The start of the first race of the 2016 Formula 1 Season is only a couple of days away. After a long off-season (although this was possibly the sport’s shortest off-season yet), the Formula 1 circus will put up a show at the Albert Park Circuit in Melbourne, Australia this weekend.
The build-up to the first race has been exciting. There’s a lot of PR around Ferrari’s improvised pace and if they will be able to challenge and beat Mercedes on a consistent basis. For the sport’s sake and for Ferrari, we really hope there is more to this season that Lewis Hamilton’s utter dominance.
Mercedes To Allow Drivers To Race
To spice up the action further, Mercedes announced a few weeks ago that they would allow their drivers to race each other so long as it didn’t compromise the team’s overall result in the race. By racing each other, the team meant that they would allow their drivers to beat the other via tyre strategy too. This also means that if Ferrari’s form turns out to be all hype, it is the Mercedes pit-wall fans will have to rely on to spice up action at the front of the field.
Mercedes’ change in policy to allow inter-team racing is welcome. In the previous seasons, Mercedes would put their lead driver (driver running highest in the race order) on the most optimum strategy to ensure the highest possible finish (it almost was a race win!). While it worked wonderfully well for the lead driver, this strategy put the driver who would follow in an almost impossible position to challenge the lead driver. While Mercedes was right in protecting their team’s interest, the strategy lead to processional races and was protested upon by Hamilton towards the end of the 2015 season.
Lewis Hamilton vs. Nico Rosberg
Mercedes’ earlier policy to not allow drivers to race each other impacted Nico Rosberg the most in 2015. Hamilton’s pole-to-flag wins saw Rosberg following him second without being able to mount a challenge. Again for the sport’s sake and for Rosberg, I hope he’s able to not just challenge but beat Hamilton consistently.
This is Rosberg’s 6th season with the German team and he is up for a contract renewal later this season. The Mercedes bosses would be looking at a Hamilton beater to keep their World Champion driver honest and to have a succession plan in place. Could 2016 be Rosberg’s last season with Mercedes? Also, with a fresh set of regulations expected in 2017, this could also be Rosberg’s last chance to win a Drivers’ Championship. All eyes on Rosberg!
Ferrari vs. Mercedes
Ferrari have put all their resources and more to ensure that they are off to a perfect start in 2016. If there’s one team that is capable of pressurizing Mercedes and keep them on their toes, it is Ferrari. 2015 showed us that Mercedes are capable of making mistakes when under pressure, often leading to unpredictable race results.
After a not-so-great season last year, KimiRaikkonen would be hoping to resurrect his lost form (and talent?) this season. Ferrari would want to rely on both their drivers in their fight for top honours. The irony though is that the sport is relying on Sebastian Vettel, who bored us for four consecutive seasons, to ensure that Lewis Hamilton doesn’t bore us all season long!
2016, A Repeat Of 2015?
Mercedes and Ferrari start 2016 as the most dominant power units in the paddock. Renault and Honda are still finding their way around these regulations and there’s talk that the first half of 2016 could see the same form factor we witnessed in the second half of 2015.
If this is true, Williams and Force India will be competing with Mercedes and Ferrari at the front. Could Mercedes be looking at ultimate dominance of the sport by helping Williams and Force India challenge Ferrari? The power unit politics could come to the fore should Ferrari trouble Mercedes indeed.
If the Mercedes power unit remains most dominant and risks making the season boring, we suggest that Bernie Ecclestone should just give everyone Mercedes engines. Hopefully that’ll bring back some excitement!
The Competitive Mid-field
The former World Champion teams of Red Bull Racing, Mclaren-Honda and Renault could find themselves fighting in the mid-field given the power deficit they face as they go into the season opener. Should that be so, the mid-field will get crowded and competitive with Force India, Toro Rosso and Sauber already there.
Force India benefited from a strong Mercedes power unit in 2015 and that benefit will continue in 2016 too. Red Bull Racing, who consider themselves as the victim of Formula 1’s power unit politics, will use Renault engines (rebadged as TAG Heuer) after much brouhaha last season. Will this help them compete with their usual rivals Ferrari and Mercedes is anyone’s guess. Red Bull Racing’s sister team, Toro Rosso, who was granted permission to use Ferrari’s 2015 power unit might just end up being quicker! This is good news for Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr.’s fans.
