Under Starters Orders…

Forget Christmas, forget your birthday, forget your summer holiday – THIS is the time of year you can get really excited about, as F1 IS BACK!! And this time it is literally bigger and faster than before! So, in order to get into the swing of things we’re going to take a look at the runners and riders in this year’s Championship to see who might rise like a phoenix or flop like a lead balloon.

Let’s start with those expected to be the front-runners for this seasons’ Championship, and where else to start but with the current constructors’ Champions, Mercedes. Like a lot of teams, there has been some major reshuffling going on over the winter. Nico Rosberg surprised us all (Toto Wolff included) with announcing his retirement shortly after his World Title win in Abu Dhabi – this decision has split opinion, some thinking that he should be defending his title whilst others believing that what better time to retire but at the top. I can understand both sides of the argument, and ultimately we have to agree that considering Nico’s F1 career and how long it took him to get to the top, his decision to depart from there has to be respected. This said, however, a big part of me looks at drivers like Fernando Alonso, Nico Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez and more, and what they would give to have a season in a front-running car – something Nico was already contracted to, and he walked away from it. I understand his reasons, however this does tell me that he is not as passionate about the sport as these drivers.

But this aside, what an opportunity for Valtteri Bottas. It will be exciting to see how he performs in his first year with the team – it would be very difficult for him to get the better of Lewis this year with his experience and knowledge of the team, but expect him to be challenging for wins each and every time out. The Mercedes still looks like the car to beat, many fans will hope that the gap will have closed up significantly but if the number of laps that they put on the board in pre-season testing is anything to go by, it will be a tough ask.

In my mind, despite the big changes in the cars and regulations, we can expect quite a similar story in terms of grid order. It is expected that Mercedes’ closest challengers will still be Red Bull and Ferrari – the prospect of what the Red Bull will actually look like in Melbourne compared to the pre-season tests in Barcelona is something to pay close attention to. Red Bull went for a very simple design for pre-season with limited aerodynamic development leaving many in the paddock wondering if this is merely the ‘shell’ of the chassis, yet to be enhanced by some Adrian Newey innovation which will make the car even quicker and really take the fight to Mercedes. Red Bull have come out and said that the simplicity is in order to compensate for the lack of power in the engine compared to the Mercedes, however it could all be smoke and mirrors – we will find out in Melbourne in just a few days!

Ferrari is another great unknown for this year – we can be fairly sure that they will be up the front end of the grid, however how high is yet to be gauged. The Ferrari has looked quick in pre-season testing, however it also did last year and they ended up with no wins. As a pre-season prediction, it must be said that I feel it will be the same story for Ferrari – alongside Red Bull but ultimately not challenging Mercedes. A win this year must be seen as progress, however this will not be good enough for the die-hard Tifosi. What is most important for them is regular podiums otherwise the fans will get on their back, a story we have seen with them all too much in recent years.

When it comes to the midfield, it is difficult to assess how successful or unsuccessful teams will be until we get to Melbourne, but there are a few tell-tale signs which give us indicators of what may happen. For me, Williams have to be one of these teams with cause for concern. Rocked by the departure of Valtteri Bottas to Mercedes (albeit likely for a huge sum), the return of Felipe Massa, the introduction of rookie Lance Stroll into the team, and the return of Paddy Lowe to the team from Mercedes – apologies if this sounds harsh, but it is not a team which is currently shouting ambition. I have great respect for Paddy Lowe, however it is not down to him that Mercedes had their success. Indeed, Paddy Lowe was part of the McLaren team which produced some increasingly awful cars whilst in his reign there as technical director from 2011 to 2013. I would argue that Mercedes have got an infinitely better deal by recruiting James Allison as their technical director – if they had beaten Mercedes to his signature it may be a different story. This said though, I have great respect and admiration for Claire Williams, Pat Symonds and Rob Smedley, and do hope that I am wrong, but it may be a few more years before we see Williams challenging as they did so well in 2014. With a driver line-up far weaker than last year and a car which missed a great deal of testing due to the crashes of Lance Stroll, optimism is not high.

However, this presents an opportunity and there are 3 teams which will be aiming to take that fourth spot – Force India, Toro Rosso, and Renault (unfortunately, I am unable to put McLaren in this group but we shall come around to them). The team out of these that excites the most is Toro Rosso – just the look of the car including the new colour scheme have got fans very excited about this season’s challenger. Toro Rosso were quietly confident about their new car prior to launch and it is remarkable how similar the Toro Rosso is to the Mercedes, and even more remarkable that the team were a bit disappointed by this fact, hoping that they had exploited an avenue of development which no-one else had seen. But despite this, the car looks like it will be competitive and they also possess a good driver line-up to take advantage of this – I expect good things!

