With 2017 around the corner, us F1 fans can finally feel like we've got a life again. The painful winter hibernation is at an end and new year can finally begin. It can often be hard to see between some very blurred lines in the testing times, however we are here to help by suggesting what you need to look for when analysing the new cars and the inevitable new pecking order.
The reigning double World Champions will have one sole focus, to stay at the front. New regulations and a new driver lineup both have potential to derail the success of the Silver Arrows, however I feel they'll fare fine. The aim for this test will be to do as much mileage as possible and like all teams, to collect valuable aero data. Lewis Hamilton will know how to extract a win from a car and will be using his laps to help develop his 2017 challenger.
For Valtteri Bottas, however, it will be more a case of getting laps under his belt to try and get a greater knowledge of his team. It is worth noting the Williams car Bottas previously piloted was a very low drag package, whereas the Mercedes will not be as extremely low drag,
This will be a challenge for Valtteri. However, this is something he should pick up easily as he is a consistent driver - similar in his racecraft to that of his predecessor and World Champion Nico Rosberg,.but with a tendency to make more ballsy moves than his predecessor ever did.
Mercedes have a stunning driver lineup and will be surely near the top of the pack. This year will be solely racking the miles up to understand their car enough to truly get the best deal possible for both of the drivers come Australia.
After yet another season of promising starts and underwhelming endings, patience will be wearing thin for the Scuderia faithful. While this year may be the 10th anniversary since Kimi Raikkonen's title (the last one won by a Ferrari driver), it will be incredibly difficult to bridge the gap to their rivals for 2017.
The focus for pre-season will be to test their Power Unit and to see if they've closed the gap to Mercedes. Not only this they need to get a solid aero package which can bring both their drivers to the front of the grid. The drivers won't need much adjustment to new regulations and as a result can just focus on completing lap after lap to help get data and crucially test their reliability.
Another candidate for strongest driver lineup, Ferrari will need to do some race simulations in order to practice strategy and allow their World Champions to truly shine and unlock all the potential of the 2017 car.
Red Bull Racing:
If you were going to place a bet on the best chassis on the F1 grid you'd probably put your house on Red Bull. Famous for fantastic aero they should once more excel under a grid shakeup. It was clear from 2014 they had a strong car but a poor engine, as the once giants of F1 needed to endure a tough patch before they once again returned to the forefront of the sport.
Despite Renault saying they cannot max out 1000 bhp for 2017, Red Bull will he praying this doesn't mean they're underpowered once-more as the strength of an engine has proved the difference in the title fight many years in the past. Perhaps more than data Red Bull need to help Renault on reliability. Just ask Hamilton or Massa and they'll tell you engine failure in Malaysia and Hungary respectively can cost you titles.
Even more problematic for the Red Bull team is Renault's recent history for unreliable hybrid engines, which as we said earlier have been viewed as very weak especially compared to their rivals.
Despite this, they appeared on a small resurgence in 2016 and long may that continue to help us get a great fight in 2017.
The final candidates for strongest driver lineup will be sure to fight for supremacy. With Max Verstappen's gutsy racing instinct and Daniel Ricciardo's strategic prowess (assuming they don't demote anyone this year), Red Bull will be looking to do more than mop up Mercedes issues and establish themselves at the head of the grid once again.
Force India have developed a reputation for building solid packages on a shoestring budget. The new aero regulations then should help Force India maintain their push for the top 4. Not only does last year’s fourth place finish show the team's technical clout, but it also brings increased prize money to build their 2017 challenger.
The must for Force India this season is to show the world that Esteban Ocon was the right choice to replace Renault-bound Nico Hulkenberg. Few in the paddock were convinced that Ocon was ready for the step up after a mere half season at the top level, especially when fellow Mercedes junior Pascal Wehrlein had a stellar opening season in the Manor and was widely touted for the vacant seat. Ocon, however, is not going to be faced with the pressure of a top drive and will be looking to show his pace from the off compared to his talented, podium-scoring team mate Sergio Perez. For them the first test will be a case of getting both drivers up to speed with the new regulations and making sure they can both grind out the top 5 finishes expected of Force India drivers.
The team making all the headlines for 2017, Williams had an underwhelming 2016 season and will be looking to bounce forward under new aero (similarly as they did in 2014). Although Bottas has left, they have an exciting new driver in Lance Stroll alongside the experienced Felipe Massa.
In 2017 Massa's experience will prove vital in developing the car for this season and beyond. As much as the first test will provide Stroll a chance to shrug off his 'pay-driver' label, we would expect Massa to do most of the vital long running time which will give the team the feedback required to move into round 1. Overall expect Williams to be back near the top 4 and will be hoping to rack up the mileage needed to prepare for another one of F1's lengthy seasons.
