Several simmering rivalries will ignite the 2017 Grand Prix season
Bottas vs Hamilton
This is either the fantastic break of Bottas’s dreams or the beginning of the end of his F1 career. He cannot out-Hamilton Lewis; he isn’t intrinsically faster or more audacious. But he may be able to compete with him the way Nico Rosberg did. He is similarly mentally tough, can take emotion out of the picture very effectively, seems to soak up pressure like it’s not there, is great with the tyres. But is he as fast as Nico? Because all those other qualities won’t count if he’s not. He must be close enough to Hamilton to make those attributes relevant. Furthermore, if there are cars that can genuinely compete with the 2017 Merc then even a Rosberg level of performance would not translate in the same way it did for Nico. Other drivers slotting into that gap between a Hamilton and Rosberg level would help Hamilton dominate. Bottas has the toughest task of any driver on the grid.
Massa vs Stroll
Felipe Massa had several very quiet races last year and was outperformed by Bottas more consistently than in either of their previous two years together. His retirement seemed timely. Now he’s been called out of it. Rookie Lance Stroll’s credentials have been called into question by some, his passage eased with gold, but that counts for nothing once he’s there, on the grid. Similar comments might once have applied to the Rodríguez brothers, but after all it’s irrelevant how he got there; he’ll be judged solely on his performances. Outqualifying Massa every now and again would be a step towards him being taken seriously on his own merits as a driver – and many stranger things than that have happened.
Alonso vs Vandoorne
Stoffel Vandoorne’s potential is off the scale. But he has probably only a slightly easier task than Bottas. Given that it will be his first full season, he will be given more slack – and perhaps McLaren won’t be fighting for the world title and Mercedes will, so the spotlight shouldn’t be quite so intense. But his measuring stick – Alonso – is similarly momentous. Alonso’s greatest strength has never been searing qualifying pace, so expect Vandoorne to be able to compete instantly on that level. But if the 2017 Pirellis are up to being pushed hard for entire stints, then Alonso’s sheer relentlessness will make him as formidable as ever. Potentially this is every bit as great a driver line-up as Red Bull’s. Expect fireworks.
Liberty vs Bernie
Thought Mr Ecclestone was finished? Think again. The next battleground behind the scenes will be the circuits using F1’s change of ownership to try to negotiate more favourable deals. This is where Liberty needs to be both tough and creative. Simply caving in to demands to reduce the exorbitant fees circuits must pay F1 to host a race is not a viable option for the new owners. Instead they will be trying to create ways of opening new, currently non-existent income streams to the circuits. Think promotions and new media. On the other hand, recall that Bernie Ecclestone always had a solid core of circuit owners that would sing to his hymn sheet. Don’t rule out the possibility that he just might band them together in much the same way he did with the teams in the ’70s. Going up against the people who deposed him might just be the sort of mischief that would appeal to this 86-year-old with time on his hands.
Pirelli vs increased downforce
Teams were confidently predicting last year that the new aero regulations would liberate an extra 40 per cent of downforce over 2016 by the time the cars got to Melbourne. So in theory they should be 4-5sec faster. Except they might not be… There is a serious concern that in order to withstand the extra loads imposed by the downforce, Pirelli will need to set the minimum pressures at a high enough level that negates most of the potential performance gain. Which of course would render pointless the whole exercise of changing the cars… That’s merely a concern at this stage, and may prove unfounded. The tyres are, after all, both wider and taller, giving a greater contact patch. So long as the constructions are up to containing all the grip that contact patch will generate, then the gains will come.
Vettel vs Ferrari
There’s really only one way the Arrivabene-Vettel relationship could be repaired: if the new Ferrari is a rocketship. The team hasn’t been set on a trajectory these few seasons past that suggests such a thing will unfold – the weakness of an aerodynamic department seemingly forever one step behind has been the general theme. Will the redrawing of the aero regulations – together with the extra input into the 2017 car of the formally retired Rory Byrne – be able to reverse that? Will the new engine technology that’s reportedly being introduced be enough to compensate for any aero shortfall? If not, Vettel’s frustration will only grow – and thereby his relationship with the management will degrade further. Vettel isn’t going to recreate the Schumacher era without his equivalents of Ross Brawn and Jean Todt. It’s difficult to see who they are in the current structure.
Force India vs Williams
Lean and efficient Force India gave Williams a serious black eye last year. A team of half its size beat it to fourth place
in the championship for constructors. Williams is still structured like a big, serious team but without the budget to properly access that power. Shrinking to Force India proportions – in the process surrendering its capacity to design and produce its own transmissions, have its own wind tunnel etc – would hurt and isn’t going to happen willingly. But a major injection of capital is necessary to get out of the current no-man’s land. Is that where Stroll Snr comes in ultimately? Even if that’s the plan and Paddy Lowe gets to choose how that money is spent, it’s probably not going to take effect in one year.
Max vs Daniel
The immovable object and the irresistible force? Last year Daniel Ricciardo had a stronger batting average than the phenomenon Max Verstappen. But the momentum seemed to be with the younger driver towards the end of the season. This has happened to Ricciardo before he’s had the opportunity of a fully competitive title-contending car – and he admits to regularly pondering on how his career might have gone if he’d got into a Red Bull a couple of years earlier than he did. Everything he has done as a Red Bull driver suggests he’s a world champion in waiting. Verstappen’s impact has been more sudden, his racing style even more forceful. Last year they rubbed along OK. But if the 2017 Red Bull is a title contender, Christian Horner is going to have his hands full keeping the peace.