F1 2017 Preview: Drivers and Teams

Just because the blog has been quiet for the last couple of months doesn’t mean that we’re not still here at Lowdown HQ. Another Formula One World Championship season is about to begin and we’re not about to let it pass by without more news and analysis from F1 most insider outsiders.

With a new aero formula changing the look of Formula One, this season has a good chance for upheaval. A new World Drivers’ Champion is guaranteed as Nico Rosberg retired before turning a wheel with the #1 on his car. While there are two fewer seats on the grid this season, there are two new drivers replacing two retiring World Champions.

The question coming into the season is whether behind the scenes and rules changes at Mercedes will derail their run of three consecutive World Drivers’ and World Constructors’ Championships. Testing suggests that it’s possible but we aren’t sure how likely it is.

Mercedes AMG Motorsport

#44 Lewis Hamilton
#77 Valtteri Bottas

For the first time since 1994, Formula One will not see its World Drivers’ Champion return to defend his title. In a shock move, Nico Rosberg announced his retirement from motorsport less than a week after winning the 2016 WDC. That left Mercedes in a late scramble for a replacement as most drivers had sorted out their 2017. The decision seemed to come down to Valtteri Bottas and Pascal Wehrlein and the job went to the more experienced Bottas.

The Finn comes into Mercedes on a one-year contract and his F1 future could rely on not being completely trounced in one of the best cars on the grid. Obviously, Bottas wants to remain with Mercedes but solid performances by Wehrlein could see the junior driver quickly elevated to a better drive, even the factory Mercedes team. At one point, Bottas was coveted by Ferrari as a replacement for Raikkonen but he could fall back down to Williams to replace a re-retiring Felipe Massa.

For what it’s worth, Niki Lauda says that Bottas is about two-tenths slower than Hamilton in testing. Of course, it sure looked like Rosberg was almost on even footing with Lewis in 2016 so I’m not sold on Valtteri’s ability to push Lewis without luck on his side.

Testing has shown that Mercedes hasn’t been completely thrown off by the new aero formula. It’s entirely possible that they still don’t have the best chassis but the latest Mercedes power unit will keep them at or near the pointy end of the field. Both Merc and Ferrari are busy trying to lower expectations by saying the other is faster. We won’t know the truth until Melbourne but Mercedes hasn’t seemed as quick on race pace as the Ferraris. If Ferrari can get more pace out of the tyres over longer stints, that makes races a daunting prospect for the Silver Arrows.

Red Bull Racing – Tag Heuer

#3 Daniel Ricciardo
#33 Max Verstappen

Very little has changed at Red Bull from 2016 to 2017. It’s a new aero formula which means that Adrian Newey will be in his element. His reputation as the best designer in F1 has been earned time and time again. While some teams will find various loopholes to aid their car, Newey will still produce one of the better overall packages.

The biggest issue that will stop dreams of 2017 Formula One World Drivers’ Champion Max Verstappen is the Renault engine. While they found some pace with that engine by Spain last year, all that relative pace doesn’t seem to be there in testing. Mercedes and Ferrari have found a lot more speed relative to Renault without the engine development token system.

Because so much success in current F1 comes down to the power unit, Red Bull could be looking at a repeat of 2015 where the power unit wouldn’t allow the car to compete for race victories. Sure, they needed some luck to win in 2014 and 2016 but the Red Bull and Renault was a lot closer to Mercedes on pace at the end of 2016 than at any other point since the start of the hybrid V6 era. It’s too bad that all their work has to start again.

It is worth noting that it’s not just Renault that has to improve for Red Bull to be competitive. The whole package is slower than Ferrari and Mercedes. Ricciardo says that the car’s balance is a bit touch and go. Based on race sim data from testing, it appears that they struggle on heavier fuel loads but the car comes alive on lighter fuel. It’s still firmly in the top three on the grid and might be an aero and engine upgrade from making this a three-way fight at the head of the field.

