This year's Formula 1 cars could be the fastest yet
Up to this point, the cars of 2004 still hold several lap records
Lewis Hamilton is one of the top contenders to set new records
Where as Fernando Alonso is expected to struggle in his McLaren-Honda
Red Bull may have been sandbagging during testing, so could mount a surprise charge
Former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone has been ousted, with new owners Liberty Media taking control
This year's cars are generate significantly more downforce than last year
The Pirelli tyres are also wider than last year, enabling more mechanical grip
Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel looked strong in testing
Mercedes expects Ferrari to be its biggest rival
New Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas could be Hamilton's toughest rival yet
Ahead of the Formula 1 season's opening round in Australia this weekend, we examine the 10 key things to look out for in 2017.
1. Lewis Hamilton’s quest for a fourth world title
The British ace felt hard done by at the end of last season. In his mind he’d delivered enough to beat his arch-rival Nico Rosberg, believed he was the better driver over the balance of the season and that circumstances rather than race performances were what decided the title in his now retired Mercedes team-mate’s favour.
The truth is probably somewhere in between, and while it would be wrong to suggest that Rosberg’s achievement was unwarranted, Hamilton was delivering career-best performances towards the end of year. It seems to be the case that Hamilton has returned from the winter break with a razor-sharp focus and a genuine enthusiasm for the new breed of Formula 1 cars – there is a chance he will dominate given the opportunity.
2. Can Valtteri Bottas stop him?
Seasoned observers have wanted to see how the Finn would fare in class-leading machinery for some time. He’s ticked every box except race wins at Williams, has the same relentless pace as was the case with a young Fernando Alonso in his Renault years (and some would argue still now), the only thing left to prove is whether he can deliver in a world-beating car.
If the Mercedes is as good as its predecessors, and the signs are that it will at least hold its own, then Bottas will win races. One of the stories of the season will be how this affects Hamilton’s occasionally sensitive mental equilibrium, and whether the Finn’s unemotional approach on the surface might begin to undermine Lewis’s campaign.
3. Has Ferrari really caught up?
It’s not the first time that Ferrari has won the winter testing war. Kimi Raikkonen ended the two four-day tests at Barcelona with the fastest time – a 1m18.634s - in the new SF70H. More ominous was the car’s medium-to-high speed cornering stability and consistency. That, along with the complementary comments from rival drivers and teams suggests that Ferrari might have a real contender on its hands.
Räikkönen had the upper hand on Sebastian Vettel for some of last year, but given a sniff at a title the German will be bang in the fight. That being said, Mercedes have never gone for headlines in testing and will have a more forceful approach to the timesheets this weekend. The jury remains out on Red Bull, but one suspects they are closer than they appear in the mirrors of the top two teams on pre-season paper.
4. Fascinating line-ups:
It’s been a little-mentioned fact that every single team on the grid this year has at least one genuine talisman. If you consider the top three teams as Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, then five of their six drivers have won grands prix, three are world champions, and the other three are at least strong contenders to become one… The midfield is hardly less stellar. You have Lance Stroll (the reigning European F3 champion) alongside a former world championship runner-up in Felipe Massa at Williams. Double-world champion Fernando Alonso partners with super-rookie Stoffel Vandorne at McLaren and highly-rated Le Mans winner Nico Hülkenberg at Renault as team-mate to GP2 champion Jolyon Palmer.
The bright pink Force Indias are piloted by Sergio Pérez and Mercedes junior ace Estaban Ocon. The improving Haas team has the surprisingly under-rated Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen, while Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz Jr is unlucky not to be driving something further up the grid. Even Sauber, which for a couple of years now has struggled for budget, has last year’s rookie of the year Pascal Wehrlein in its line-up. You could easily make a case for this being the most talented grid, top-to-bottom, ever.
5. The black stuff
Nico Hülkenberg suggested this week that it’s possible drivers won’t be able to push for entire stint distances on Pirelli’s new wider, fatter tyres. But whether or not that is the case, the tyres which are now 6cm wider at the front and 8cm wider at the rear have already proved, as part of a wider package of new rules, they are delivering considerably more grip.
Drivers reported in testing that while performance drop off still exists, it was less significant and more linear. It means they are really on the limit through the quick stuff. The downside for fans is that cars are not snapping out so viciously and that limited tyre degradation may lead to some drab races.
6. New rules, new cars
The rest of the new rules have been greeted by teams and drivers with a downforce-laden dollop of joy. They were introduced for a variety of reasons, not least to reinforce the image that F1 is the most demanding test of drivers, and to make the cars look cooler to a broader, younger audience – the target was to cut seconds off average lap times. The wider front and rear wings, more open aero regs and bigger diffusers have done just that.
Räikkönen’s best testing lap was 3.4s faster than last year’s Spanish Grand Prix pole time. But more than that, as the teams begin to explore the development window of these new machines, so the balance of power will shift between them. It is less likely that one team will dominate throughout the season as has been the case throughout the hybrid era so far.
7. It’s a new dawn for F1
As 2016 closed, so Bernie Ecclestone was moved out of power by the sport’s new owners, fronted by F1 CEO Chase Carey, MD of sport Ross Brawn and MD of commercial Sean Bratches. Their stated aim is to make F1 more exciting and more accessible.
The first signs of this will be when you look at Twitter and Instagram this weekend and see the drivers actively posting on their weekend’s progress, while Williams is running a live show on their Facebook channel. The bigger questions will be answered in time, and one of them I suppose is whether the sport has really seen the last of the man who has spent the last 40 years building it into a global monolith.
8. The racing
The irony is that while the new rules could jumble the pack, the chances are, it’s not going to be as good as it has been on track in recent years. More downforce means more drag, and more drag means more turbulent wake. That means it’s harder to follow cars. Max Verstappen, the sport’s arch disrupter has dismissed this theory already, saying he’s found no difference in testing. But there is no escaping the truth that at places like Melbourne, wider, faster cars generating more downward push will not make for an easier passing dynamic.
9. Lap records
They are going to tumble. It’s possible even that Juan Pablo Montoya’s lap 162.949mph average lap record during qualifying for the 2004 Italian Grand Prix could finally fall. Cars are travelling as much as 35mph faster through the really quick corners now and while Bottas’s 234.8mph top terminal velocity from last year might be safe due to the extra drag, a lot of those 2004 records will finally be beaten as Formula 1 evolves into its fastest ever configuration.
10. McLaren-Honda and Fernando Alonso
This has to be the single most frustrating aspect of F1 2017 so far. Love him or hate him, Alonso is world class, and in the minds of some of the best on the grid. That for the third straight season he is likely to be out of the mix is disastrous for him, McLaren and the sport. It might even be enough to see him take a step back and wait for a competitive drive and pursue other targets within motorsport. Equally, watching McLaren struggle is a bit like watching Manchester United fight off relegation – there are those who will enjoy it, but something doesn’t feel right with the sport if they're not performing.
The truth is that Honda’s engine is under-powered and under-lifed currently, and without drastic change, this once majestic partnership may be doomed to failure, whatever team insiders might say publicly. One desperately hopes not.