A new Formula One season is nothing without a driver shake-up, let alone new owners.
The champion is gone and in his place comes a new pretender aiming to fill his boots. But can Bottas topple the triple-champ Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, will Stroll deal with the pressure of Formula One in his rookie year and can Wehrlein prove he has more to offer Mercedes after missing out on Rosberg’s vacant seat? But what’s more for Formula One in 2017? Oh, just some new owners bringing Ross Brawn back to the sport and axing the now former head-of-state, Bernie Ecclestone.
The new kids on the block
With the Manor Formula One team falling off the F1 grid, the chances to break into Formula One became even slimmer. But for one man, ‘Formula One driver’ is his new job title and 2017 will be his rookie year. That man is Lance Stroll.
Lance is the son to Canadian billionaire businessman Lawrence Stroll. But while ‘Daddies’ money’ may be the first thought for some, Lance has a proven track record for success in motorsport. Taking multiple series titles and racing at some of the globe’s biggest events, including the 2015 Macau Grand Prix and the 2016 24 Hours of Daytona.
During the 24 Hours of Daytona, Lance raced to fifth place for Ford Chip Ganassi Racing. With former Formula One driver and double Le Mans 24 winner, Alexander Wurz, teaming up with the youngster, British Touring Car racer Andy Priaulx and Le Mans runner-up Brendon Hartley.
While when Lance took the 2016 Formula 3 Championship title, he took victory in 14 of the 30 rounds. Clinching the series title by 187-points.
Stroll’s introduction to Formula One, however, has not been as successful. Crashing and spinning multiple times during his first Formula One pre-season test, garnering a mixed reception from fans – with some dubbing him the ‘new-Maldonado’ and others handing the website hasstrollcrashedyet.com.
Lance was initially brought in by Williams to replace Felipe Massa when the 2008 championship runner-up announced he would be retiring from Formula One at the end of 2016. But when Rosberg stunned the world to bow out as reigning Champ, Bottas was heading for the Williams exit door and Claire Williams was left searching for Felipe’s phone number.
Luckily, for Williams at least, Massa was delighted to receive the call as it turned out he didn’t want to retire yet anyway and was more than happy to step back into the car to race alongside the inexperienced rookie in 2017. Giving Williams the experienced driver they desired for the regulation changed season and paving the way from the Williams exit door to Toto Wolff’s office at Mercedes.
Bottas joins Mercedes on an initial one-year contract to act as Rosberg’s replacement and race alongside the three-time World Champion, Lewis Hamilton.
Now, a one-year deal for Bottas may seem odd given they had to buy him out of his Williams obligations. But by putting the new boy on a short-term deal, it will keep him on his toes and keep the Mercedes door open to Alonso in 2018 should the McLaren-Honda not cut it. And if not Alonso, maybe Vettel or Ricciardo will be looking for a change of scenery in the not too distant future.
For now, at least, Alonso will be heading into the new season – and final season of his current McLaren deal – with a new team-mate of his own in Woking as Stoffel Vandoorne makes the step up from reserve driver to racer, replacing the retiring Jenson Button (who hasn’t really retired and remains part of McLaren’s ‘three-driver strategy with an option for Jenson in 2018’).
Vandoorne also brings with him a record for success. As, after missing out on the GP2 title in his debut year, Stoffel dominated the series in year two to take home the honours by nearly double the points of second-placed Alex Rossi.
2016 then saw Stoffel head to Japan to race in Super Formula, but his F1 reserve driver role was put into practice in Bahrain as the Belgian deputised for the injured Fernando Alonso. Coming home in 10th place and securing McLaren’s first point of the year.
Drivers were also on the move elsewhere in the paddock, as Kevin Magnussen departed Renault for Haas – taking Esteban Gutierrez’s seat, who will now focus on securing a permanent FormulaE drive.
Nico Hulkenberg also jumps ship from his former employer, as he leaves Force India for the second time to replace Magnussen at the French manufacturer.
When Hulkenberg last left Force India, his destination was Sauber. But for 2017, the new boy in Sauber’s garage will be the ex-Manor racer and Mercedes protégé Pascal Wehrlein. But does Sauber signal Wehrlein’s last chance at F1 already?
Having been passed up on by Force India who opted for Ocon to replace Hulkenberg based on past experiences with both drivers. And then Mercedes passed on Pascal when Rosberg left them a man down. Unfortunately for Wehrlein, 2017 looks like it could be a slow one at Sauber…
Who can take Rosberg’s vacated crown?
Champion in 2014 and ’15, Lewis Hamilton heads into the new campaign with a new team-mate in the garage. But not only does Bottas form a new team-mate for Lewis, he forms his new title-rival as for the past three seasons the title battle has been an all-Mercedes affair between Hamilton and Rosberg.
The battle pushed their relationships to the limit, as the former karting buddies jousted for motorsports highest honours. Often boiling over and looking unresolvable, but ultimately resulting in Mercedes getting the best of their two men who hated coming second to each other.
That probably won’t be the case this year, however. With Hamilton and Bottas already proclaiming their respect for each other and how their relationship is friendly. As Hamilton put it himself; “”What I so far like about working with Valtteri is that it is all to do with the track – what we do on the circuit – and not outside,” Hamilton told the official F1 website.
