Pre-Season Preconceptions

So, testing for the 2016 has been completed and there’s now less than a week until we get to see these cars in action at Albert Park in Melbourne. This was only my second experience of testing but I know well enough from last year that it’s hard to take a lot from the timesheets but regardless, I am going to throw out my thoughts and expectations going into this season. Mainly just so I can have a good laugh at how wrong I was at the end of the year.

The Teams
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Mercedes Benz – Still very clearly the favourites going into this season. They never really showed their true pace during the whole of testing and, come the second test, it was hard to know what they could have even been testing! Aside from one breakdown right at the end of the test, their reliability seems impeccable and they were clocking up the miles. It’s fair to say they are still going to be the team to beat, at least in the first part of the season. But you have to wonder how much further they can improve.

As far as their drivers are concerned, it’s hard to know how that’s going to play out. The friction between them is still clear and Nico Rosberg is going into this season on the back of three successive wins. People put that down to Lewis Hamilton easing off after he won the championship but I personally think that’s being used as a convenient excuse. Don’t forget that he also hasn’t had pole since Italy. I’m hoping that Nico will be able to carry this momentum forward and throw the gauntlet down right from the word go. I fear if he is beaten by a fair margin by Lewis at the season opener, that he may take too long to fight back, as we saw last year.

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Scuderia Ferrari – The team who made the biggest advancement last year still seem to be the team most likely to take the fight to Mercedes. There were some breakdowns throughout the test but nothing they seem too concerned about and it’s always better to have them now than during the race weekends. They appear to have improved in almost every area and data suggests that they have potentially halved their deficit to Mercedes but only time will tell. Nico Rosberg said that Mercedes’ data suggested that they might even be ahead of them but I honestly find that unlikely. I feel like Mercedes will just say things like this to try and keep interest high, instead of turning people away with their dominance. But I would be pleasantly surprised if this were to be the case.

They continue with the strong partnership of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel, Kimi looking especially quick throughout the test but Sebastian largely lauded as the one to take the fight to the two Mercedes drivers given his record and how easily he has taken to the Italian team. The German would probably be the first to tell you not to discount the 2007 World Champion, however. He bore the brunt of Ferrari’s unreliability last year that robbed him of good results and combined with some errors, left him behind his teammate. But I believe if he can get a better start to the season, he will be up there with the other three. And I don’t doubt that Ferrari are just waiting for Mercedes to implode from trying to manage their two drivers, allowing them to pick up the pieces.

Williams 2016

Williams Martini Racing – Ah, Williams. Forever a mystery. Testing was much like watching Williams on a Friday of a GP weekend and worrying that they’re off the pace and falling down the pack. Then qualifying comes along and BAM. The first test looked pretty mediocre and my hopes began to fade but then the second test came along and now I’m feeling very optimistic about their prospects. They got through all their programmes and tests and seem very happy with the results so far. They still seem to be around the P3 area but how long that will last, it’s hard to tell. They’ve had a lot of stick for basically only getting P3 last year because of the misfortune of Red Bull and McLaren but in my opinion, that wasn’t luck, that was capitalising, something you need to do in this sport. Plus, people fail to remember that Williams stopped working on their car early last year to focus on 2016. There are already updates planned for Melbourne and also a micro nose making an appearance in Bahrain so I believe they are forging ahead and making gains. Time will tell if they’ve managed to crack their downforce problems and wet weather running, however. I’m still crossing my fingers for a win, sooner rather than later.

Felipe and Valtteri remain with the team and are a strong pairing. The fight between the two of them will be just as interesting this year as it has been the previous two. I just hope reliability doesn’t disrupt their points battles.

RBR 2016

Red Bull Racing – There is a big question mark hanging over this former world championship winning team. How good is that engine going to be? How long before they can compete for podiums again? They’ve confessed themselves that they expect their sister team of Toro Rosso to be ahead of them for the first part of the season but they seem very optimistic for the second half. But I find it hard to believe what they say lately. They made such a pig’s ear out of their situation last year, silly season ended up consisting of which engines were going to end up at which team, rather than drivers. But they have ended up with a Renault engine that isn’t exactly a Renault engine and it’s hard to know just how competitive they can be with it or what their long term plan might be. If they have another year like 2015, will owner Dietrich Mateschitz even still want to continue in F1?

Red Bull have continued with their 2015 line up of Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat which has proven to be strong. We know that Dan can win races and is good with his tyres and Dany really stepped up his game last year, proving that he did deserve the promotion to the lead team. I think podiums should be possible for them at some point, but will it be too late to get them into the top 3 of the constructors?

