The Formula One (F1) season is back. The first race weekend begins on 25 March at Albert Park in Melbourne. The street circuit has played host to the curtain-raiser race for many seasons now and this year’s 20-race calendar is no different.
But that is where the similarity ends. The 2017 season signals the most radical technical rule changes F1 has seen in a long time. Reigning F1 world champion Nico Rosberg, now retired, says the new cars “look absolutely monstrous, very, very aggressive”. On the first day of the pre-season testing on 1 March at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain, while speaking to the media, Rosberg said: “They need to be proper gladiators out there because the cars will take them to their physical limits. We might even see drivers losing race wins just because of being game over physically. That is what we need.”
The new rulebook
The new rules will enable greater aerodynamic and mechanical grip to increase the speeds at which these cars will now be able to race around corners and bends; this, in turn, will reduce lap times and make for a better spectacle.
The first big change pertains to the front and rear wings. The new cars have a front-wing span of 1,800mm, compared with 1,650mm earlier, while the rear wing is now 950mm wide, against 750mm earlier. This new aero package will be paired with wider Pirelli rubber tyres—305mm wide for the front and 405mm for the rear. New regulations also give teams the liberty to make cars a bit wider. Increased width and lower rear-wing height will mean that the cars look a lot like the pre-1998 era in terms of dimensions.
In other words, the 2017 cars are wider, heavier, and perhaps more aggressive-looking too.
Faster, but also more exciting?
The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) claims that there will be substantial reduction in lap times, sometimes even more than 3 seconds per lap, on most circuits. While engine power cannot be ignored, aerodynamics, the rubber compounds and the overall weight of the car also have an impact on overall performance. Let us take the example of the 2015 and 2016 cars. Despite improvements in aerodynamics and weight reduction, the 2016 cars had much smaller V6 engines, yet Nico Rosberg’s pole position lap time at the Hungarian Grand Prix was more than 2 seconds faster than in 2015. One of the criticisms levelled against F1 as a sport is the lack of overtaking moves and the general lack of excitement.
It remains to be seen whether the change in rules will translate in more overtaking manoeuvres—otherwise we may just end up with a dreary procession of cars going round-and-round, just a bit faster than before.
The social media apex
Under Bernie Ecclestone, F1 drivers and teams were governed by strict guidelines on the content they could post about the sport on social media. With the new owners, Liberty Media Group, in charge, some of the tough rules are being rolled back. The teams were given the rights to release video footage from the first pre-season testing at the Circuit de Catalunya. The new owners are renegotiating terms with broadcasters around the world who have exclusive rights to air F1 globally, to allow teams and drivers to be better connected with fans.
Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport
Drivers: Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas
Chassis: F1 W08 EQ Power+
Mercedes have increased the wheelbase length by 15m. The front suspension, completely redesigned sides and bargeboards will direct airflow. Mercedes wanted a fresh design, so only 17% of the components have been carried over from the predecessor.
Drivers: Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen
Over the years, Ferrari headed into each season behind the curve in terms of aerodynamics and suspension. This season, the Italian outfit has taken some risks with the design, such as the T-wing concept and higher sidepods. Unlike Mercedes though, Ferrari haven’t altered the wheelbase length at all, and engine power shouldn’t be something to worry about.
Red Bull Racing
Drivers: Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen
Engine: TAG Heuer
Red Bull makes some of the most beautiful F1 cars. The team has struggled with outright straight-line speed in the past couple of seasons, and the challenge will be the updated Renault-TAG Heuer engine—working out ways to get more power to be able to compete with rivals like Mercedes and Ferrari on the faster circuits.
Drivers: Fernando Alonso, Stoffel Vandoorne
Last year, Honda’s engine was woefully short on power. Reliability issues plagued the McLaren cars again in the pre-season testing. There are rumours that McLaren could be contemplating severing ties with Honda, perhaps later this year. Expect another season of struggles.
Drivers: Sergio Perez, Esteban Ocon
Always a midfield runner, because it doesn’t have luxurious budgets. The Mercedes engine is powerful, and there are great hopes from the new set-up.
Drivers: Felipe Massa, Lance Stroll
Williams continue their transition, and the unexpected retirement of Nico Rosberg opened a seat for Valtteri Bottas to slip into Mercedes. This meant that Williams had to recall Felipe Massa as the experienced driver, alongside rookie Lance Stroll. The Mercedes engine may power them to some heroics, but they will be mid-field runners at best.
Drivers: Daniil Kvyat, Carlos Sainz
Toro Rosso were the first to launch the 2017 car. If they do well here, it could fast-track one of the drivers into a seat at the parent Red Bull Racing team—something former driver Max Verstappen will testify to. Expect them to be solid mid-field runners, waiting to grab a podium finish if the leaders trip.
Drivers: Nico Hulkenberg, Jolyon Palmer
A far cry from 2005 and 2006, when Fernando Alonso was setting a scorching pace and leading Renault to the world championship. Now firmly a mid-table team, they will try their best to take advantage of the new regulations, to shoot ahead of their rivals and gather critical points.
Drivers: Marcus Ericsson, Pascal Wehrlein
This is one of the cars that has been designed from scratch, without a single part from the previous car. The Ferrari engine they use does have an advantage over the Renault engine in terms of power, which gives them a better starting point to build on.
Drivers: Romain Grosjean, Kevin Magnussen
It is powered by a Ferrari engine and new aerodynamics. Some surprise results may not be out of the question. On faster circuits, however, expect them to struggle.