Sister team to Red Bull, Toro Rosso will be once more hoping to emerge from the obscurity of their parents. They have a talented driver pair of Carlos Sainz Jr (who is expected to secure an elite drive for the 2018 season) and Daniil Kvyat (who showed in 2015 and at times last season his true pace). Kvyat will be looking to regain his confidence and his stance in the paddock after the demotion last season.
Unlike last year where Toro Rosso had a 12-month-old engine, this season they'll have equal power to the top Renault powered teams. This combined with the usual high standard of chassis developed by Italy's second team should see the transition back into regular Q3 and points scorers. The focus for pre-season then will be to gather all the data requirements and collect vital feedback which will allow the team to build the cars to their drivers specifications.
The Honda works team have inevitably being pushing hard to reduce the power deficit they have had compared to their rivals since arriving in 2015. The power struggle between Honda and McLaren has previously boiled over to the point it has been counter-intuitive for both sides with both parties claiming the other was at fault for the team's underachievement in recent years.
With new regulations comes new responsibility though and for both sides improvements will be needed should McLaren be fulfilling the promise a team of its size should have.
For pre-season it will be a case of righting the previous wrongs such as weak engines and appalling reliability. The long runs will help unleash the true pace of the car and in the capable hands of Fernando Alonso and the Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne (who aptly scored points on his debut as Alonso's replacement an last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix) they need not worry about too many accidents. All that the fans want is to see McLaren back on top and to be able to talk about their success rather than if the next car will be orange or not. All we need to find out is whether 2017 will be the year that at least one of those will come true.
Haas F1 Team:
After a stellar debut season in F1, the American outfit will be looking to build on their successful start to life in the sport and have invested in a driver lineup to be envious of. Few would deny Romain Grosjean's talent and Kevin Magnussen showed his caliber in both 2014 compared to Jenson Button and last season to score points in a Renault which was largely uncompetitive.
With many parts from Ferrari it should be a solid car for 2017. However, with a lot of key components manufactured across the pond it will rely on some strong work from the American fraction of the team. The mileage shouldn't be too much of an issue should the car stay reliable, however if pre-season proves a torturous time for Haas, then the distance between factory and car could cause problems in terms of round 1’s preparation.
The key test for Haas will be in-season development. They started incredibly strongly last year with Grosjean collecting some unbelievable results in the early flyaway races. By the end of the season though the car plateaued and both Grosjean and Gutierrez found points hard to come by, epitomised by the sheer shock of a Q3 appearance in Brazil, This mentality, however, cannot be accepted if Haas want to gain ground on the pack and although we can't see whether this will have changed in the opening half, the work done over the off-season will be a crucial eye-opener into how they will develop over the course of this year.
Renault F1 Team:
The team predicted to make the biggest leap up the order this season/ Renault aborted development of their 2016 challenger remarkably early, many feeling that the work was shifted to the 2017 car. After months of anticipation and development, the team and fans alike will be looking to bound up the grid. Pre-season will be a key time for the French outfit. Hopes of an engine to match the Ferrari's and Mercedes cars will once more falter should their rivals make the 1000 bhp mark. But if not then they could well be ready for a new season and a return to the top, to the midfield at worst.
While in terms of drivers Hulkenberg is a man who is on a par with Magnussen, the key dispute is that of his team mate, Jolyon Palmer, who was retained by the team despite a distinctly average debut season in which he earned more critics than supporters. The next challenge for him is to show his hand against Hulkenberg, a well respected driver, and to challenge the points places next season on a regular basis. If he can show some speed in Catalunya it could well be the first and biggest step towards converting his doubters into believers.
Sauber F1 Team:
The team many expect to be the foot of the grid, points will be hard to come by for a team running a distinctly average Ferrari engine - a second-hand and year-old one at that. Toro Rosso managed this issue last season with a strong chassis and front-loaded points in the early races. Sauber will need to do likewise should they wish to avoid the foot of the grid this season.
Pre-season has to show one thing and one thing only, reliability. If they have this then there is potential to improve and develop a car which could reach the highs of 2012 should they secure a works engine for 2018.
Driver-wise Marcus Ericcson is not short of experience as he looks towards his fourth season in F1 and his third with Sauber. Although Ericsson has his doubters, mostly due to his record of never beating a team mate in F1, he is frighteningly consistent and could well spring a few surprises in his car should it allow him to do so. Partnered by the explosive Pascal Wehrlein who we know from last season has one-lap pace that can match Hamilton and Ricciardo as well as the consistency to attract attention up and down the paddock, Sauber could have a good intra-team battle to watch.
With Wehrlein missing the opening test following his rather embarrassing ROC crash it will be a tough task to catch up as he will be still learning about the car come the season-opener whereas all his rivals will have the upper hand, But when the challenges arise the champions prevail and this will prove to many that he has what it takes should he manage to overcome this in his stride.
While we may dream that Kubica comes in as a replacement, even just as a PR suit this is unlikely and the strikingly beautiful C36 is expected to only see the Swede behind the wheel until the second test, if not the season opener in Australia.
by Matthew Gannon