A new season of Formula 1 is finally here – but will a major shake-up in the sport’s rules lead to new faces at the top, or is Mercedes dominance here to stay? Motorsport.com’s panel of experts have their say in our 2017 preview.
Charles Bradley (CB) – Editor-in-chief
Jonathan Noble (JN) – F1 Editor
Adam Cooper (AC) – F1 Reporter
Pablo Elizalde (PE) – News Editor
Roberto Chinchero (RC) – F1 Reporter, Italy
Guillaume Navarro (GN) – Editor-in-chief, France
Erwin Jaeggi (NL) – F1 Editor, Netherlands
Oleg Karpov (OK) – F1 Editor, Russia
Jamie Klein (JK) – UK Editor
Val Khorounzhiy (VK) – News Editor
How is the title fight shaping up between the leading teams?
CB: Fingers crossed it will be a three-way title fight between Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. But can you actually read anything into the testing times? Not with any degree of certainty. My fear for Ferrari – even if they are quick now – is a lack of in-season development. Red Bull still has a power deficit. I can’t see anyone beating Mercedes over the long haul; it has everything it needs.
AC: Ferrari has clearly made a big step, and I believe that the SF70H will win races on merit, but over the balance of the season Mercedes (with a little Lewis magic) will come out on top. Over the winter Red Bull was tipped as a title contender, but testing didn’t back that up. However, I can see the RB13 package getting better as the year goes on.
PE: Ferrari may have hit the ground running with its new car, but while I’d love to be proven wrong, I still believe Mercedes will have the upper hand when it matters, and its development rate will keep it ahead all year long.
I expect Hamilton’s life to be easier at Mercedes now Rosberg is gone, and that should result in a less bumpy road towards a fourth title. Red Bull and Renault still need time to be able to match its main rivals and fight for victory from the start.
GN: Even though Mercedes showed pace and reliability during the tests, rivals Red Bull and Ferrari could give them a run for their money as far as the constructors’ championship is concerned. While Bottas will have to show right away that he can be a race winner when Hamilton falters, the Red Bull duo will always be there to grab any opportunity and compete with aggressive strategies.
It’s in the race management department that Ferrari will have to show more boldness, as Mercedes and Red Bull are known for their efficiency. But this year’s lower degradation Pirelli tyre compounds could help Ferrari erase this weak point.
EJ: Ferrari looked mighty strong during testing, but we saw the same last year and what followed was a winless season for the Scuderia. Mercedes still has a slight edge over the competition, but they will need to put up a bigger fight than recent years to fend off Ferrari and Red Bull.
OK: It looks like Red Bull is set for a bit of a slow start to the year, but this team is always improving during the season, so it would be foolish to discount them yet. But Mercedes and Ferrari do seem to be much better prepared at the moment.
The obvious answer would be to name the former as a championship favourite, but it’s simply too boring; just for now I’d like to think Ferrari can really give them a proper fight. And having Kimi Raikkonen as a title contender is something F1 would really benefit from.
What can McLaren still salvage this year after a dismal pre-season?
JN: McLaren is in for another tough season, with there being no quick fix to Honda’s reliability and performance woes. The partnership is going to be strained to the maximum, and only something radical – like an overhaul of Honda’s F1 operation or a split – is going to be enough to turn things around dramatically.
AC: We gave McLaren and Honda the benefit of the doubt over the winter, and assumed that they would make a huge step. Clearly that hasn’t happened, and talk of a remarriage of convenience with Mercedes suggest things are worse on the inside than we think. It’s hard to see where McLaren will fit in a very competitive midfield at a time when there is an extra premium on power unit performance.
PE: It’s hard enough for teams to fight near the front of the F1 field after a flawless pre-season, let alone when you are in McLaren-Honda’s position. You hear teams like Ferrari or Mercedes saying they would have liked more running, so you can only imagine the frustration levels in Woking.
The rules may be more flexible when it comes to engine development this year, but Honda needs to first solve its current problems and then make a huge step forward with its engine to allow McLaren to be in a better position than last year.
It should not take many races for McLaren to know the kind of season it can expect, and if the future doesn’t look bright then those “big decisions” Alonso was talking about are likely to come quickly.
RC: Barcelona testing has confirmed the 2017 season is set to be another tough one for McLaren and Honda. The loss of the engine token system means theoretically Honda can work full-time to try solve its problems, but given the scale of the task ahead, it’s not realistic to expect better results than 2016. And what was already considered disappointing last year will be unacceptable in 2017.
JK: Honda’s pre-season target of meeting Mercedes’ 2016 power output may not have exactly been confidence-inspiring, but Barcelona testing went worse than surely even the biggest McLaren pessimist would have predicted.
Without engine tokens, at least there is a tiny glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, but the real question is whether Honda – famously reluctant to accept outside help – has the expertise to take advantage of this freedom, and how patient McLaren can afford to be.
VK: McLaren can probably return to its late-2016 performance as this year goes on, but that just won’t be good enough for the third season of its Honda partnership. Apart from giving Stoffel Vandoorne some valuable experience, the campaign looks to be a write-off already.
Which teams will head up the midfield fight?
JN: Williams will lead the chasing pack behind the top three teams, although who slots in behind it will fluctuate a lot over the course of the campaign. Haas could well start the strongest, but Toro Rosso, Force India and Renault will make good gains.
AC: It’s going to be very close and the balance of power will probably change over the year, but all things considered Williams looks set to lead the chase, with Force India in the mix. I expect Renault to make good progress over the year, while Toro Rosso perhaps has the most potential to improve relative to what we saw in testing. Like last year, Haas could have weekends where things just click.
