The 67th world championship season is approaching. Time for a look, then, at the Formula 1 status quo and key factors that are most likely to shape the campaign ahead. Will Lewis Hamilton breeze to a third straight world title, or is that far too simplistic an assumption?
Changes/Sound & Vision
With the big regulation revisions coming in 2017, isn’t this just a holding season?
For the teams, yes. For the rest of us, no. Coming next year (probably) are faster, wider, more aerodynamically potent cars with bigger, fatter tyres that – just maybe – can be driven flat out the whole time. In order to avoid such cars being fuel-limited everywhere, there would need to be an associated increase in the maximum permitted fuel capacity. Such a wide swathe of changes at such short notice – at the time of writing nothing had actually been defined – might well mean that once a 2016 hierarchy of performance has been established, development outside the title-contending teams might be turned down in favour of properly researching the best answers to the 2017 regs.
But there’s no reason why that should negatively impact upon this season. We have in prospect the prancing horse getting itself back into a full gallop for the first time in years as the James Allison-led technical core comes to full maturation. Will that be enough to take it to the still super-motivated ranks at Mercedes? Within the silver arrows ranks, the season ended with real ambiguity about the in-team status of Lewis Hamilton and the in-form Nico Rosberg. We have the possibility of a step-change in the performance of the Renault engine in the Red Bull, now that they have finally let Mario Illien loose on it. We have the near-certainty of a huge upgrade in Honda engine performance – enough to make that fascinating Alonso vs Button contest mean something other than just in-team pecking order? In Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz we’ve got two hugely exciting and apparently fearless young drivers in a Toro Rosso that’s now Ferrari-powered. Just what upsets might they be poised to deliver with such a weapon? We have the intrigue of a very well-funded new team with a car that took form in the womb of Ferrari, driven by one of the very fastest men out there – and with a big point to prove, given that there might be a spare seat at the Scuderia in 2017. We’ve got the concurrent return of Renault and Kevin Magnussen and the question of where a promising British rookie will fit into that picture.
What’s Pirelli up to and what will be the impact upon the racing?
Pirelli often gets tasked with providing an answer to F1’s unresolved issues – and then finds itself castigated when it cannot adequately do so. But with the drivers finally going (semi) public with their frustration at tyres that usually have to be driven well shy of personal limits, the message finally – after five years! – seems to be percolating. Even Pirelli-centric Bernie Ecclestone has agreed: F1 should not be about deliberately driving off the pace in order to get the stint lengths necessary for the optimum strategy. Halle-bloody-lujah.
The most important part in solving a problem is recognising that a problem exists – and what’s where we are currently. It’s perfectly possible to have tyres that last only a relatively short time but which during that time can be driven flat-out, which don’t fry the heat-degrading plastics in their compounds after a couple of laps of pushing hard, which aren’t then junk even if they still have lots of tread left. So for 2017 Pirelli is being directed towards a different philosophy.
The recognition of the problem came too late to be incorporated into the 2016 tyres – but there’s an attempt at a compromise. For this year the tread will be thinner and beneath it will be a low grip ‘under-tread’. When this is reached the performance will fall off a cliff (much like the original Pirellis) and in that way the multiple-stop races that are deemed desirable should still be created. If this proves to be the case, Pirelli might be able to wean itself off its beloved heat-degrading composites. Let’s see.
There’s a new compound – the purple-walled ultra-soft – and a choice of three compounds per weekend rather than the previous two. Two sets per car nominated by Pirelli must be used in the race, a third set is set aside for Q3 and the composition of the remaining 10 sets used during the weekend is up to the individual. There’s probably less to that than meets the eye…
Will we hear the difference in the engines now the wastegate has its own exhaust?
We just might. The significant thing isn’t that there’s going to be a lot of extra noise coming from the new wastegate pipe – there won’t be. The wastegates are more normally shut than open, as the engines try to capture as much energy as possible. Typically, the wastegates operate only momentarily during downchanges or for a little longer during a qualifying lap.
No, the significant thing is the removal of the wastegate’s chamber from the main exhaust – because that chamber acted as a silencer. So why was it put in the 2014-15 regs in the first place? To circumvent teams trying to use wastegate exhaust to blow upon the rear wing or the downforce-inducing rear brake ducts. So now there are a lot of words in the regs stipulating where the wastegate exhaust can and can’t be pointed, just as with the main exhaust.
The volume is never going to be at naturally aspirated levels, but they should definitely be the loudest hybrids to date.
What’s with the engine development changes?
This is probably the last year of the engine development token system – it’s set to be abolished from 2017. But the number of tokens will not, as was originally planned, reduce from last year’s 32. That was considered by all the engine manufacturers a generous number – two of them didn’t even use all the available tokens – and it remains for 2016. Furthermore, the ‘black areas’ where previously no development could be made have been abolished.
