The new Formula One season is just around the corner. Lights Out takes a look at the stories which could shape the 71st season of the pinnacle of motorsport.
Who will win the Drivers’ Title?
The safe money would probably be on Lewis Hamilton taking his fourth title at this point. But, as we know with Formula One, anything can happen. There’s no guarantee that Mercedes will still be the team to beat, at least judging from Ferrari’s pace in Winter Testing, and even if they are, Hamilton coul be usurped by his new team-mate. Could the Red Bull duo of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen mount a real challenge for their first titles? Or could anyone else spring a surprise campaign for the 2017 title?
Who will win the Constructors’ Title?
Is the Mercedes era of dominance over? You certainly get the feeling that the time has come for a shake up of the order – but who’ll be there to challenge? Ferrari look like the main contenders, but you can never quite rule Red Bull out. McLaren were on an impressive upward trend in 2016, though progress seems to have firmly halted. While Mercedes are still likely to be strong, the quest for every tenth to beat their rivals could lead them to reliability issues. Whichever way it goes, expect a closer battle at the top of the Constructors’ Championship than we have seen in recent years.
How will Valtteri Bottas get on at Mercedes?
The expectation is that Lewis Hamilton will have the upper hand on his new team-mate Valtteri Bottas. Though perhaps some are underestimating the Finn. He consistently beat his more experienced team-mate Felipe Massa in Qualifying throughout their time together at Williams, and he delivered everything that the car would allow him to in the races, bringing home Williams’ only podium finish of 2016 in Montreal. Rated highly by compatriot and double World Champion Mika Hakkinen, some believe Bottas’ talent is on par with, or even better than, Nico Rosberg’s. If it gets to the point where Bottas and Hamilton are head-to-head for the title, Hamilton may have the upper hand as he has experience of fighting for titles, whereas Bottas doesn’t.
Lewis and Momentum
Lewis Hamilton has the opportunity this season to become the defining driver of his generation. If he wins in Baku, he will have taken at least one win at every track on the current calendar. As he celebrates his 200th Grand Prix when F1 heads to Belgium in August, Hamilton could by then have taken the record for the most poles in the history of the sport. He needs eight fastest laps in qualifying to take that title.
A Weaker Mercedes?
Mercedes have lost two key personnel over the winter – reigning World Champion Nico Rosberg has retired from the sport and Executive Director Paddy Lowe has moved to Williams. Will the team be weaker as a result as a result of their readjustment to life after these departures?
Fernando vs Stoffel
The situation at McLaren this year will be interesting. With Fernando Alonso reaching the conclusion of his career but still very talented and very determined to perform, battling against Stoffel Vandoorne, a newcomer with a highly impressive CV. Some liken the situation to the one Fernando found himself in at McLaren in 2007 when Lewis Hamilton arrived in the sport. Regardless of McLaren’s relative pace, the qualifying battle between this pair throughout the season will be intriguing to keep an eye on.
Alonso has said that his future in the sport depends on how much he enjoys the new 2017 cars. He’s already been pretty damning of the current situation McLaren and Honda find themselves in. Will McLaren come good and give Fernando reason to stick around, or will he be heading to pastures new in 2018?
Will we see Jenson Button in 2017?
What if Fernando grew increasingly tired of trailing around near the back of the field half way through the season? Could we see a return of the 2009 Champion to the cockpit of the McLaren? And if he’s not in a car, will we see him about at any of the races on TV? Button does have a contract with McLaren for 2018, so it will be interesting to see if the ‘sabbatical’ becomes full time retirement by the end of the season.
Will the cars really be 5 seconds faster?
We’ve seen lots of estimations of how much quicker per lap the cars will be in 2017, but no one can know for certain until the drivers head out for Qualifying in Melbourne. Estimations have ranged from three to seven seconds and circuits have been asked to improve safety measures as a result of the increased speeds. In Winter Testing, lap times around Catalunya were already over three seconds faster than they were in qualifying in 2016 – but there was plenty of sandbagging going on.
Will there be more overtaking?
Faster cars, more downforce, less cornering time. All this points to one thing – less overtaking. Will races become more processional? Perhaps leave it a few races before making a judgement on this one…
The McLaren Comeback
A new livery, but the same old problems. Can McLaren, and more importantly Honda, fight back over the course of the season as the development race heats up? Or will the team be searching for a new engine supplier before the end of the season? How much longer will McLaren be willing to wait if the Honda engine doesn’t start improving?
The Impact of Liberty Media
With the recent addition of France to the calendar for 2018, Liberty Media have remained adamant that the ‘heritage’ races are important to Formula One’s calendar and they’ll do everything they can to ensure they remain. Will we see any more changes to F1’s social media presence as Liberty take charge? Teams and drivers were allowed to post track-side videos more freely at Winter Testing. We may also hear some of Liberty’s plans for 2018 as this season progresses, and they could be controversial. Ross Brawn has previously hinted that he wants to do away with DRS, so expect that to be a talking point over the next few months.
Did Hulkenberg make the right decision?
Nico Hulkenberg is a highly rated and now very experienced driver. If he doesn’t finish in the top three before the Singapore Grand Prix, he will be in the unenviable position of becoming the man to have competed in the most Grands Prix without standing on the rostrum. The Le Mans winner moves to Renault this year but isn’t too hopeful of the team scoring many points. Will Renault and the German sneak in a surprise result?
Was Massa’s comeback the correct decision?
Felipe Massa didn’t want to retire but was forced out by the signing of Lance Stroll. When Valtteri Bottas moved to Mercedes, Massa made the decision to come back quite easily. Will he have another lacklustre year, like in 2016, or will new regulations give the Brazilian a new lease of life like we saw in 2014?