GN: Force India still seems to be ahead in the second group; Ocon is a very well-prepared youngster and Perez might not feel safe as team leader for long. Haas is another team with a strong line-up, and the Ferrari engine seems to work perfectly with the Dallara package this year. Toro Rosso’s aim of fifth position seems ambitious, but the Faenza squad is helped by having a better driver line-up than Williams, which can’t afford to waste any points chances against such tough midfield opposition.
EJ: Williams seemed to be in decent shape in Barcelona, when they were not in the garage making repairs. Stroll is a bit of a question mark, but he’s a quick and might surprise a few people. Whatever happens, Massa will produce some solid results for the Grove-based outfit on his F1 ‘comeback’. Toro Rosso seems to have a good chance to finally reach its goal of finishing fifth in the championship.
OK: Williams was very fast during testing and Paddy Lowe’s arrival should make the team even stronger during the year. So fourth place is theirs for the taking, with a whole bunch of teams in contention for fifth. Toro Rosso is the favourite for me; the Faenza team has a decent engine again and the benefit of two experienced drivers, which could make for its best-ever season.
VK: If its power unit reliability improves as promised, Renault’s got to be a strong shout. Its plan is long-term but it has the resources to separate itself from the customer squads – and, in Nico Hulkenberg, it has arguably the best driver in the midfield.
Will the new rules succeed in delivering good racing?
CB: I’ve got a nagging suspicion that the decision to go high downforce is just going to kill any true overtaking moves, with F1 depending on DRS more than ever as a result. Hopefully, Max Verstappen will prove me wrong! But if the racing sucks, then at least the crashes should be faster and bigger… how did we get to this point, exactly?
JN: Yes. We may not have as much overtaking as previous years, but the greater chance for errors, and bigger challenge, will lead to a different type of battle that will be just as entertaining.
PE: Many drivers fear the overtaking will suffer as a result of the higher downforce this year’s car have, and while no one will know the reality until they go racing, it’s unlikely both engineers and drivers are all wrong about their predictions.
If those fears prove real, then let’s just hope Pirelli has got its tyres right to the point where they allow drivers to push while also degrading fast enough to make strategies interesting – rather than resulting in the feared increase of one-stop races. And let’s hope for plenty of wet races, too.
RC: I believe it’s wrong to judge the best races with the number of overtaking moves – some of the most enjoyable football matches can be ones with only one or two goals.
The new rules will reduce the number of passes, but will extend the race stints due to less tyre degradation. For those that believe in more traditional motorsport values, the racing in 2017 will be an improvement.
OK: No. Good racing is only possible when teams are closer to each other, and while the new rules have made the cars faster, it seems the top three teams are now further away than ever from the rest of the grid. But I’m not convinced “good racing” is something what makes F1 attractive, otherwise everyone would watch GP2 instead. It is an important factor, but not the main one.
VK: If Mercedes and Ferrari truly are a couple of tenths apart, that’s already immeasurably better than the previous three years. But the new ruleset probably shouldn’t get the credit for that – and, overall, moves towards sturdier tyres and more downforce are surely not conducive to increasing the sport’s entertainment value longer term.
What driver market moves do you expect to see?
CB: Alonso will leave McLaren, which will put the pressure on Bottas to perform at Mercedes. If he does, Fernando will have to go back to Renault! Magnussen needs to show well against Grosjean at Haas, and Kvyat needs to keep his focus at Toro Rosso. And Massa and Raikkonen should treat this year as a farewell tour – let’s hope that Gasly and Giovinazzi get their chances in 2018.
AC: Vettel has to be the number one target for Mercedes – the board would love to get him. But if Ferrari has really progressed, will he be as keen to leave as he might have been a few months ago? And what if Bottas develops into a megastar? The big question is where could Alonso go if the door is closed at Mercedes. Back to Enstone for a third time? Stranger things have happened…
RC: Ferrari should replace one of its current two drivers, considering that both Vettel and Raikkonen are out of contract at the end of 2017. At the top of Sergio Marchionne’s list is Daniel Ricciardo, and I would not be surprised to see him soon joining the Maranello squad.
Bottas has every chance of convincing Toto Wolff to keep him on at Mercedes in 2018, but if he fails, Alonso and Vettel will both be in the frame for a Mercedes chance.
GN: I’m very impatient to see whether Carlos Sainz will manage to establish himself in a top team outside the Red Bull camp. It’s unlikely that the Milton Keynes-based squad will have a vacancy for 2018 and the Spaniard will have to look somewhere else. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ferrari, Renault and McLaren bidding for his services.
Bottas will be the subject of much speculation too, but I don’t think Mercedes will break what could become a great equilibrium by adding another rooster to its hen house alongside Hamilton. The main action is more likely to come from Ferrari.
EJ: The key will be what Mercedes decides to do for 2018. Bottas is widely seen as a one-year solution for the mess that Nico Rosberg created, but if the Finn performs well, then Mercedes might see no reason to change the line-up after this year – although there might be some interesting options available, like Sebastian Vettel.
If Ferrari doesn’t give him the German a car this year that is capable of fighting for the title, then all bets are off when it comes down to the driver market.
JK: Alonso is the big question mark, as surely his days at McLaren are numbered barring a very rapid (and unlikely) turnaround. It’s hard to see Bottas being turfed out at Mercedes unless he badly underperforms, which would make Renault Alonso’s only other viable option to remain on the grid – but can the Spaniard really afford to wait for the French marque to rediscover its winning ways?
Elsewhere, Raikkonen’s seat at Ferrari is going to be highly sought after, with Sainz, Perez and Grosjean just three of the potential contenders. With Massa unlikely to stick around at Williams beyond this year, that could be another prized berth for one of the aforementioned. Or how about Alonso’s (likely) vacated McLaren seat for a longer term career gamble?