Formula 1 2017: season preview

Dates, cars and drivers for Formula 1 2017, plus we talk to Eddie Jordan and David Coulthard about the Liberty Media takeover

It’s all change in Formula One for 2017 as the new season roars into life at Albert Park in Melbourne, Australia, this weekend.

The biggest and most obvious change is the cars; they’re now wider, better looking, have fatter tyres and produce much more downforce than last year. Lap times should be significantly reduced and drivers are hoping the recent trend of ‘saving the tyres’ is over.

But there’s been a significant shake-up behind the scenes as well. The old guard of Bernie Ecclestone is no more, with three experts from US sports marketing giant Liberty Media now in charge. The former Mercedes and Ferrari man Ross Brawn has been tasked with reforming the spectacle and although there may not be immediate changes, everything is up for discussion.

• Free coverage tops poll as we ask what F1 fans want most

Liberty’s influence has already been felt at testing, where teams were allowed to broadcast video on social media to bring the fans closer to the action – a first step towards a more modern way of watching F1.

So how will the changes translate to the circuit? Here, we speak to the big names at Mercedes to find out if the team is still the one to beat, learn more about Renault’s push to the front of the grid and get the inside track from Channel 4’s Eddie Jordan and David Coulthard on the season ahead.

Tough at the top: Mercedes’ 2017 season hopes

With new rules and reshaped cars set to shake up the sport, is Mercedes still the team to beat?

Mercedes hit the ground running from the start of Formula One’s V6 hybrid era in 2014 and has been the absolute reference point in the sport for the past three seasons. This time around, the big changes concern the chassis and aerodynamics rather than the engine – so can the Brackley crew find a significant advantage once again?

According to team boss Toto Wolff, the squad is taking nothing for granted. Speaking at the Silverstone launch of the new W08, the German said: “Any momentum we might have had is going to be disturbed by the big regulation changes. They provide an opportunity, but also a risk.”

Wolff is adamant that the sudden post-season retirement of 2016 champion Nico Rosberg, as well as the departure of technical chief Paddy Lowe to Williams, is something Mercedes can take in its stride. “Nico definitely threw us a bit of a curveball – we were expecting a normal winter in the office,” he said. “But disruption can be a very positive factor in a company’s development. We quickly realised that this could be an exciting opportunity for us.”

After rapidly assessing the availability of almost every driver on the grid, Wolff and his team settled on a new team-mate for Lewis Hamilton in the shape of Finn Valterri Bottas – a cool-headed and consistent performer at the upper end of the midfield for Williams for several years.

The move came very late by F1’s usual standards, with Bottas fully expecting another year with Williams before Rosberg’s bombshell announcement. The new recruit explained: “I feel I’ve made the most of the time, but it’s been a big learning curve and will continue to be.” Bottas is one of several drivers on the grid who only really have experience of the ‘high-degradation’ Pirelli tyres, but the Finn feels ready for a harder-charging F1 this year. “I’m normally comfortable adapting to different things, so if the tyres are going to last longer and allow more qualifying-like laps in the race, that’s fine,” he continued. “It’s something we need. I hope we can push and be more consistent.”

• F1 2017: full grid revealed

The biggest question facing Bottas is whether he can beat – or even come close to – Hamilton’s relentless pace. Rosberg admitted that the strain of competing at the triple champion’s level was a big factor in his decision to retire. So will Bottas be able to stand the heat? “It’s definitely a great challenge to go up against him,” he said, “but if I didn’t think I could beat Lewis, I’d stay at home. I believe in my skills and talent and I believe it’s possible.”

On Hamilton’s part, it’s clear that regaining the drivers’ crown after losing out to Rosberg last season is at the very top of the agenda. “I feel the best prepared I’ve ever been,” he declared at the launch. “Last year has strengthened me and made me more complete as a driver. I didn’t win the title last season and I want to change that. I have a strong feeling we’re still the best and that we’ve made the best job of interpreting the rules.”

He was positive about Bottas’ arrival, but showed no sign of dialling down the intensity that marked his rivalry with Rosberg. “Fresh blood and ideas are always a good thing, and Valtteri’s energy and experience will add to what we already have,” Hamilton said. “We’ve only spoken a few times and there’s no competition so far, but once we see each other at our most intense moments it’ll be interesting.

“We’ll discover our strengths and weaknesses; I’m sure that he wants to beat me as much as I want to beat him. I wouldn’t expect anything less; I want him at his best.”

On the technical side, the team moved to fill the gap left by Lowe by bringing in James Allison from Ferrari, which testing suggests could be Mercedes’ biggest rival this year.

