There are so many fascinating talking points as we board the planes taking us to Australia for the first Grand Prix, but this year we have the double whammy of a new set of regulations on the car designs and new owners of the sport, who will start to take F1 in a new direction.
I guess that shows the rate of change in the world today, that not one massive change, but two are happening at the same time. Many will hope that this also leads to a change in the competitive picture in F1 with more than one team able to win races and fight for the championship.
We’ve done some detailed work on what the F1 testing revealed and we’ve looked at a few characters and what their 2017 might look like, but here are some of my thoughts as I stare out of the window of the Etihad plane taking me to Australia.
Lewis Hamilton’s approach to 2017
We start with F1’s front runner. On paper he is already the world champion elect in the eyes of many. This is because of the level of domination Mercedes has enjoyed since 2014, but also the fact that Valtteri Bottas is not (yet) at the same performance level as Nico Rosberg, as testing demonstrated. If Bottas turns out to be a team mate more like Heikki Kovalainen was to Hamilton at McLaren in 2008, then that will be a major disappointment.
What will it do to Hamilton’s mindset? Well, he has his way of doing things and that works for him. He realised after Singapore and Japan last year that he could not to all the extra-curricular stuff he enjoys in LA and on the fashion and party scene and still hope to match Rosberg. If he has Bottas and other rivals pressurising him every week, then he might well carry the approach and performance through from the end of 2016.
Ferrari’s ability to develop a good car and to manage expectations inside the team
We’ve not heard much from Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne over the winter about his expectations for 2017. By his own admission it didn’t help last year when he said the team needed to win from the start. The new car looks really fast and works well with the new Pirelli wide tyres, but neither Marchionne nor anyone else at Ferrari is making any predictions about the season. Even if Mercedes was masking 0.6s of performance in testing through a turned-down engine and some extra weight in the car, as some team insiders believe, that still puts Ferrari very close on pace and able to challenge. If Mercedes was masking just 0.3s of pace, then they are evenly matched.
Ferrari didn’t cover themselves in glory on some strategy decisions last year and it’s a big season for Inaki Rueda, who runs the strategy side. He was a key James Allison guy, so he will need to feel strongly supported by the team as he makes the big calls in races. The signs are that there will be one pit stop fewer this year than in 2016, but strategists are also cautious to make that prediction until we have seen how the tyres act in China and Bahrain.
Incidentally, as in the last six seasons we will be producing the UBS Race Strategy Report on the Tuesday after every Grand Prix, with a deep dive into the key decisions that shaped the race with input and data from several F1 team strategists and from Pirelli.
Spotlight on the youth
Esteban Ocon has looked really good in testing with Force India. I don’t know how he looks in pink, but the 20 year old Frenchman has a real chance to end up in a Mercedes in a year or two if he performs well now. He was talent spotted as a youngster by Eric Boullier, but Toto Wolff bought out his contract from Gravity Management and one gets the impression that the management of Mercedes in Brackley really rate this kid.
Ocon’s up against a good benchmark in Sergio Perez and will be in the midst of a very tight midfield battle involving drivers like Felipe Massa, Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg. This gives plenty of opportunities to stand out in 2017. I will be watching Ocon closely.
I will also have a close eye on Lance Stroll, the 18 year old Canadian. He has been on the radar for a few years and earned his F1 chance by winning the FIA F3 series last year. Some would argue that another year of development might have been beneficial before jumping into F1, particularly in the year when the regulations make the cars much more physical to drive. An F3 driver’s longest race is half an hour, no comparison with 100 minutes in an F1 car pulling 6g nowadaays laterally in corners and under braking.
Youth has been in vogue since Max Verstappen breezed in aged 17 and made it look easy. Stroll is not Verstappen, but observers say he is not Max Chilton either. I suspect he’ll have some crashes early doors, but I’ll be looking beyond the stereotype of the rich man’s son with a heavy right foot to see the F1 driver he might become. For Williams it puts greater emphasis on the other driver and Felipe Massa will be interesting to watch. He has been given an extra bonus year and as leaving F1 wasn’t really his idea anyway last September, more a result of circumstances, I’ll be watching carefully to see how ‘on it’ he is.
What are you looking out for in F1 2017? Leave your comments in the section below,