The idea is to allow those lagging behind more scope to catch up and comes in the wake of the engine manufacturers agreeing to a price limit to customer teams of €12 million per season. They are now free to spend what they feel they need to be competitive – but without that cost being passed on to the independent teams.
There are 21 races on the schedule, but how many look vulnerable?
Azerbaijan and the USA. Apparently the numbers of the race in the little eastern European oil nation don’t work with crude oil at $30 per barrel rather than $100 – but they have a contract. Meanwhile, the Circuit of the Americas in Austin is short of about $6 million needed to make the numbers add up.
How will it pan out? We’d guess both will probably happen, but that the race in Baku might go down in history as a one-off. There is surely enough will and sense in F1 not to lose a foothold in America – the biggest market of all for the manufacturers – at a terrific venue in a city that embraces it, all for the sake of a number that is trifling by F1 standards.
Bernie Ecclestone is 85 and would not retain such influence in any other domain. Discuss…
He’s not your normal 85-year-old though, is he? He has the power to make the whole thing worthless to its vulture owners, so it’s much safer for them to retain him. If only he hadn’t sold it to them in the first place. If only he hadn’t been allowed to. But it is what it is.
Heroes – Mercedes vs Ferrari
Will Mercedes now be into diminishing returns?
That’s been the assumption until recently. But then the team shows the press its new engine – literally lays it out on a table in front of us – and talks about how it is still making good gains. The hybrids brought a big jump in thermal efficiency – the percentage of the chemical energy contained in the fuel to reach the end of the crankshaft – from about 30 per cent in the V8 era up to 40 per cent. Just two years later Mercedes is already running at 47 per cent, the gains still coming thick and fast. Some of this is about the continuing improvements in the energy recovery rate – measured now at 95 per cent by Mercedes – the rest from combustion improvements often based around new designer fuels.
Mercedes got its original power unit architecture spot-on, enabling the 2014 W05 to be optimally packaged around what has turned out to be the optimal engine. That has given the chassis team a head start in that the two subsequent cars have just been developments of this while others have been making more fundamental changes.
Can Nico Rosberg start the new season where he left off, by beating Lewis Hamilton?
That’s really down to Hamilton, who is ahead on the one thing that neither of them can control – inherent natural speed. Nico was not born as fast but he’s close enough that if Lewis does not adequately combine all the other factors that are in his control, then Nico can beat him. That’s the pattern we were seeing in the last few races of 2015.
Quite by chance Hamilton’s securing of the ’15 title coincided closely with the radically different set-up the Mercedes required after Pirelli changed pressure and camber limitations. Rosberg worked far harder than Hamilton in understanding the implications of these changes upon the car – and proceeded to set six consecutive poles.
Towards the end of the season team members wouldn’t hear from Hamilton between races whereas Rosberg remained fully focused. Only partly was that about Hamilton’s world champion commitments, it was also about him living his life – the way he chose to. It’s not a criticism, just a fact. Before Rosberg got on a roll Hamilton had been talking about how he believed his ‘James Hunt’ lifestyle had helped his racing, in that it relieved the pressure, stopped him tightening up. He stopped talking about that once Nico began to beat him.
There’s a belief in the team that the new car will bring a reset and the pattern seen at the end of last season won’t apply because they were about a specific set-up of that car. But maybe it goes deeper than that. This might be tied up in who Lewis wants to be, something that sometimes seems unresolved. He has the ability to dominate F1 for years yet, but how much desire does he have for that and how much for pursuing his other ambitions outside F1?
Maybe even he can’t answer those questions.
Why should Ferrari be any closer to the silver cars this year than it was last season?
Because they cheekily worked a loophole in the regulation limit on wind tunnel and CFD time as this car was being created. Mercedes queried that interpretation at the end of the season and the FIA blocked it off for the future. But in the meantime, the 2016 Ferrari is the product of many more hours of aero simulation than any other car – and furthermore, there’s a significant step-change in the underfloor area available for aerodynamic exploitation compared to the 2015 car on account of a new narrow engine block.
The power unit pushed Mercedes close for horsepower last year and will surely have been further developed, in conjunction with Shell.
Ferrari’s purse strings have been set very loose for the last year, and 2016 should be when we see the real fruits of that. Whether that’s enough to see it take on Mercedes on equal terms is going to be the absolute key to this season.
McLaren-Honda – Under Pressure
Could McLaren survive another 2015? What will determine whether that happens or not?
More and more, McLaren’s F1 future is becoming reliant upon Honda. It is less in control of its own destiny than ever before. The competitive doldrums started even before the woeful 2015 Honda power unit, but that disaster has knocked further value off the team. It’s no longer a given that it could attract a major title sponsor if Honda should ever pull out. To get back to that position requires race wins – and plenty of them. That’s far from impossible, but far from a given either. It’s down to Honda.
