F1 2016 Season Preview: Drivers and Teams

As is tradition here on The Lowdown, we are doing our annual week-long Formula One season preview series. The 2016 season starts in less than a week with the Australian Grand Prix. To start our F1 2016 season grand prix-view, we’ll take a look at the teams on the grid and the men driving the cars.

There isn’t a lot of change on the Formula One grid this season. While there is a new team on the grid with the addition of Haas, sixteen of the 20 seats on the grid remain the same as last year and three rookies will debut in Australia. While the driver market intrigue for the 2016 season was minimal, there is plenty for 2017. There is also a lot of engine and money news that will shake the grid up this year.

f1-2016-preview-mercedes-w07Mercedes AMG F1

#44 Lewis Hamilton
#6 Nico Rosberg

This season is all about the difference between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg when it comes to luck. Mercedes’s testing program showed that they had the reliability. Though we seldom saw them run for raw speed, we know that they have it. In race simulations, they’re quicker that Ferrari but not by much on a per-lap basis.

Until the upcoming rules changes, the World Constructors’ Championship is only going to be in question as a result of some very odd circumstances that upset the status quo. I suppose that the new qualifying rules could do that but not understanding the new rules notwithstanding, it should be Lewis vs. Nico for the title in 2016. Who will win? That’s why I have a predictions post going up on Friday.

f1-2016-preview-ferrari-sf16Scuderia Ferrari

#5 Sebastian Vettel
#7 Kimi Raikkonen

No major changes in Maranello for 2016. The priority is to catch Mercedes this year. While they were able to win three races last year, only Malaysia was on equal merit with the Silver Arrows. Given that F1 is more of an engine formula now, they won’t be in the hunt again until 2017 when the car formula changes and the engine token system disappears.

Perhaps the biggest question hanging over Ferrari’s head this season won’t be if and/or when they might catch the Mercedes but who will be in the car next year. Raikkonen was expected to retire after last season but his contract was extended through 2016.

After the tragic death of Jules Bianchi, the competition for the second seat at the Scuderia is now wide open but four names are most commonly associated with the drive. Nico Hulkenberg is a favourite of many fans but is reportedly not as highly regarded in the paddock. Max Verstappen is young but undeniably lightning fast. It’s unlikely Red Bull will allow him to depart without a fight and a contract through 2017 will make an early move difficult. Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas are both rumoured to be in the final year of their respective contracts which clears the way for a painless transition to the Scuderia.

f1-2016-preview-williams-fw38Williams – Mercedes

#19 Felipe Massa
#77 Valtteri Bottas

In a recurring theme for most of the grid, there are no major changes at Williams this season. As noted above, the only real issue they have to deal with is the potential for Valtteri Bottas’s departure to Ferrari after this season. As he’s proving to be a driver worth building the team around, I can’t see them parting with him without a fight.

What is worth discussing is their car. Over the last few years, the Williams has been slippery in a straight line but lacking overall downforce. They have enough downforce and more than enough power to keep them at that 3rd-best on the grid level. The RB10 was good enough to overcome the Renault engine in 2014 to keep them in contention. Ferrari stepped up their engine and chassis game in 2015. This year, Williams needs to step up on the aero end because their engine is on par with the Mercedes works team. Testing says they’re still probably 3rd best on the grid. We’ll need to see if they’re going to contend for a win anywhere but Austria and Monza, though.

f1-2016-preview-red-bull-rb12Red Bull Racing – Tag Heuer

#3 Daniel Ricciardo
#26 Daniil Kvyat

From Renault to Mercedes to Ferrari to a 2015 Ferrari and back to Renault. I’m sure that Red Bull isn’t going to have lost too much time over the switch from and back to Renault. After all, they have one of the best chassis on the grid. It’s all a matter of where the rebranded Renault engine, now known as a Tag Heuer engine, can land Red Bull in the midfield. With Williams established as a solid #3 team on the grid, it will be a battle for 4th with Force India and possibly McLaren and Toro Rosso.