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Sahara Force India – As a Williams fan, this is the team I am most concerned about this year. They’ve been looking very strong in testing and had a strong second half of the 2015 season, especially with Sergio Perez which was a surprise to many, myself included. They have the best power unit on the grid and they have a good chassis, particularly at the back end which is a very good foundation to build from. I think they are going to threaten good points and some podiums this year, especially if they are able to develop the car to the extent they did last year (which is questionable).

Still no change in drivers here and it will serve the team well. Hulkenberg is long overdue an F1 podium and Sergio will want to keep his momentum going so I see them being very strong this year.

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Toro Rosso – I’m very interested in what this team can do this year. Despite having the same engine as RBR last year, they often performed better than them in the early part of the season which shows they have a good chassis. Now with the 2015 Ferrari engine in the back, I think it is going to show its sister team up quite a bit in the early races. And the reliability of that engine is good so hopefully they can capitilise on this early on before their rivals catch up. For the most part, I see them duking it out with Force India on a regular basis.

No longer rookies but still the youngest pair on the grid, Toro Rosso stuck with Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr for their line up. I feel there is a potential for a surprise podium for them but it would be very dependent on conditions, much like Sebastian’s Monza win in 2008. I’m hoping that now with Max’s first season out of the way and all the discussions of whether he’s old/experienced enough to be part of F1 are over and done with, Carlos will get some of the limelight and praise for his part in the team. He just needs to make sure those rookie mistakes like speeding in the pit lane are out of his system. Toro Rosso is not a team for multiple chances.

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Sauber – Last year, the Swiss team were a big talking point during testing. The Ferrari engine had them making frequent appearances near the top of the timesheets, the colourful livery was turning a lot of heads and they were trying to wade their way through a very messy court case. This year has been almost a complete 180 for the team. They’ve had a very unspectacular test and appear to be near the back of the mid-field. They will naturally benefit from the Ferrari engine but they are no longer the only team to benefit from this as both Haas and Toro Rosso will be powered by Ferrari (although STR’s engine is the older model). Sauber are renowned for not really developing the car throughout the year so I think it might be difficult for them to get points this year.

They too retained their line-up of Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr. I feel they might be a bit anonymous this year but I hope to be proved wrong and that they are given opportunities to race hard. Their main competition will probably be Haas and possibly McLaren.

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Renault – The Lotus name has gone once more to be replaced with the familiar one of world championship winners Renault. They have suffered some reliability issues during testing but collected a fair amount of mileage and data to work with and prepare for Australia. We know that they are a force to be reckoned with when they get things right, both as a works team and as an engine supplier but this year I think is going to be a learning year. I imagine they’ll have something of a rocky start and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a continuation of the unreliability for the first several races but come the end of the year I think they will be scrapping for good points in the mid-field.

This team boasts one of my favourite line-ups of the year. I am very excited to see Kevin Magnussen return to Formula 1 after being unceremoniously dumped twice by McLaren, firstly from his race seat and then from the team altogether. It’s going to be a challenge being the lead driver of a developing team after only one year’s track experience BUT Renault are not new to F1 which will certainly help and I believe he learned a lot from being on the sidelines and taking notes all of last year. It’s also nice to see a GP2 champion get an F1 seat seeing as that is largely the point of having a feeder series. I look forward to there being another Brit in Formula 1 and seeing what Jolyon can manage on the track. I think they will be a strong pair and are just what the team needs to build up from. The only thing is if they are going to be able to provide adequate feedback with their relative inexperience.

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McLaren – It’s undeniable that they have enjoyed a much better testing than they suffered through last year, not only with the unreliability, lack of running but also the accident that Alonso suffered during the final test. But was it good enough to give them hope for this season? It’s hard to say, really. Reliability has improved and they managed many more miles but they still suffered some issues and are still very clearly down on power and straight line speed. It is unlikely that we will find them qualifying down with the Manors like last season but I still think they are initially very much packed into the mid-field. Last year, they believed podiums would be possible by the end of the season. We know this was beyond optimistic and so it is hard for me to really take them at face value when they say the same again this year. But I hope for their sake that they see progress being made.

There was some speculation as to whether Fernando Alonso would stay with McLaren this season despite being contracted for the next two years. But he looks certain to see out this season at the very least and I can’t say I’m too surprised. I believe he’s too proud to back down now. He left Ferrari and now they’re flourishing; no matter what he may say, it is going to hurt. The best thing he can do is stay with McLaren and keep building the team up. I do believe they will fight at the front again, it all just depends on if he can hang around long enough to see it happen. Jenson Button is as keen as ever and I really hope that we do see them further up the grid this year because I want to see them properly fighting with each other for points, rather than both of them just trying to get their cars to the end of the race. I’m also hoping that reliability improves enough that they don’t have to take penalties at almost every race. That was becoming a joke, and not a very funny one.

