2017: A new season, new regulations and a new hope

Though it is not easy to determine the pecking order based on the times clocked during testing, one can safely say that Mercedes and Ferrari will be the frontrunners in Melbourne, followed closely by Red Bull Racing.

Kimi Raikkonen takes off his gloves, as the mechanics push his car back into the pit at the end of a testing session at the Catalunya race track, outside Barcelona, Spain. The Ferrari driver set the fastest time during the pre-season testing which was 3.4 seconds quicker than the pole position time set by Lewis Hamilton at the Spanish Grand Prix last year.   -  AP

A sport where the term ‘standing still’ means going backwards, Formula One has decided to turn the clock back to regain its fan base.

For years, most of the regulation changes introduced in the sport were aimed at slowing down the cars. This season, though, changes have been introduced to make the cars faster, look better and make it a bit difficult for the drivers to race them.

For the first time in two decades, the cars in 2017 will be wider, with the size of the tyres being increased by more than 25 per cent. The wider tyres increase the contact patch and provide more mechanical grip, enabling the cars to go faster around the corners.

Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes is among those who believe that Ferrari has not shown its full pace yet. “I think Ferrari are bluffing and are a lot quicker than they are showing,” the three-time World champion was quoted as saying.   -  REUTERS

Ever since the hybrid engines were introduced in 2014, the increased weight of the car and the rapidly degrading tyres — introduced to have more pit stops — made the cars slower, especially around the corners.

Over the past three years, the drivers had constantly complained about having to coast in order to save fuel. The drivers were also unhappy that they were not able to push their cars without hurting the tyres, hence they had to drive conservatively.

There was also a perception that the F1 cars, unlike a decade ago, were easy to drive, and the success of someone like Max Verstappen, making his debut as a 17-year-old, only accentuated this impression.

Apart from wider tyres and cars, the new season will also see a raft of aerodynamic changes, making the cars look a lot more racy than they were in recent times, with a lower and wider rear wing along with a wider front wing that is proportional to the increase in the car’s overall width.

The new regulations were put in place in 2015, with a targeted increase of five seconds per lap, and times from pre-season testing confirmed that some of the cars were on the mark.

The fastest time set by Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was 3.4 seconds quicker than the pole position time set by Lewis Hamilton at the Spanish Grand Prix last year.

However, higher downforce and cornering speeds also mean that the effect of turbulent air — caused by the car in front — on the car that is following is going to be massive and overtaking will not be easy.

Force India drivers, Sergio Perez (left) and Esteban Ocon pose with the VJM10 at Silverstone. The performed well last year, finishing fourth in the Constructors’ Championship. However, this year, Force India could find the going tough.   -  AP

 

Though it is not easy to determine the pecking order based on the times clocked during testing, one can safely say that Mercedes and Ferrari will be the frontrunners in Melbourne (Australian Grand Prix, March 26), followed closely by Red Bull Racing.

While Mercedes was expected to set the pace once again on the back of three World titles, it was Ferrari’s pace that caught everyone’s attention, including the other teams and drivers.

The Italian outfit set some impressive times and its cars showed reliability during the eight days of testing.

Ferrari, however, has often flattered to deceive, and last year the team showed similar pace in testing, but was nowhere close to Mercedes. The prancing horse ended the season without a win.

This time around, there is a renewed hope and some are of the view that Ferrari has not shown its full pace yet.

Lewis Hamilton, the three-time World champion, was quoted as saying, “I think Ferrari are bluffing and are a lot quicker than they are showing.”

For F1 to be healthy, the presence of Ferrari at the sharp end is vital, and the team seems to have some interesting concepts on its cars that have taken the rivals by surprise.

Red Bull, led by Adrian Newey in the technical department, was expected to take the biggest leap this year with the new aero regulations playing to its strengths. However, the team did not have a smooth run in testing. It also had some issues with its Renault power unit. Even then, it will be foolish to write the team off, as Red Bull usually brings in big updates until the last possible minute. If Renault sorts out its gremlins, you can expect Red Bull to be there, or thereabouts.

However, the biggest story so far from testing has been the turmoil that McLaren-Honda is in. Honda, which came back to F1 in 2015, has still not mastered the new hybrid power units. The McLaren cars have been woefully down on power in the last two years.

  This year, Honda had the opportunity to go in for a complete overhaul and get close to the frontrunners. Instead, the Japanese engine manufacturer has regressed in terms of both power and reliability.

McLaren, which has not won a race since 2012, cannot afford another season with a substandard power unit, and the team has publicly lashed out at Honda. McLaren did the least number of laps over eight days — the team could not even do more than 11 laps at a stretch.

More importantly, it has also tested Fernando Alonso’s patience and the team cannot afford to lose its star driver, whose contract runs out at the end of this year.

In the mid-table battle, there is not much to choose between Force India, Toro Rosso, Haas and Renault, while Williams seems to be slightly quicker than the four.

For Force India, it is the 10th year in the sport and the team is one of the best-run outfits on the grid, with maximum returns from a modest budget. The team punched way above its weight last year, finishing a spectacular fourth in the Constructors’ Championship. However, in testing, the team has not shown enough promise of defending that position and would be hoping to sort things out before Melbourne.

Nostalgia is a good reference point to pause for a moment and assess how far the sport has progressed. But to only think of that point and try to return to the halcyon days is fraught with danger. A similar set of regulations was junked sometime back for solving the problem of lack of wheel-to-wheel racing, which persists even today.

Initial reports suggest that faster cars are more spectacular on the track, with the engine sound louder than it was in the last three years.

These are positive signs, but for sustained success, there must be competition between teams with a bit of unpredictability about who would win on a given day. Therein lies the success of the regulation overhauls.

F1 2017: SEASON GUIDE