As the Australian Grand Prix continues to near, continue the countdown here.
New regulations, new cars, new owners and a new team on top? The season preview continues as I take a look at what lies in the season ahead for the teams vying for the top. Taking into account key members of staff leaving the champs, who has been brought in to replace and why 2017 could be more 2015 than ’16 for McLaren.
Are Mercedes still top of the tree?
For the past three seasons, Mercedes have run away with the Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles. Keeping the trophy fights in-house and away from the previously dominant likes of Red Bull and Ferrari.
But will 2017 spawn a change to the order, bring the great forces together again and give the better racing the fans desire?
Ferrari certainly looked the part in pre-season testing. Wracking up the laps, setting the pace and lead Hamilton to say their running was “spectacular”. But could this be just another 2016? When Ferrari looked the part going into Melbourne, took the lead in the season opener just to throw it all away with a catch-up call. Something that stuck with the team throughout their downwards spiral of a season as the Red Bull caught the ‘Horse.
Red Bull may again have to play the catch-up game to the ‘Horse and the Silver Arrow this year as they look set to head down under lacking pace on their rivals. But as the past has shown with Horner’s outfit, Red Bull can come back, and come back hard. Overturning Alonso’s 2012 championship lead to snatch the title in the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix as Vettel took four wins on the bounce when F1 flew back away from Europe.
Mercedes themselves, even after three dominant years, may be feeling the pressure of a new dawn. With the Brackley based outfit unable to run in the fastest engine modes during testing after noticing a ‘snag’ with their latest power unit prior to flying out.
The Silver Arrows are also now without two of their stars, after Nico Rosberg shocked the world by retiring straight after clinching the crown and Paddy Lowe’s contract expiring to end his time with Mercedes.
Mercedes, though, have replaced Lowe and replaced well with James Allison coming on board. With the former Renault and Ferrari technical director – part of Alonso’s title days in 2005 and 2006 – taking up the now-vacated role after leaving Maranello in July 2016 following a personal tragedy.
As for Lowe, he leaves Mercedes for the team where his F1 career began back in 1987 – when Paddy joined Williams as a control systems engineer, working alongside F1 royalty in Sir Patrick Head and Adrian Newey.
During his six-year spell at Williams, Lowe helped pioneer the active suspension system that took Nigel Mansell to the 1992 Formula One World Championship. From there, he moved on to take up a role at McLaren in 1993, where he spent two decades at the Woking based team.
In all, Lowe has worked in the pinnacle of motorsport for 29 years, contributing to 158 race wins, 7 Drivers’ titles and 5 Constructor’s crowns.
For Williams, Lowe’s arrival needs to be a sign of things improving after falling backwards over the past three seasons to finish 2016 behind Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari but also Force India.
McLaren also needs 2017 to be a sign of things improving, particularly from Honda, as pressure and frustration mounts in Woking.
Honda’s return to the sport in 2015 looked like a somewhat inspired choice by McLaren. Taking on an engine manufacturer that would pay them, have them as their only focus on top of a year out to see how Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault had gone about conjuring their power units. But in reality, it has been anything but inspired.
2015 proved too much for Honda as reliability issues meant endless grid penalties for McLaren. Then 2016 showed signs of things going in the right direction, as reliability was less of an issue and points were more forthcoming. But 2017 is already looking more ’15 than ’16.
Honda for one is still making rookie mistakes with their latest power unit. For the Japanese mega-power were still looking for answers on where the issues were during testing rather than what can be done to resolve them like Mercedes. One issue Honda noticed early on in testing was the oil tank, where their design of the unit was causing them issues. Causing the team to do a full engine swap while further investigations were carried out.
All in all, the issues are mounting on Honda’s doorstep and at the start of the second week of testing, Fernando Alonso joked: “The team [McLaren] are all ready to win except Honda”. Claiming the power unit has ‘no power’ and ‘no reliability’.
Alonso even carried on to add claims that he was losing 30km/h on the straights to his rivals – although some later claimed the true figure was closer to 26km/h. Vandoorne at least moved to within 12km/h of their rivals later in the second week of testing but the season ahead looks bleak for McLaren.
Especially when more ‘jokey’ lines from Alonso came out regarding cornering speeds. For while some teams were bragging they could now take turn three flat out, Alonso joked: “For us, all the corners are flat out” as McLaren were forced to run de-rated laps at points in order to put laps in the car.
One car not getting any laps under its belt across pre-season testing was the Manor as the plucky back-marker that nearly fell by F1’s sides along with Caterham has bitten the dust.
At the end of its road and without a new owner in sight, Manor’s assets will now go up for auction. With parts of the auction including a 6:1 scale wind tunnel model of their 2017 car, 4 Manor Racing Rolling Chassis Show Cars from 2015 & ’16 and over 200 wheel rims.
Details of the auction can be found here.
Part three of the season preview coming tomorrow, looking at driver changes, the new owners and who is the title favourite. But, for now, check out part one in case you missed it.