Wolff concluded: “You need to keep both feet on the ground. After three championships, it’s important not to lose the plot and think it’s normal – it’s not. Winning Formula One races isn’t something you should take for granted and our mindset is always to avoid that.”

Sleeping giant?

Renault aims to be fighting for the world title by 2020, but can it break the midfield in 2017?

On paper, Renault’s ninth-place finish in the 2016 constructors’ standings with a haul of just eight points was a pretty poor result for a fully manufacturer-backed team. But the French brand’s takeover of the underfunded former Lotus squad came so late in the day that there was little constructive way its massive resources could have been brought to bear on last season’s campaign.

Instead, it’s 2017 that marks the real starting point for Renault’s attempt to return to the glory days of its 2005 and 2006 world championships with Fernando Alonso.

The team went as far as launching its car in London rather than its native Paris, to give the technical team at Enstone, Oxfordshire, some vital extra time to finalise the design.

Speaking at the launch, Renault Sport Racing president Jerome Stoll said: “Very quickly we decided to put a cross through 2016; it was useless to invest with the new rules coming for 2017. This is the first car co-developed by the chassis team at Enstone and the engine team in Viry [near Paris]. We have proper integration of the two elements.”

Stoll believes the new rules will help Renault by levelling the playing field compared with its competitors and has set out a clear target of fifth place in the constructors’ table for this season – something that will probably mean beating at least three of Force India, Toro Rosso, Williams and Haas.

• ‘A new era for Formula One is welcome news for car fans’

Leading the team’s technical effort is Northern Irishman Bob Bell, who has some experience from the early stages of Mercedes’ rise to its current dominance. “Everyone’s talking about 2017 as a year of chassis changes, and it is,” Bell said, “but we’ve designed a completely new engine from the ground up as well – even though the regulations aren’t demanding it. We’re doing that to close the performance gap to Mercedes, and I think we’ve found a good step.”

Bell believes that the drivers could play a bigger role than before, too. “G-loads will probably go up about 25 per cent, so drivers with stronger necks will find it easier. Faster cars mean quicker decisions will be required – so it could open things out between the weaker and stronger drivers.”

There’s change behind the wheel at Renault as well, with the experienced German Nico Hulkenberg being brought in from Force India to replace Kevin Magnussen. Both parties would like their collaboration to be a long and fruitful one, and many say this is Hulkenberg’s last big chance to score the race victories and titles he’s thought to be capable of.

“Nico is mature and young at the same time,” Stoll said. “He’s aggressive and demanding and ready to put the car on the podium, so a good combination for this year.” Next to Hulkenberg, Briton Jolyon Palmer is back for a second year in Renault colours, having bounced back from a few rocky races in 2016 to secure his place. “I don’t know Nico well, but I get the feeling he’s relaxed and easy to work with, but also experienced,” Palmer said. “He’s the ideal team-mate, as I’m still proving myself.”

Like most of the field, Palmer is enthusiastic about the new-look F1, believing it’ll end the rather cautious and conservative approach to F1 races seen of late.

“It’s going to be massively different to last year,” he explained. “The aerodynamic gains are huge, cornering speeds will be much higher and it’ll be a lot harder for us physically with the increased g-forces. Reaction times will be shorter simply because we’re going faster and with shorter braking distances, we’ll have even less time to respond if we lock up the brakes going into a corner.”

One question is whether the new rules will lead to an increase in ‘pure’ (as opposed to DRS-assisted) overtaking; Palmer and others are sceptical. “On paper a wider car and more aero grip is not good for overtaking, especially at somewhere like Monaco,” he admitted. “But it was already difficult last year; if you disregard where someone had a tyre advantage, there weren’t many ‘real’ passes at all.”

In pre-season testing, there were some teething troubles for the redesigned Renault power unit, but nothing on the scale of the problems that hit McLaren-Honda. It bodes well for a competitive midfield battle behind the top three.

Q&A with Eddie Jordan & David Coulthard

We catch up with the Channel 4 expert analysts and F1 veterans to get their views on what Liberty Media’s takeover means for the sport

What do you think of the new-look Formula One?

DC: “It’s good isn’t it? The cars are faster and more physical. The gap from F1 to the lower formulae just hasn’t been big enough the past few years. I’ve got photos from my last year and look wrecked at the end of a race. That was part of the appeal for me, being physically and mentally on the limit. We’ve lost that of late and in that respect F1 is back.”

How is Bottas going to perform at Mercedes?