Alternate FRIC systems have already caused a rumble after a letter to the FIA from Ferrari asked for clarification on Mercedes’ and Red Bull’s devices. Brawn GP found the double diffuser in 2009 as the result of a loophole in the regulations. Will anyone have been equally clever this season?
The Meteoric Rise of Max Verstappen
After a mid-season switch to the second best team in 2016, he took his debut win. How many more will come his way in 2017 in a car that is set to be even more competitive than it was last year? Verstappen could become the youngest ever polesitter in Formula One if he takes pole at any Grand Prix this year.
Driver of the Day
Will Max Verstappen take a clean sweep in 2017? Probably.
Verstappen vs Ricciardo
Will it stay friendly between the Red Bull team-mates? Tensions bubbled at Malaysia and Mexico last year, but the pair have stayed on good terms. Their relaxed personalities mean that they’ll probably able to leave what happens on track at the track. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how their relationship develops during their second season as team-mates.
The Halo Argument
The Halo looks set to be introduced in 2018, despite controversial views on the device. Many fans and a few of the drivers fear that it will take away some of the appeal of the open-wheel formula. Whether or not it will be introduced in 2018, and the argument surrounding it, will be a story to watch throughout the year.
Kimi Raikkonen’s good form.
Kimi Raikkonen out-qualified his team-mate more often than not in 2016 and seemed to be a better all round driver than he had been since he rejoined the Ferrari team in 2014. Will it continue in 2017, a decade on from his championship victory?
The Driver Market
Kimi Raikkonen will be key to the 2017/2018 Silly Season, as will his Ferrari team-mate Sebastian Vettel, who is out of contract at the end of this season. Elsewhere Fernando Alonso could become available, while Valterri Bottas’ place at Mercedes is not guaranteed beyond 2017. There will be the usual mid-field suspects looking for their shot at a top team, and these stories could be pivotal during the second half of the season.
How Will Lance Stroll fare?
His fathers’ money may have bought him his way into the sport, but the Canadian showed promise in junior categories. Will that translate in his debut season at the pinnacle of motorsport? Or will he have some catching up to do? The spotlight will likely be on the 18 year old over the coming months.
Kvyat vs Sainz
In 2017, Toro Tosso have their most experienced driver line-up in their twelve season history. Carlos Sainz starts his third season with the team while Daniil Kvyat begins his fourth in F1. Sainz scored 46 points for the team in 2017, while Kvyat scored just four after being demoted from Red Bull after the fifth round of the season. Will Kvyat’s form in 2017 be enough to secure him for another, or indeed a full, season? The team has 2016 GP2 Champion Pierre Gasly knocking at their door.
Toro Rosso and Renault
Toro Rosso start their third consecutive season having changed engine suppliers. How will their rekindled relationship with Renault progress, and will we now see more links between the Italian team and their sister Red Bull team?
Williams vs Force India
Williams and Force India were engaged in a titanic season long battle for fourth in the Constructors’ Championship in 2016. This season, they may once again find themselves in a similar battle. There are a lot of similarities between the two teams. Both use Mercedes power units and both teams have a mix of experience and youth. Force India ended up ahead at the end of last year, but Williams’ initial pace in Winter Testing has been impressive. Williams have also recently appointed Paddy Lowe, whose presence Claire Williams has referred to as a ‘game changer’.
The Briton had a trying first season in the sport, but he certainly improved as it went on. In GP2 it also took him a while to find his feet, but he eventually became the champion of the feeder series in 2014. How will he fare against the more experienced, and also former GP2 champion, Nico Hulkenberg at Renault this year?
A Difficult Second Season For Haas?
Haas had a dream start to their first season in 2016 as Romain Grosjean finished in sixth and fifth in the opening two rounds. From there, things never came as good again for the American team, who struggled with braking issues throughout the season. With the new addition of Kevin Magnussen to the team, Haas have a pair of proven points winning drivers which could help their battle in the Constructors’ Championship. It may not be plain sailing however, as Haas have the notorious difficult second season on the horizon.
A shock result?
A new set of regulations usually sets us up for a few surprise results throughout the season. Aero changes in 2009 saw Brawn GP become the surprise champions, while Toyota and Force India took surprise pole positions. Will we see anything similar in 2017?
For the early races at least, tyre strategy will be vital. Paul Hembrey has recently spoken about the testing which some of the teams participated in 2016 with the larger 2017 tyres on the cars. He said: “The problem we have got is that we have been testing with cars that are five seconds slower than what we’re actually going to see in Barcelona. From a compounding aspect, it is a bit of a challenge for us because it’s a very small window we’re working with. If the numbers aren’t what we have been told they are going to be, then we might have been a bit too conservative.” There’s no knowledge of exactly how fast the cars will actually be and little knowledge of how long the tyres will actually last. This could lead to some interesting strategy decisions throughout the grid for the early part of the season.
More Tired Drivers
The physical challenge of driving the cars in 2017 will be much higher than it has been in recent years. With faster cornering speeds, the drivers’ necks will be truly tested throughout the season. Reigning champion Nico Rosberg expects drivers to be on the limit, and says there’s a possibility that some could lose race wins through fatigue. Could we see scenes reminiscent of Nigel Mansell passing out as he pushed his car across the finish line in Dallas in 1984?
The Development Race
Perhaps crucial to winning this years’ Constructors Championship will be the rate of development of the cars throughout the season. With the regulation changes, the cars we’ve seen are very much launch cars; a blank canvas for the teams to develop and unlock more potential as the season goes on. Whoever gets those developments right, both with the engine and the aerodynamics, will likely end up the champions in November. We could see the favourite team after the first race become the third favourites by the end of the year.