It took most of 2015 for Honda to understand fully the root of its engine’s shortfall. Its energy recovery was awful, the turbine too small and not efficient enough to give the ERS-h adequate energy to convert. The intended solution was to run the turbo faster than the conventional bigger units used by the others, but it couldn’t run fast enough to do this before the turbo began to take more from the engine than it was giving. Its design was simply inefficient at the speeds it would need to run to compensate for its small dimensions. The mechanical turbine/compressor/engine loop was thus stuck at a low point that didn’t allow adequate energy recovery. If the full throttle demand of a circuit was big enough, the McLaren could run out of electrical deployment totally – leaving it momentarily as much as 240bhp down on the cars around it.
The small turbo concept was to allow it to fit into the vee of the engine rather than hanging out the back (and the front, in the case of Mercedes). For 2016 Honda has upped the size considerably, but still managed to fit it into the vee. It also believes it has come up with much more efficient designs for the turbine and compressor. It seems a sure thing the power unit will be considerably more potent than last year’s. The question is just the size of the improvement. But that problem is essentially mechanical. In terms of the electrical demands, the conversion efficiency (from mechanical energy to electrical and back) needs to be in the region of 95 per cent to compete with Mercedes and there are stories of failures on the dyno as Honda struggles to achieve this.
Although last year’s McLaren was aerodynamically pretty good, there was nothing to suggest it had fully exploited the advantage the zero size concept should have given. But then again, it was running in compromised trim because of the power shortfall. Jenson Button reckoned it the best-handling McLaren he’d ever driven, but let’s see if that trick can be repeated in a car with competitive grunt.
Will Fernando Alonso walk if the new Honda power unit is no better than before?
If he climbs into the MP4-31 at Jerez and finds himself 100 horsepower down, it’s going to occur to him to sit the season out. But there are 50 million reasons why he would probably contain that impulse and settle for a bit of a rant instead.
How good a replacement would GP2 champion Stoffel Vandoorne be?
Sensationally good. He is the next big thing, a superb combination of speed, composure and intelligence. The reigning GP2 champion, he’s retained by McLaren but racing this year in Japan. A single phone call could have him on the F1 grid if required. He will soon be making his mark in F1, but it might not be in 2016.
Red Bull – The Man Who Fell To Earth
Is Red Bull as unpopular within the paddock as it is with fans – and what are its prospects?
Red Bull’s vocal railing against its engine predicament has allowed a lot of pent-up frustration from its rivals to be released. During the engine freeze era, with negligible sums needed for development and approximate performance parity, Red Bull’s aerodynamic expertise made the team well-nigh unbeatable.
But when engines became differentiators once more it found itself with the wrong one – and got upset. It started publicly demanding the best engines from rivals. They pointed out in turn that when aero was the only differentiator they weren’t demanding that Red Bull supply them with their expertise. So yes, there’s a bit of schadenfreude coming from the directions of Brackley and Maranello. Just competitive boys and their games.
Essentially Red Bull preferred it when engines were just supplier components, little different to electrical parts, but the sport has moved away from that – for a variety of reasons. Red Bull still doesn’t appear to have a long-term solution to these new circumstances and so is dependent upon Renault Sport for 2016 at least.
Ilmor’s Mario Illien, a legendary engine designer, was hired by Red Bull to help Renault. But there were issues of secrecy for the Renault Sport management – and of pride. Mario is adamant that the root of the Renault engine’s shortfall lies in its combustion chamber but his proposed solution was overlooked in favour of Renault’s own upgrade last year. That turned out to be no improvement – and so now Illien has been brought on board (and paid) by Renault Sport rather than Red Bull and the plan is for his redesigned cylinder head to be the basis of the 2016 motor. It would be asking a lot to leapfrog in one fell swoop two seasons of shortfall plus whatever gains Mercedes and Ferrari have made. But if Illien can help Renault deliver an engine within, say, 20bhp of the best, then Red Bull could conceivably make that up from its continued aerodynamic mastery. Initially it’s unlikely to be anywhere close to that, but once on the right path the power gains with hybrids can be incredibly swift as the combustion gains are compounded by greater energy recovery.
Has Daniel Ricciardo arrived at Red Bull three years too late ever to become champion?
Maybe – and he’s admitted he’s tormented himself with how things might have been had he arrived at Red Bull earlier. But things change fast in this sport. It’s way too early to assume Red Bull’s days as a title-winning team are over. Contractually he’s tied up for a long time and any opportunities at Ferrari, for example, have likely passed. He’s thrown in his lot here – and while there is almost certainly a world title within him, it’s probably not going to be in 2016. But a return to race-winning form would be no surprise. In the meantime he provides an excruciatingly tough barometer for team-mate Daniil Kvyat, who is fighting for his future with Verstappen and Sainz hovering.
