The pre-season testing is all wrapped up, cars are tuned in and ready and the Albert Park Circuit in Melbourne is homologated. The new season of Formula One (F1) begins with the first race on 26 March—here is a look at what to expect this season.
There are tweaks at the start of every season, and after a two-three year cycle, the whole formula is redone. This is one such year, though the sport’s governing body, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, has just stopped short of making wholesale changes to the engine formula introduced in 2014.
So, 1.6 litre V6 turbocharged engines will continue to power F1 cars. But the sport as a whole has moved away from being power-unit centric towards being more aerodynamics-oriented. The biggest change is in Pirelli tyre specifications: While the wheel sizes remain at 13 inches, the tyres are 25% wider than in 2016, giving the cars a bulkier look, a throwback to the turbo-era of the late 1980s.
According to changes in aerodynamic regulations, the cars will be wider (up from 1,800mm to 2,000mm), the front wings will be wider (from 1,650mm to 1,800mm), the height of rear wings has been brought down (from 950mm to 800mm), and diffusers have been made more powerful with an increase in height and width. All these point to greater downforce for this season’s newly designed F1 cars, allowing them to gain more speed.
In the pre-season testing at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain, the quickest time registered was 1:18.634 by Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen, beating 2016’s pole position time of 1:22.000 set by Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton on the same circuit.
Two other significant rule changes are that teams will not be allowed to make wholesale changes to power units in the event of failure during a particular race weekend. Plus, there will be standing starts in wet-weather races, as opposed to rolling starts behind a safety car as was the practice the last two years.
What testing revealed
Whenever there are rule changes, the gap between teams widens to a certain extent. The factory teams (read traditional, wealthier) move ahead with quicker lap times and improved reliability. The middle-rung teams are left playing catch-up for the rest of the season.
Something similar has come out of two pre-season tests in Barcelona. Mercedes (1,096 laps, 5,101km) and Ferrari (956 laps, 4,450km) are top of the heap, with Williams (800 laps, 3,724km) and Red Bull Racing (684 laps, 3,184km) bunched together in pace and mileage.
The rest—Force India (785 laps, 3,654km), Renault (597 laps, 2,779km) and the Haas F1 Team (715 laps, 3,328km)—are competing with each other. Toro Rosso (584 laps, 2,718km) and Sauber (787 laps, 3,663km) have some catching up to do.
The biggest disappointment is McLaren (425 laps, 1,978km)—their longest stint in pre-season testing was 11 laps, and the team used up five engines in eight days of pre-season testing, one more than is allowed for the entire 20-race season.
Due to the variable fuel loads and different tyre options used by teams in pre-season testing, it isn’t easy to identify the pecking order, though the two tests revealed how Ferrari were able to run longer and go quicker than other teams.
“Ferrari are possibly the favourites. We can’t take our eyes off them as they are doing such a great job (in testing),” said three-time champion Hamilton, setting the stage for an intriguing first race weekend.
Who are the contenders?
After the surprising retirement of 2016 F1 champion Nico Rosberg, Hamilton is expected to get a fourth title this season. Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas is Hamilton’s new teammate, and it remains to be seen if he can adjust to his new team and car quickly enough to start pushing the British driver from the beginning.
It is a make-or-break season for Ferrari. After Sebastian Vettel joined them in 2015, winning three races that year, this combination was expected to compete for the title in 2016. Instead, Ferrari didn’t win a single race. It put the spotlight early on this year’s car, SF70H, and from the outset, it has looked different in both design and performance.
So much so, there has been a rumour in F1 circles that Räikkönen was not even driving his quickest possible while setting the fastest lap timing in pre-season testing. Add to it the vast resources available at Maranello (Ferrari’s base in Italy), and this could be the year when Ferrari finally take the fight to Mercedes.
Meanwhile, Red Bull’s two wins in 2016—when Mercedes won 19 out of 21 races—cannot be ignored. Neither can the fact that genius aerodynamicist Adrian Newey is once again actively involved with Red Bull’s F1 team as their chief technical officer. He was the focal point of this team’s dominant run from 2010-13, when they won four successive constructors’ and drivers’ titles, the latter with Vettel at the wheel.
Fast cars with burly tyres have been introduced this year to improve the all-round spectacle. Come Sunday, when the pecking order is finally revealed, fans across the world will be hoping F1 can finally deliver on the hype in 2017.
Chetan Narula is the author of History Of Formula One: The Circus Comes To India.