A new year begins with a wealth of possibilities for the season ahead. Here are ten of the biggest talking points on and off the track ahead of the 2016 F1 championship.
Can Mercedes’ rivals close the gap this time?
Those who were eager to see Mercedes getting a tougher time from their rivals 12 months ago will be even more anxious to see the field close up this time. Despite Ferrari raising their game last year, the fading threat from Renault meant the three-pointed star managed to increase their points haul from 2014 to 2015.
Conventional wisdom suggests Mercedes will find it harder to find more pace having already exploited the opportunities available under the current rules more thoroughly than any of their rivals. But of course the same theory applied 12 months ago, and it didn’t work out that way.
Nonetheless Renault believe their late-season development work will put them on the right path for the year ahead, Honda expect they can make significant gains by correcting fundamental shortcomings with their 2015 power unit, and Ferrari will be better placed to give Sebastian Vettel – Mercedes’ closest rival last year – a car which is more finely tuned to his requirements.
And even if none of that comes to pass, the final three races of last season indicated Nico Rosberg may be in a position to give Lewis Hamilton a much harder fight.
How will the new Renault go – and look?
After four years competing only as an engine manufacturer, Renault has thrown its weight behind a full factory programme, as it ran from 2002 to 2011 and 1977 to 1985.
Their most recent spell as a full constructor yielded two constructors’ championships, saw Fernando Alonso take two drivers’ titles, and produced 20 grand prix victories. Wisely, those in charge of today’s team have acknowledged that kind of success is not going to happen again soon.
What can be expected of them in the meantime? The Enstone squad is a lean but well-equipped operation which will benefit from the cash injection. The power unit is a weak link but not a completely unknown quantity as Lotus used Renault hardware most recently in 2014. The benchmark, however, is the similarly-equipped Red Bull squad who will be keen to prove they can achieve more with the Renault engine than the factory squad can.
Then there’s the small matter of the livery. A revival of the vivid Renault yellow of the original team, which reappeared in 2010, would add a much-needed splash of colour to F1’s grey grid.
Time for a line-up shake-up?
It’s hard to remember the last time an off-season passed with so little movement between the teams. Almost every driver has stayed put ahead of the new season, with Romain Grosjean’s switch to Haas the only change announced so far.
However early signs indicate that may be about to change. Hamilton and Vettel could both find themselves with new team mates for 2017 as Mercedes and Ferrari will decide whether to retain or replace the drivers alongside them. While Rosberg may land at another team Raikkonen’s stated preference to be in a competitive car could spell and end for his career.
A change at either of F1’s top teams could set off a chain reaction of moves further down the field. Potential candidates for departure include Felipe Massa and either of the McLaren drivers, particularly if Honda fail to make the necessary gains…
Can Honda build a competitive power unit?
McLaren were in the doldrums last year and the reason was painfully apparent. In twisty sectors the MP4-30 posted reasonable times but as soon as it hit a straight it was was devoured by almost every other car on the track.
At Suzuka its drivers were being overtaken on the approach to 130R where their rivals didn’t even have the assistance of DRS. That spelled out the team’s problem just as clearly as Alonso calling Honda’s power unit a “GP2 engine“.
McLaren and Honda believe the compromises forced on the engine to meet the team’s aerodynamic goals are worth making and the design will bear fruit once basic problems with the engine’s configuration, which could not be addressed during last season, have been fixed. If that proves to have been the case and they regain the missing two seconds, they could immediately be at the sharp end of the midfield or better.
If it turns out they got it wrong, it will surely be time for one side of the equation to change.
How will F1’s first new team for six years perform?
Twelve months ago it seemed there might be just 18 cars on the grid for the upcoming season. However the 11th-hour rescue of Manor and the impending arrival of Haas means there should be 22 cars on the grid at Melbourne on March 20th.
The deep collaboration between Haas and Ferrari prompted questions from Mercedes to the FIA over the extent to which teams could co-operate on areas such as aerodynamic development. By leaning heavily on Ferrari, Haas have given themselves the best possible chance of hitting the ground running in March.
