Formula One 2017 – Season Preview


Arguably the most spectacular and prestigious motorsport championship in the world, Formula One is about to change in a big way – this is the field of 2016 at the start of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix 12 months ago – and, with so many questions still to be answered…who’s going to grab the glory this time?

Talk about the winds of change…this is more like a hurricane, isn’t it? OK, so I might be overstating things a little, but it can be easy sometimes to become accustomed to things being done in a certain way – particularly  after such a long period of time – and so, when the status quo is upset for whatever reason, there’s immediate pressure on those coming in to prove they’re capable of delivering the goods. I mean, it’s natural that the world of motorsport has to move with the times every now and again, but this is very much a case of revolution rather than evolution, and, to be honest, it’s difficult to emphasise just how important this could be for what many people regard as the pinnacle of racing.  That’s right, Formula One is back, and, with the 2017 season set to get underway this weekend and so many unknowns to throw into the mix as a new era for the sport begins…it’s anyone’s guess how it’s going to play out.

THE BASICS
First things first, though, for those of you who aren’t fully clued up on the ins and outs of F1 – and, to be honest, with so many changes to get used to, it’s understandable – here’s a quick guide to the basic elements of both the cars and the race weekend, as well as an explanation of what’s new for 2017…

  1. The cars themselves are powered by 1.6 litre turbocharged V6 engines that are capable of developing around 600 brake horsepower, while an Energy Recovery System (ERS) harnesses both heat energy from the turbocharger and electrical energy generated while braking to provide the driver with an additional 160bhp for around 33 seconds per lap.
  2. For 2017, numerous changes have been made to the aerodynamic packages in an attempt to make the cars look more visually spectacular, including wider front wings and sidepods, a significantly lower rear wing and an overall bigger rear diffuser. This increase in downforce has meant that the tyres – supplied by Italian manufacturer Pirelli – have also become wider to provide the cars with more grip, with the front tyres up from 245mm to 305mm and the rears from 325mm to 405mm.
  3. Another prominent element of modern-day F1 cars is the Drag Reduction System (DRS), which allows a driver within one second of the car in front to ‘open’ their rear wing in specific zones on the track – usually along the start/finish straight – and gain a slight advantage in speed in order to try and overtake.
  4. In terms of a typical race weekend, three practice sessions – two 90 minute sessions and a shorter, hour-long period on Saturday morning – are followed by a three-part qualifying session, in which drivers are ‘eliminated’ based on their position at the end of each:
    – In Q1, all cars are eligible to run as many times as they like within the 18 minute window, with any driver on a flying lap at the point the chequered flag comes out able to complete it and post a valid time. At the end, the top 15 will go through into Q2, while the bottom five will take up positions 16-20 on the grid.
    – The formula is similar for Q2 (which is slightly shorter at 15 minutes), with the top 10 going through to the final part and the bottom five filling positions 11-15 on the grid, but, for those who do make it into the top 10, the tyres they set their fastest time on in Q2 are the tyres they must start on for the race, with anyone being ‘knocked out’ prior to this point having free choice of what compound to start on.
    – Q3 sees the remaining 10 drivers return to the track for a final 12 minutes, with the grid order being determined by the fastest times at the end of the session and the fastest of the remaining runners starting from pole position for the race.
  5. Races are run to near-identical distances of around 300km or a maximum time duration of 2 hours, with points being awarded in accordance with the FIA’s standard scoring system, awarding 25 points to the race winner and moving down through 18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2 to 1 point for the driver finishing in 10th place.

An illustration of the changes made to the look of the 2017 cars against their 2016 equivalents, showing both a wider overall track and an increase to the permitted size of the sidepods (from a maximum of 1400mm to 1600mm), as well as the bigger dimensions of both the front and rear tyres and wings.

Perhaps the biggest change of all, though, is that, for the first time since the retirement of the great Alain Prost ahead of the infamous 1994 season, there will be no defending champion on the grid after Germany’s Nico Rosberg – who became only the second son of a former champion after Damon Hill (son of 1962 and 1968 champion Graham Hill) in 1996 to take the title, emulating the achievement of father Keke from 1982 – elected to retire from the sport having finally clinched the title in Abu Dhabi at the end of last season, stating he had achieved his goal and was not willing to put himself through another campaign having recently become a father for the first time.

Away from the track, there was also a massive story behind the scenes, with Bernie Ecclestone – for so long the master of F1, having run the sport for more than 40 years since establishing the Formula One Constructors’ Association (now known simply as the Formula One Group) way back in 1974 – having been ousted from his position as CEO following the takeover by American-based Liberty Media and the installation of Chase Carey in his place.
For me, as a fan, this can only be a good thing, because, as much as Ecclestone did for the sport in terms of its promotion, he was clearly out of touch with how it was going to move forward in the future, and, with the kind of things Liberty have already come out with – including the idea of promoting F1 race weekends to the same level as the Super Bowl is in American football, the inclusion of eSports (similar to the one-off event in Las Vegas as part of Formula E) and proposing non-championship events to trial potential new race formats – it sounds as though they have some idea already of what needs to be done (although, of course, it remains to be seen how these will work in practice).

