F1 2017 Season Preview

On the eve of the first on track action for the new season, we’re taking a look team by team at their chances for the 2017 season.

Drivers: Lewis Hamilton (British) & Valtteri Bottas (Finnish)
Team Principal: Toto Wolff
Team Nationality: German (based in Brackley, England)
Car: W08
Engine: Mercedes

Over the last three seasons there has been one team that has stood out from all the rest due to their utter domination of the sport, and that team is Mercedes. 2016 was no different to the previous seasons, as the team blew away their competition with a staggering 20 poles, 33 podiums, and 19 wins between their two drivers. They also managed to bring some of the best drama as well, with their first lap collision in Spain, as well as their last lap shenanigans in Austria causing plenty of drama for Mercedes senior management. And that’s not even mentioning the headache Lewis Hamilton gave the team in Abu Dhabi as he apparently backed his team mate up into the other drivers in a last ditch attempt to win the championship. The team have not had the easiest of winter breaks with the loss of 2016 World Champion Nico Rosberg from their driver line up, which left the team scrambling to find a good driver to partner Hamilton this year. The team ultimately were able to secure Williams driver Valtteri Bottas on a one season contract, following some serious negotiations with the Williams team. The Finn is rated highly as a driver, despite not winning a race yet. Hamilton meanwhile enters his fifth season at the team and has set his sights on winning the fourth drivers world championship of his career.

Pre-season testing for Mercedes was not the walk in the part they experienced last year, as the team did have some reliability issues which did curtail their ability to run full simulations some days. Major regulation changes usually hit the reigning champions the hardest, but while it doesn’t appear Mercedes have experienced the pitfalls of some of their title-holding predecessors like Red Bull in 2014, it’s not certain they head to Melbourne as 2017’s initial fastest team. The team and their drivers have been cautious about the progress Ferrari seemed to have made over winter break, especially considering the Italian team set the fastest outright testing time. It was also clear during the test Ferrari were holding something back when they set their fast times, although recent winters tell us that Mercedes, who usually run their cars more fat with fuel in testing undoubtedly were too. What is for certain is that the world champions can’t be any more prepared for a fight this year. With a new driver line up that suggests the team will suffer less with the incidents and flashpoints that have overshadowed the Hamilton-Rosberg partnership for three years, they appear to be in a good place once again to launch a sustained and serious championship bid.

Red Bull
Daniel Ricciardo (Australian) & Max Verstappen (Dutch)
Team Principal: Christian Horner
Team Nationality: Austrian (based in Milton Keynes, England)
Car: RB13
Engine: Tag Heuer branded Renault engines (Renault is still a swear word in Red Bull right now)

Red Bull really were the best of the rest in 2016 behind Mercedes. The team managed to come back from a difficult 2015 season to win two races, score 16 podiums, and gain the only other pole position of the season. And much like Mercedes, they were not without their controversies last season. After scoring the team’s first podium of the season in China with a daring move into the first corner, Daniil Kvyat came under pressure at the Russian Grand Prix, for what some considered to be a dangerous move that resulted in the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel ending up in the wall. This was the beginning of the end for Kvyat’s career at Red Bull, as by the next race in Spain he had been demoted, with Toro Rosso sensation Max Verstappen taking his place at the top team. Verstappen would then go on to win the Spanish Grand Prix for Red Bull and become the youngest Formula 1 race winner ever. While Danial Ricciardo won the Malaysian Grand Prix for the team. Overall the team seemed happy with their drivers, feeling they are a good challenge for one another. However, there is a feeling the relationship is akin to the Hamilton-Rosberg relationship at Mercedes. If these two darlings of the Red Bull young driver program are put in a car capable of winning the championship, it will be interesting to see how their dynamic as team mates will play out. With many fearing another Hamilton-Rosberg style fight will erupt at Red Bull.

Pre-season testing for Red Bull left many to feel we haven’t yet seen the best of what exactly Red Bull has to offer for the season ahead. The RB13 showed some flashes of promise at the second test in particular, but it was nowhere near the same eye-catching times as the Ferrari or Mercedes managed. The team have admitted they feel they are not quite on the same level as the Mercedes or Ferrari right now, which when taking both short and long run times into account does seem to be the case. One of the issues for this seems to be the Tag Heuer branded Renault engines. Renault have openly admitted they have had some glitches which will need fixing. The good news is there is now no longer a cap on how much engines can be developed in the season, so these glitches can be ironed out by Renault. As well as this there is the expectation that Adrian Newey’s developing aero package will add a layer of complexity to the RB13 that will help close up the gap. In terms of in-season developing Red Bull excel in this field, and the team are confident they will be on the same level as their rivals at some point early on in the season. However, for a team challenging a return to championship contention this year this really is not the best place to be starting, playing catch up already. It will be another long season for the Red bull team.