Scuderia Ferrari

#5 Sebastian Vettel
#7 Kimi Raikkonen

It seems as though Ferrari has been in “wait until next year” mode since 2008 when they came one Tim O’Glock away from winning consecutive World Championships. They’ve come close to winning another title in 2010 and 2012 but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Last year, they were expecting much better things but completely missed the mark. They had moments of brilliance like in Australia and Spain but missed because of pit strategy or an inability to use the tyres as well as their competitors.

During testing, Ferrari has looked quick and reliable. They put in almost 4,500 km of testing which was only trumped by Mercedes’ 5,000+ km. The Scuderia also focused on soft and medium compound running to make sure they had a car that could maximize the pace and life of the wider Pirelli tyres. It certainly looks like they put together a successful testing program as they were quickest on race sims and put in faster times on harder compounds than the competition.

The team of Vettel and Raikkonen are back for 2017 with Raikkonen likely to retire for the second consecutive year. Of course, that’s probably still pending Ferrari finding a replacement for him. It should also be noted that it’s believed that Vettel’s contract ends after this season and Mercedes could make a strong play to have him replace Bottas. Last season, Sergio Perez landed on Ferrari’s radar as under serious consideration to replace Kimi but would the Scuderia be willing to have him lead the whole team?

The off-track news at Ferrari looks to be even more intriguing than the on-track action as a result. They could easily have a complete turnover of drivers and team principal depending on how this season goes. Vettel and Mauricio Arrivabene could leave (or be fired for Mauricio) if results aren’t there and the hype train is derailed.

Force India – Mercedes

#11 Sergio Perez
#31 Esteban Ocon

Last season, Force India developed their 2015 B-spec car to power them to a team-best 4th in the WCC pas a developed 2014 Williams. It was the team’s best finish in the WCC since they finished 3rd in the Constructors’ Standings as Jordan-Mugen Honda. This season, SFI is not as confident in their pace.

Depending on which analysis you subscribe to, the VJM10 is very close to the Williams on pace but it could also be in a 5th to 8th scramble with Toro Rosso, Renault and Haas. Recent history and the Mercedes engine suggests that SFI will be closer to Williams than farther away. However, the Force India seems to be lacking in single-lap pace with the team’s best lap being 7th fastest among the ten teams and seven-tenths behind Williams.

One advantage that Force India will have over the likes over other midfield runners is their driver lineup. The retain Sergio Perez and add Esteban Ocon for The Hulk. Sure, Ocon is a step down from Hulkenberg but they’re a stronger pairing than most of the midfield save McLaren and Haas who each have their own reliability concerns that hold them back before factoring in the Mercedes engine.

It’s the driver lineup that will likely make the difference in the battle for 4th. Can Massa dig deep to match Perez? Can Stroll keep the car on the tarmac long enough to finish a race? Is Ocon really better than Wehrlein or is he just easy enough to work with that he’s worth the risk? I think it’s advantage SFI but they also need their cars to not suffer any more exhaust problems to get to the finish.

Williams – Mercedes

#19 Felipe Massa
#18 Lance Stroll

The only team more impacted by Rosberg’s shock retirement than Mercedes is Williams. Toto Wolff selected Toto Wolff-managed driver Valtteri Bottas to drive alongside Hamilton for 2017 which left Williams scrambling to find a replacement (well, they were looking for a replacement before they would release Bottas to Mercedes because of sponsorship and car development concerns). As a result, Felipe Massa’s retirement lasted all of a month-and-a-half before returning to Williams.

Massa will be partnering Canadian rookie and European F3 champion Lance Stroll. He comes to Williams as a former Ferrari development driver and the youngest signee to the Ferrari Driver Academy program. He’s also helped by backing from his fashion magnate father who has helped fund Stroll’s junior efforts and a new simulator facility for the Grove team. Stroll will face all manner of criticism for being too young and inexperienced for Formula One and for being a pay driver. Granted, he has more experience than Max Verstappen but I doubt he has matching pace.