Mclaren-Honda’s progress in PR and media has been more than their progress on-track, it seems. The former World Champion team has lost a few sponsors to rival teams and is trying their best to hold on to their illustrious driver pair of Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button. Like last year, the team didn’t impress much in pre-season testing and are hoping to develop their car-power unit package as the season progresses.
Renault’s best decision of 2016 was to replace Pastor Maldonado with the much talented Kevin Magnussen. The team is in their transition year and will take time to deliver results. Apart from performance, I hope Renault stays committed to their Formula 1 program for longer and becomes a potent force like their previous avatars.
Formula 1 doesn’t see much driver churn given the nature of contracts and the lack of available cockpits every year. However, I suspect that 2016 could be the last year for more than a few drivers, former World Champions and otherwise.
The first name that comes to my mind is Fernando Alonso. After not so smart team changes, Alonso finds himself stuck at Mclaren-Honda, the slowest of the former World Champion teams and is unable to get himself a faster car to compliment his talent. If 2016 remains as hopeless as 2015, there’s chance Alonso might deflect to another racing series altogether. Ditto for Jenson Button!
KimiRaikkonen’s second coming at Ferrari hasn’t gone as per plan. The Finnish driver has been unable to score consistent points / podium finishes. If he doesn’t challenge or beat his team-mate Sebastian Vettel in 2016, a contract renewal for the 2008 Drivers’ Champion could be doubtful.
The other driver who could follow him into retirement could be his former Ferrari team-mate, Felipe Massa. The Brazilian driver’s second life at Williams has seen him shine brighter and compete consistently with his team-mate and highly recommended driver, Valtteri Bottas. Should the Williams F1 Team go looking for new blood, the Brazilian veteran might be forced to make way.
Battle for Max and Carlos
The other battle that I suspect Ferrari and Mercedes will engage in 2016 will be to sign up the phenomenally talented rookies of 2015 – Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr.
The drivers, who are also sons of former racing drivers, will be in their second season for Toro Rosso. The bigger cog in this battle will be Red Bull Racing, the team that has nurtured them in the last few seasons and given them their break in Formula 1. But if Red Bull Racing is unable to give them a competitive car-power unit combination, why would these young sensations stay?
Jolyon Palmer (Renault), Pascal Wehrlein (Manor) and Rio Haryanto (Manor) will be the rookie brigade in 2016. Palmer is a former GP2 champion (2014) whereas Wehrlein is Mercedes’ junior driver and both will be hoping to make their mark on the grid early on and make themselves eligible for when faster cockpits become available later in the season.
Haryanto on the other hand is a surprise inclusion on this year’s grid. It is public knowledge that the Govt. of Indonesian has helped fund the driver’s seat at Manor. Will Haryanto be the rookie to watch or the rookie to watch out for? But of course, the interest is in knowing which rookie will be the new Max Verstappen!
Haas F1 Team
The all-American team who have forged a controversial relationship with Ferrari seem to be better than most of their peers in their debut season. The sport needs Haas to do well for two reasons. First, it could help open the American market to spectators and sponsors. Second, Formula 1 badly needs a positive story of a new team entering and being able to respectable compete on their own might.
The unwanted and unexpected qualifying format changes will go live from the 2016 Australian Grand Prix itself. There could be much confusion on-track for the driver, on the pit wall for the engineers and on television for the spectators. But what’s Formula 1 without complexity anyway.
Lastly, the FIA will enforce a full radio clampdown for 2016. This will mean that the teams can communicate only a limited number of messages to their drivers during a competitive session. The clampdown has been labelled as ‘excessive’ by a few members of the paddock but is expected to make the drivers work harder in the race without relying on their engineers too much.
All-in-all, expectations from Formula 1 are high to deliver an exciting and entertaining race in Australia. Let's wait for the first three races before deciding to commit 21 weekends of 2016 to Formula 1.