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Manor – Manor are one of the other big question marks of the season. Rookie line-up, new engine, new management…it’s hard to know just how their season is going to go. It’s reasonable to assume that they will still be the proverbial ‘back-markers’ of the grid but I think this year they may very well have a shot at scoring some points. It may only be in certain situations where several cars retire, rather than on merit alone but it would still be important for the team. The Mercedes power unit will go a long way to helping them, along with the Williams suspension. It’s undeniably a better car, it’s just a question of if they can make the most of it. John Booth and Graeme Lowdon exited the team at the end of last season which was a great shame because, in my opinion, they were very much the heart and soul of that team. Now it feels more managerial and money motivated, rather than embracing a love of racing but maybe that will change throughout the season when/if they get more media coverage.

As current DTM champion, they have a promising driver in Pascal Wehrlein. He has shown good pace and good reliability and will no doubt have future aspirations of becoming a Mercedes driver so will definitely be wanting to make a good impression in Formula 1. Then we have Rio Haryanto. As someone who was rooting for Alexander Rossi to get the remaining seat, I will admit to being disappointed in this decision but time will tell if they have made the right decision or not. You can’t really blame a team like this for giving the seat to the highest bidder, after all. He had a couple of offs during testing but I’ll put that down to inexperience in an F1 car and hope for everyone’s sake that these mistakes are ironed out early on.

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Haas – The new kids on the block. But unlike previous new teams, Haas already have a lot of motorsport experience and this is undoubtedly going to benefit them, along with their healthy budget. Things initially looked good for them and they were able to get many laps under their belts and gather important data. However, they did end up getting hampered by reliability problems later in the test which has to be expected for a new team. They still had a much better time of it than McLaren did last year so that’s promising for them. With the Ferrari engine in the back, they should be set for points throughout the season, especially as they seem to have a good chassis. I think their main competition will be McLaren, at least at the start of the year.

Romain Grosjean took a risk leaving Renault – the team he has been with for his whole F1 career – and going to a new team. I really hope it pays off for him because we know he can get podiums and I am sure he could be a race winner with the right car. He has enough experience to provide valuable feedback to the team and help them improve over time. We also see the return of Esteban Gutierrez who was dumped by Sauber at the end of 2014 and spent all of last season with Ferrari which I think will have served him well. It will also stand him in good stead for a potential race seat with the Scuderia when Kimi leaves the team, what with Haas being a customer team.

Other Talking Points

Halo Hang-Ups

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Ferrari were the first team to test out the proposed halo for 2017; an attempt to increase safety and prevent fatal head injuries from occurring in the future. I think pretty much everyone was in agreement that it isn’t the most attractive addition but from there, opinions are very divided.

Kimi Raikkonen was the one to try it out on the Catalunya circuit (a curious choice, it has to be said considering his reputation for one word responses) and commented that it was “OK” but did also say that it limited visibility somewhat which, to me, is just as dangerous so there is definite work to be done there.

Sebastian Vettel (also a member of the GPDA, of course) agreed that it was ugly but if it could save lives then the appearance shouldn’t matter and I agree with him on that. From what I have been able to tell, there have been several drivers who are pro-halos (Vettel, Rosberg, Ricciardo, Sainz), even more who are either indifferent or have chosen not to voice their opinions and then two who have been rather outspoken in their dislike of the entire concept. The first is Nico Hulkenberg which I have to say is quite surprising. He claims that the danger is why they do what they do and they shouldn’t change that. This is something I have seen said by numerous fans, the same ones saying that these men are paid millions to do what they do, they should earn it and not have things sanitized. Which to me is just ridiculous. If you are going to think less of these people for not wanting to risk their lives then more fool you. I don’t want to see any of these people lose their lives because of this sport, that is not why I watch it. Besides, the halo would be there to prevent injury from freak accidents, mostly debris from accidents they weren’t even involved with. Are people really saying that they would prefer someone get fatally injured by someone else’s tyre or nose cone or spring?

The other person who is so outspoken against it is current world champion Lewis Hamilton and I find this most disappointing. I get that a lot of these drivers probably don’t want the halo. A lot of them want the cars to be faster, want the danger aspect to it, it’s in their nature. But when you are world champion, ultimately the face of your sport, it’s important that you think about what you say because your opinions are going to matter more than most. It doesn’t look good when people are trying to make things better and the world champion is demeaning it. I hope he either thinks more about the benefits or just keeps his opinions to himself in the future.