DC: “On a bad day, he’ll be on the podium, whereas a bad day with Williams was outside the top 10. It changes everything; his whole performance profile will be higher. Lewis is beatable – we’ve seen that with the team-mates he’s had – but he’s exceptional across a season. It’s make or break for Bottas.”

What changes should Liberty be looking at making to boost F1?

EJ: “They need to start with the car, make it simpler and cheaper, maybe use common parts to control costs. I think they also need to reduce the number of races a bit – 21 is probably about three too many.

“I’m an advocate of ‘less is more’. If you saturate the market with something, it becomes familiar and uninteresting. You can have too much of a good thing. Look at football, for example; there’s a big match practically every night of the week. They need to be careful not to ‘overfish’ the ocean.

“I also think the ‘Paddock Club’ is old-fashioned and needs revamping. In places like Abu Dhabi, for the title showdown, you can struggle to see excitement in the paddock beyond a few lucky people at the back of the garages. And Sunday mornings are dull. Nothing happens before the race. Where’s the value for the spectators?”

DC: “The attraction of Formula One has always been seeing guys driving on the absolute limit, but it’s become too complicated, which has taken away from the pure best car/best driver scenario.

“People like watching good guys take on bad guys; we need the drivers to be characters, not perfectly professional machines that don’t say a lot. Look at Eric Cantona’s incident years ago; okay, attacking people is not something you want to see, but it was real, it was how he felt, and people respond to something like that.”

Who’s your money on for the world titles?

DC: “The easy money is on Hamilton. Mercedes will be front-runners, but if they’ll be winning or not remains to be seen. I’m very excited about Ferrari’s form. For F1’s sake, I hope this is the moment they come back. Vettel comes alive when he has an opportunity like this.”

EJ: “Hamilton and Mercedes for drivers and constructors. It simply can’t be anyone else.”

Formula 1 2017: the calendar

the 2017 Formula One season spans 20 races – one fewer than last year, but a new French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard is on the way for 2018. All the action kicks off in Australia this weekend and runs through to Abu Dhabi in November.

Date Country Location Lap Record Broadcast
26/03/2017 Australia Melbourne 1:24.125, M Schumacher, 2004 Live on Sky
09/04/2017 China Shanghai 1:32.238, M Schumacher, 2004 Live on Sky
16/04/2017 Bahrain Sakhir 1:58.287, F Alonso, 2010 Live on Sky & CH4
30/04/2017 Russia Sochi 1:39.094, N Rosberg, 2016 Live on Sky & CH4
14/05/2017 Spain Barcelona 1:21.670, K Raikkonen, 2008 Live on Sky
28/05/2017 Monaco Monte Carlo 1:17.939, L Hamilton, 2016 Live on Sky & CH4
11/06/2017 Canada Montreal 1:13.622, R Barrichello, 2004 Live on Sky
25/06/2017 Azerbaijan Baku 1:46.485, N Rosberg, 2016 Live on Sky & CH4
09/07/2017 Austria Speilberg 1:08.337, M Schumacher, 2003 Live on Sky
16/07/2017 United Kingdom Silverstone 1:30.874, F Alonso, 2010 Live on Sky & CH4
30/07/2017 Hungary Budapest 1:19.071, M Schumacher, 2004 Live on Sky
27/08/2017 Belgium Spa-Francorchamps 1:47.263, S Vettel, 2009 Live on Sky & CH4
03/09/2017 Italy Monza 1:21.046, R Barrichello, 2004 Live on Sky
17/09/2017 Singapore Marina Bay 1:47.187, D Ricciardo, 2016 Live on Sky & CH4
01/10/2017 Malaysia Sepang 1:34.223, J-P Montoya, 2004 Live on Sky & CH4
08/10/2017 Japan Suzuka 1:31.540, K Raikkonen, 2005 Live on Sky
22/10/2017 USA Austin 1:39.347, S Vettel, 2012 Live on Sky & CH4
29/10/2017 Mexico Mexico City 1:20.521, N Rosberg, 2015 Live on Sky
12/11/2017 Brazil Interlagos 1:11.473, J-P Montoya, 2004 Live on Sky
26/11/2017 Abu Dhabi Yas Marina 1:40.279, S Vettel, 2009 Live on Sky & CH4

Formula 1 2017: the grid

  • • Mercedes
  • • Red Bull
  • • Ferrari
  • • Force India
  • • Williams
  • • McLaren
  • • Toro Rosso
  • • Haas
  • • Renault
  • • Sauber

What are your hopes for the 2017 F1 season? Leave us a comment below…

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