Good news, everyone: the 2017 Formula 1 season starts this weekend. As has become tradition, the first race of the year is in Melbourne, Australia, meaning those of us in Europe or North America can expect a late night or very early morning. This will be the first year under new management—with Liberty having purchased F1 from CVC, ousting Bernie in the process—and also the first year for new aerodynamics regulations and new tires. The two preseason tests have come and gone, but yet again—and despite more than 20 years following the sport—I still have no idea who’s going to come out on top.
Black and round
The principal complaint about F1 in recent years—along with inaudible engines, exorbitant ticket prices, and the boredom of overwhelming Mercedes domination—has been the Pirelli tires. Specifically, it’s about the tires’ inability to cope with more than one heat cycle. With most racing slicks, if you push too hard and overheat the tire, backing off for a few corners lets them cool down, and everything goes back to normal. But when the F1 Pirellis of the past few years overheat, they’re ruined. (It’s possible this is caused by a particular chemical used in the manufacturing process that makes the tire compound extrudable.) That won’t be the case this year; now the tires will suffer little to no drop-off or degradation, so expect a lot of one-stop strategies, at least for the first few races.
If the new tires are going to make life easy for the strategists, they’ll have the opposite effect on the drivers. The chief consequence of those old tires was that in a race, everyone was cruising around two to three seconds slower than the ultimate pace of the car. Pushing it and ruining a set of tires simply wasn’t worth the risk. That’s no longer a concern; add in the extra downforce and larger contact patches from the new tire sizes and you get a recipe for F1 drivers having to work a lot harder in the car than any time since 2011. As it should be.

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Lap times in testing mean nothing
Times from the preseason tests in Spain confirm that test lap times don’t mean much. Fastest of all was Finnish driver Kimi Räikkönen in one of the Ferraris, lapping Catalunya in 1:18.634. To put that in some context, at last year’s Spanish Grand Prix, the fastest time of the weekend was Lewis Hamilton’s pole-winning lap in Q3 at 1:22:000. (The absolute fastest lap we can find is from 2008, when Fernando Alonso turned a 1:14.648 in qualifying.) What’s more, Kimi set that time on the super-soft (rather than the ultra-soft) tires. His teammate Sebastian Vettel claimed the second-fastest overall time, suggesting that the red team from Maranello may finally be back on form.
But this is F1, and things are never that simple. No one wants to show their true hand in preseason testing, and we have no idea of fuel loads—and therefore car weights—for any of the fastest times. Did Ferrari run the car significantly lighter than Mercedes to keep the bloodthirsty Italian press happy? I still have no real idea and won’t until after qualifying rounds in Australia this weekend.
Mercedes drivers Valteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton weren’t far behind the Ferraris in testing. Were the Silver Arrows sandbagging? If so, it’s going to be a very boring season again, particularly if Bottas needs some time to take the fight to Hamilton. What we do know is that the team covered 3,170 miles (5102km) during those eight days, equivalent to at least an entire F1 season.


Both teams look to have the advantage over Red Bull, which still needs more power from its Tag Heuer engines. The most interesting thing to watch this coming year will be the relationship between Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo. The Dutch wunderkind is still only 19, and amid flashes of brilliance, we’ve also seen hints of petulance and impatience. Expect fireworks between the two if the car becomes a title contender.

The midfield
2017 is going to be a building year for Williams. Paddy Lowe returns to the team, having just led Mercedes to three consecutive titles. Lowe started his F1 career with Williams when the team was similarly dominant and is the engineer responsible for the very clever active suspension system of the early 1990s. Williams remains the second most successful F1 team in history, and many would like to see it return to those winning days.
But that will take some time—and probably some more money. In the meantime, the team has a relatively weak driver lineup for 2017. Reigning World Champ Nico Rosberg’s sudden mic drop at the end of last year left a hole in the Mercedes team, filled by Bottas in exchange for a rather large check. Bottas was set to pair up with 18-year-old Canadian rookie Lance Stroll; instead, Felipe Massa unretired and will be back on the grid in 2017. Massa didn’t have a great 2016 run, and Stroll seems quick but inexperienced, with more than a few mistakes in testing that left him beached in the gravel.

