We’re just a few weeks away from the first car launches of the 2017 F1 season. What does the year ahead have in store for us? Here are ten of the big talking points.
How much quicker will the cars be?
Formula One has set the target of a five-second per lap improvement compared to times at the Circuit de Catalunya in 2015 for its new cars. Wider tyres and wings, longer bargeboards and larger diffusers give engineers plenty of scope to go hunting lap records.
However faster car could have knock-on effects which may prove difficult to manage. Already the FIA has begun getting in touch with circuits to brief them on safety changes which will be needed as a result of the anticipated hike in cornering speeds.
The role of driver fitness will also come under greater scrutiny, particularly at hot venues such as Sepang and Singapore. We’ll also discover whether it was true that more young drivers were able to come into the sport because cars had become easier to drive. The progress of 18-year-old newcomer Lance Stroll, fresh out of Formula Three, will be particularly interesting.
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Do faster cars mean better racing?
There is a great deal of pessimism about what F1’s new rules will mean for the competition this year. The more downforce you add, the harder it is for cars to follow each other and the less compelling the racing is.
Lewis Hamilton is one of several drivers who’ve endorsed this view. “They’re talking about giving us more aerodynamics which for me is like the worst idea,” he said while the rules were still being debated. “It just shows for me that they don’t really know what they’re trying to solve.”
Will it really be that bad? Another anticipated consequence of the downforce hike is that drivers will be able to take more corners flat-out. This would effectively create longer ‘straights’, potentially giving them more chance to close on a rival. But the true effect will vary between circuits and make take several races or even a full season to properly evaluate.
Will Pirelli’s tyres be up to the job?
After six years of ‘designed to degrade’ tyres, Pirelli have a new brief for 2016. Drivers have demanded rubber which allows them to push harder lap after lap.
On top of that there’s the added stresses of much greater cornering speeds. It all adds up to F1’s official tyre supplier needing a much tougher product for the year ahead.
Will they be up to the demands? A series of tyre failures in recent years, notably at Silverstone in 2013 and Spa in 2015, prompted ever-tighter restrictions on how teams can use their tyres. Drivers have been infuriated by high minimum pressures further restricting the performance of their cars, and engineers have endeavoured to get around the limits.
Whether Formula One’s latest technical overhaul succeeds or fails could be decided entirely by whether its tyres are up to the job.
Will Mercedes be caught?
Mercedes have dominated the last three seasons in a manner which no team before them has been able to achieve. Out of the last 59 races they’ve won a staggering 51. Sustaining that level of performance for a fourth consecutive season will be a tall order.
Encouragingly for their rivals, Mercedes face several key challenges to doing this. Reigning champion Nico Rosberg is no longer on the scene and his replacement has never won a grand prix before.
They’ve also lost their top technical chief, Paddy Lowe. This comes at a time when the teams are responding to a major change in the aerodynamic regulations. During the off-season the FIA has also issued new guidance on the suspension regulations which is believed to address an area where Mercedes were finding an advantage.
These changes could slightly weaken Mercedes in a number of areas. But their key strength – that superb power unit – is likely to remain unaffected, and could be what keeps them ahead.
Is Bottas a Kovalainen, a Rosberg – or even better?
Hamilton’s defeat to Rosberg last year was something few expected 12 months ago. Though Hamilton undoubtedly lost a lot of points through no fault of his own, the Rosberg of 2015 or 2014 probably wouldn’t have been competitive enough to take advantage of it.
Will his replacement be? Valtteri Bottas has a good chunk of F1 experience and has never been beaten by a team mate yet. But he’s never had a top-drawer team mate or a top-drawer car. His ability to withstand the cut-and-thrust of racing at the front and the pressure of a potential championship scenario is untested.
Comparisons will inevitably be drawn with Heikki Kovalainen, Hamilton’s only prior Finnish team mate and now the only driver he’s been paired with who hasn’t won a world championship.
Another win-less year for F1’s big two?
