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Crash course: 2017 F1 season preview

2017-03-23 20:49

NEW TEAM: Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas will make his debut for Mercedes-Benz at the Australian Grand Prix. Image: AFP / Josep Lago

Braam Peens

Australia - F1 enters a new era in 2017. From wider and faster cars to who runs the show in the background, the world’s fastest and most expensive sport turns a new leaf when the lights go green at Melbourne on Sunday.

Notable absentees will be the 2016 World Champion, Nico Rosberg, whose sudden retirement sent shocks through the Mercedes management in early December, forcing a rushed buy-out from Williams for the services of Valtteri Bottas to partner Lewis Hamilton.

Also less visible will be the silver-haired Bernie Ecclestone, for (far too) long F1’s crooked ringmaster but finally relegated to onlooker after a $4.4-billion buyout by the sport’s new owners, the US-based Liberty Media Corporation.

Musical chairs

As far as seat-swopping for the new season goes, Rosberg’s rapid departure and Bottas’s one-year shoe-in is the most noteworthy.  

As for the rest, with a long-past-his-sell-by-date Jenson Button finally packing it in at McLaren-Honda, the team’s test driver and rising star, Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne gets to fill the fresh vacancy aside Fernando Alonso, whose contract runs out this year and is surely considering his options for 2018, particularly the Bottas seat at Mercedes. 

2017 F1 championship: All the teams and drivers

Another ex-McLaren driver, Kevin Magnussen, has changed employers by moving from Renault to  the fledgling Haas team, which has allowed 2015’s Le Mans winner, Nico Hulkenberg to leave Force India for Renault.

Always ready. ?? #australia #melbourne #fa14 #f1 #14

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Both drivers from Manor Racing – 2016’s slowest and poorest team (which went bust in January) – have been redeployed: Esteban Ocon has signed for Force India and Mercedes’s young star Pascal Wehrlein (who was briefly considered for the Rosberg seat) has gone to Sauber following Brazilian pay driver Filipe Nasr’s departure from the sport.

Speaking of pay drivers, 2016 Euro F3 champion Lance Stroll, the son of a Canadian billionaire who owns brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors, has bought himself a drive at Williams Martini Racing, triggering rumours that a buy-out of the team is on the cards.

In addition, Williams has had to recall Filipe Massa from retirement to stand in for Valtteri Bottas. 

New rules, same game?

Recently, there have been repeated calls to make F1 cars faster by none other than Bernie Ecclestone himself. And it’s unfounded because what F1 needs is more overtaking, not faster cars. (Not convinced? Watch a MotoGP race) Nonetheless, what turned out to be Bernie’s final wish has been granted and pre-season testing at Barcelona revealed lap times that were four seconds faster than in 2016.

So 2017 will see F1 cars widened back to two metres, as they last were in 1997. Wings are wider in front and lower in the back along with an enlarged diffuser. Tyres will also be correspondingly wider and Pirelli is promising rubber less susceptible to thermal degradation (the perennial cause of drivers slowing to a cruise after just two laps on new tyres in 2016). 

Cars may only use four engines for the entire 20 race-long season and engine makers are free to develop components throughout the year, which will no doubt trigger an arms race between the sport’s four suppliers – Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and Honda.

So will there be more overtaking?

Emphatically no. The additional downforce gained will increase drag down the straights (which means top speeds won’t be higher than before), but cornering speeds will be of the neck-snapping variety, adding emphasis to an up-to-now-absent driver fitness. The chalice of wider and grippier cars with shorter stopping distances and higher cornering speeds (the latter two parameters brought about by the increase in downforce) is therefore a toxically self-defeating one. 

PICS: All the new F1 cars for the 2017 season

Also consider that each car is 11% wider than last year. If one car attempts to pull alongside another for a pass, that’s a 22% minimum extra tarmac required. This sum alone further cements the status of ultra-tight circuits such as Monaco and Hungary as processional snore-fests only winnable from pole.

Has anybody gained from the rule changes?

Anyone but Mercedes. Comprehensive rule changes (such as in 1998 when cars were narrowed, Brawn’s double-diffuser in 2009 or 2014’s introduction of turbocharging) tend to present an opportunity for a shake-up of the existing order as new innovations are allowed. 