Sebastian Vettel (German) & Kimi Raikkonen (Finnish)
Team Principal: Maurizio Arrivabene
Team Nationality: Italian (based in Maranello, Italy)
Car: SF-70-H
Engine: Ferrari

After a strong 2015 season, where many pegged them as the team who would take a season long fight to Mercedes, Ferrari somehow fizzled out in 2016. The team failed to secure a single win over the 21 race long season, and scored just 11 podium finishes between their two drivers. What was more shocking though with the fact they seemed to throw a potential two wins away to bad strategy calls, while their strategy also cost them several podium finishes as well. It’s fair to say the Italian team appeared to be in shambles at some points compared to the teams they were up against. Throughout the season they had to deny the rumours that there had been a falling out between Team Principal Maurizio Arrivabene and lead driver Sebastian Vettel, with many feeling the German undermined Arrivabene at points with his actions, while Arrivabene was quick to argue that there would be no Schumacher-esc favouritism for Vettel at Ferrari. And that he would have to earn his drive like any one else would working for the team. Ultimately the two seemed to have kissed and made up in preparation for the 2017 season, with Vettel seemingly more motivated than ever to go for a fifth world title. While team mate Kimi Raikkonen has stayed on again for another season following an impressive second half of the season by the Finn.

Pre-season could not have gone better for Ferrari, with many feeling they are the fastest team on the grid right now. They were able to secure the fastest times on all four tyre compounds in testing, with evidence as well they were lifting and still hiding some of the pace in the SF70-H for this year. Raikkonen’s 1:18.634, the fastest time overall in testing was simply too quick to ignore, and was around seven tenths quicker than any other team could manage. In terms of reliability they had a crash one day and a glitch with the car on another, and while no team came through testing unscathed Ferrari did come out best in terms of losing time to reliability problems. Of course, the real test comes when the season gets underway. But it is already looking promising for a team so desperate to both end Mercedes’ streak, and their own nine-year Constructors’ championship drought.

Force India
Sergio Perez (Mexican) & Esteban Ocon (French)
Team Principal: Vijay Mallya
Team Nationality: Indian (based in Silverstone, England)
Car: VJM-10
Engine: Mercedes

2016 really was a dream year for Force India, with the team able to secure two podiums and fourth in the Constructors’ championship, their highest ever finish in a season during their time in the sport. With just a fraction of the budget of the big teams they were up against, the midfield outfit have shown us they are capable of taking on, sustaining, and winning a fight with a team like Williams. That doesn’t mean the team had the smoothest of seasons though. Many people suspected that the team were struggling to retain Sergio Perez for 2017, and seeing as he was the one to win the two podiums this season it would be a blow to the team. However, it was the shock announcement that Nico Hulkenberg would be moving to Renault that took everyone by surprise, with many feeling he was making a mistake leaving Force India considering the position they were in. The team were able to hold onto Perez in the end, who will be joined by Mercedes protégé Esteban Ocon. Ocon impressed in the second half of the season at Manor, and ultimately secured the place at the team over his rival and former team mate Pascal Wehrlein. Not one to rest on their laurels though the team has been securing a major sponsor in BWT that has seen the car and their drivers take on a bright pink livery for this season.

Pre-season for Force India was tricky this year, with a promising start in the first test giving way to a second test filled with problems. The car seemed to be off the pace compared to the others around it, and while their drivers were close together on lap times, they were down on teams like Williams that they were challenging last season. Many have suggested that the car is over sensitive right now, as well as overweight, which could explain why the car does not look as comfortable among the others when the pace was turned up at the second test. In terms of the pecking order right now, Force India do not look to be the fourth best outfit on the grid, with Williams certainly ahead of them, and potentially Toro Rosso as well. The mid field is densely packed though and competition for every point will be tough here. Much like Red Bull Force India have showed in terms of in season development they are a team to watch. But again like Red Bull, if they wish to carry on achieving high finishes in both the points and constructors, they need to come out of the blocks with a decent car.