Two of F1’s oldest and greatest teams are going through lean periods. McLaren hasn’t won a race for four years and Ferrari has been win-less in two of the last three campaigns.
What are the chances of this changing in 2017? McLaren are heading into their third season with Honda power and though significant gains were clearly made last year they still weren’t contenders for the podium. At best they might hope to be in with a chance of winning a wet race this year.
As for Ferrari, the team doesn’t look in great shape on paper. The traditional weakness in terms of their aerodynamic development remained last year and the mid-season departure of James Allison cannot help that. There are signs of them lapsing into the old bad habits of too much interference from the management. But the red team is never to be underestimated.
If either or neither of these teams are in race-winning shape by the end of the season, expect profound changes on the driver market. Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen’s contracts are all up for renewal at year’s end.
Will Halo ever happen?
When testing begins at the end of the month it will be a full year since we first saw an F1 car with a Halo device. However the FIA’s attempt to improve head protection for drivers is not going well.
Halo was originally supposed to be mandatory on this year’s F1 cars. However F1’s Strategy Group decided to postpone its introduction to 2018.
Will this actually happen? At the time the FIA’s safety delegate Charlie Whiting insisted Halo was “clearly adopted for 2018” though the FIA only described it as a “strong option”. Sebastian Vettel insisted it was supported by 95% of drivers in the middle of last year but a recent survey suggests many now oppose it.
Where does that leave Halo? Potentially as a key battleground for the year ahead, and a test of how the sport’s new owners value safety against aesthetics.
How will Liberty make their presence felt?
Longer calendar? Improved digital media coverage? Better deals for smaller teams?
The priorities of Formula One’s new owners will set the direction of the sport for the coming years. Hopes are high after a decade of CVC sucking billions while contributing nothing.
But it could take time for Liberty’s priorities to solidify into real change. And will fans like what they see when it comes? Whatever the outcome, the promise of change is in the air.
Meanwhile the sport remains under threat of investigation from the European Union for anti-competitive following the complaint lodged by Sauber and Force India in 2015. Could a move in their direction by Liberty be sufficient to persuade either or both of the teams to drop the case?
What is Bernie Ecclestone’s next move?
Bernie Ecclestone had been at the helm of Formula One for so long, and amassed so much power, that the suddenness of his departure caught many by surprise.
He had mastered the art of finding new buyers for the sport yet continuing to call the shots regardless of who owner it. But an ‘honorary’ position within Liberty was not for him, and so a three-man team headed by Chase Carey have taken over his responsibilities.
Will Ecclestone launch an audacious bid to reclaim his sport? Does he have some devious means of reasserting control over Formula One? Or is he about to pop up as the newest member of Donald Trump’s inner circle? It’s hard to imagine him settling down for a quiet retirement.
How will lifting of engine development restrictions change F1?
The ‘token’ system was introduced in 2014 in an attempt to limit the escalation in costs as a result of the new engine formula. It worked by slowing the rate at which teams could introduce updates to their power units.
However the system came up fire as Mercedes enjoying a huge performance advantage over their rivals. It was blamed for slowing the rate at which Ferrari and the rest could catch them.
Three years on Mercedes still enjoy a healthy advantage in the power unit stakes. So for 2017 the restrictions on engine development have been eased.
Will that help Mercedes’ rivals catch them more quickly? Or will Mercedes cancel out their gains by making progress of their own? And how quickly will the updates trickle down to the smaller teams? This may prove a recipe for increasing costs while making the field less competitive as a whole.
Over to you
What are the big questions you have of the season ahead? How do you think these will be answered?
Have your say in the comments.
2017 F1 season
- Stripping Verstappen of 2017 US podium was “one of the toughest decisions” – steward
- Sepang pays Haas compensation for Grosjean’s 2017 crash
- Williams revenues rose in 2017 after Bottas deal with Mercedes
- New kerbs at COTA in response to Verstappen’s corner-cutting
- Australian Grand Prix cost government £56 million last year