The new Formula 1 season kicks off in Australia this weekend without a defending champion for the first time since 1994 following the shock retirement of Nico Rosberg after clinching the 2016 drivers’ title.
The announcement came just five days after the German was crowned F1 champion for the first time, bringing chaos to the ‘driver merry-go-round’ over the winter break.
The new season is also notable for the most substantial raft regulation changes since the introduction of the hybrid turbo engine in 2014, with cars set to lap five seconds faster than last season’s models.
The aim is to improve the F1 spectacle. Truth be told, 2016 was not the most exciting campaign, but there is hope – albeit not shared by all parties – that these changes will lead to more overtaking and more exciting races.
Months of speculation followed Rosberg’s retirement before Mercedes finally announced Valtteri Bottas as his replacement. The Finn, 27, earned his seat with the champions after impressing at Williams
In what was likely the shortest ever retirement, Felipe Massa returned to Williams in Bottas’ place, having originally been replaced by now team-mate and F3 champion Lance Stroll. Confusing, right?
Other changes see Belgium’s Stoffel Vandoorne replace Jenson Button at McLaren, with the Briton taking a sabbatical, although whether he’ll return to F1 is debatable.
Vandoorne made his debut for McLaren last year, replacing Fernando Alonso for the Bahrain GP. He became only the second reserve driver to finish in a points-scoring position on their debut after Sebastian Vettel, coming 10th.
Former Mercedes reserve driver Pascal Wehrlien joins Sauber after missing out on the Mercedes race seat to Bottas. Wehrlien was at Manor Racing last year, in a deal where they received Mercedes engines.
The 22-year-old German secured the team’s only point of the year in Australia, and takes the seat of Brazilian Felipe Nasr after he was released by Sauber.
Kevin Magnussen joins Romain Grosjean at Haas Racing after he lost his place at Renault to Nico Hulkenburg, who in-turn has had his seat at Force India filled by Esteban Ocon who drove the second half of 2016 at Manor.
Given that Ocon and Vandoorne have had previous experience on the grid, that means 18-year-old Stroll will be the only true ‘rookie’ driver on lining-up at Australia.
So here’s how the team’s line up:
Scuderia Ferrari: 5 Sebastian Vettel (Germany), 7 Kimi Raikkonen (Finland)
Sahara Force India: 11 Sergio Perez (Mexico), 31 Esteban Ocon (France)
Haas: 8 Romain Grosjean (France), 20 Kevin Magnussen (Denmark)
McLaren Honda: 2 Stoffel Vandoorne (Belgium), 14 Fernando Alonso (Spain)
Mercedes AMG Petronas: 44 Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain), 77 Valterri Bottas (Finland)
Red Bull: 3 Daniel Ricciardo (Australia), 33 Max Verstappen (Holland)
Renault: 27 Nico Huklkenberg (Germany), 30 Jolyon Palmer (Great Britain)
Sauber: 9 Marcus Ericsson (Sweden), 94 Pascal Wehrlein (German)
Scuderia Toro Rosso: 26 Daniil Kvyat (Russia), 55 Carlos Sainz Jr (Spain)
Williams Martini: 18 Lance Stroll (Canada), 19 Felipe Massa (Brazil)
The 2017 schedule drops back to 20 races, with the German GP axed after F1 supreme Bernie Ecclestone (now deposed from power) failed to reach an agreement with the finically-stricken Hockenheim and Nurburgring circuits.
The race in Baku has been moved back a week to avoid clashing with the Le Mans 24hr race, having also had its title changed from the European to the Azerbaijan GP. Other changes see the British and Hungarian Grand Prix move back a week to fill the gap left by the German race.
March 26 – Australian Grand Prix
April 9 – Chinese Grand Prix
April 16 – Bahrain Grand Prix
April 30 – Russian Grand Prix
May 14 – Spanish Grand Prix
May 28 – Monaco Grand Prix
June 11 – Canadian Grand Prix
June 25 – Azerbaijan Grand Prix
July 9 – Austrian Grand Prix
July 16 – British Grand Prix
July 30 – Hungarian Grand Prix
August 27 – Belgian Grand Prix
September 3 – Italian Grand Prix
September 17 – Singapore Grand Prix
October 1 – Malaysian Grand Prix
October 8 – Japanese Grand Prix
October 22 – United States Grand Prix
October 29 – Mexican Grand Prix
November 12 – Brazilian Grand Prix
November 26 – Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
The biggest complaint over the past few seasons from drivers and fans alike has been the inability to constantly push the cars to the limit, due to tyre degradation and fuel-saving.
The new regulations have been designed to drastically increase speed by increasing downforce from both aerodynamic and mechanical methods, in an attempt to better the spectacle and reduce the difficulty of overtaking.
Opinions on the changes have been mixed, however. They have indeed made the cars quicker, but it’s yet to be seen whether we’ll see more overtaking.
There are also some loopholes being closed this season with respect wet-race starts and the 75 grid place penalties we have seen previously.
Cars have had 20cm added to their width, bringing them up to 2m and matching what they were in 1997.
