Pre-season testing suggests Mercedes is again the team to beat, although Palmer reckons Red Bull could be its closest challenger. “Red Bull ended last year strongly with a couple of wins and can build on that,” says Palmer. “They started last year on the back foot in testing and developed well, and they’re in much better shape this year.”
McLaren and Honda move on
After three increasingly acrimonious seasons, McLaren and Honda staged a very public divorce at the end of last year. British team McLaren landed a supply of customer Renault engines and Honda salvaged its spot on the grid by agreeing to supply Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s ‘B team’.
So far, Honda looks like it’s faring better; Toro Rosso set the most laps of any team in testing, while McLaren suffered reliability woes.
“Toro Rosso was the surprise of the pre-season,” says Palmer. “It’s been incredibly reliable so far.” That said, he warns against writing off McLaren: “They had a lot of reliability problems in testing, but Fernando Alonso did set some good times. They should develop a lot as well. When you change to another engine supplier, it’s like starting a new relationship.”
The Liberty effect
This will be Liberty Media’s second full season in charge of F1 and the first in which it can really make its impact felt. That has meant a lot of fiddling round the edges: grid girls are gone (sparking a big public debate); grid kids are in; start times have moved; social media and online streaming are being developed; and F1 is even getting its own global theme tune (and, no, it’s not The Chain).
“Generally, I like what Liberty are doing,” says Palmer. “I raced for a year under Bernie [Ecclestone] and a year under Liberty, and they’re going in the right way with good intentions. They’re modernising F1 a bit, taking on the views of drivers and other stakeholders.”
The biggest switch that might affect fans is the change in start times; races will start at 10 minutes past the hour, with European races shuffled back a full hour to try to boost ratings.