Williams will be fighting with Force India, Toro Rosso, Haas, and Renault for the rest of the points on offer. Force India has a snazzy new pink livery. Renault has an air of optimism and a new team leader in the shape of Nico Hulkenberg. Haas has a year under its belt and the experience that brings. And Toro Rosso has a pair of drivers with statements to make—Carlos Sainz Jr. surely deserves a seat at a top team in the near future, and Daniil Kvyat will want to prove he deserves to stay in F1 when the energy drink giant is done with him.
Back of the pack
Then we get to the sad end of the grid. Sauber has struggled for funding ever since BMW left the sport, and this year looks to be no exception. It narrowly beat Manor in the 2016 constructor’s championship; that team went to the wall, but Sauber soldiers on into 2017. Its fastest time in testing was still three seconds slower than Kimi’s 1:18.
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But the saddest story of F1 2017 belongs to McLaren. For fans of the team—and I count myself among that number—it has been a rough few seasons, and this year looks little better. Like the sport itself, McLaren is under new management; long-time team boss Ron Dennis was forced out, replaced by Zak Brown. That change has meant a new nomenclature for the cars and the return of orange in the team’s livery. But Brown is still stuck with Honda engines, and for the third year running, they appear to be a total dud. Over eight days of testing, McLaren managed just 15 percent as many laps as Mercedes, not even cracking the 2,000km mark. (The team managed 425 laps/1,229 miles/1978km).

The midfield
2017 is going to be a building year for Williams. Paddy Lowe returns to the team, having just led Mercedes to three consecutive titles. Lowe started his F1 career with Williams when the team was similarly dominant and is the engineer responsible for the very clever active suspension system of the early 1990s. Williams remains the second most successful F1 team in history, and many would like to see it return to those winning days.
But that will take some time—and probably some more money. In the meantime, the team has a relatively weak driver lineup for 2017. Reigning World Champ Nico Rosberg’s sudden mic drop at the end of last year left a hole in the Mercedes team, filled by Bottas in exchange for a rather large check. Bottas was set to pair up with 18-year-old Canadian rookie Lance Stroll; instead, Felipe Massa unretired and will be back on the grid in 2017. Massa didn’t have a great 2016 run, and Stroll seems quick but inexperienced, with more than a few mistakes in testing that left him beached in the gravel.

Sahara Force India

Following the preseason tests, Sahara Force India revealed this fetching new pink livery. I like it, and in honor of the new color scheme I’ve assembled a small gallery of some of my other favorite pink racing cars.
Williams will be fighting with Force India, Toro Rosso, Haas, and Renault for the rest of the points on offer. Force India has a snazzy new pink livery. Renault has an air of optimism and a new team leader in the shape of Nico Hulkenberg. Haas has a year under its belt and the experience that brings. And Toro Rosso has a pair of drivers with statements to make—Carlos Sainz Jr. surely deserves a seat at a top team in the near future, and Daniil Kvyat will want to prove he deserves to stay in F1 when the energy drink giant is done with him.
Back of the pack
Then we get to the sad end of the grid. Sauber has struggled for funding ever since BMW left the sport, and this year looks to be no exception. It narrowly beat Manor in the 2016 constructor’s championship; that team went to the wall, but Sauber soldiers on into 2017. Its fastest time in testing was still three seconds slower than Kimi’s 1:18.
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But the saddest story of F1 2017 belongs to McLaren. For fans of the team—and I count myself among that number—it has been a rough few seasons, and this year looks little better. Like the sport itself, McLaren is under new management; long-time team boss Ron Dennis was forced out, replaced by Zak Brown. That change has meant a new nomenclature for the cars and the return of orange in the team’s livery. But Brown is still stuck with Honda engines, and for the third year running, they appear to be a total dud. Over eight days of testing, McLaren managed just 15 percent as many laps as Mercedes, not even cracking the 2,000km mark. (The team managed 425 laps/1,229 miles/1978km).

Enlarge / An all too common sight at the preseason tests. Stoffel Vandoorne’s McLaren stopped on track, about to be hauled off on the back of a flatbed.

Dan Istitene | Getty Images

In fact, we’re not even sure the team managed to string together more than 11 laps in a single run. No one—including the techs at Honda—is entirely sure what the problem is, but it’s both down on power and unreliable. This is the third year Honda’s engines have missed the mark, and Karun Chandok made an excellent point in Motor Sport’s F1 preview podcast, wondering why Honda hasn’t stuck an engine or two into a test mule to pile on some miles at Suzuka. We wonder, too, and the entire effort seems a far cry from Honda’s glory days in the sport.
Therefore it’s no surprise that rumors have been circulating that McLaren is looking to ditch its Japanese partner for customer Mercedes engines. This is an option now that Manor is gone and Mercedes has spare capacity, but it would leave a massive hole in McLaren’s (already diminished) budget. The team’s complete lack of pace is bad for fans, too. Who wouldn’t relish seeing Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne given the equipment he needs to take the fight to Hamilton et al?
The cars will hit the streets of Albert Park at 12pm local time on Friday for the first practice session.