The width of the tyres is also increased by 20% to increase mechanical downforce and in an attempt to better balance where grip comes from, not just relying on aerodynamic downforce – although this has also been improved.
Pirelli have also been given a brief to decrease tyre degradation, allowing drivers to push harder for longer. The downside of these changes is that the increase on drag which could increase the ‘dirty air’ the car produces – one of the main reasons why overtaking is so difficult.
Fuel consumption will also be affected. The more drag, the more fuel consumption, meaning that the cars’ minimum weight limit and fuel consumption have both been increased.
Changes to the front wing, bargeboards, rear wing and diffuser has given more scope to designers to generate increased aerodynamic downforce, again increasing speeds.
Rear and front wings have also been widened by 15 and 20cm respectively, allowing more room for aerodynamic features on the wings. The nose of the car has also been lengthened by 20cm, whilst the rear wing is 15cm lower and mounted 20cm further back, at more of an angle.
Bargeboards will also be returned to pre-2009 prominence, after years of being restricted, again allowing designers to be more creative as they seek greater downforce.
The same applies to the rear diffuser – they are taller, wider and moved further forward, although the regulations here are only slightly more lax in an attempt to keep dirty air to a reasonable level.
Last year’s Belgian GP saw Hamilton take a ‘tactical’ grid penalty of a record 75 places, after reliability issues earlier in the season forced him into a fifth engine change.
Given that this had already dropped him to rear of the grid, Mercedes used the opportunity to change other components, knowing that he could not drop any further back. This season, teams will be unable to ‘stack’ penalties at one race, meaning that individual penalties must be served at individual GPs.
Wet races which start behind the safety car will now having a standing start once the track has been deemed safe. If a race is suspended due to wet weather, however, then it will resume using the traditional rolling safety-car start.
What happened in pre-season testing?
It was Ferrari who set the pace at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest lap of 1:18.634, ahead of team-mate Sebastian Vettel.
Mercedes followed close behind while also being the only team to complete over 1,000 laps, showing they have the reliability to match the speed. It all points towards a fierce competition between Ferrari and Mercedes.
Red Bull and Williams are also looking good, so it seems unlikely to be another one-horse race as it has been for Mercedes over the past few years.
There has been talk that Ferrari were ‘sandbagging’ and could go ever faster. Hamilton has suggested that they are favourites for victory in Melbourne, although Vettel has refuted this.
Despite the team’s speed, it would be unwise for Ferrari fans to get too excited. Last year they also showed similar pre-season pace but failed to win a race in 2016, although another winless season would be surprising.
Mercedes should also benefit from what appears to be a much healthier working relationship between Hamilton and Bottas. This should allow the team to focus solely on on-track matters instead of having to sort out feuding team-mates.
Red Bull, tipped to be Mercedes main challengers, have also shown good pace, alongside Williams who could be the dark horses. Massa was followed by Max Verstappen as the fastest cars behind Ferrari and Mercedes. The two teams will be hopeful of chalking up a few wins between them.
The midfield appears to be very tight – just six-tenths of a second separated Carlos Sainz of Toro Rosso in 7th place down to Kevin Magnussen for Haas in 15th.
McLaren are the team who are once again suffering. Despite the car performing well aerodynamically, there are still big issues with the power unit supplied by Honda.
“No power and no reliability,” is how an increasingly frustrated Fernando Alonso described the car.
Who will win the drivers’ title?
Despite Ferrari’s pace in testing, Hamilton remains a clear favourite to take his fourth title with odds of 11/10 followed by Vettel (10/3).
Hamilton will certainly fired up after the disappointment of narrowly missing out in his fierce battle with Rosberg.
Bottas is not there to make up the numbers, however, and is aiming to give Hamilton a tough time. However, the general consensus is that challenging for the title in his first season at Mercedes will be a step too far for the Finn.
Vettel is widely tipped to be Hamilton’s biggest challenger, and it is hard to argue against that. With Ferrari looking improved this term, it is almost a certainty that the German will be challenging for wins on a more regular basis.
Despite the criticism he occasionally faces regarding his race-craft, Vettel, the most successful driver currently on the grid, has always challenged at the top from pretty much the beginning of his career, and there’s no doubting his speed.
Kimi Raikkonen should also not be overlooked. Perhaps he doesn’t have the raw pace of Vettel, but you can be sure that he will go quietly about his business and perhaps sneak one or two wins.
The team with the most exciting line-up has to be Red Bull. The rivalry between Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, two young, fired-up and immensely talented drivers, could reach the intensity of Rosberg v Hamilton.
Red Bull should never be written off either. They have consistently produced cars capable of victory over the last eight years, although some were expecting them to show a little more pace in pre-season.
Williams, meanwhile, are definitely the dark horses. They have shown impressive pace, clocking faster times than Red Bull, and the return of Paddy Lowe as chief technical officer appears to have helped them to step to the next level.
In the last few seasons, they have been the best-of-the-rest without winning a race. This year, securing their first victory since Pastor Maldonado won the Spanish GP in 2012 is not unlikely.