Formula 1 2017: Which teams will challenge?

The start of the 2017 Formula 1 season is imminent, with the teams all scheduled to unveil their new challengers for the year ahead within the next two weeks.

This year’s generation of cars comes with an extra degree of interest, given that they were designed under a radical new set of regulations that aim, amongst other things, to make them look more aggressive. While there is always a level of pre-season optimism amongst fans of each particular team, the fact remains that there can be only one winner. In light of this, a good dose of reality is required, which means that a discussion on each team’s prospects for the upcoming season is in order…

Mercedes-AMG Petronas
As the dominant force in the sport over the past three years, Mercedes should be well placed to fight at the front of the field once again in 2017. The German outfit’s power unit remains the class of the field, although their rivals over at Ferrari and Renault made some progress of their own over the course of 2016. Despite the departure of technical chief Paddy Lowe to Williams, the Brackley-based outfit still have all the ingredients required to continue their run of success, barring a complete misunderstanding of the rules from an aerodynamic viewpoint.

Red Bull Racing
Red Bull began 2016 on the back foot but emerged as Mercedes’ only real competitor in the latter half of the season. The Austrian team’s 2016 RB12 challenger enjoyed (arguably) the best chassis on the grid, but was let down by the performance of its Tag-Heuer-branded Renault power unit. However, there is cause for optimism as Red Bull Advisor Dr Helmut Marko stated that a substantial increase in performance was expected around the Spanish Grand Prix this year. Red Bull have slowly been putting all the pieces into place for another period of success, and pushed forward by the talents of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, are likely to enjoy a strong year.

Scuderia Ferrari
Who knows? Ferrari enjoyed a strong recovery in 2015 after a forgettable 2014 effort, only to fall apart spectacularly in 2016. Rumours that Team Principal Maurizio Arrivabene was set to lose his position, the departure of Technical Director James Allison and a performance slump for lead driver Sebastian Vettel were only part of what proved to be a frustrating season for the Scuderia. Ferrari’s ability to take advantage of big regulation changes has been poor in the last decade, as their 2009 and 2014 campaigns show. There appears to be a lack of clear direction at the Italian outfit, and where they will be when Australia rolls around is a matter of speculation, with the safest guess probably being that they will be in the top half of the pack, but not at the front.

Sahara Force India
Force India are coming off a strong 2016 campaign that saw them climb up to a personal best fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship, ahead of the likes of Williams and McLaren. The regulation changes for this season gives them an opportunity to once again punch above their weight. The only concern for the Silverstone-based squad is that of the budget. The team’s success in recent years has come on a relatively modest budget that was carefully managed in order to ensure that no resources went to waste. The concern is that in Formula 1, money eventually talks, and if Force India don’t start the year with a strong package, it is questionable whether they will have the resources required to out-develop some of the big spenders.

Williams Martini Racing
Williams have gone through a three-year slump that saw them start 2014 as a rival to Mercedes, only to fall to fifth place in the pecking order at the end of 2016. The Grove-based outfit is likely to be stuck fighting in the midfield battle again in 2017 with a top-three finish in the Constructor’s Championship unlikely. On the driving side, Williams will make use of the efforts of veteran Felipe Massa and rookie Lance Stroll. Stroll is, by all accounts, a talented young driver, but he will need time to adapt to the highest level of motorsport. Massa, by contrast, has all the experience imaginable, but his form towards the end of 2016 suggested that it was time to call it a day. A driver line-up that isn’t firing on all cylinders is likely to further compound Williams’ frustrations, at least until Stroll finds his feet.

Again, who knows? McLaren promised big strides and delivered little ones in 2016, with the team ultimately finishing firmly in the middle of the pack. The Woking-based squad are undergoing a shake-up, with both Ron Dennis and Jost Capito leaving the team recently. The change in regulations gives McLaren a chance to join the front of the pack, but it also presents the possibility that they will get things utterly wrong and be stuck some distance from the front for yet another year.

Toro Rosso
Toro Rosso made an encouraging start to 2016 before the age of their 2015 Ferrari power unit began to show and points became hard to come by. Given that their role is that of Red Bull’s junior team, rather than a team seeking to challenge for glory, it is most likely that Toro Rosso will produce a package much like those that they produced in the past: solid, capable of points, but nothing earth-shattering. Still, in Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat they have two drivers who have a respectable amount of experience behind their names (considering their youth), which means that any opportunities that arise should be taken advantage of.

Haas achieved more in their debut season than all of the sport’s “new” teams (the ones that joined the grid in 2010) achieved together during the length of their respective spells in the sport. 28 points and eighth place in 2016 was an admirable return for the American outfit. Of course, there were some inefficiencies and mistakes that crept in over the course of the season, but that was to be expected. The good news is that Haas entered the sport with no illusions concerning how difficult it would be to be a competitive outfit, and with their 2016 performance, they took a step in the right direction. Provided they interpret the new regulations well, there is no reason that they cannot build on their 2016 success in the new season.

Renault purchased Lotus at the last minute in 2015, giving them virtually no opportunity to affect the development of their 2016 car, which turned out to be uncompetitive. Still, there is cause for optimism. The French manufacturer has achieved success in the sport before and is making a genuine effort to return to the front of the grid, as well as spending the large sums of money required for such a project. The arrival of Nico Hülkenberg should give the team a welcome boost, too. The 2017 car represents Renault’s first “real” package since their return to the sport, and while the front of the grid is still far away, an improvement in performance is both needed and expected.

Sauber endured a tough time of things in 2016, with constant financial pressures compounding the woes caused by an uncompetitive package. Swedish investment firm Longbow Finance ultimately came to the rescue, which should give the Swiss team some cause for optimism. Pascal Wehrlein (who replaces Felipe Nasr for 2017) should do a solid job of putting the car where it doesn’t belong. It might be a step too far to suggest that Sauber will challenge for significant glory this season, but at least the picture is looking a fair bit brighter for a team that were on the verge of collapse last year.

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