“There are no games – there is complete transparency. I like that. I feel we already have a better working relationship than I ever had with any team-mate I had before.”
Now, how will that reflect on the title fight? Both will want their shot at the crown like Mercedes had to balance before. But will the fight even be an in-house battle?
Ferrari is already being touted as potential title fighters. Putting Hamilton at war with his great adversary Sebastian Vettel. A man who has four World Drivers’ Championship titles to his name but never a real fight against Hamilton for the top. Something 2017 could through up at last.
If Vettel is to challenge for the title in 2017, he will need Ferrari to muster all their talent and know-how that lifted Schumacher to his glory days. And not how the seasons unfolded for Alonso in 2010 and 2012, as Vettel snuck in at the last to snatch glory for Red Bull.
Ferrari must also carry their pre-season pace into the season and build upon it. Rather than falter at the first like in 2016, when Vettel and Raikkonen grasped a one-two off the line only for one to retire and the other lose out through poor strategy.
But where could Red Bull come into the picture?
The team expected to head down under off pace to Ferrari and Mercedes are known to be strong at developing their car throughout the year and will need to do just so if Ricciardo or Verstappen are to challenge for their first Drivers’ titles.
If Red Bull does not catch up early enough, however, their drivers’ best efforts may still fall short. Like Vettel’s were to Jenson Button in 2009, when Brawn’s double diffuser helped them leap out the blocks to take victory in six of the opening seven races.
In my view, Mercedes and Ferrari are the title favourites at this stage. With Vettel and Hamilton finally going head-to-head for ultimate glory. While their Finnish team-mates make up the points that could see either elected constructors’ champions.
It’s not that Bottas has not got the pace to challenge Hamilton and Vettel, but – with both veterans of victory and Valtteri without a win – a title challenge at this stage seems unlikely for that particular Finn. A first championship race win would be a good start to Mercedes life, then build on from there to see if he can mount a challenge.
The same goes for Raikkonen, too. For the 2007 Drivers’ Champion has struggled to challenge Vettel or Alonso since making his Ferrari return in 2014. Only once looking like he really could win a race, but even then Max Verstappen was able to hold off the Iceman to claim his first Formula One win.
There again, 2017 could yet be another Mercedes-show if their pre-season engine ‘snag’ is fixed, they up the revs and blow the competition off the track and back into 2016. Let’s at least hope for now Ferrari, and potentially Red Bull, will finally take the challenge to the Silver Arrows. Not only in the early races either, with in-season development a potential tripping point for Ferrari.
The new owners are in town
Formula One’s new owners, Liberty Media, began the acquisition of the sport last September as they set about their multi-billion dollar takeover.
First of all appointing Chase Carey as the new chairman, who aims to make each race weekend a SuperBowl event and has emphasised the importance of the classic European races. But while he emphasises the importance of European races, the US is a key market for Liberty Media.
Wanting to grow the market F1 has long struggled for despite its 400 million + viewers around the world. Potentially welcoming another Grand Prix on the American side of the Atlantic.
Changes to the race weekends and calendar will not occur just yet, though. Even with Carey wanting to increase the appeal of the sport on and off the track.
For now, the importance is to understand how they can improve the sport. Starting off with the dethroning of Bernie Ecclestone as the CEO of the Formula One Group. Ecclestone now forms the role of ‘honorary president’, a title he deems “one of those American terms”.
While Carey also brought Ross Brawn back to Formula One, appointing Englishman to the role of Managing Director, Motor Sports.
Ross is the former Technical Director at Benetton and Ferrari before turning team principal at Honda and making the team his own following the manufacturer’s withdrawal from F1. That Brawn team became the now the dominant Mercedes outfit, with Ross firmly a part of its foundations.
Brawn’s new role as part of F1’s management comes after helping Liberty Media as a consultant during the takeover phase. As managing director, Ross aims to set up a task force of independent experts who will help to shape the future of the sport. This alone goes against the current history of shaping F1, where teams helped shaped the sport and their interests impacted what unfolded.
Alongside Brawn’s addition, Sean Bratches has been appointed Managing Director, Commercial Operations. While Brawn will deal with the technical side of F1, Bratches is tasked with growing F1 and drawing on his expertise & experience in sales, marketing and digital media – one particular element the old regime shunned.
Speaking of his appointment as Managing Director, Commercial Operations, Sean stated: “I’m very excited to be joining Formula 1 and contribute to the continued growth of this extraordinary global brand and sport. Formula 1 is one of few truly global tier one sports, and I am encouraged by the manifold opportunities to materially grow the business, work closely with current and future sponsors, race circuits, television rights holders as well as create next generation digital and on-site race experiences to best serve the Formula 1 fans.”
Already, some of those topics have been touched on. With circuits such as Singapore and Malaysia bringing their future into doubts as they potentially look for a cut-down price on hosting fee in any new deals.
Social media usage has already been heightened since the takeover, with teams and official Formula One channels allowed to post short clips of pre-season testing. This small step seemed as if it would never happen before, with Bernie seemingly opposed to welcoming social media to F1.
Hopefully, this aspect of social media continues to grow throughout the season, online streaming services are explored and F1 can welcome a new generation of fans who previously would never have considered the sport.
That’s all for the season preview with the Australian Grand Prix just days away.
Come back tomorrow for a look ahead to the first race of the 2017 season.