Felipe Massa (Brazilian) & Lance Stroll (Canadian)
Team Principal: Sir Frank Williams
Team Nationality: British (based in Grove, England)
Car: FW-40
Engine: Mercedes

After finishing third in the constructors for the last two seasons 2016 seemed to be a let down for Williams. The team came away with a lone podium in Canada, and finished fifth in the constructors behind Force India. As well as this, the team was temporarily without their legendary founder Sir Frank Williams, as he was hospitalised following the Italian Grand Prix due to pneumonia, though he is said to be feeling a lot better now and back to working with the team. It has to be said if Williams have taken anything on board form their previous two seasons at the sharp end of the grid, it was that their pit stops did cost them vital positions and podiums. In 2016 the team were near faultless in their pit-stops, regularly managing pit stops around the two second mark. Though sometimes their strategy calls could be off. Though they denied it, it was clear Williams had shifted focus very quickly onto the 2017 car, ultimately sacrificing their fourth place in the 2016 championship to Force India. During winter break the team have undergone a reshuffle, with Pat Symonds leaving the team and Paddy Lowe returning. And while the team have lost Valtteri Bottas to Mercedes, they were able to bring Felipe Massa back onto their team to partner Canadian rookie Lance Stroll. While possibly not the strongest driver pairing out there, Williams ultimately gained Lowe without any real gardening leave, and a suspected 10 million euro reduction in their engine costs for releasing Bottas to Mercedes, money than can now be ploughed into developing the car even more.

Like may others up and down the grid Williams did not have a straight forward pre-season test. Missing out on a day and a half of testing during the first test as a result of three off track excursions for Stroll, one of which ended up in the barriers. However, a difficult first test for Williams was followed by a trouble-free second test in which the FW40 ran long and ran fast, topping the timesheets one of the days and showing competitive times on the others. Impressively, the team also managed to complete the two weeks using just one engine, highlighting the reliability of both the engine and car. 2017 for Williams, their 40th anniversary in the sport, will all be about re-establishing themselves after their less than spectacular season last year. It will also be about getting the best out of their driver pairing against their competitors. Right now, after pre-season it is fair to say they look to be leading the mid field, though it will take a lot for the team to still be there by the close of the season. Ultimately this is going to be tough season for the team, but if they can get through this, they may restore some of their former glory that went missing last season.

Fernando Alonso (Spanish) & Stoffel Vandoorne (Belgian)
Team Principal: Eric Boullier
Team Nationality: British (based in Woking, England)
Car: MCL32
Engine: Honda

The 2016 season, while not the total disappointment of the dismal 2015 season for McLaren, was still not something the former champions can be thrilled with. 9 retirements, and grid penalties galore characterised the teams season. McLaren’s best result last season was a fifth place finish and they managed to finish sixth in the constructors’ overall. Much like Mercedes, it has been an off-season of change for McLaren, with the team still coming to terms with Ron Dennis’ departure at the end of 2016. As well as that, 2009 world Champion and McLaren veteran Jenson Button will be going on sabbatical for this season as the team’s reserve driver. His seat now belongs to Stoffel Vandoorne. The Belgian went on to score McLaren’s first point of the season with a tenth place finish in Bahrain last season as he covered for the injured Fernando Alonso. Somehow, McLaren have managed to keep double world champion Alonso for 2017, however the Spaniard is out of contract at the end of the season and does not look to be sure about signing for the team again.

Pre-season however for McLaren was once again a return to the dark days of their 2015 testing, leaving many to suspect that the McLaren-Honda partnership is heading for an early divorce. Honda declared that with an unfreeze coming on engine development for the season they would re-design their engine from the ground up, resulting in a more competitive engine overall. Come the first day of the pre-season test and the car breaks down abruptly, which was later found out to be due to the shape of the oil tank on the engine, a fundamental problem that should not have existed for such an experienced engine designer as Honda. That resulted in much of the first test being a write off for the team, with more engine problems popping up throughout their running. While the second test somehow managed to exceed the expectations set by the first test, by being even more disastrous. The McLaren completed 159 laps less than any other team over the two weeks of testing, with their longest stint of the test being 11 laps before they had to pit or they stopped on track. 11 laps would only get the car roughly through a sixth of the Australian Grand Prix, that is just how far behind Honda are in their development. What’s more, McLaren are believed to have made more engine changes over the two weeks than will be permitted over the duration of an entire season without penalty. 2016 will be a painful year for McLaren if pre-season is anything to go by. The teams only hope for salvation now is to cut ties with Honda, find a new engine deal with someone like Mercedes. And hope that will be enough to keep star driver Alonso on board for another season.

