The battle for the 2017 Formula 1 World Championship will begin in Melbourne, Australia next week. To get your engines revving in anticipation, here are our five key questions for the season ahead.
1. Will Mercedes make it four in a row?
Mercedes’ recent dominance of F1 is unprecedented. They’ve locked out first and second in the Drivers’ Championship for three years in a row, winning 51 of 59 races along the way. But 2017 might prove more challenging for the team.
The big rule changes brought in for this season could well shake up the field – and present Mercedes’ rivals an opportunity to catch up. And both Nico Rosberg and technical boss Paddy Lowe left over the winter, although Mercedes have found solid replacements in Valtteri Bottas and Ferrari’s former technical director, James Allison.
2. How will Bottas fare alongside Lewis Hamilton?
Mercedes’ new signing entered F1 in 2013 with a solid record in junior categories, including winning the 2011 GP3 Championship. He went on to impress at Williams, outperforming his teammates in each of his four years there and reaching the podium nine times.
The step up to Mercedes is both Bottas’ biggest opportunity and his biggest challenge. He hasn’t yet had a car capable of winning races, but nor has he faced a teammate of Hamilton’s calibre. So can he compete with the three-time World Champion? And, if so, will we see a repeat of the friction between Hamilton and Rosberg?
3. Can the giants of the past get back on top?
F1’s most successful teams – Ferrari, McLaren and Williams – have been struggling recently. Between them, they won 31 of the 35 Constructors’ Championships from 1974 to 2008, but none have managed it again since.
Ferrari are the most likely of the three to change that in 2017. Kimi Räikkönen set the fastest time in pre-season testing, and Hamilton said they ‘must be the favourites’. Williams showed some impressive speed in testing too, but their target is to improve on fifth in the championship in 2016.
As for McLaren, it’s not looking good. They suffered numerous problems with their Honda power unit during testing, allowing them to complete fewer than half the laps Mercedes or Ferrari managed. Three years into their renewed relationship, McLaren and Honda have not yet recaptured the magic they had in the late eighties and early nineties.
4. Which youngster will make the biggest splash?
There’ll only be one completely new driver on the grid in Australia: Williams’ 18-year old signing Lance Stroll. But a number of other youngsters will be fighting to make their mark this season too, including McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne, Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz Jr, and Mercedes’ two protégés, Esteban Ocon at Force India and Pascal Wehrlein at Sauber. Can any of them emulate Max Verstappen’s rapid rise to glory?
5. Will Liberty Media spice up the show?
After 40 years, Bernie Ecclestone – the man who, more than anyone else, made F1 what it is today – has gone. The new commercial rights holders, Liberty Media, are determined to enhance the spectacle and expand F1’s fan base.
They’ve brought in the best man for the job: Ross Brawn, who won seven Constructors’ Championships as technical director at Benetton and Ferrari, before adding another with his own Brawn GP team in 2009. His aim for F1’s long-term future? ‘To make sure more teams have the capability to compete’.
Brawn also believes that a decision is needed this year on what sort of engines F1 wants beyond 2020. And he’s suggested that ‘perhaps now is the time to start diverging from where road cars are going’. I’ve written before how the efficiency of F1 cars is helping to cut emissions on our roads. But with manufacturers now focusing on electric cars – and many of them joining Formula E to develop that technology – F1 might be less important for that in the future, as Brawn points out.
So, those are five of the biggest plotlines we think will unfold between now and the end of November. Let’s hope there’s plenty of wheel-to-wheel racing along the way.