The wait is finally over, F1 has arrived in Melbourne, and we’re days away from the start of the 2017 season. It’s all change this year too, on a number of fronts – new rules, new cars, new tyres, and a few new faces too.
Here are a few of the key stories to follow in the build up to this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix.
A new look for Formula 1
This year, F1 cars will look radically different to those we’ve gotten used to seeing over the past eight years. We can expect to see wider cars, bigger tyres, more grip and lap times up to FIVE SECONDS faster than last year. In fact, early simulations suggest these new generation of cars could be the fastest ever.
Not only do the cars look faster, and more aggressive, but they’ll also be tougher and more physical to drive – something the drivers have been particularly pleased about in pre-season testing. Reigning world champion, Nico Rosberg, believes that the physical challenge of driving these cars at the limit could result in drivers losing races due to fatigue.
Judging by the endless gym photos we’ve seen on Instagram, the drivers are taking their preparation this year very seriously!
A new teammate for Lewis Hamilton
Just days after the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Nico Rosberg caught us all off-guard by announcing his retirement from Formula 1. Apparently, no less than 26 drivers made contact with Toto Wolff in the days following that announcement, to offer their services as teammate to Lewis Hamilton.
In the end, Wolff decided to offer Williams driver Valtteri Bottas the vacant seat – putting an end to weeks of speculation that Mercedes might lure Fernando away from McLaren. Bottas has looked quick during testing, and the team have spoken of just how well he and Hamilton are getting on (well they would, wouldn’t they?).
Hamilton is not renowned for being the easiest teammate, and some people have suggested that Bottas lacks the raw pace to deal with the three-time champ, so it will be fascinating to see just how well he performs this weekend on his debut race for the team.
Is Ferrari now the team to beat?
Ferrari endured a torrid time last season, failing to win a single race as Mercedes romped to its third straight constructors crown. This year, there is a genuine feeling that Ferrari has made significant progress and that Mercedes might not have it all its own way.
The Ferrari looked quick on each different tyre compound it ran during pre-season testing, and comfortably topped the times on the last two days. Mercedes looked mightily quick too, and analysis of each car’s lap times suggests the two are very closely matched right now.
Despite being F1’s most successful team, Ferrari hasn’t won a constructors’ title since 2008, and it’s ten years now since Kimi Raikkonen won the team’s most recent drivers’ title in 2007. With pressure mounting on team boss Maurizio Arrivabene, Ferrari must deliver this year, and for the sake of the sport, we’re hoping it can too.
Could Red Bull spring a surprise in Melbourne?
Red Bull have had a fairly low-key pre-season by its usually high standards, but despite some suggestions that the team are a little behind on pace, Red Bull should not be underestimated this weekend.
The team finally seem to be happy with the performance levels of it rebadged Renault power unit, and in Adrian Newey, they can boast to have F1’s foremost designer of the past two decades. If there’s anything that brings the best out of Adrian Newey, it’s a rules change, and he’ll be relishing the challenge that 2017 has presented.
There are a few reliability concerns to resolve, but if Renault’s power unit upgrade delivers this weekend, Red Bull should be right in the mix.
Has Melbourne come too soon for Lance Stroll?
Young Lance has received a fair degree of criticism ahead of his debut race this weekend. Part of that stems from the fact that he’s seen as a ‘pay driver’ due to significant financial support he receives from his billionaire father.
His pre-season progress was hampered by a series of off-track excursions – twice spinning the car, before a crash that damaged the car, and cost the Williams team a day of running. Stroll has shaken the incident off and seems unphased by his critics, but behind close doors he’ll surely be hoping for a smooth weekend in Melbourne. It will be interesting to see how he fairs against Massa too. Stroll comes highly rated after dominating the Euro F3 championship last year, and beating Massa – himself a nine-time Grand Prix winner – would do wonders for his confidence.
At the tender age of 18 years and five months, he will be the second youngest driver ever to start a Grand Prix, but despite his impressive junior record, has Williams taken too great a risk by promoting him so soon?
Can it get any worse for McLaren?
Judging by its performance in pre-season testing, this weekend could be painful for McLaren. I was in Melbourne to witness the team’s first race back with Honda – the 2015 Australian Grand Prix – and as bad as that was, I fear this could be even worse.
It’s rumoured that McLaren has only completed around 30% of the development work they had planned during testing, and the team completed the fewest laps of any team. Tensions between McLaren and Honda are at an all-time high, and both Fernando Alonso and team chief Eric Boullier have both publicly criticised the Japanese manufacturer.
Honda has said that they are working on a fix for its issues, but with the team’s longest trouble-free stint so far coming in at only 11 laps, it’s clear there is a lot of work still do in a very short space of time. If the can qualify off the back-row, as depressing as that sounds, it will probably be seen as a minor achievement given the mess it is in.
A war of words in the midfield
There’s an unexpected new rivalry brewing that could spice up the midfield this season. It began with Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul suggesting that ‘poor teams’ such as Force India could struggle if the new regulations result in an F1 ‘arms race’ this season.
Force India boss Vijay Mallya was less than pleased when speaking at the launch of his team’s new car and said “He might have to eat his words. It’s not the amount of arms you have; it’s the quality of your weaponry.”
Mallya has high expectations for his team this season, and suggests that third place in the constructors’ championship must be its aim. Renault on the other hand, are recovering after a dreadful 2016 and set fifth place as its target.
The midfield looks tight this year, with several teams appearing to have progressed during the winter. We could well see Force India and Renault scrapping for the last spots in Q3 come Saturday, so make sure to keep an eye on what’s happening a little further down the order.