In part two, Rob Watts looks at the pre-season form of last season’s top five – Force India, Williams, Ferrari, Red Bull, and Mercedes, and suggests who could be the team to beat this year.
WILLIAMS (5th in 2016)
After a low-key first week of testing, Williams made a huge claim to be ‘best of the rest’ with an impressive performance in week two.
Williams lack the resources at present to compete with the likes of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, but fourth place in the constructors’ champions would represent a successful season – especially after the former champions slipped to fifth last year.
The FW40 appears to be easier to drive at the limit compared to some other midfield teams, and looks quick over a single lap too – as Felipe Massa proved by outpacing the Red Bulls during the second test. Over a race distance though, the Williams was found lacking a little, and podiums may be difficult in the early rounds unless teams ahead hit reliability issues.
The team’s controversial driver lineup looks likely to be a talking point – it could be easily be seen as both a strength and a weaknesses this year. Felipe Massa returns after a brief retirement in a move many see as a risk due to his age, but his experience may prove invaluable with a new set of regulations to get on top of.
His teammate, Lance Stroll, brings significant funding but also the potential headache that comes with an inexperienced 18-year old driver.
FORCE INDIA (4th in 2016)
The Silverstone based team delivered its best ever season in 2016, with a team-record points haul, and a highest ever constructors’ championship position of fourth. At the launch of its 2017 car, team boss Vijay Mallya was confident that the team could go one better this year, with star driver Sergio Perez adding that he’d be “disappointed” if they couldn’t.
The team produced a solid, if unspectacular, performance in Barcelona testing, which points to an upper midfield slot once again. There was little to suggest, however, that Force India can fight for victories this season, something they’ll need to do if they are to break into the ‘big three’.
The team did cause a stir in pre-season however, by announcing a major sponsorship deal that turns their car bright pink for this coming season. The deal with water technology specialists BWT is believed to be a significant one, and a further sign of the impressive job Force India have done to attract investment in recent years.
In Sergio Perez, Force India have one of F1’s most consistent performers, and he is believed to have turned down a lucrative offer from Renault to remain with Force India for a fourth straight year. Joining him this season, is new recruit Esteban Ocon. The young Frenchman comes highly rated from Mercedes’ young driver academy, and impressed during a short spell with Manor last year.
In Melbourne, we should see both cars battling for a Q3 position, however, there are some murmurings that the drivers have been asked to shed a few pounds as the VJM10 has come in overweight. A poor performance in Melbourne could prompt an early-season rethink with a major upgrade coming early in the European season.
FERRARI (3rd in 2016)
After a hugely disappointing 2016 season, there are whispers up and down the pit lane that Ferrari may be back. It may seem like we’ve been here before but here’s why I think they may be the team to beat this season.
First of all, they’ve looked well balanced and quick on every tyre – whether it be the ultra-softs for a qualification simulation, or the soft tyre over a race distance.
The setup window on the SF70H appears not to be as narrow as with recent Ferrari’s and the front end seems to be planted and consistent on turn in, characteristics which could well play into Kimi Raikkonen’s hands.
During the first test, Sebastian Vettel was within a few tenths of Valtteri Bottas’ benchmark time, but notably, his time was set on the soft tyre – two steps slower than the compound that Mercedes chose to run on.
Furthermore, Ferrari’s long-run pace put them 0.8s clear of the pack, although Mercedes weren’t running its Melbourne-spec power unit at this point.
The real headlines for Ferrari came on the last two days of the second test. With the teams now focusing primarily on performance runs, Vettel began to show glimpses of the Ferrari’s true potential – deliberately sandbagging in sector three, but showing enough to suggest they could up the pace if required.
On the final day, Kimi Raikkonen decided enough was enough, and promptly put in a 1m 18.7s to go quickest of all – sending out a clear message that Ferrari must be taken seriously this season.
In Melbourne, Ferrari should have enough pace to legitimately fight for pole and the win, but as always, Ferrari’s biggest threat can often be itself. Finally they appear to have the car, but have they learned from last season’s woeful strategy calls?
RED BULL (2nd in 2016)
It’s been a slightly under-whelming debut for the RB13, but the 2017 development race has only just begun and there’s a lot more to come from Red Bull.
Pre-season form suggests that Red Bull probably have the third quickest car, despite being outpaced by Williams during the second test. There are certain indicators too that they will move closer to the front if Renault’s power unit upgrade – planned for Melbourne – works as expected.
Several commentators noted that the RB13’s aero package seemed ‘less complex’ compared to its rivals, but Adrian Newey is likely to be working hard behind the scenes and we should see some new aero parts on the car in Melbourne.
The real concern that Red Bull may have at this point would be in early-season reliability. Renault have produced a completely new power unit for 2017 and the early signs are that a few issues – mainly relating to the MGU-K – are preventing Red Bull from unleashing its full potential.
With Ferrari appearing to have made a major step forward, fans will be hoping Red Bull can get in the mix also and produce the kind of competitive racing we’ve been starved of in recent years. In Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, Red Bull have one of the most exciting driver lineups on the grid, and their intra-team battle will surely be one of the stories of 2017.
MERCEDES (1st in 2016)
Mercedes will start the season as favourites to secure a fourth consecutive constructors’ title, but the signs are they might have to work a little harder this year.
From day one the Mercedes W08 looked strong and ended the first test having completed the most mileage of any team, with Valtteri Bottas quickest overall.
Mercedes opted to bring its Melbourne-spec power unit to the second test, but despite suffering a stop-start first day, Bottas once again topped the times on day two with a run on the super soft tyre.
But that was about as good as it got, with Ferrari leading the way on each of the last two days as several teams switched their focus to performance runs.
Interestingly, Mercedes didn’t complete a race sim during the second test, opting to focus on this during the first test instead. Given that the team ran an upgraded PU in the second test, it’s a little tricky to say for certain where it’s long run pace is compared to Ferrari and Red Bull – although accounting for this, Ferrari do seem to be on par if not slightly ahead of Mercedes over a race distance.
Mercedes clearly still have some pace to unlock, and Hamilton says he is yet to find a setup he is totally comfortable with. Nevertheless, reliability shouldn’t be a concern for the team and the signs are that Mercedes head to Melbourne just slightly behind Ferrari on raw pace, but with potentially more to come.
Off track, there have been some key changes in and out of the cockpit. Valtteri Bottas is an intriguing choice as Lewis Hamilton’s new teammate and it will be interesting to see how his pace compares in the early rounds. There will be a new face on the pit wall too, with highly rated engineer James Allison joining the team as replacement for the experienced Paddy Lowe, who leaves the team to join Williams.
In case you missed it – check out part one of our 2017 F1 Season Preview