This new season brings new owners, new rules and new cars. Perhaps the biggest charge on the track has been a new emphasis on making the cars quicker by giving them bigger tyres creating more downforce. These new regulations make it very difficult to assess how each team will do but here are my predictions for 2017 standings:
1. Mercedes (-)
Drivers: Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas
It has been all change at Mercedes in the off-season. First, there was the shock announcement that world champion Nico Rosberg was retiring, secondly, there was the departure of Paddy Lowe as the teams technical director. Lowe has been replaced by James Allison, formerly of Ferrari, while Rosberg has been replaced by the Williams driver Valtteri Bottas.
Bottas has been in F1 since 2013 and in that time he has achieved nine podiums in 77 races. The question is whether the 27-year-old from Finland will be able to adapt quickly enough to consistently deliver the high finishes Mercedes require. From the outside, he seems a safe bet but he is ultimately lacking in the raw speed that could lead him to challenging Lewis Hamilton.
Hamilton has proven over the years that he is unbelievably quick and if he has the car I would fully expect him to win his fourth world championship. All the signs suggest that Mercedes have produced another championship winning car so I would expect them to win the constructors title and Hamilton the drivers title. However, with the rule changes it might be closer than in the previous three seasons.
2. Ferrari (up 1)
Drivers: Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen
Ferrari surprised many when they offered a new contract to the 37-year-old Kimi Raikkonen and it will be interesting to see if it pays off. Since returning to the team where he won his only world title back in 2007, Raikkonen has been consistently beaten for pace by his team-mate Sebastian Vettel.’The Ice Man’ finished sixth in the World Championship last year, after only making the podium four times, and he will need to improve if Ferrari are to challenge Mercedes.
But, early testing has been encouraging for the new Ferrari. The car looks quick and it could give Vettel a real shot at another drivers title. With Bottas inexperienced at this level, I expect the four-times world champion to be Hamilton’s closest challenger. I suspect though that the Mercedes will just too strong for the Ferrari and Vettel will finish second in the championship.
3. Red Bull (down 1)
Drivers: Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen
The team with perhaps the most exciting drivers line-up this season is Red Bull. Daniel Ricciardo has matured into a brilliant driver, and last season looked like the only one capable of challenging Mercedes, and Max Verstappen is probably the most talented driver in the field and he’s still only 19. Verstappen’s drive to third in last years rainy Brazilian Grand Prix was utterly magnificent and reminiscent of what F1 legend Ayrton Senna could do in adverse conditions. The young Dutchman will have to mature this season though after a few controversies about his driving style – specifically how he defends against overtaking.
However, I think that the drivers could be let down by their car this season. With the new, larger tyres creating more drag on the straights, a powerful engine could be more important than ever this season. Red Bull’s engine partner Renault have struggled with this and I think the car will end up with the third best engine and third place in the constructors championship. Ricciardo and Verstappen could challenge Bottas and Raikkonen for third place in the drivers championship though.
4. Force India (-)
Drivers: Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon
The three teams at the front of F1 again look a class above this season and picking the order of the rest is very difficult indeed. Force India finished fourth in the constructors last season and I am backing them to do the same again. It will be tough with them having lost the highly rated Nico Hulkenberg to rivals Renault. However his replacement, Esteban Ocon, looked good for the now-defunct Manor team last season with him regularly out-performing team-mate Pascal Wehrlein.
There will be huge pressure on Sergio Perez to perform though. Ocon has only competed in nine races in F1 so Perez, with six years experience, will be expected to guide the team. The Mexican had some excellent results last season with two third-place finishes. He has developed a reputation as one of the best drivers on his tyres in F1 but whether that will have as much impact this season with Pirelli producing harder compounds is debatable. But, Force India have the excellent Mercedes engine and that could see them take fourth place.
5. Renault (up 4)
Drivers: Nico Hulkenberg and Jolyon Palmer
Renault were pretty dreadful last season, picking up only eight points, but I can’t see that continuing. Last season was their first returning to the iconic Renault name and that takes time to get used to. They also have the advantage of producing their own engines and while many expect it still will be the third best in F1, rumours suggest they have closed the gap.
