#F1 2017 A New Hope. Has a True Challenger to Mercedes Finally Emerged #AusGP

We arrive into 2017 almost afraid to be excited. Is this the genuine change we’d been hoping for or is it a case of déja-vu for 2017?

A lot has happened over the winter. We were all looking forward to better looking, wider, cars with fatter tyres ahead of the season, and you better believe they’ve delivered. 2017 throws up more questions than answers so let’s have a look.

Mercedes Challenger?

It’s been grim reading for 3 years if you were in a non-Mercedes looking for a win.
2014 – 3 (Red Bull, Ricciardo)
2015 – 3 (Ferrari, Vettel)
2016 – 2 (Red Bull, Verstappen & Ricciardo)

2016 is the case of once bitten twice shy. It feels like we’ve been here before. A pre-season that saw Ferrari emerge appearing to be fastest. Then at Australia they were Mercedes closest challenger, locking out the 2nd row. Vettel led a Ferrari 1-2 from the start and for a moment we all believed. Everything changed when Alonso’s monster shunt resulted in safety cars and a red flag. On the restart (under safety car) Mercedes had switched to mediums while Ferrari stayed on Super Softs. It was a decision that would cost Ferrari the race.

That very moment followed by Ferrari slowly tearing themselves apart in 2016 sees us tentative about declaring the Scuderia as genuine title challengers, but there are differences between 2016 and 2017. It was only a few months ago I was saying Ferrari had descended into the team of old. (It’s on the podcast I can’t deny it.) Outcry from the upper levels at Ferrari and banging fists on table in the wake of a season that seemed to fall apart. What a difference there seems to be now.

As a fan of Allison it tore me up to see him exit Maranello. I should remain neutral on those things, but as a fan I can’t. Maybe that clouded how I saw the restructuring of Ferrari in that wake of that. Allison is a very clever man. There will still be a strong influence from him in the 2017 challenger, but maybe I must look back at this process in 2016 and admit that it was best for all concerned at the time, even if it meant last season was lost because of it.

Ferrari have built from within. The opportunity was there to recruit Paddy Lowe but as he moves to Williams we see a more integrated Ferrari team. Engine chief Mattia Binotto was promoted to replace Allison as technical director with David Sanchez replacing Dirk De Beer as chief aerodynamicist. Having been caught and passed by Red Bull midseason we saw a mini revival from Ferrari in the last few races of the season. Hope, if we’d been looking for it. (Okay, if I’d been looking for it)

Testing saw Ferrari sandbag and still give us a glimpse of a car that will be the quickest machine we’ve seen in 10 years. Dipping into 1:18s despite the fact reporters could see the drivers lifting off. The differences in testing this year were how we saw Mercedes respond to Ferrari. If we go back to how the switch to Mediums saw them disappear to the end of the Australian GP.

In 2016 we thought it was the same. Ferrari fastest. What was different was Mercedes. They did most of their running in 2016 testing on mediums. Masking their performance and running a ruthless race pace. In 2017 it was Ferrari that ran an almost Mercedes-esque test. Often Mercedes would switch to the softer compounds early on almost fishing to see would the Scuderia bite. Both teams shadowing boxing between long runs to eye up who had the ultimate pace. It’s hard to run a fast car slow and eventually it was Kimi and Ferrari that showed their hand with and 1:18.6.

The biggest difference here is that we need to realise that they did this with Mercedes matching them on tyres. The Ferrari looking planted, on every type of tyre. Read the reports from those who observed trackside and there is a consensus that on the harder tyres it is Ferrari and not Mercedes that seem to have the upper hand, with a positive front end. Understeer in the Mercedes was often removed by bolting on new, softer, rubber. If that’s the case not only will we see a strong Maranello challenge but we’ll see the best of Kimi Raikkonen. (Stay calm)

When we talk of change it would be naïve to overlook how big Paddy Lowe leaving Mercedes could be. F1 Dynasties don’t last forever. Eventually winning teams break up. Mercedes have a supremely talented replacement in James Allison, but they are not the same. Lowe has been a phenomenal signing for Williams. (Who looked strong in preseason) He may not have an immediate impact at Williams but what will be interesting is to see how Mercedes react under pressure from Ferrari without the decisive Lowe sat at the pit wall. This is as big a change as we’ve seen and should not be underestimated. If there was one thing Mercedes were fantastic at in Lowe’s time there it was batting away off track issues with ease. Will cracks emerge at the Silver Arrows.

If there is one team that flattered to deceive over the winter it was Red Bull. Limited slightly by Renault, or the engine formally known as Renault, who have since said they’ve applied “a belt and braces” fix to their ERS issues for the first race of the season. The Red Bull is a stunning car, but it has shown nothing like the complex aero structures that we’ve seen on the Mercedes and Ferrari. We’d expect an Adrian Newey machine to have innovation somewhere. For the moment, Ferrari seem ahead of the curve on the sidepod front, something we’re not used to seeing, while Mercedes have been ultra aggressive on sidepods and T Wing. If there is one thing we know Red Bull love it’s a late season surge. While Ferrari seem favourites to challenge early on we wouldn’t be surprised to see the development war see Red Bull arrive into the mix later in the season, but too late to see it challenge for the Manufacturers title.

Integration is key in the hybrid era. That’s why if a challenge is to come, and in 2017 it looks more likely than ever that it will, then it must come from Ferrari. That they have everything in house and are playing their cards close to their chest in a way we’ve not seen since the Brawn era gives us hope that we’ll finally see a challenger emerge to Mercedes.