Back in March, we posed five key questions ahead of this year’s Formula 1 World Championship. Now that the chequered flag has come down on the 2017 season, we can finally answer those questions…
1. Will Mercedes make it four in a row?
Well, they did it. Mercedes took Lewis Hamilton to his fourth World Championship, and in the process became only the fourth team in F1 history to win four consecutive Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships.
However, 2017 was Mercedes’ least-dominant season since the sport switched to hybrid engines in 2014. Both Ferrari and Red Bull were much closer than they had been in the previous three years, and Sebastian Vettel actually led Hamilton in the Drivers’ Championship until September.
Still, Mercedes’ 2017 results are pretty impressive: 15 pole positions and 12 victories from 20 races, and a 146-point advantage over Ferrari by season’s end. The question now becomes: can they make it five in a row in 2018?
2. How will Bottas fare alongside Lewis Hamilton?
Valtteri Bottas finished his first year at Mercedes in style, with a pole, win and fastest lap at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. It was his third F1 victory, following wins in Russia and Austria in the first half of the season, and all three came under immense pressure.
In both Russia and Austria, Bottas finished less than a second ahead of Vettel, and had the four-time World Champion breathing down his neck in the closing laps. In Abu Dhabi, his teammate Hamilton filled his mirrors for almost all of the race.
So Bottas has shown that, on his day, he can win against the best. But he couldn’t match Hamilton over the season as a whole – especially when Lewis stepped up his game after the summer break. Most concerning were the four consecutive races, from Belgium to Malaysia, where Bottas couldn’t get within half a second of Hamilton in qualifying. He did recover from that lull in impressive style, though, with two pole positions at the final two races.
Bottas did more than enough to secure a second year at Mercedes. Now that he’s had a season to settle into the team, it’ll be interesting to see how close he can get to Hamilton in 2018.
3. Can the giants of the past get back on top?
Ferrari failed to turn their early-season promise into a sustained championship challenge. Having won three of the first six races, they only managed to win two of the remaining 14. Vettel’s hopes of beating Hamilton to the drivers’ title were dashed by a crash at the start of the Singapore Grand Prix, which eliminated Vettel, Kimi Räikkönen and Max Verstappen, allowing Hamilton through to win the race.
Nevertheless, it was Ferrari’s most successful season since they last won the Constructors’ Championship in 2008. The fact that they are coming away from 2017 disappointed not to have finished closer to Hamilton and Mercedes shows just how much they’ve improved.
Sadly, neither McLaren or Williams – the other most successful teams in F1 history – had a particularly good year. Although McLaren had what Fernando Alonso called ‘the best car out there’ at the Mexican Grand Prix, it was held back by a slow and unreliable Honda engine. Despite some incredible drives by Alonso, McLaren ended up ninth of the ten teams. There’s hope for the future, though, as McLaren will switch to Renault engines next year, which should help them get closer to the front.
Having unexpectedly lost Bottas’s services just two months before the season began, and despite gaining Mercedes’ former technical director Paddy Lowe, Williams had a pretty lacklustre year. Lance Stroll’s third place in Azerbaijan – the only podium finish for a team other than Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull all year – was the only real highlight. Stroll and teammate Felipe Massa spent most of the other races fighting for the lower point-scoring positions, and Williams ultimately finished 104 points behind rivals Force India.
4. Which youngster will make the biggest splash?
Verstappen continued to demonstrate his potential as a future World Champion this year. He only turned 20 in September, and began his third decade with an incredible run of form: a win in Malaysia; second in Japan, just a second behind Hamilton; fourth in the US after an engine penalty saw him start 16th; and another win in Mexico.
However, his season was hampered by the Red Bull’s unreliability – Verstappen completed fewer laps than any other full-time driver – and he could only manage sixth in the championship. He’ll be hoping for better in 2018.
2017 was Esteban Ocon’s first full season in F1, but he’s already marked himself out as a star of the future. He matched teammate Sergio Pérez throughout the season and secured two fifth-place finishes. Ocon is part of Mercedes’ junior programme, and, judging by his performance so far, he could well be promoted to the team before long.
Carlos Sainz Jr also impressed, earning himself a move from Toro Rosso to Renault in October – and setting himself up for a potential Red Bull drive in the future. Stoffel Vandoorne had a tough start at the struggling McLaren team, but posted some good results in the second half of the year to show that he deserved at least another season. And Pascal Wehrlein did the best he could in the worst car on the grid – the Sauber – but sadly it probably won’t be enough for him to keep his place in F1 in 2018.
5. Will Liberty Media spice up the show?
2017 certainly produced plenty of exciting races – but that was more thanks to Ferrari and Red Bull being more competitive than anything Liberty Media has done. Liberty’s impact so far has been mainly to improve the show off the track, with better use of social media, more behind-the-scenes footage, and new events like the ‘F1 Live’ event in London in July.
The real test will be how F1’s new owners handle the thornier and more substantial issues facing the sport’s future. They proposed a new engine formula for 2021 onwards, which caused Ferrari to threaten to quit the sport. Finding a solution that’s good for racing, manufacturers and the environment – but doesn’t cost too much – won’t be easy.
Liberty’s director of motorsport, Ross Brawn, has also promised to find an answer to the problem of grid penalties for engine changes, which have seen drivers such as Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo relegated to the back of the grid and prevented from fighting for victories. Tighter restrictions on engine use could make such penalties even more frequent in 2018. Brawn is confident that the new 2021 engine rules will fix this issue, but drivers, teams and fans won’t want to wait that long.
So, 2017 produced an exciting season of F1 racing, even if the Hamilton-Vettel, Mercedes-Ferrari battle didn’t go all the way to a decider. And 2018 has the potential to be even more exciting. Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull all finished 2017 strongly, and all have two drivers who are more than capable of winning races. McLaren and Alonso could also join the battle for victories, thanks to their new Renault engines. We certainly can’t wait!