While it might be a tad bit too early to make predictions and discuss what one can expect, here are a few talking points and things to look forward to in the 2016 Formula 1 season..
With the pre-season test commencing February 22nd, the gestation period till then leads to a lot of speculation and anticipation. Last season left us with Lewis Hamilton, wrapping up the title in a drenched race at Austin, and his teammate showing form after that. Ferrari made a turn-around from their form in 2014 to becoming the only team able to give Mercedes a run for their money in 2015. With tyre changes made by Pirelli for 2016, new exhausts, new drivers, new outfits on the grid, and a record long calendar, here are a few things to ponder upon…
Will the Prancing Horse step-up its game in 2016?
The Maranello based outfit did find 2 seconds more pace over the last winter to change their fortunes. But the question lies as to whether they can find more pace over this winter to challenge the reigning champions. What we know so far is they will be making improvements over the engine units and s it has been anticipated by most that they will be on par with Mercedes by March. There was speculation and concern mid-season last year over the advantage they were gaining from the development work done by Haas F1 team, to whom they will provide engines in 2016. Rivals Mercedes had questioned the rules and legalities involving an existing F1 team working along with a new team which hasn’t entered an F1 championship. The suspicion was that Ferrari had gained benefit from the unlimited time a new team gets for the wind-tunnel and CFD simulation work. If the scarlet outfit manages to find more pace and advantage over the winter one can see tables turning next season, with Sebastian Vettel the obvious contender for the title. For Kimi, 2015 might have ended on a high but inconsistencies and DNF’s in 2015 have lead to discontent. However, 2016 will be a deciding season for the Finn’s F1 career, and it is expected that he will aid Vettel to win the title. Recent statements by him do indicate his own yearning to challenge the title, and he could still spring a surprise.
Mercedes dominance and driver rivalry
From the last three races of 2015, Nico Rosberg’s renewed form has threatened Lewis Hamilton to a certain extent for the 2016 season. A talking point of the season has been the driver rivalry and the rift between these two drivers which spilt into the public eye with their behavior and pit-radio conversations. In Abu Dhabi, Team Principal Toto Wolff left off on the note that he would address the issue of the driver rift over the winter, as it was affecting the team atmosphere and had become their biggest weakness. Recently he has also warned the drivers that this behaviour could not carry on into the next season, or would consider a change in the driver line-up if needed. Speaking to Daily Mail, he hinted that they might let both drivers adopt independent strategies, despite the fact that it would split the team internally. Wolff said ‘’ We had a more relaxed approach this year, letting them fight it out on the track and it might have a new dimension next year” and added “Maybe it’s about unleashing the two of them completely. Make them have their own strategy cars. That would be a solution.” While the Silver Arrows work out their relationship dynamics off-season, it will be interesting to see the technical developments, and engine tweaks they bring aboard to get that extra edge and defend their title.
Renault’s return as a full works outfit
With the final takeover of Lotus F1 team complete, Renault’s return as a full works’ team comes as a relief for the atmosphere in Enstone. However, given the short span of the off-season, the team will have to make ends meet when it comes to the development work of the car and meeting deadlines. Also a switch for Enstone from Mercedes power back to Renault, means the team plus engine provider will also have to resolve their engine woes along the sidelines which have been a reason for a fractious relationship with their customer team Red Bull Racing in 2015. The bitter truth does remain that 2016 might be a tough season for them or a transitional one, but it will be intriguing to see how they match up to a tough mid-field grid this year with Haas, Force India, Sauber and Toro Rosso. Their line-up too isn’t challenging enough with Pastor Maldonado whose on-track actions/collisions (maximum DNFs of 2015) do raise brows, and rookie Jolyon Palmer who was the 2014 GP2 champion but has had a year’s sabbatical when it comes to racecraft.
An American team in F1 – Haas Debut
The first American team in three decades remains the highlight of the grid next season. The Haas debut adds more spice to the mid-field and the team has recently announced that they are on schedule with the developmental work of their car in time for the pre-season tests. Throughout 2015, they have been working with engine supplier Ferrari as their technical solution provider and gaining insights into developing their car. Their driver line-up has former Lotus driver Romain Grosjean and former Sauber driver Esteban Gutierrez, both who are fairly experienced on-track. The team has optimistically aimed for a points finish in the season opener in their recent statement. It will be interesting to see where this team fits in on the grid, since back-markers Manor Marussia too will have a renewed form next year, with their shift to Mercedes power (2015-spec engines), and there is a tough mid-field ahead.