For obvious reasons defending champions Mercedes would have preferred stability in the technical regulations, which in the present era of F1 have has favoured engine development. And that they have been in the Mercedes’s favour is no coincidence, because – bizarrely – the top teams have a hand in writing the rules themselves.

However, the new, uhm, formula’s obsession with downforce clearly is looking toward non-mechanical innovations such as aerodynamics – a discipline in which Red Bull excels thanks to the services of the most brilliant aerodynamicist in F1, Adrian Newey. Similarly, Ferrari has found their new car favour the new tyres – and all compounds. 

What does this mean? It can be safely assumed that the above mentioned three teams will be in a class of their own in 2017. They have the resources to continuously develop their cars – which they will – and as the season progresses the field spread will get wider as the lower-ranking teams run out of development money.

Who will win the championship?

The head says “Hamilton”, but the heart wants to say “somebody else”, though there’s little doubt 2017 will be a more closely-fought championship than in recent years. Lewis Hamilton may have the weakest teammate in his F1 career since being partnered by Heikki Kovalainen at McLaren in 2008-2009, yet despite Mercedes’s protests to the contrary, will enjoy number one status in the team.

Valtteri Bottas has more to lose than gain. The highest he can – or may – finish, is second. Podiums are expected; fifth and sixth places will not be good enough.

If he fails at Mercedes no top team will ever consider him again. It’s the post-Michael Schumacher Rubens Barichello syndrome.

Preseason testing is a game of smoke and mirrors as none of the top times want to reveal their ultimate pace prematurely. What is known is that Ferrari and Mercedes have been trading positions at the top of the time sheets in pre-season testing and that Red Bull are the most fervent innovators – some say rule-benders – in the sport. 

Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen shone where teammate and swearing enthusiast Sebastian Vettel increasingly floundered towards the tail-end of 2016. The Finn lacks the motivation to win a world championship but worse still, right now the German lacks the temperament: his icily conquered 2010-2013 titles now seem a lifetime away.

Knight on a steed. #ScuderiaFerrari #Kimi7 #SF70H #F1 #Ferrari #PrancingHorse

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Red Bull will have their hands full with 19-year-old Max Verstappen continuing to threaten the more established Daniel Ricciardo’s position in the team. As a future champion the Dutchman is a spectacular as he is erratic, and just what F1 needs on days where mid-fielders are content to merely circulate for points, while quietly killing TV ratings.

All five drivers have the potential to take points away from Lewis Hamilton, but in turn they will also be fighting each other while he romps off into the distance. F1’s most fascinating fight in 2017, will therefore not be over who finishes first in the championship, but who will be the runner-up.

Best of the rest? Torro Rosso. The Renault engine’s power and reliability is sorted, and they will benefit from the trickle-down of technology from its senior Red Bull team. Williams  – a team that last won a championship 20 years ago – will be their usual, unspectacular flash-in-a-pan selves with a strong engine in the Mercedes but the weakest driver line-up in the team’s history.

The similar-powered Force India could make sporadic top-ten appearances (accepting that the top six positions are occupied by default) but only if those ahead trip over themselves. On the other side of the grid there’s McLaren-Honda, in a unique situation where the world’s riches and a superstar driver cannot redeem an engine unable to survive eleven successive laps during testing.

So deep is McLaren’s pain that whispers of them dropping Honda for a Mercedes customer engine can no longer be ignored. Ayrton Senna must surely be rolling in his grave.

So is F1 still worth watching?

Undoubtedly. If Lewis Hamilton gets too distracted by the trappings of Twitter and Snapchat or his rap star aspirations, Red Bull and Ferrari will pounce. And it’s going to be a season won as much on track as it will be by the development war in the factories. 

F1 may still be “broken” as Hamilton himself lamented last year, but the insertion of an unfancied driver by his masters – very likely to the team’s own detriment – as a team mate will give us more varied racing than we’ve seen in a very long time. .

And in a sport that’s become notorious for its dogged tight-fistedness, that’s about as generous as one can wish for.

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