The driver line-up for this season also looks like an improvement. Kevin Magnussen was pretty poor last season and he has been replaced by Nico Hulkenberg who, despite his lack of podium finish in F1, has been very consistent for the last few seasons. The pressure will be on Jolyon Palmer to step-up after he only scored one point all last season. Overall though, the team look capable of challenging for fourth in the constructors championship.
6. McLaren (-)
Drivers: Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne
What to say about McLaren? They have the budget to challenge the top-three teams but they have been very poor for the last four seasons and the decision to make Honda their engine partner seems disastrous. In truth, McLaren currently look like a team that could finish anywhere from fourth to tenth in the constructors championship. The reliability problems look to still be there and the engine is likely to be the worst in F1 again.
The positive for McLaren is the driver line-up. Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso is still a brilliant driver and the exciting young Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne has replaced the exceptional Jenson Button. Last years car was pretty slow and yet Alonso managed to get points finishes in nine races. It looks as if it could be another long season of the drivers out-performing the car.
7. Williams (down 2)
Drivers: Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll
Williams have endured a fairly difficult off-season. Felipe Massa announced that 2016 would be his last season in F1 and his replacement was announced as the 18-year-old Lance Stroll. However, Williams were put in a difficult position when Valtteri Bottas moved to Mercedes as their sponsorship with Martini dictates that one of the drivers must be over the age of 25 for promotional reasons. This led to Massa announcing that he would come back for one more year at the age of 35.
The changes in the driver line-up have left Williams looking weaker. It remains to be seen how motivated, and quick, Massa will be in his surprise return to the sport. The verdict is also out on Stroll. He clearly has talent, he is the current European Formula 3 champion, but the fact that his dad, Lawrence Stroll, is a billionaire has clearly helped to get him his seat. Williams will still likely be competitive, they have the Mercedes engine, but better drivers could give other teams the edge.
8. Toro Rosso (down 1)
Drivers: Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz Jr.
As always, Toro Rosso have two potentially very good racing drivers. Carlos Sainz Jr., still just 22-years-old, has impressed in his first two seasons in F1 and achieved three sixth place finishes last season. There are more questions about Daniil Kvyat. Last season, Kvyat was controversially demoted by Red Bull, the sister company, after a few high profile crashes. This led to the Russian looking visibly dejected on race weekends and 0ne points finish in the last 11 races suggests there is work to be done. He needs to show why he was given the Red Bull seat in the first place.
The car itself looks on par with many of its rivals. The Ferrari engine should provide good power and could give the team the edge on high-speed circuits against the McLarens and the Renaults. But, having finished seventh in the previous three seasons I think this might be a step backward due to the improving Renault.
9. Haas (down 1)
Drivers: Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen
The final team likely to be in the midfield battle is last seasons debutants Haas. The American team had a promising start to 2016 with three points finishes in the opening five races but things then declined. Romain Grosjean’s point in the USA race was the only one the team got in the whole second-half of the season. With the controversial close links to Ferrari though the team seem to have developed a midfield contender.
The drivers could be cause for concern. Grosjean has developed into a very solid performer after a shaky, and crash-filled, start in F1 and will likely take the bulk of the points. The very disappointing Esteban Gutierrez, who was perhaps last seasons worst driver, has been released but he has been replaced by Kevin Magnussen who might not be any better. Magnussen will need to have a better season for Haas to consistently challenge the top-ten.
10. Sauber (-)
Drivers: Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein
Last season was a huge struggle for Sauber. The Swiss team had been in financial trouble for years but that was finally resolved when Longbow Finance completed their takeover. On the track the car was pretty terrible. Felipe Nasr’s ninth place finish in Brazil, the penultimate race of the season, was the only time they scored points all season. It kept them off the bottom of the constructors championship and reportedly it was a significant factor in the downfall of Manor who lost out the place, and the money, and are now defunct.
Sauber’s drivers are young but yet to prove their potential. Ericsson is now in his fourth season in F1 and he has yet to show the skills that would get him a drive in a better car. Wehrlein looked promising in last years Manor, and he was apparently on the shortlist for the open seat at Mercedes, but Esteban Ocon was getting the better of him towards the end of the year. This looks like a season of consolidation for Sauber, who will be hoping to challenge for points on a more regular basis.