In what has become a ritual for the teams and fans of Formula One, they travel to Melbourne next week to welcome in the start of the 2017 season, this time without a defending world champion, without Bernie Ecclestone, and with a brand new set of fast, angry-looking cars born from regulations designed to reduce lap times by five seconds.
The new regulations are an attempt to bring back a sense of danger and speed to a sanitised sport. Pirelli, so often the scapegoat for F1’s critics in recent years, have also been instructed to create less temperature-sensitive and more durable tyres, with the lower-set, wider rear wing and widened side-pods adding on average 15 per cent more downforce in comparison to last season’s cars, corners three and nine at Barcelona will now be flat-out.
New F1 owners Liberty Media have rung the changes already in an attempt to finally drag the sport they purchased at the end of 2016 kicking and screaming into the 21st Century world of social media. Teams are now, for the first time, allowed to release videos from within the paddock and pit-lane on social media, a departure from the stranglehold broadcasters had on all video content from the circuit under Ecclestone. A burst of social media interaction between teams and fans has followed, enabling a younger and more diverse audience access to the sport. The only obvious loss under Liberty Media was the lack of an attempt to save the German Grand Prix, after Hockenheim was dropped by Ecclestone for financial reasons.
Pre-season testing also teased the possible demise of the recent dominance of Mercedes, with Ferrari providing the best challenge. The Silver Arrows may even have been overtaken by the Prancing Horse, with Kimi Raikkonen managing the fastest time of pre-season with a 1.18.634 in Barcelona, almost a second and a half faster than Lewis Hamilton’s pole lap in 2016. Both teams have been accused of sandbagging by each other and Red Bull over the eight days, and with the variables of fuel load and engine mapping unknown, it’s difficult to make any secure predictions of true performance.
Certainly, the possible pace of the Ferrari is tantalising, and could set up a monster of a championship battle. Raikkonen’s time was six tenths of a second faster than the quickest lap by either Mercedes and on a harder compound of tyre. Sebastian Vettel perhaps even attempted to disguise Ferrari’s power by lifting off the throttle on the start/finish straight on his quickest laps as he blasted past the pit wall. If the pre-season strength of the Ferrari is representative of racing pace, it sets up a Hamilton v Vettel battle in close-to-equal cars, a mouthwatering prospect for any year.
Mercedes, however, remain the proprietors of the most reliable and powerful engine, and the quickest driver in a generation in the form of Hamilton. It barely seems to have registered within the team that Nico Rosberg is absent – he is the sixth World Champion, and the first since Alain Prost in 1994, to not defend his crown – with Valterri Bottas providing ample talent to be a suitably passive but useful No 2 driver to the combustible and egotistic Hamilton.
Red Bull, touted before the start of testing as the most likely to make the jump to Mercedes, looked spooked by the pace and reliability of their two biggest rivals. Team principal Christian Horner said to the BBC that “Mercedes are still very much the favourite...[and] Ferrari had a positive pre-season, they look like they have a good car but we are reasonably confident that we have the basis of a good car.” This was despite calculations that Red Bull could be as much as a second down on the pace of Ferrari.
The raw pace of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo might well go some way to reducing the performance gap of their Renault engine to the Mercedes, and the undoubtedly quick chassis designed by Adrian Newey will offset that further on the right circuit. In any case the team battle between the two young talents will be fascinating to witness as the season progresses.
However, even the most optimistic McLaren fan will have their head firmly in the sand along with Honda, desperately not watching the continued sinking of a once great team. The old power-house of F1 looks to be in a sorry state once again despite a stronger showing in 2016, not helped by a winter in which Honda attempted to mirror the design of the Mercedes power unit. That change of architecture has led to a drop in performance and reliability. It should come as no surprise then that the heads of McLaren are exploring an alternative engine agreement with Mercedes.
One positive for McLaren is the acquisition of one of the most promising young drivers in Stoffel Vandoorne who replaces Jenson Button, but the real loss will be watching Fernando Alonso use the last of his great talent at the back of the grid.
For McLaren it will be another season of battling the midfield for the right to points, with Renault, Toro Rosso, Force India and Williams all looking quicker than the Woking-based team. Lance Stroll will add intrigue at Williams, while Esteban Ocon gets a chance to impress at Force India and Pascal Wehrlein will be behind the wheel of a Sauber after both ended last season at the now-defunct Manor.
However, the prospect of a proper battle for the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championship between Mercedes and Ferrari could still be proven an exercise in Formula One’s greatest commodity at pre-season, false hope.