‘New’ is the operative word as a whole new season of Formula 1 begins this weekend. Like every season, there are a host of changes made to the rules, cars and teams to make the sport faster and more exciting for fans. But very rarely has a F1 season in recent years begun with such a clean slate.
For starters, there is a new boss, with Liberty Media taking over from Bernie Ecclestone, the man who was the face of the sport for decades. Then there are new regulations which have made the cars and tyres wider in an attempt to narrow the gap between teams, with a potential increase in speed that will knock off up to five seconds from a lap. There have been some more visually striking changes, of which Force India’s pink livery is perhaps the one that stands out, literally.
But one of the most interesting changes this season is the introduction of several new driver-team combinations. Only Red Bull Racing, Ferrari and Toro Rosso are coming into the 2017 season with an unchanged line-up.
With the last-race finale and ensuing drama of the previous season, one of the many differences will be the absence of a reigning champion this year – the first time since 1993 – as Nico Rosberg hung up his boots. Veteran Jenson Button also called it a day, while retiring Felipe Massa got a backdoor entry back.
With such a major reshuffle, many of the vacant seats have been filled by relatively young and potentially exciting drivers. The instant flight of teenage sensation Max Verstappen last year may have potentially led to this development, and this season will see some more talented junior formula drivers, from 18-year-old Lance Stroll to Estaban Ocon and Stoffel Vandoorne (24).
Here’s a look at the 10 teams and their drivers ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
- Mercedes - Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas
- Ferrari - Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen
- Red Bull - Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen
- Force India - Sergio Perez, Estaban Ocon
- Williams - Felipe Massa, Lance Stroll
- McLaren - Fernando Alonso, Stoffel Vandoorne
- Toro Rosso - Carlos Sainz, Daniil Kvyat
- Haas - Romain Grosjean, Kevin Magnussen
- Renault - Nico Hulkenberg, Jolyon Palmer
- Sauber - Marcus Ericsson, Pascal Wehrlein
Mercedes’ team dynamics
The most anticipated among the new team-driver combinations will be Bottas in Mercedes colours. The Finn will be filling in the seat of reigning champion Rosberg and will be racing alongside an extra-motivated, former three-time champion Lewis Hamilton. The circumstances may be overwhelming for most drivers, so it will be interesting to see how the 27-year-old reacts to the pressure and what the dynamic between the duo will be as the season progresses.
Bottas was impressive even with the Williams car and has never been outraced by a colleague in four seasons so far, but fact is that Hamilton is the driver with the most wins on track. If last season’s speculation about sides and leanings in the Mercedes paddock is true, what chance could newcomer Bottas have? On the other hand, can Mercedes uphold their high standards if they let Hamilton go unchallenged? Hamilton and their hitherto superior car might ensure them another Constructor’s Championship but how will the skewed competition impact the sport and its popularity? Toto Wolff and team will have a lot of driver-related decisions to take in the upcoming races.
Another young driver to watch out for is Force India’s Esteban Ocon, a former Formula 3 champion who had beaten Versatppen back in the day. The Mercedes protege raced with Manor last season to fall to the bottom two in the drivers’ standings. He has now got a step up, replacing Nico Hulkenberg, who has moved to Renault. Sergio Perez and Hulkenberg had lead Force India to an unprecedented fourth position last season and with that partnership broken, it remains to be seen how both parties cope up. However, Ocon is a bright prospect so we might just see some more Force India fireworks for podium finishes.
Lance Stroll, who won the 2016 European Formula 3 Championship, will become one of F1’s youngest driver when he debuts in Australia. The teen was to get a Williams seat this season, with Felipe Massa making way. However, Rosberg’s shock retirement meant that Williams’s Bottas went to Mercedes and Massa un-retired to return to his seat, months after his emotional farewell. Now the veteran Massa and rookie Stroll will partner to ensure Williams competes for the mid-table slot, especially the fourth place that was taken over by Force India last season. However, Stroll hasn’t had the best of starts to his season, as he crashed in the testing. Only time will tell how he reacts to his debut in Australia. Can he pull a Vetsappen-like move from the Spanish GP?
Meanwhile, McLaren-Honda will also see a youngster Stoffel Vandoorne take over the seat of Jenson Button. Vandoorne, who had scored points last season at the Bahrain Grand Prix – where he became the first reserve driver to score points on debut since Vettel back in 2007 – will now partner former World Champion Fernando Alonso. It is tough being Alonso, a driver who can coax much from a car stuck in a car that does not give much. The pre-season tests haven’t showed much improvement for the McLaren cars and it will be test of character for both the novice and the old-timer to see how far they can go.
While the sport is being infused with fresh blood in more ways than one, the spotlight also rests on the veterans.
The contenders for the No 2 and No 3 – Ferrari and Red Bull Racing – have been conspicuously unchanged, and understandably so, as they possess four of the most established drivers around, with the exception of Hamilton, Massa, and Alonso (who is incidentally in his 16th year.)
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Australian Daniel Ricciardo, who each won a race last year – the only non-Mercedes drivers – will look for continued competitive consistency and could be far more give a far tougher fight than pre-season times have indicated. Verstappen, still a teenager at 19, has the prodigious potential to be a frontrunner for the title while Ricciardo and his ‘Shoey’ wins can never be counted out.
However, 2016 was a not so great for Ferrari, the traditional giants of the sport with two of the most experienced drivers on the circuit — Vettel and Raikkonen — who could not get a single race win in the 2016 season.
However, Ferrari were the fastest in 2017 pre-season testing, leading to hopes that the Prancing Horses may just be on the winning track. They have the personnel, and if they can get the machine and their men functioning well as a unit, they can give Mercedes a run for their money this season. Which fan wouldn’t want to see the original reds racing to the podium?
The other team-driver changes include Kevin Magnussen joining Romain Grosjean at Haas after leaving Renault, and Pascal Wehrlein moves from Manor to Sauber to partner with Marcus Ericsson.
How these drivers respond to the 20-race long season with the new cars and new rules remains to be seen, but it is these 20 men that will have to be up to speed to usher Formula 1 into a new era of higher competitive levels and higher viewership. Over to Australia!