Not helping Williams is a stop-start testing program that saw Stroll end running early for Williams on two testing days and miss one day during the first week. A trip through the gravel which damaged a floor and an impact with a wall set he and Williams back so he probably won’t be up to speed in Australia. Felipe Massa will carry the Williams banner for the first few races as he knows the circuits and has driven the V10 and V8 era F1 cars that most closely compare to the new formula so he might have an advantage there.

Despite not getting as much running as they would have liked, consensus around the paddock and media centre is that Williams has brought a good piece to testing. They are believed to have the 4th fastest car based on race sims but it’s not much of a gap to Force India so they’ll be battling for 4th in the WCC. Stroll’s pace and consistency will likely be the deciding factor for that WCC spot.

McLaren – Honda

#14 Fernando Alonso
#2 Stoffel Vandoorne

Before we get to the elephant in the room, let’s start with mentioning that Jenson Button retired at the end of last season. Well, I think it’s officially a sabbatical so when Fernando jumps to Porsche LMP1 for 2018, Jenson probably has the right of first refusal to return for F1.

Now, on to the big problem with McLaren and the problem they’ve had since 2015: Honda. They believe that their new power unit matches Mercedes. Well, the 2016 Mercedes. At the absolute top trim, it’s believed that the 2017 Mercedes power unit will make about 1,000 horsepower. It also isn’t prone to repeated breakdowns. The 2017 Honda power unit is both underpowered and unreliable (the engine is literally shaking itself apart) meaning that luck will be the largest deciding factor in their 2017 results.

Both McLaren bosses publicly and anonymous engineers inside Honda pin the problems on Honda’s culture. McLaren’s Eric Boullier says that Honda’s current culture isn’t in line with what it takes to succeed in F1. A Honda engineer on an F1 technical forum said that Honda keeps trying new ideas rather than refining good ideas which means they aren’t getting enough test data for the sake of reliability before moving onto the next idea and McLaren suffers when they’re the ones doing the bulk of the reliability testing. It’s probably worth noting that same engineer says that Honda and McLaren are targeting GP victories in 2018, not 2017.

Okay, maybe I shouldn’t pin it all on Honda. McLaren has reached the podium once in the last 78 Grands Prix which was the double-podium in Australia 2014. In that same four season stretch, they’ve finished a best of 5th in the WCC. They haven’t been a threat since Lewis left which isn’t so much a function of Lewis being that good since Alonso is a better driver but an interesting coincidence.

Scuderia Toro Rosso – Renault

#55 Carlos Sainz
#26 Daniil Kvyat

The next three teams in the standings could finish as high as 5th (as Force India believes that they’ll be in a battle for 5th) or as low as 9th (depending on if/when Honda gets their act together) in the Constructors’ Standings depending on how things go this season.

Poor Toro Rosso. They lost their star driver after four races last season. They were saddled with a year-old Ferrari engine. This season, they’ve upgraded to the 2nd slowest engine but that may not allow this car to live up to its full potential. If it was as quick as it was beautiful, the STR12 would be the best car on the grid with that lovely new bright blue and chrome livery. I’ll miss the handpainted bull and the gold accents but this is one change we can all get behind.

After flirting with dropping Daniil Kvyat for GP2 champion Pierre Gasly, Toro Rosso announced that they would retain their 2016 driver lineup. Kvyat might hold onto his F1 ambitions solely through circumstance as Sainz is coveted by bigger teams, including Ferrari and Renault so they might need to keep Kvyat for some continuity. Granted, that’s never been a huge priority that Red Bull has had for STR.

Reliability could be a massive question mark for STR this season. They completed the third-least number of laps in testing and actually had less mileage than McLaren through the first five days of testing. It’s likely that Toro Rosso will be in a battle for 6th with Haas and Renault but it probably won’t be their doing that’s keeping them in touch with the back half of the field. I like STR’s chances of 6th in WCC. Whether the Renault engines get them there is another question.

