SO, WHAT can we expect from Formula 1 in 2016? Quite a bit more of what we got in 2014 and 2015. Please not.
Surely with a mandate to fix the sport’s problems, Formula One commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone and Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile president Jean Todt – two great, if selfish and autocratic, minds – can produce smart solutions to bring back excitement and unpredictability.
We want grand prix drivers again left to their own devices to deal with 1000 horsepower in their mongrel machines, with lots of NOISE! We want the good guys to shine, using skill and daring to overtake rather than substitutes for talent such as technology and team tyre strategy. Tyres that turn to mush inside 10 laps are laughable as are a bevy of people in the pits calling the shots.
It’s obvious that passing in F1 is awkward due to the current aerodynamics creating a turbulent swirl behind the cars. Whenever a car gets close to the one ahead, it loses downforce and therefore grip. Game over. Tyres with more grip are part of the fix, along with an improvement in mechanical grip.
There will be changes for 2017 (fingers crossed they will enliven the show).
Meanwhile, there’s 2016. The Silver Arrows certainly go into the longest and biggest championship season ever as a strong fancy to extend Mercedes’s stunning championship-winning run.
It has a budget the size of Greece’s national debt, a technical superiority, an army of boffins and Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, the two drivers who dominated much of the past two seasons.
The F1 world championship will be chased down across 21 races over eight months, starting with the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 20, before climaxing under the lights at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit on November 27.
However, the calendar may reduce to 20 races – the FIA has only provisionally listed the US Grand Prix in Austin amid doubts about the event’s viability.
The powerbrokers continue to threaten traditional venues with the loss of a grand prix while thrusting into countries with a dodgy grip on democracy and no great motor racing culture. Azerbaijan is the latest to find favour with King Bernie, whose uber-sensitive nostrils can sniff a dirham, peso, dinar, manat, rouble or any other form of currency from half a world away. The inaugural grand prix there is down for the same date as the 24 Hours of Le Mans — so blocking F1 drivers from participating in the sports car classic (shades of V8 Supercars and the 2015 Bathurst 12 Hour).
It seemed to go on forever, but the laborious process of Renault returning to Formula One with its own works team in 2016 was completed in December, with the French giant stepping up from its role as engine supplier to again operate its own works team, formerly known as Lotus.
Renault chairman and CEO Carlos Ghosn has been convinced that the company needed to better control its own destiny rather than play the role of engine provider to those energy drink ingrates from Austria.
Ghosn acknowledges F1 is a technological showcase with the capability of accelerating development of Renault’s innovation and range of sports cars. “Our ambition is to win – even if it will take some time.” He got that last bit right.
As a full team, Renault will take maximum benefit from its victories, should they happen. The payback as an engine supplier proved to be limited. Hugely negative even, when Red Bull turned on its partner.
Renault’s drivers for 2016 are Pastor Maldonado, who brings a huge budget from Venezuela to help offset the cost of his crashes, and British rookie Jolyon Palmer. It’s a line-up Renault may wish to bolster in the future.
Boosting the grid to 22 cars is the US’s Haas F1, the first American race team in the world championship since the unrelated Haas Lola outfit in the 1985-86 seasons. Haas F1’s chassis is being built by Dallara, with Ferrari supplying the power units. Former Jaguar and Red Bull Racing technical director Günther Steiner is the team principal. The team is based in the heart of NASCAR country in North Carolina alongside sister team and NASCAR Sprint Cup entrant Stewart-Haas Racing. Let’s hope the new F1 machine doesn’t roll out with carbies. Drivers for Haas are Romain Grosjean, who left Lotus to join the start-up team, and Ferrari test driver Esteban Gutiérrez.
The sad irony is that the new American F1 team bows at a time when the US Grand Prix is again in peril.
The whole circus continues to be about the haves and the have nots.
Mercedes conditionally shares elements of its success – primarily its hybrid V6 power units. But only to teams it senses are incapable of threatening the reign of the Silver Arrows. So Williams and Force India in 2015, while Marussia will switch to the Mercs after agreeing to a multi-year deal with the German manufacturer. No Mercedes-powered Red Bulls, though. The Germans said “nein”, concerned about the possibility of the works cars being embarrassed by the combo of best engine and arguably best chassis on the grid…
This impasse left Red Bull scurrying back to Renault to retrieve a partnership that had looked to be in tatters. Out of train wreck of a relationship emerged an interesting arrangement: whilst operating its own F1 team, Renault would continue to supply Red Bull with its hybrid V6 power unit developed in a bigger, bolder partnership with engine technology company Ilmor.