Renault – Lazarus
Will Renault be blown off by its own customer in 2016 and what are its long-term prospects?
Yes, of course it will. It would be unreasonable to expect otherwise. It will be identically powered to Red Bull with a car that’s destined to be aerodynamically inferior. But that’s not really the point. This is year one of a theoretical nine-year commitment and the team needs extensive rebuilding after the financial trauma of the last few seasons.
Bob Bell – a key architect of the current Mercedes dominance, in particular the big part he played integrating the chassis and engine sides – has rejoined as technical director and has the perfect template for how things should work in the hybrid era. Expect a heavy recruitment drive to follow, though it can take a long time for the right people to become available. But the foundations at Enstone are very sound and there’s no reason why the title-winning entity of 2005 and ’06 cannot come back to life. For 2016 anything more than mid-grid and occasional points would be a surprise.
The defaulting of Pastor Maldonado’s backers has given Kevin Magnussen’s F1 career a reprieve – and that’s absolutely as it should be. A super-motivated Magnussen will set a tough benchmark for rookie Jolyon Palmer, but it’s not supposed to be easy.
Williams – It Ain’t Easy
Third-best constructor for the past two seasons, but has it hit its performance ceiling?
Williams is operating with almost £200 million less than Ferrari and as a customer team. Taking on Mercedes and Ferrari on level terms is probably not feasible. But it switched off its 2015 development programme early to get a good run with the creation of the new car, which is said to be quite a significant departure from the FW36/37.
Getting the right engine deal into the hybrid formula transformed the prospects of Williams and it has been shrewd in how it has parlayed that. Two consecutive third places in the constructors championship have stabilised the team, bringing it out of what could easily have been a disastrous tailspin.
There’s an element within the team that now wants to get more aggressive, to have more engineering programmes running, to try to take the battle to the big teams. It’s a difficult call.
Does Valtteri Bottas have what it takes to lead a front-running Grand Prix team?
Potentially, yes. But he needs to deliver more of that potential than he was able to do last year, a season during which he was compromised more than he admitted by his back injury.
Haas – Young Americans
Will Haas be any good?
The car should be good. Its aerodynamics were honed by a team of former (and future!) Ferrari personnel, without the tunnel and CFD restrictions placed upon teams already registered in the championship. It has a current Ferrari motor and Romain Grosjean on the driving strength, ensuring the car will be driven to its limits.
Operationally, expect a few clunkers as the personnel have little F1 experience. But forget any idea that this will be like the low-budget back-of-the-grid efforts from HRT, Marussia, Caterham etc. Mid-grid respectability must be a realistic target.
Could Romain Grosjean springboard his Haas deal into a 2017 Ferrari drive?
The latter half of the 2013 season cemented in Grosjean’s mind that he could take on anyone. The only driver regularly to take it to Vettel’s Red Bull during that time and tantalisingly close to victory on three occasions, his F1 career was on the point of take-off. Then it stalled, courtesy of Lotus’s difficulties. This was the second such delay to his career – the first being self-inflicted – and time was marching on. At 29 he was looking at how long it might take Renault to transform Enstone back into a winning team – and concluded he didn’t have that long. So he made a bold move, one that might yet prove inspired.
Should Kimi Räikkönen’s 2016 performances be no more convincing than those of last year, where might the Scuderia look? Let’s assume Max Verstappen is under tight Red Bull lock and key. Grosjean would be a plug-in GP winner who could team up perfectly with Vettel…
Toro Rosso – All The Young Dudes
Just what might the two young Toro Rosso chargers achieve with a better power unit?
This team is set to shock – in the early part of the season especially. There were several occasions last year where the STR10 was the second-fastest car through the quick corners. But it was stymied by a Renault engine. The STR11 gets a 2015-spec Ferrari in the back – an instant boost of about 40bhp. We might get to see a repeat of 2008 when STR frequently bettered the senior team.
Verstappen and Sainz bring a fizzing fearlessness and their F1 data banks should be filling up nicely into their sophomore seasons. A place on the Melbourne podium could beckon. Seriously. As the engine manufacturers get into their development programme later in the year while STR’s spec remains frozen, they will likely fall back a little.
Force India/Sauber/Manor – It’s No Game
So where do the rest stand?
Each of these teams is subject to inordinate financial stress. Force India invariably delivers the best performance-to-spend ratio on the grid, Sauber is in danger of reversing into bother unless it gets more technically adventurous while Manor gives the impression of being run by a caretaker owner who senses there may be some money to be made.