Haas – Ferrari

#8 Romain Grosjean
#20 Kevin Magnussen

In their second season in Formula One, Haas returns with a guaranteed prize money finish for 2017 which probably makes team owner and primary sponsor Gene Haas breathe a little easier. Given Sauber’s year-old engine and McLaren’s Honda engine, another 8th place WCC finish looks like the floor for Haas in their sophomore season at the premier level of motorsport.

Can Haas do better this season than last? Well, their car looked really strong early in testing which is likely due to this year’s Ferrari engine and much improved ERS. Ferrari says that their ERS can get 160 horsepower for 50 seconds per lap so Haas will be bolstered by what could be the best ERS on the grid.

Also helping Haas is a new driver. Kevin Magnussen was on the Haas shortlist last season but went to Renault. This season, K-Mag had enough of Renault’s crap and moved to Haas. He replaces Esteban Gutierrez who didn’t score any points last year but at least made up for it with sponsorship money. Magnussen’s contributions will help Haas develop the car and he should even score points.

The problem will again be the brakes which were causing the team fits during testing. The brake problems that Grosjean spent the last half of last season complaining about might have hidden slow development of the VF16 which slid back in the order as the season progressed. Haas will have to actually develop the car to be competitive this season as the midfield looks tightly bunched.

Renault

#27 Nico Hulkenberg
#30 Jolyon Palmer

I wouldn’t want to be Renault driver last season. They were publicly not happy with the pace from both Magnussen and Palmer but had to retain one when they were turned down by most of their 2017 wishlist which included Carlos Sainz, Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez. Instead, they landed Nico Hulkenberg who is probably regretting this move because he would have under consideration for the second Mercedes seat.

McLaren had the fewest miles in testing. Toro Rosso had the third-least. Who was in the middle? Of course I’m mentioning it here because it was Renault. The three Renault teams were all hampered by ERS problems that limited their running and forced them to run in conservative engine modes to keep the cars running.

But as for the Renault team, they’re developing this car fresh for the new aero formula after last year’s car was largely a carryover from the year previous which should make for a relative performance improvement from 2016. In a single-lap, they’re on pace with Toro Rosso and actually faster than Force India and Haas. With reliability concerns, it’s not known whether they could maintain that until an ICE or ERS upgrade comes along to fix the problems like last year’s upgrades saved the season for Red Bull.

It’s also worth noting that some analysts peg Renault as fighting Williams for 4th in the WCC. Racing always comes down to circumstances falling your way and being in a position to capitalize. Exhaust issues at Force India and brake issues at Haas open up the opportunity for Renault to have an upper half finish. They just need the reliability to capitalize.

Sauber – Ferrari

#9 Marcus Ericsson
#94 Pascal Wehrlein

Let’s get this out of the way first: Sauber comes into this season with the year-old Ferrari engine. How much they will be down on power isn’t known but the difference between the last spec 2016 Ferrari engine and the ever improving 2017 Ferrari power unit will grow as the season goes on. Much like Toro Rosso began to drop back as 2016 went on with their 2015 Ferrari power units, Sauber will need to make haste now when the performance gap is the smallest.

Also concerning for the Hinwil effort is the lack of sponsors on the car. They do have new owners who were backers of Marcus Ericsson. Their support changes from sponsorship revenue to owner’s funding the team. It leaves the sidepods open for interested companies to advertise but it seems as though sponsors aren’t really a plenty in F1 right now.

Ericsson is retained for 2017, obviously, but with political upheaval and economic trouble in Brazil, Felipe Nasr’s sponsorship dried up for 2017 so he was dropped by the team. In his place is Pascal Wehrlein, the last survivor of Manor. That team was in a desperate state for funding after last season and had to close up shop in January when the money ran out. The Mercedes junior driver took the last seat on the grid when it looked like Manor might be in financial trouble and must bide his time until a better drive comes along.

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