unit’s architecture.

Since the powertrain is essentially a clean-sheet design, only the most hard-to-please at Honda would expect bulletproof reliability from the get-go, but none were anticipating the litany of mechanical issues from the new design in testing. The oil tank had to be reworked by the engineers, and electrical problems hindered any further running in Barcelona, leaving Fernando Alonso and new driver Stoffel Vandoorne little time to acclimatise to the new car. A return to an orange paint scheme for the first time since the Bruce McLaren days has turned heads, but work needs to be done quickly if the team’s future is to be bright; Woking’s strained relationship with Honda will be on the brink of collapse if things don’t improve.

Prediction: 9th – McLaren’s performance depends on how quickly Honda can recover. Fixing all of the issues will propel them up the grid, but the early season promises nothing but a powerful sense of dread.

Toro Rosso – Renault

str

Although 2016 was one of Toro Rosso’s more successful years, it can still be considered as something of a mixed bag; the STR11 chassis was lauded as one of the best chassis on the grid, but a year-old Ferrari in the bag and inconsistency in the driver lineup held the team back. Carlos Sainz Jr impressed many with his beaver-like work rate,  and was a consistent fixture within the points during the early season. After Verstappen’s promotion, his side of the garage were tasked with repairing a short-on-confidence Daniil Kvyat; the Russian’s post-race interview at Hockenheim laid bare a broken man.

There was a rainbow after the rain, and Kvyat returned from the summer break a bigger match for the highly-rated Sainz. Should both drivers return for 2017 in the same frame of mind, there is the potential to be a very even fight. The new Toro Rosso chassis, complete with striking paint scheme, has definite similarities in concept to Mercedes; although getting reacquainted with the Renault engine has led to a few teething troubles, James Key’s technical team seem able to work miracles on a relatively small budget.

Prediction: 7th – The STR12 is unmistakably dashing, and looks incredibly aggressive. Whether Toro Rosso have the infrastructure to compete at the head of the midfield is another matter entirely.

Haas – Ferrari

haas

Gene Haas’ outfit seemed to go about joining Formula 1 in the right way. Prudent management and aligning the technical operation with an already-established team in Ferrari ensured that Haas was able to fight within the midfield from the very start. Romain Grosjean outclassed team-mate Esteban Gutiérrez over the course of the year, and although results were harder to come by in the late season, Haas proved to be the most successful new team since Stewart joined F1 in 1997. That’s not to say that 2016 was faultless; both drivers sustained a number of brake issues over the course of the year, and it still doesn’t seem to be area that the team has got on top of.

Although often coming across “passionately” across the radio, Grosjean has proven to be an effective team leader, and is partnered by the placid Kevin Magnussen who should represent a step-up over Gutiérrez in most facets. The new VF-17 bears some passing similarities to the Ferraris of the past two seasons, and seems to be a relatively balanced car on-track. Taking advantage of the early-season muddle should once again offer Haas its biggest opportunity to take home plenty of points.

Prediction: 8th – Haas are capable enough of picking up from where they left off last season. Making a concerted step up through the pack seems unlikely, but the team should be able to consolidate their position in the mid-pack.

Renault

renault

The late takeover of the beleaguered Lotus caused Renault a number of headaches, and little was expected of the team after essentially shoehorning their power unit into a chassis designed for a Mercedes. 2016 was a rebuilding year, and Renault was putting money into restoring the depleted resources at Enstone; many of its brightest minds had departed for pastures new under the financial problems experienced at the tail-end of the previous season. The on-track results were essentially an afterthought, and the inexperienced duo of Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer could muster no more than eight points over the year (Magnussen scoring six of them during a swashbuckling Sunday at Sochi).

Although Renault made efforts to court the likes of Sergio Pérez and Carlos Sainz Jr, it was Nico Hülkenberg who made a daring move across from Force India to replace the Haas-bound Magnussen, and the German will hope that leading a manufacturer team will present him with a chance of a long-awaited podium finish. Palmer remains at the team and, although he is perhaps lucky that there was nobody better available, his hard work and steady progress warrants a second chance. The new car seems to be leaps and bounds better than the R.S.16, with Palmer even suggesting that it exceeds expectations.

Prediction: 5th – Too early for podiums, but a quick car and the oh-so-consistent pairing of Hülkenberg and Palmer should guarantee a steady supply of points for the Enstone team.

Sauber – Ferrari

sauber

Reaching a financial crisis point, Sauber was rescued last year with investment from the mysterious Longbow Finance firm, and Monisha Kaltenborn will be hoping this new injection of funds will help fire the Swiss outfit back up the grid. Furthermore, Felipe Nasr’s 9th place at the rained-out Interlagos last year helped push Sauber further back onto dry land; this result saw off rival Manor and ended Nasr’s F1 career in a cruel twist of irony that only Alanis Morissette could begin to describe.

The C36 was the first 2017 car to be launched, and the team has traded its dull blue for a more opalescent variant, adding gold stripes to celebrate Sauber’s 25th year in F1. The technical team – now under the leadership of Jörg Zander – has turned back the clock with a bladed air intake, similar to that pioneered by Mercedes in 2010. The car certainly looks aggressive, but is hamstrung with a 2016-spec Ferrari and seems to lack outright pace compared to its other rivals on the grid. Marcus Ericsson stays with the team for a third year thanks to his backing, and Pascal Wehrlein joins the Swede after an impressive debut season at Manor. Wehrlein must beat Ericsson if he is to justify Mercedes’ faith in him, otherwise he can kiss goodbye to his dream of a works Silver Arrows drive.

Prediction: 10th – Sauber seems to be a lot more secure, but still doesn’t quite have the funding to make a concerted charge up the order. Points should be obtainable, but that’s perhaps the maximum the team can realistically aim for.