Another battle Red Bull has lost is over the regulations for 2017. Reports indicate that there were dueling proposals over the 2017 technical regulations. One set, backed by Red Bull, would have seen an increase in the importance of aero compared to the current formula. The other was a Mercedes backed proposal that didn’t change the emphasis on the engines. The final agreed upon proposal is somewhere in the middle but it doesn’t particularly help Red Bull.

To top things off, as I mentioned above, two of their four drivers are being coveted by Ferrari. As they found out with Sebastian Vettel many years ago, when Maranello comes calling, people listen.

f1-2016-preview-force-india-vjm09Sahara Force India – Mercedes

#11 Sergio Perez
#27 Nico Hulkenberg

Force India is an interesting case this season. They had some money troubles last year which required the launch of a B-Spec car in Britain that took the team from also-ran to regular points scorer and earned them 5th in the WCC. The rumoured buyout by Aston Martin never materialized and there are regular rumours over the financial health of the team and its owners. While they were able to develop the car last year, it seems as though it’s a matter of when, not if, Force India will run out of money to continue development on the car.

Other than concerns over funding, there are no changes at Force India this year. Perez’s contract is reported to expire at the end of the season while Hulkenberg is signed through 2017. While Perez does come with more speed than the likes of a Pastor Maldonado or Marcus Ericsson, his return in 2017 might be based just as much on the sponsorship he brings as it will be on the results he brings.

And just after I wrote this part of the preview up, a report broke that Mallya is in trouble with the law in India. The Attorney General and Supreme Court are looking to put a lock on his passport and force him into discussions with banks he is indebted to. With both the Sahara Group and now Mallya in reported financial trouble, could Force India fall behind as the season progresses? Will they require a bailout from a new owner, sponsor or Bernie himself? All their intrigue comes off-track.

f1-2016-preview-renault-rs16Renault Sport F1

#20 Kevin Magnussen
#30 Jolyon Palmer

It’s a whole new world in Enstone this year. After running into legal problems and entering administration, Lotus F1 has been purchased back by Renault. So the Enstone team that was Renault, then not Renault, is Renault again.

This year sees the team get a complete refresh on the critical pieces. Both drivers are gone and they have a new engine. Well, the engine piece is sort of obvious. It wouldn’t make much sense to be the Renault factory team and run a Mercedes engine, though it would certainly give them hope for this season. The late change in engine and ERS is likely to have set Lotus/Renault very far behind in its development work at the start of the season.

Meanwhile, both Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado are gone. Grosjean jumped ship to Haas. The lineup was originally to be Maldonado and 2015 Lotus test/reserve driver and 2014 GP2 champion Jolyon Palmer. However, PDVSA didn’t fulfil its contractual obligations in the midst of political issues in Venezuela so Maldonado was dropped for former McLaren driver Kevin Magnussen.

For Renault, this is going to be an even more painful than last season. Maybe they can get back on track for 2017.

f1-2016-preview-toro-rosso-str11Scuderia Toro Rosso – Ferrari

#33 Max Verstappen
#55 Carlos Sainz

For as good as they have looked in testing, I think that their testing pace won’t last all season. After all, as part of the Red Bull blow-up with Renault noted above, Ferrari was willing to give Red Bull engines. The catch was that they would be 2015 engines. So Toro Rosso conveniently agreed while RBR gets to do their own thing with the re-badged Renault engines. The frightening thing for the A-Team is that those year-old Ferrari engines appear to be faster than the current Renault/Tag Heuer engines.

The question is how well the year-old Ferrari in a Red Bull (ish) chassis will run compared to modern equipment. Considering that only the Scuderia has shown any real pace with their Ferrari engines, STR should be the second-best Ferrari team. Given everyone else’s circumstances, they could actually finish in the top five this season. Red Bull’s success will be based on the power from the Tag Heuer engine. Renault is going to fall down the order. McLaren’s success is tied to Honda. Force India might not have much of a development budget. You can make an easy case for Toro Rosso finishing as high as fourth in the WCC.