The two worked together this season as pressure increased on Renault to match the performance of Mercedes and Ferrari.
Now, for 2016, those ties have been further strengthened.
One major difference with the Red Bull engine is that its 2016 power unit will be branded as the work of timepiece maker TAG Heuer.
Any way we look at the new deal, Renault/Ilmor/Red Bull will be hard pressed to rediscover their winning ways in 2016. Patience, Daniel, patience…
Oh, and the Bull’s baby team, Toro Rosso, meanwhile, has linked with Maranello, to use the superseded 2015 Ferrari engine. Like Haas.
So, Mr Horner, what happens should Toro Rosso-Ferrari outperform Red Bull-Tag Heuer nee Renault…?
This prospect hasn’t excited the British media anywhere near as much as speculation that the enmity between the warring Hamilton and Rosberg has reached such a poisonous stage that the Mercedes brains trust is contemplating giving one the boot.
This beggars belief. Firstly, between them they won 15 races during 2015. Secondly, Hamilton and Rosberg are comparative pussies compared with other unhappy teammates of the past.
Still, Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes Motorsport and a darling of the F1 media, has hinted that the tension between his drivers has infected the team to a degree that the atmosphere there is difficult to deal with.
“We struggle sometimes in winning races on Sunday and having always one [driver] upset, and this spills over into the team. It is something that needs to stop,” Wolff told the Motorsport.com website.
Wolff says that having two evenly matched drivers had helped propel the team ahead, but that the human side is important, too.
“We want to work with nice guys,” Wolff insists. Cheeesuss, he’d better get out of F1 then.
Here’s how former world champion Jacques Villeneuve viewed the ragged relationship between the Merc drivers: “Maybe losing the world championship to Lewis in the US GP changed him (Rosberg) psychologically. I don’t know. But after that he was a killer. And Lewis reacted really badly and revealed a very negative side of his character.
“He showed that he cannot be humble. He has won three world championships but he could not be happy, behaving like a spoiled child who lost his toy. He has not behaved like a great champion.”
The future? Who knows? Rosberg’s deal ends in late 2016. In his favour is that he is German. Hamilton has just signed a three-year extension, but contracts can be broken should the atmosphere at Mercedes prove too toxic. Hamilton can be disruptive and demanding but is smart enough to know where his best chances are of more championships. But his rampant ego and self-belief would also be propelling him to a scenario where he could show his sheer genius by potentially winning a title with a third team. Hamilton at Ferrari when Kimi Raikkonen slides off into the Midnight Sun-set?
Off-track dramas beaten up by a bored media between seasons are boring! Wake me when it’s over and pre-season testing fires up in late January at Paul Ricard, where the track will be drenched with water for some sessions. Please also direct the sprinklers at the press box.
2016 PRE-SEASON TEST SCHEDULE
T1: January 25-26, Paul Ricard (Wet-weather running)
T2: February 22-25, Barcelona
T3: March 1-4, Barcelona
2016 FORMULA 1 CALENDAR
R1: March 20, Australia (Albert Park)
R2: April 3, Bahrain (Sakhir)
R3: April 17, China (Shanghai)
R4: May 1, Russia (Sochi)
R5: May 15, Spain (Catalunya)
R6: May 29, Monaco (Monte-Carlo)
R7: June 12, Canada (Montreal)
R8: June 19, Azerbaijan (Baku)
R9: July 3, Austria (Red Bull Ring)
R10: July 10, Britain (Silverstone)
R11: July 24, Hungary (Hungaroring)
R12: July 31, Germany (Hockenheim)
R13: August 28, Belgium (Spa-Francorchamps)
R14: September 4, Italy (Monza)
R15: September 18, Singapore (Marina Bay)
R16: October 2, Malaysia (Sepang)
R17: October 9, Japan (Suzuka)
R18: October 23, USA (Circuit of the Americas) *
R19: October 30, Mexico (Hermanos Rodriguez)
R20: November 13, Brazil (Interlagos)
R21: November 27, Abu Dhabi (Yas Marina)
* subject to agreement with the promoter and the ASN