THE CALENDAR
So, having got all of that out of the way (see, I told you there was a lot going on!), it’s time to take a look at the calendar for the new season, which remains broadly the same as it was in 2016, aside from a few minor tweaks to the order of certain races. However, though, there is one notable absentee this year in the form of Germany, with organisers at both Hockenheim or the Nurburgring – both hosts of the country’s Grand Prix in the recent past – unable to put together a financial package to host this year’s event, meaning it drops off the calendar once again to reduce the number of races in 2017 to 20.
Following the now-traditional curtain-raiser in Australia, the first minor change to proceedings sees the races in China and Bahrain switch places as the second and third events on the calendar, with a trip to Russia at the end of April signalling the end of the first group of ‘flyaway’ races and the start of the season’s European leg, which kicks off in Spain in mid-May. After the championship’s annual pilgrimage to the iconic setting of Monaco, there’s a brief trip across the other side of the Atlantic to Canada before a return to the newest event on the calendar in Azerbaijan, with more historic races in Austria, Britain and Hungary during July leading the series into its four-week summer break.
On the resumption, the infamous back-to-back pair of races in Belgium and Italy bring the European season to a close as the championship again goes long-haul for the final few races, starting under the lights on the streets of Singapore before heading to Malaysia – which was switched to the later stages of the season in 2016 – and another historic venue in Japan. From there, there’s a trio of races in the Americas, with events in the USA and Mexico being followed by the sport’s only visit to South America in Brazil, before the season comes to its conclusion back in the Middle East under the lights in Abu Dhabi.

Here, then, is a look at the complete calendar in a little more detail, complete with circuits (I’ve given the official track name for most of them, but you’ll probably hear a lot being referred to by the nearest city or town, so I’ve also included these where it’s not obvious from the official name) and race dates:

  1. Australian Grand Prix (Albert Park, Melbourne) – 26th March
  2. Chinese Grand Prix (Shanghai International Circuit) – 9th April
  3. Bahrain Grand Prix (Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir) – 16th April
  4. Russian Grand Prix (Sochi Autodrom) – 30th April
  5. Spanish Grand Prix (Circuit de Catalunya, Barcelona) – 14th May
  6. Monaco Grand Prix (Circuit de Monaco, Monte Carlo) – 28th May
  7. Canadian Grand Prix (Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Montreal) – 11th June
  8. Azerbaijan Grand Prix (Baku City Circuit) – 25th June
  9. Austrian Grand Prix (Red Bull Ring, Spielberg) – 9th July
  10. British Grand Prix (Silverstone) – 16th July
  11. Hungarian Grand Prix (Hungaroring, Budapest) – 30th July
  12. Belgian Grand Prix (Spa-Francorchamps) – 27th August
  13. Italian Grand Prix (Monza) – 3rd September
  14. Singapore Grand Prix (Marina Bay Street Circuit, Singapore) – 17th September
  15. Malaysian Grand Prix (Sepang International Circuit, Kuala Lumpur) – 1st October
  16. Japanese Grand Prix (Suzuka) – 8th October
  17. United States Grand Prix (Circuit of the Americas, Austin) – 22nd October
  18. Mexican Grand Prix (Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, Mexico City) – 29th October
  19. Brazilian Grand Prix (Interlagos, Sao Paulo) – 12th November
  20. Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi) – 26th November

THE TEAMS AND DRIVERS
One of the other major changes during the off-season saw the demise of backmarker team Manor after their parent company was placed into administration, and, despite attempts to find a buyer, the operation was closed down ahead of the start of the season, bringing to an end an eventful seven-year stay in F1 that saw them go through three name changes as well as having to deal with the tragic death of driver Jules Bianchi following an accident in Japan in 2014 while they were known as Marussia.
This means the grid has been reduced from 22 to 20 cars, so, with that in mind, here’s a guide to the runners and riders for the 2017 season, with a fair few changes to get used to…

MERCEDES – Despite having to deal with reigning champion Rosberg’s shock decision to quit the sport, the Silver Arrows still enter the new campaign as many people’s favourites once again, with former three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton now being partnered by the talent of Finland’s Valtteri Bottas, who makes the switch into perhaps the most coveted seat on the grid in search of a maiden F1 race victory after five generally successful seasons with Williams.

RED BULL – Having established themselves as the closest challengers to the Mercs in the latter half of last season, Christian Horner’s team look well-placed to mount a significant championship push this time around after a couple of lean years, and retain the services of Australian Daniel Ricciardo – one of only two drivers to complete every race in 2016 – and Dutch teenager Max Verstappen, who rewrote the record books when he became the youngest ever F1 race winner on his debut for Red Bull in Spain after moving up from junior team Toro Rosso.

FERRARI – After something of a difficult year in 2016 that saw them fail to pick up a single race victory, the pressure is on for the sport’s longest-serving manufacturer to deliver a return to form this time around, but, with former world champions in Sebastian Vettel – the German entering his third season at Maranell0 – and veteran Finn Kimi Raikkonen having been retained for another year, it’d be a major surprise if the Prancing Horses weren’t among the championship contenders once again in 2017.