McLaren in 2016
After an annus horribilis 2015 season, McLaren and its engine provider Honda are looking forward optimistically at the 2016 season. Both their champion drivers had a frustrating season being the new back-markers last year, but it won’t be the same next year. The Woking based team has been making strides on the developmental front for 2016 and are hoping their fortunes turn for the better. Their cars were barely able to run full-power in the races due to problems of recovery and deployment of energy from the MGU-H unit. When it comes to sponsors, their car livery explains the situation with key brands moving to other teams, such as Johnny Walker to Force India, Tag Heuer to Red Bull Racing, and Hugo Boss to Mercedes.
Jenson Button has pointed out Ferrari’s turn-around from 2014 to 2015, but given the short winter break, the challenge lies in making up for the 2.5 second deficit in pace. It has been noted from the last five laps of the Abu Dhabi GP that Alonso’s car settings were switched to ‘full deployment’ mode to determine the full potential of the power unit, resulting in the third fastest lap of the race. It will be exciting to see both the World Champions get their talents worth and adding spice to the title run, IF McLaren succeed in making those leaps over the winter break and making that much awaited turn-around. Either which ways, it will be a make or break year for both the team and Alonso.
Recharged Red Bull
With the Milton Keynes outfit’s fractious relationship with Renault in 2014 and 2015, and a failed search for a new engine provider, Red Bull Racing finally decided to stick to the French manufacturer as their power supplier. However, with the Renault badge removed and the powertrain given the Tag Heuer label, the team will tread on different lines when it comes to development. The Milton Keynes squad has roped in Mario Illien of Ilmor engineering to make the difference. Illien’s involvement with Red Bull on the development front along with power units might give them the extra pace they need to challenge the front of the grid. Chassis wise, Red Bull has always been strong on their design and aerodynamics and the current tie-up with Illien could help them make strides forward in terms of more horsepower.
Pirelli’s tyre factor
The tyre changes in 2016 are intriguing and will be an added factor in making the season interesting, as the changes include a new compound ‘ultrasoft’ introduced by Pirelli, three dry compounds per race, and more freedom in tyre choices for the team. Out of 13 sets used by each driver at a grand prix two will be chosen by Pirelli, one will be chosen for qualifying and the remaining 10 sets will be up to the teams to strategize upon. However, due to the logistics involved in transporting the tyres, there is a glitch where teams have to submit their tyre choices 14 weeks in advance and eight weeks before every European race. The twist is in the fact that, with the 2016 cars not ready by the deadline for tyre choices for the season opener which was December 2015, means that the teams will be taking a pure gamble at the choices for the first few races.
Tweaked exhausts and louder cars
The dawn of the V6 era has made the F1 cars sound like a cat’s purr compared to the lion’s roar of the GP2 cars. To address the complaints of vivid enthusiasts and fans, the new regulations will allow the teams to introduce cosmetic tweaks to make the cars sound louder. Apart from the noise, all eyes will also be on the designs of the exhausts at the Barcelona tests. Teams will play with innovative exhaust designs with the newly introduced added tailpipes for performance benefits. There won’t be too many chassis or nose changes to see at the pre-season tests, but the cosmetically tweaked noise and exhausts will set the paddock buzzing in terms of design.
A record calendar and a new circuit
With a twenty one Grand Prix calendar, the longest ever in Formula 1, it will be interesting to see how the championship unfolds. However, the newest addition to it, the Baku Circuit which will host the European Grand Prix remains the highlight on the calendar. Located in the Caucasian capital of Azerbaijan, it is a street circuit running alongside the banks of the Caspian sea and through the old historical promenades of the city. Street circuits such as Monaco and Singapore have been a highlight on the calendar for delivering thrilling races, and the question lies whether Baku will be fast enough as it looks on paper with its long 2.2km acceleration section. Trying to analyze what one can expect from the new circuit, many factors come into play such as weather and track surface. It will be interesting to see the grand prix this circuit delivers and the drama it adds to the long season.
With a Pirelli wet-weather tyre run at the Paul Ricard scheduled from January25-26, and the first Barcelona test on February 22, it is another 5 weeks till one can start the major part of the speculation and anticipation. How powerful the challengers will be can only be determined after the tests or in the first few races. While the season might get interesting on the track, there will be a lot of off-track drama too.
The off-track drama will kick-start with the teams and FIA trying to decide on the engine regulations, and cost-reduction measures. Adding to it, there will be speculation for the 2017 season where there are massive changes in the rules and cars. There will be a potential EU investigation into the prize money structures of F1, which brings us to the point where one can only wish politics does not cloud racing. This year will be a big decider when it comes to the future of the sport, in terms of its popularity and ability to entertain.
An ideal situation on the wish-list for 2016 would be a four way fight down to the wire and not a two way battle between the Mercedes drivers. With the sport drawing flak for becoming boring with Mercedes domination, and being a works’ team driven game, an ideal season viewers and fans look forward to, is one with multiple race-winners, maybe a repeat of 2012 with added V6 turbo drama.