The other thing to keep in mind this season is that Max Verstappen is open about wanting a promotion from Toro Rosso after this season. As noted above, there is a possibility that Verstappen could move to Ferrari but he could also be in position for a move to RBR if Ricciardo jumps to Maranello.

f1-2016-preview-sauber-c35Sauber – Ferrari

#9 Marcus Ericsson
#12 Felipe Nasr

What is it with Sauber and pre-season headlines about money? Last season, they had four drivers signed for 2015 with Giedo van der Garde taking the team to court to sort out who was actually legally entitled to drive. This season, the team missed payroll in February and had to delay the launch of the C35 until the second week of testing. Team principal says that the issues trace back to a problem with the transfer of foreign funds to pay for the team’s sponsorship.

The new C35 doesn’t look like a massive evolution on the prior year’s C34 which landed the team in 8th in the WCC. Testing indicates that the best case scenario is at the back of the midpack and ahead of Manor and Haas. A season target would be 9th or better. Even then, if Haas or Manor can develop their cars and Sauber’s money troubles prevent them from doing so, finishing in the top ten (the last of the money spots) is a necessity to keep going.

f1-2016-preview-mclaren-mp4-31McLaren – Honda

#14 Fernando Alonso
#22 Jenson Button

Fernando Alonso sure has been doing his best to keep the press busy. First, he said that he would wait until the pre-season test to determine if he was retiring. Turns out that he thought the car made a good enough first impression that he’s staying on for this season. Then he said that his contract renewal would be based on whether he liked driving the cars in the upcoming 2017 rules package. And he’s also stated that he doesn’t want to move teams again and would either race with McLaren or leave F1. Meanwhile, Jenson Button is quietly going about the business of racing and missing out on rumoured job offers for F1 TV and BBC’s Top Gear.

McLaren believed it had one of the faster chassis on the grid last season. The problem was the Honda power unit and specifically the ERS setup that Honda provided. Honda F1 boss Yasuhisa Arai last year suggested that the power unit was nearly 200 horsepower down on Renault which seems nearly impossible to be accurate and still have the team make the 107% qualifying time. The big change this season is Arai’s retirement and replacement by Yusuke Hasegawa. Maybe new leadership will eventually produce results. Any improvement is necessary for McLaren to move down the pitlane away from new neighbours Manor.

f1-2016-preview-manor-mrt05Manor – Mercedes

#94 Pascal Wehrlein
#88 Rio Haryanto

The former Marussia team is now officially Manor. In addition to the name change, Manor will be changing engine manufacturers to Mercedes from the 2014 Ferrari engines. That quickly vaults them into reach of the midfield though I think they’ll be duelling with Haas for this season. Also, team principal John Booth and sporting director Graeme Lowdon resigned over disagreements with new team owner Stephen Fitzpatrick.

As is no great surprise for a backmarker team that is looking for money, Manor has two new drivers this season. Pascal Wehrlein is the 2015 DTM champion and backed by Mercedes. It’s not official that his appointment to Manor was part of the engine deal but it certainly doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Rio Haryanto is Indonesia’s first F1 driver coming off a 4th in last season’s GP2 championship and thanks to Indonesian government backing. Haryanto is the slowest driver on the grid in testing so it will be up to Wehrlein to demonstrate any promise that Manor has this year.

f1-2016-preview-haas-vf-16Haas – Ferrari

#8 Romain Grosjean
#21 Esteban Gutierrez

The new kids on the block debut less than two years after announcing their intention to join the sport. The team headed up by NASCAR team owner and manufacturing millionaire Gene Haas will be unique in that it will have headquarters in North Carolina, a race operations shop in Banbury (at the former Marussia factory) and are buying as many parts as possible from Ferrari to make the move into F1 as painless as possible.

The consensus is that Haas is as close to a Ferrari B-team as a new manufacturer can get without officially being one. Ferrari is providing as much support as they can under the rules. That has likely resulted in the appointment of Esteban Gutierrez, a 2015 Scuderia Ferrari reserve driver, to the team. Romain Grosjean makes the jump from Lotus/Renault to Haas for the season as their lead driver.

As one would expect with a new team, they had some reliability troubles in testing. All the purchased parts and simulation work in the factory can’t prepare you for actually being on-track. The problem they face is that F1 is geared towards limiting running to save teams costs. That works for the established teams with the manpower and experience to handle limited running. A fresh team like Haas will be looking at a double-finish like a victory in the early flyaway races. That would certainly be an improvement on testing.

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