Happy New Year to all readers!
The turning of the page from 2015 into 2016 offers new opportunities for some, while others will face new struggles and there are some big changes for the sport in the pipeline. So let’s take a look at what lies ahead this year in the F1 world.
Mercedes in a dilemma over driver favouritism
Mercedes has dominated F1 since the change to hybrid turbos in 2014 and looks set to start ahead in 2016 again, with all hopes pinned on Ferrari bridging the gap of around 2/10ths in race pace and 6/10ths in qualifying pace, which we saw at the end of last season.
The weak point of this team is the relationship between the drivers and its potentially negative effect on team spirit.
Over the Christmas break Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has acknowledged that Mercedes domination has been bad for the sport and even floated the idea that they could change policy on race strategy if 2016 looked like being another Mercedes whitewash; he would sanction a free-for-all on strategy during races, allowing Hamilton and Rosberg to do what they wanted. This is very much against the way Paddy Lowe and strategy chief James Vowles have run things thus far.
“I want the dominance to continue but if it were to continue like this, I need to think what to do so we do not become the enemy and how we can help the show,” Wolff said.
“Maybe it’s about unleashing the two of them completely. Make them have their own strategy. That would be a solution.”
This is dangerous talk as far as the team is concerned and the resolution of this matter is likely to be one of the key themes of 2016.
Both drivers at various points last year asked for a special strategy to get one over on the other and were refused. The team’s policy is to try to find two strategies which give both drivers an equal chance to win, but without favouring either. Sometimes during a race a strategy opens up that gives one driver a clear advantage over the other. Mercedes has been reluctant to go down that route because they know it always leads to recriminations and bad blood after the race.
We saw the return of the feud between Rosberg and Hamilton towards the end of the season and if the team changes policy and sets up two independent strategy teams, while it will lead to better racing for the fans, it will also split the garage down the middle, ramp up the hostility and divide the team.
It will be very interesting to see what Mercedes decides to do.
Pressure at Ferrari
Former Mercedes engineer Jock Clear starts work at Ferrari this month in his new role as head of race operations on the engineering side. The first thing he will notice is the pressure inside Maranello to win.
The Italian squad has not won a championship now since the 2007 Drivers’ and 2008 Constructors’ and last season’s renaissance with three wins and 16 podiums gave them back their belief. But that can be a dangerous thing at Maranello, because for them it’s a short step between belief and pressure to deliver a title, which historically has proven to be the point at which things start to go wrong.
This time Ferrari have some great assets: a very strong technical leader in James Allison, for whom this will be the test he has spent his career building towards and they also have a strong leader in the cockpit in Sebastian Vettel, who has four world championships behind him to back up any big call he makes.
New team boss Maurizio Arrivabene gained some admirers in 2015 and has to build on that this year. He knows his strengths and his weaknesses. But the key strength he needs to show this year is the ability to protect the team from excessive expectation from above – especially from its ruthless chairman Sergio Marchionne – and not interfere. If he does that, Ferrari has a chance.
Reasons to be cheerful
F1 always reinvents itself, even during lean years and for 2016 we have two “new” teams on the grid, or rather one brand new one in Haas and one ‘retread’ in the Renault team. The grids will therefore feature 22 cars.
Haas has had a controversial build up to its entry with the row over Ferrari’s clever use of its wind tunnel to develop the car without the restrictions that face existing teams.
But no-one begrudges Haas taking the benefits of its clever strategy. The car will be pretty solid, with a good engine and at least one very good driver in Romain Grosjean. The jury is out on Esteban Gutierrez, but the next couple of seasons give him a chance to show what he’s got, up against one of the fastest drivers in F1.
I’d expect Haas to race against Sauber as a benchmark, as both are powered by the same Ferrari engine. If they are consistently ahead, they have done a very good job. If they are behind, then catching them is their target.
Sauber scored 36 points last year. Haas would be very happy with a total like that in their first season. Haas’ relationship with Ferrari could well lead to Sauber breaking with Maranello and going with Honda power from 2017 onwards, keep an eye out for that.
As mentioned on these pages earlier this week, Renault is now rebuilding the team after the lay-offs and redundancies at Lotus in the last couple of years. It’s a popular place to work and the core group of engineers is largely still there, so they should have no problem recruiting talent. Then it’s about improving the Renault power unit, which will happen now that they’ve decided to turn the money tap on and commit properly to F1. Renault’s involvement has been badly mismanaged in recent years, but the hope is that now they can show that ingenuity and flair which brought them the 2005 and 2006 titles.
In Pastor Maldonado and Jolyon Palmer they have one of the weaker driver line ups, but both have a chance to show what they can do in a manufacturer backed team, for one year at least, before the Regie makes some bold moves on drivers for 2017 and beyond, which is good news for some of the young talent.
The Toro Rosso pair will continue to excite. Max Verstappen was 2015’s most prolific overtaker and Carlos Sainz showed great speed. This year with a well sorted Ferrari 2015 engine in the back, the cars will be reliable and that means both drivers will get plenty of chances to see the chequered flag in points paying positions. I’d expect one or both to get a podium, perhaps early on in the season, while others are still sorting out their packages. They will lose out in the second half of the season, due to engine development, but by then both drivers will be in the thick of discussions about their next teams with Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull and Renault all in the market, potentially.
Reasons to be worried
Off track, this will be a heavy year politically, possibly the heaviest since 2009. Last year closed with the FIA World Council giving Jean Todt and Bernie Ecclestone a mandate to do whatever is necessary to bring down the cost of engines and that puts them on a collision course with Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault and Honda. The first two in particular will take on the challenge.
Like the battle in 2009, which nearly ended in a teams’ breakaway, this battle is about the same things; money and excessive manufacturer control. It will be handled differently by a different generation of team bosses, but you will read some apocalyptic headlines and hear some heavy threats in 2016.
It all starts with a deadline of the middle of this month for the manufacturers to come up with a plan to dramatically reduce the cost of engines to customer teams and to make F1 engines simpler and more fan friendly.
Then we have some external forces that could shake up the sport; the European Union will decide in the next few months whether there is a case to investigate in F1, after Sauber and Force India made an official complaint that the money is unfairly distributed and that this skews the competition in F1. They have a strong case.
If the EU decides to investigate and finds against F1, then the winners will be Bernie Ecclestone, who loves operating amid uncertainty and chaos, and the smaller teams, who ultimately should get a fairer slice of the money. The losers will be fat cat teams like Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes and McLaren as well as F1’s majority owner CVC Capital Partners, which has decided not to sell F1 at present but to hold on for around two more years.
What do you think? What are you most and least looking forward to in 2016? Leave your comments in the section below