Toro Rosso
Daniil Kvyat (Russian) & Carlos Sainz (Spanish)
Team Principal: Franz Tost
Team Nationality: Italian (based in Faenza, Italy)
Car: STR12
Engine: Renault

2016 was another solid year for Toro Rosso, though not quite on the same level of success they enjoyed from their 2015 campaign. For the first half of the season the team were regularly contenders for points. However, the second half of the season was tough for them, as the other cars were able to overtake them not due to out development. But because the team were running a 2015 spec Ferrari engine, which was down on power compared to the 2016 counterparts it was up against. The result was a less than stellar finish for Toro Rosso to the season, culminating in the teams double DNF in Abu Dhabi. The first four races of the season for the team were characterised by raising tensions between Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz, something that did result in the team having to take action. But before tensions could boil over into a full blown feud, Verstappen got the call to go to Red Bull. The team arguably got the rotten end of the Verstappen-Kvyat trade, with Kvyat returning to his former team. It was then left for Toro Rosso to deal with the young driver, who at times seemed disillusioned with the sport considering what had happened to him. While promising young talent Sainz appeared to be looking for a way out of his contract to join another team. Toro Rosso was able in the end to secure both drivers for the 2017 season, though with GP2 champion Pierre Gasly waiting in the shadows to steal the next available seat, both drivers will have to be on their game when the season gets underway, or face being the next scalp in the Red Bull young driver program.

Pre-season testing was difficult for the team, especially in the first test. They managed to complete less laps than the McLaren over the first week due a lot to reliability being an issue in their Renault engine. However, after a difficult first test their second week went better, with the team completing twice as many laps as they managed in the first week and getting some good data to use. Pace-wise, the STR12 looks promising. Sainz’s lap on the final day of testing put the team fifth in the charts for fastest times that week, but probably only with the car at its absolute optimum performance that they will not be able to run during the race. It’s clear Toro Rosso are once again good midfield contenders, and likely will provide a good battle for the likes of Force India and possibly Williams as well. But like all the Renault-powered teams, Toro Rosso’s immediate prospects for the start of 2017 will depend on the upgraded engine due to be delivered for Australia.

Romain Grosjean (French) & Kevin Magnussen (Danish)
Team Principal: Guenther Steiner
Team Nationality: American (based in the US, England and Italy)
Car: VF-17
Engine: Ferrari

Haas really did suffer a case of baptism by fire in their first year in the sport for 2016, and that looks set to carry onto their second year as well. They appeared to have an almost fairy-tale start to the season finishing sixth in Australia with Romain Grosjean before he went one better and scored fifth in Bahrain for the team. However, after that point the nightmare kicked in, with just two low end points finishes from Grosjean for the rest of the season. While team mate Esteban Gutierrez failed to secure a single point throughout the season. The team suffered 8 retirements and 2 non-starts as well on their way to eighth in the constructors’ with just 29 points. A lot of Haas’ problems centred around a reduced efficiency in the low-speed corners. But more worryingly than that, the team had some serious breaking issues throughout the year that was bordering on dangerous at times. The team have been working on solving these issues during their winter break in the hopes of a better season for 2017. Drivers wise, the team have kept Grosjean on for another season following his performance last year. The team have opted not to resign Gutierrez though, so Grosjean will be partnered with Danish driver Kevin Magnussen instead.

Haas had a hard to read pre-season testing. Unlike the other teams in the midfield they are likely to battle with, Haas opted to not show their true pace over the test at any point, meaning it’s difficult to place where they are in the tightly packed and competitive mid field. As previously mentioned the team struggled last season with low-speed corners, and breaking issues. And despite the effort the team have put in over winter break to correct these issues, they still seem to be a problem for Haas with Grosjean pulling up twice on the final day of testing due to them. One thing they do not have to worry about is their Ferrari engine, which appears to be showing good reliability signs so far. It’s fair to say the American team look to have an impressive midfield car for the second year running. It will be down to the drivers to get the best out of it in the competitive field, and down to the team to fix their issues soon as possible. If the team don’t manage further than eighth in constructors’ this year, it will simply be down to year two team teething troubles.