Qualifying Quandary

Formula 1, in all its wisdom, has decided to change the qualifying format for this season starting in Melbourne. Why? Apparently, to make the grids more interesting. Is that actually going to be the case? It remains to be seen but the majority of people – myself included – doubt it. Even Bernie has now turned around and said that he doesn’t like the idea which begs the question: why is it going ahead? The drivers don’t like it, the fans don’t like it, now the head of Formula 1 doesn’t even like it when it was his idea. It wouldn’t surprise me if the new format didn’t even see out the end of the season.

Firstly, it’s complicating something that didn’t need to be complicated. Everyone understood qualifying, no one had a problem with qualifying. It’s the racing that needs to improve.

The new rules are (taken from Formula1.com)

“The three-session knockout system remains, but instead of a specified number of drivers being eliminated after set time periods, the clock will soon start ticking during each session.

Q1 will run for 16 minutes. After seven of them the current slowest car will be eliminated. This process will repeat every 90 seconds until 15 cars are left.

After a break they will proceed to Q2, which will last for 15 minutes, and after six the 90-second elimination periods will start again until only eight cars are left.

After another break Q3 will then see all eight running, but after five minutes six further cars will be eliminated over 90s periods until only two cars are left in a head-to-head fight for pole.”

There are many unanswered questions with this method and as such, I feel like Australia is going to be a bit of a mess but only time will tell. The hope is that this new format will give a more muddled grid but from what I can tell, that’s not going to be the case. Maybe for the first few races, sure, but once teams figure out their strategy, it won’t be any different to before. And if cars are out of position, it’s likely to lead to more chaos rather than exciting races. You’re probably looking at more first lap incidents and more aggravation with faster cars unable to get past slower ones ahead of them because overtaking is still terrible in F1. These are the things that need tackling, not qualifying.

Compound Conundrums

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Pirelli have introduced a new compound for this year – the purple ultrasoft. This will largely be a qualifying tyre as it’s life will not be more than a few laps at a stretch. It’s hard to know if this new compound is going to make all that much of a difference in the scheme of things, especially as it will only be used at certain races, Monaco being their first appearance.

I think the more interesting tyre aspect this year is the extended freedom of tyre choice. Once again, I do feel it’s adding confusion where it shouldn’t and is going to result in a lot of tyre talk and theorising which isn’t something I especially enjoy but it will be interesting to see how teams and especially drivers tackle it.

For Melbourne, we’ve seen that every team bar one has given each driver the same strategy. The exception? Mercedes. Which I find very interesting. They have always proclaimed that it was important to treat their drivers equally but this year they have made a point of wanting to let their drivers battle it out more and this may well go some way to doing that. Every driver has a different style and it will be interesting to see how they choose their tyres based on that. For example, we know that Daniel Ricciardo is very good at making his tyres last longer than almost anyone else and so having more freedom to choose compounds may well play into his hands because he can choose more sets of the faster tyres, knowing that he will keep them alive longer.

Radio Restrictions

This was something that started back in Singapore 2014 and caused much confusion at the time, most of which was never even cleared up. Now it’s been announced that there will be even tighter restrictions as far as radio transmissions are concerned. I understand not coaching a driver through a grand prix, that makes sense to me because we want to see the drivers using their own initiative but to limit it so much? I always like hearing the radio feed, it gives the fans an extra insight into everything. But when it’s just “OK, we’re going to strat 2” or “box box box”, that’s not overly interesting. It will be a shame to lose that but from the driver’s perspective I expect most of them are probably happy not to have someone in their ear for so much of the race.

I do also wonder how they can enforce these restrictions. There are long lists of what can’t be discussed over team radio but nowhere have I seen what kind of penalty would be applied should it occur. Would they really penalise a driver if their engineer had a momentary lapse and mentioned something they shouldn’t? Would it just be a monetary fine?

In Conclusion

On the face of it, 2016 looks to be more interesting than its predecessor. Hopes are high that Ferrari will be able to challenge Mercedes on a regular basis, regulation changes in format and in tyres will mix things up a bit (at least initially) and we have new drivers and a new team on the grid to look out for.

On a personal note, I am really hoping to see Williams do well this year. It’s going to be hard to maintain P3 in the championship but I believe they can do it and that they can be there to clinch a race win should something happen to Mercedes.

Fingers crossed that we have a season-long championship battle on our hands this year!

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