FORCE INDIA – Off the back of an impressive 2016 campaign that saw them ultimately finish fourth in the constructors’ championship, it’ll be hard for Vijay Mallya’s team to make much more progress this year, but a solid driver pairing of Mexican Sergio Perez and highly-rated French youngster Esteban Ocon – who goes into his first full F1 season after a part campaign with the departed Manor outfit last year – should at least mean they remain competitive towards the sharp end.

WILLIAMS – Following a below-par season by their standards last time, it’s been a tumultuous off-season for the Grove outfit, with the departure of Bottas to Mercedes forcing team boss Claire Williams to persuade veteran Brazilian Felipe Massa – who had originally planned to retire from F1 at the end of 2016 – to return for one more year alongside 18 year-old rookie Lance Stroll, with the Canadian making his debut in the sport after taking the European Formula 3 title at a canter last year.

McLAREN – Having showed flashes of progress in their second season under Honda power, the departure of CEO Ron Dennis over the winter means it’s something of a new dawn for the second longest-serving team in F1, with Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne – who picked up a point as a stand-in on his debut in Bahrain last year – stepping up to replace Jenson Button (who still remains with the team as a reserve driver and ambassador) alongside former double world champion Fernando Alonso behind the wheel of the strikingly-liveried MCL32.

TORO ROSSO – Having struggled for regular points throughout their 2016 campaign, the Italian team – complete with a smart-looking new livery – will be looking to make a step forward this time around, and retain the services of both Spaniard Carlos Sainz Jr. – who was considered for the vacant Mercedes seat after Rosberg’s retirement – and Russian Daniil Kvyat, who will simply be looking to regain his confidence in 2017 after a downturn in results following his demotion from the factory Red Bull team in favour of Verstappen.

HAAS – Despite producing some stunning performances in the early part of their debut year as an F1 constructor, the points quickly dried up for the American team, but, with a pair of strong drivers in the form of Dane Kevin Magnussen – who switches from Renault after just one season – and Frenchman Romain Grosjean now behind the wheel, the 2017 campaign should see the newest additions to the grid make yet more progress as they continue to find their feet in the sport.

RENAULT – After something of a consolidation year last season following their return to the sport as a manufacturer team, there are high hopes that 2017 will see the French outfit make more significant strides closer to the front of the field, and, having secured the services of Germany’s Nico Hulkenberg from Force India alongside second year driver Jolyon Palmer – the Brit now with a year of experience at the highest level behind him – they certainly look like a team on the up.

SAUBER – For a while last season, it looked as though the Swiss outfit were going to finish behind even perennial backmarkers Manor in the constructors’ standings before the heroics of Felipe Nasr on home soil in Brazil, but, with highly-rated German youngster Pascal Wehrlein – who, ironically, could have secured 10th overall for their rivals after his points finish in Austria – now coming in to partner Swede Marcus Ericsson, the team at least look better equipped to compete this around.

MY THOUGHTS
Based on the way the last few years have played out, it would be foolish to bet against anything other than another season of Mercedes domination, but any significant change in the regulations has the potential to upset the apple cart and give the rest of the field a bit of an opening, as was the case in 2014 when the Silver Arrows took over from the all-conquering pairing of Vettel and Red Bull as the team to beat…and it looks as if we might be in for something similar this time.
Of course, it’s easy to say that, with Rosberg out of the way, the path is pretty much clear for Hamilton to take title number four – and, to be fair, he is many people’s favourite to do so – but new stable-mate Bottas is no slouch, and maybe making the move into a more competitive car, capable of race wins, could see the Finn also challenging for silverware in 2017. However, the biggest challenge to the Mercs based on pre-season testing (which, it goes without saying, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, as no one really knows what various programmes each team is running to in terms of tyres, fuel loads etc.) seem to be the Ferraris – Raikkonen was comfortably fastest of all in Barcelona, while Vettel also didn’t seem to be too far away, so perhaps this could be the year that titles start to return to Maranello?
Of the rest, Red Bull are probably the only other team in with a realistic shout of shooting down the Silver Arrows, and, with such exciting drivers as Ricciardo and Verstappen on board, anything’s possible, but it seems as though these three teams are some way clear of the incredibly congested midfield pack, and it’ll be interesting to see both which team comes out on top there and how the new boys in Stroll and Vandoorne get on against their vastly more experienced team-mates.

So, that’s the way I see things, but, as ever, I want to get your opinions as well on where the overall championship title will be heading in 2017 – do you think the status quo will be maintained, with Hamilton and Mercedes showing their rivals a clean pair of heels, or do you think the amount of changes in the regulations might allow for someone to emerge from elsewhere and take the fight to the Brit? Comment (either here or on Facebook at Straight from the Motormouth) or vote in the poll below, but, for now, it’s just a question of waiting – the first chapter of the 2017 F1 story is all set to be written in Australia…

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