Jolyon Palmer (British) & Nico Hulkenberg (German)
Team Principal: Frederic Vasseur
Team Nationality: French (based in Enstone, England)
Car: RS 17

Renault’s first year back at the helm of a running team in 2016 proved disappointing, with the team thwarted by delays in the RS16’s development the previous winter due to financial issues. One of the main issues was the engine, with the car previously set up around a Mercedes engine that then had to have a Renault engine shoehorned into it at the last moment. The result was a car that was down on power and genuinely did not look as dialled into the tracks as their competitors. While the car did show some signs of improvement throughout the year it wasn’t enough, leaving the team to finish ninth in the constructors’. The team however seemed to write the season off early, and instead switched focus to this year’s car and building up the team’s infrastructure off track so they could mount a serious threat on the midfield this year. For this year, the team have new driver Nico Hulkenberg, who has joined Renault from Force India after three seasons there in the hope of Renault being more competitive. While Britain’s Jolyon Palmer has been retained for a second season with the team, following his rookie year with them in 2016.

Renault had an okay pre-season test, with both drivers happy with the car’s general handling. The team however did suffer, like the other Renault-powered teams, with an unreliable power unit. This is something the team have vowed to fix before the season begins in Australia, and is something they really will have to work on throughout the season if they wish to progress up the field. The other key area the Renault is struggling in is the energy recovery system, with the unit not working as it should be or simply not performing at its best. With the ERS a key component of these hybrid turbo cars it is important they get on top of this issue and fast if they want to have a more successful year than 2016. It’s fair to say the team is ahead of the likes of McLaren and Sauber, but Renault are definitely the lower end of the tightly packed midfield. Meaning they are not yet in the position to capitalise on the immediate points positions which are left vacant behind the top three teams. 2017 will be another tough year for the team, but as long as they get on top of their power unit and ERS problems early on, they could still have a positive season.

Marcus Ericsson (Swedish) & Pascal Wehrlein (German)
Team Principal: Monisha Kaltenborn
Team Nationality: Swiss (based in Hinwil, Switzerland)
Car: C36
Engine: Ferrari (2016 spec)

Sauber come into this season once again needing to make an impression on the points following some less than stellar years for the Swiss team. Sauber, who are celebrating their 25th anniversary of being in the sport this year, are aiming to re-establish themselves as a regular points scoring team having fallen almost to the bottom of the constructors’. The team looked set for bankruptcy in early 2016, when the staff were not paid their wages for February and the team missing the first of the pre-season tests. However, at the eleventh hour the team were saved with the backing of a new sponsor and went on to score two points for the whole season. A result which meant they pipped Manor to 10th in constructors’ and secured the crucial prize money funding they needed. The team will be hoping their driver line up will be up to the challenge of getting then best out of the car, and hopefully some much needed points as well. They have retained the services of driver Marcus Ericsson for a third season. While Mercedes junior Pascal Wehrlein joins Sauber’s line-up, after the German lost out to Valtteri Bottas in the race to succeed Nico Rosberg at F1’s world champions Mercedes.

In terms of pre-season testing Sauber were reliable in Barcelona but also consistently slow. The team did not set the timing screens alight at any point during their two weeks of testing, but at least did show that their car is capable of being reliable when needed, something that will help them for the long season ahead. Running a 2016 spec Ferrari engine may be a bigger handicap than previously thought given the year-on-year advances made at Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari. Especially considering the uncapped development rule for this year. Chances are, much like Toro Rosso last year, the team will show some promise at the start of the season, but will be overtaken in the rate of development and will get bogged down in the tail end of the grid. If they are off the bottom of the constructors’ this year, it will likely only be because McLaren have hit rock bottom with Honda. The team seem to think right now they are ahead of the British team, but it will be interesting to see if that is where they will be at the end of the season. In short, it’s going to be another long season for Sauber.

The first race of the new Formula 1 season gets underway in Australia on Friday the 24th of March, with the first of the free practice sessions. And as ever Ovetake Motorsport will have every session, qualifying, and race of the new season covered.

Feature Image Credit: Red Bull Racing Press Release

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