With the new season about to kick off, Rob Watts takes a closer look at each team to see what shape they’re in heading to Melbourne. In part one, the focus is on Sauber, Renault, Haas, Toro Rosso, and McLaren.
SAUBER (10th in 2016)
After a dreadful 2016 season, 2017 represents a transitional year for the Swiss team, but the expectation is that they’ll once again be at or near to the back of the grid. After struggling with a lack of funding for several years, there is some renewed hope that the team’s long-term future is secure, with backing from Swiss-based investment company Longbow Finance.
This has allowed Sauber to strengthen its technical team, with recent key hires including highly rated race strategist Ruth Buscombe, ex-Toro Rosso race engineer Xevi Pujolar, and former Audi WEC technical chief Jorg Zander.
Despite the introduction of new technical regulations this year, Sauber made the somewhat strange decision to stick with a 2016-spec Ferrari power unit this season, offering the reason that keeping with the older design would allow the team to put greater focus on its aero package. Pre-season testing showed that despite lacking in pace, the new Sauber car is at least reliable; the team recorded the fourth highest mileage of all and over 1,000km more than struggling McLaren.
An intriguing driver pairing sees Marcus Ericsson return to partner the highly-rated Pascal Wehrlein – the German will no doubt have a point to prove after being overlooked for the vacant Mercedes drive.
RENAULT (9th in 2016)
There was a degree of optimism surrounding Renault’s 2017 car launch, with team principal Cyril Abiteboul claiming that the French team should “easily” beat the likes of Haas and Force India this season. Fast forward a few weeks, and that bullish optimism seems to have evaporated.
MGU-K issues limited the team’s testing mileage, with Jolyon Palmer describing his second week of testing as “rubbish” while new recruit Nico Hulkenberg believes points in the early rounds will be “difficult”. Unlike Honda, Renault does appear to have a grasp on its technical gremlins with an update already scheduled for Melbourne.
Despite reliability concerns, the team did manage to turn in some quick laps during testing, so there is pace in the car to unlock. We should expect to see Renault fighting with the upper midfield in Melbourne, most likely on the outskirts of Q3 unless its power unit upgrade is a significant one.
HAAS (8th in 2016)
Building on an impressive debut season was always going to be difficult for Haas, especially with a new set of technical regulations to contend with. But if pre-season testing is anything to go by, Haas has produced a very solid car for its sophomore year. Sixth overall on pre-season mileage demonstrates that its new car is reliable; however, the team have suffered a few niggles, with a reoccurrence of last year’s brake issues being one of them.
A new driver partnership sees Kevin Magnussen join the team to partner last year’s star performer, Romain Grosjean. Q2 should be easily achievable in Melbourne, and Haas will likely slot into the midfield along with the likes of Toro Rosso and Renault. Points will be the target, but with the loss of talented race strategist Ruth Buscombe, a repeat of last year’s early season heroics are unlikely.
TORO ROSSO (7th in 2016)
The Red Bull junior squad produced one of the most striking liveries on the grid this year and a car that looks very well designed. After a slow start, Toro Rosso came good in the second test – doubling its lap count from week one and posting the fifth fastest time of the winter (although this was on a low fuel run).
In the cockpit, the impressive Carlos Sainz returns for a third season, hoping to catch the attention of the big teams. He’ll be paired once again with Daniil Kvyat, who will be aiming to bounce back following his demotion from Red Bull last year.
Pace-wise, we should expect to see both Toro Rosso’s comfortably through to Q2 in Melbourne, but a Q3 appearance appears a stretch too far at this stage. That somewhat depends, however, on the performance of Renault’s power unit upgrade scheduled for that weekend. Franz Tost admitted that reliability may be a “weak point” for the team early on.
MCLAREN (6th in 2016)
Three years in and the McLaren-Honda relationship couldn’t be more on the rocks right now. Repeated technical failures during pre-season meant that McLaren ended up with the least mileage of any team in testing, and used more power units than it is allocated for the entire season. This prompted Fernando Alonso’s quote that the Honda power unit had neither power nor reliability and that everyone was ready to win “except Honda”.
Away from the circuit, fans were treated to a new look as McLaren revived their classic ‘orange’ look of the sixties (albeit with a modern twist), but despite the PR that generated, the new car is woefully lacking in sponsors – something new chief Zak Brown will be working hard to change.
With such limited trouble-free running, Melbourne looks likely to be an extended test session for McLaren. The team have done well to put a brave face on the situation, but it’s clear that some senior figures at Woking are now running out of patience. It’s difficult to say with any degree of confidence how quick the MCL32 is, but testing would suggest a Q2 appearance is unlikely, and finishing the race perhaps even less so.
Fernando Alonso has a new partner for 2017, with the highly rated Stoffel Vandoorne coming in for the retiring Jenson Button. Alonso claims he is still the best out there, and while he may be right, he’ll have to keep an eye on his young teammate who will be one to watch this coming season.
Don’t miss part two of our 2017 F1 Season Preview