Force India and Renault are slightly harder to place – Force India’s new pink colour scheme has raised a few eyebrows, and it is one of the cars which I feel is more of an evolution from last year’s car. Considering their fantastic achievement last year of beating Williams to fourth place, they will hope this is true. My one reservation about Force India is the recruitment of Esteban Ocon – a driver who was frequently out-qualified and usually out-raced by Pascal Wehrlein in the Manor Racing car towards the end of last year, I honestly do not rate him that highly. Many pundits and fans disagree and consider him a ‘hot prospect’ but I cannot see it. There are many drivers who I would have picked ahead of him, and expect him to be frequently out-performed by the excellent Sergio Perez.

Renault is a really interesting one which we can look forward to seeing. In essence, because of how rushed their 2016 car was, the team called the season a write-off early to focus on this 2017 car and with the regulation changes coming in this can be considered Renault’s first ‘proper’ car since their return to the sport. So do not read anything into Renault’s performance last year, their power unit looks faster and more reliable than before and they have two drivers who have a lot to prove for different reasons – Palmer to show that he can make it at this level, and Hulkenberg to avoid the unenviable record of most F1 race starts without taking a podium. Fourth place will be difficult to achieve again, however making Q3 and picking up points on a regular basis will be considered a success this season.

And so to who is expected at the back-end of the grid, and unfortunately for them it is likely to be Haas, McLaren and Sauber. Haas will try and elevate what was done last year, though considering their fantastic start in 2016 this will be difficult to achieve, but with Grosjean and Magnussen they have an excellent driver line-up who will maximise the performance from the car. I can’t help but feel that Magnussen made a big error in moving from a works Renault team to a customer Haas team, especially when going through regulation changes, but in reality it is still to be seen whether this is a good or a bad move.

OK…… we had to at some point. McLaren. What a mess. This was supposed to be the year of them finally making the podium again. This was supposed to be the year that Alonso would finally be given the tools to put himself at the sharp end of the grid. This was supposed to be the culmination of all the horrendous struggles of the last two years with Honda (but many more years prior to this with Mercedes). But, alas, we can boldly predict that it is not going to be any of these things. Numerous issues in pre-season testing, problems at management level, the axing of Ron Dennis from the team, rumours of switching engine suppliers back to Mercedes – nothing positive is happening there at the moment. If I were a betting man, I would not bet against Alonso leaving before the end of the season and seeing Jenson back in the car, if what was said when he retired last season is to be believed. Do not expect McLaren to make it to Q2 any time soon, let alone points. Just when they started making progress last year as well…….such a shame.

But moving on, to last and most definitely not least, Sauber. With financial backing gained and tenth place in the constructors’ achieved in 2016, as a team they look like they will safely stay in business for another year. To drive alongside Marcus Ericsson they have managed to recruit Pascal Wehrlein, an excellent addition to the team who will extract as much performance as possible from the car. I really do hope that Sauber do well – I have great respect for Peter Sauber and Manisha Kaltenborn who are individuals that F1 need. Hard-working, determined, not phased by poor performance but instead all the more focussed at turning it around. It will be another struggle this year, but as they know it only takes one car to push into midfield or even podiums (as they have achieved), so at least they are still going!

However the same cannot be said for Manor Racing, and a quick note about them as quite frankly it is infuriating how things worked out for that team, going out of business after Sauber beat them to 10th place in the constructors’ Championship. It is astonishing to me that when the new owners and management came in before the 2016 season that they did not prepare financially for the very likely scenario that the team would come last in the constructors that season. There had to be a contingency in place if this were to happen so that the team could stay in business – but there wasn’t. Completely inept management, and so disrespectful to the great work done by Graeme Lowdon, John Booth, and even Jules Biancchi. If these owners were the future of what these people had achieved, I am pleased they have gone. But still fuming about it……

So there we have it! A whistle-stop tour through the teams. In terms of overall standings, I have to tip Lewis Hamilton for the title this year, being still in the fastest car alongside a team-mate who may not quite be up to speed yet within the team. The constructors should also go to Mercedes, however it may not be so clear cut. The driver line-ups at Red Bull and Ferrari are more than capable of taking the fight to Mercedes, and I for one am very much looking forward to this prospect!

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