However last year’s tail-enders Manor are poised to leap forward as they switch from year-old Ferrari power units to what will no doubt remain the class-leading Mercedes. And with the vital FOM prize fund only being awarded to the top ten teams, both will be anxious to avoid ending the year 11th and last.
Will Force India and Sauber’s EU complaint be resolved?
After years of speculation that Formula One could face a challenge from the European Union, in September last year the news broke that Force India and Sauber had indeed set legal proceedings in motion. It is now in the hands of EU Competition Commissioner Margarethe Vestager to judge whether those running Formula One have rigged the game against the smaller teams via financial and political means.
The quickest resolution to this would be if the EU were to rule no such abuse is taking place. This would be an ideal result for Bernie Ecclestone, but as yet there’s indication which way things will fall. Vestager certainly has no qualms about taking on bigger fish than Formula One Management – last year she pushed forward an antitrust case against Google.
F1 has been here before, of course. In May 1997 European Truck Racing broadcaster Wolfgang Eisele lodged a complaint with the European Commission regarding Ecclestone and the FIA’s control of motor racing television rights. It took four years for the parties to reach a settlement, and led to the division between FOM’s commercial responsibilities and the FIA’s regulatory which continues to this day.
A significant difference this time is the complaint has been brought not by an outsider but two F1 competitors, which adds another political dimension to what could be another long and drawn out legal tussle.
Is Max Verstappen the real deal?
The Max Verstappen hype reached fever pitch late last year as F1’s youngest ever driver executed some dazzling passes and claimed a pair of fourth place finishes.
He’s even been tipped by some as a potential replacement for Raikkonen at Ferrari next year – though the grand old team of F1 seldom recruit drivers with as little as two years’ F1 race experience, much less ones who are still teenagers.
It remains to be seen whether last year’s Ferrari power unit will be a more competitive proposition than this year’s Renault. It should at least offer a step forward in reliability for both Verstappen and his quietly impressive team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr. With only one rookie driver confirmed in the field so far, Verstappen has an opportunity to cement his position as F1’s hottest new talent.
How strong a hand will Ferrari play?
With new direction at the top from Sergio Marchionne, a new F1 team leader in Maurizio Arrivabene and with an eye fixed on the financial bottom line following its flotation on the New York Stock Exchange, Ferrari enters 2016 seeking to use its considerable political strength to shape the future direction of F1.
The latter months have seen the team use its veto to block a reduction in power unit prices, declare its readiness (not for the first time) to leave F1 if it is unsatisfied, and even tell Bernie Ecclestone he must prepare to hand over the reins of power.
On the track the team is seeking its first championship success in eight years. Off the track it is even better armed and prepared for the kind of fight it usually wins.
Will a 21-race calendar finally happen?
A 21-round schedule was promised last year but with the German Grand Prix falling through and the Korean Grand Prix never a realistic proposition the championship ended up consisting of 19 events.
The chances all 21 races will go ahead this year are better, though still uncertain. Particular concern surrounds the United States Grand Prix, which has struggled to pay its bills to Ecclestone as the government has reduced its financial support. A similar situation has recently emerged concerning the Spanish Grand Prix, though the Circuit de Catalunya’s race is not thought to be in immediate threat.
The newest addition to the calendar, the European Grand Prix in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, will be subject to the usual track inspections prior to its first appearance in the championship. While the country’s corruption problems and human rights abuses have not deterred F1 from heading there, the sudden devaluation of its currency in late December – the manat lost 32% of its value against the US dollar due to falling oil prices – could present problems.
Can F1 halt its popularity slide?
Formula One’s steadily falling television viewing figures have been widely reported for years, and a stagnant championship contest in 2015 did little to help matters.
There are isolated success stories – audiences in the USA have steadily grown since NBCSN took over the broadcast. And FOM’s belated move to embrace social media last year may help in find new fans.
But the overall downward trend in F1’s viewing figures is a growing concern for all. It’s telling that Mercedes have even suggested they could change how they manage their two drivers in order to promote more racing between them if they remain as far ahead ahead in 2016.
Over to you
How do you think these questions will be answered? What else are you eager to learn about the year ahead?
And how were last year’s questions answered 12 months later?
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