Season Review

2017

Hamilton’s fourth as Ferrari fizzle

 THE TALE OF THE TITLE

  • Hamilton’s fourth equalled Prost and Vettel and eclipsed Stewart to surpass all ten British champions.
  • In a season of two halves, a gripping title duel became a rout as Hamilton sizzled and Ferrari fizzled.
  • Until the summer break, Vettel’s Ferrari led the point’s table, matching Hamilton’s four Mercedes wins.
  • In part two Lewis soared to new heights as Ferrari imploded due to car failures and Seb’s indiscretions.
  • Regrettably, this denied F1 a season-long head-to-head between the dominant champions of recent time.
  • New rules created bigger, faster cars that elevated the driver challenge but did not enhance racing combat.
  • It also created a two-tier field, the top-three teams taking all but one podium, Force India best of the rest.
  • Despite such radical change, Mercedes still won a fourth straight title with 12 victories across 20 rounds.
  • But Ferrari’s five victories and Red Bull’s three signified by far the fiercest competition of the hybrid era.
  • Tipped to shine under the new regulations, Red Bull began way off the pace, but later won twice on merit.
  • Five winners, the most since 2013, saw first-timer Bottas win three, Verstappen two and Ricciardo one.
  • Bottas’s mid-season slump accentuated that Hamilton’s imposing form was key to Mercedes’ success.
  • Nine wins consolidated Lewis’s P2 in the all-time rankings on 62; 11 poles shot him to the very top on 72.
  • A nightmare third season saw McLaren and Honda split, the latter still lacking both power and reliability.
  • And not forgetting: shark fins, T-wings, monkey seats, oil burn, Liberty take charge, Alonso storms Indy.

Graph The 2017 Championship Chase

 

2017 CHAMPIONSHIP FACTS AND FOLKLORE

Overview

  • The fourth season of the Turbo-Hybrid era was distinctive in three particular ways: the introduction of radical new F1 technical regulations; the new commercial ownership of Liberty Media, and finally an undefended championship, the first since Alain Prost in 1994.
  • 2016 champion Nico Rosberg had elected to retire, which appeared to offer an open goal for Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to win a fourth title. Assuming of course that the new W08 Silver Arrow, as its predecessors, would continue to dominate. Happily for the 2017 season, it didn’t.
  • Scuderia Ferrari had used the new F1 rules to good effect when building their SF70H. It was quick out of the box and in Vettel’s hands won the first of a 20-round championship on merit. For the first time in four seasons, Mercedes superiority was under genuine threat.
  • And it was a sustained threat. After 11 rounds and the start of the Summer break, Vettel had not only led the points table throughout, but also matched Hamilton win-for-win with four apiece. Rosberg’s replacement, Bottas, had chipped in with two further Mercedes’ victories while Ricciardo, in typical opportunistic style, had won the bizarre Azerbaijan GP for Red Bull in Baku.
  • Baku was where Vettel first faltered, losing a bagful of points and potential victory with the first of three highly costly car-on-car collisions. This initial one was clearly deliberate, the other two more likely misjudgements caused by pressure. But after his Hungarian victory at round 11, Vettel was still very much in charge.
  • But immediately after the Summer break Hamilton struck two almighty hammer blows by taking the first back-to-back wins of the season. First he won at Spa, and then crushingly in the Scuderia’s own back yard at Monza. This shook Vettel and Ferrari to their roots, and probably contributed to what was to follow.
  • Over the following three Asian rounds the wheels fell off Vettel’s title challenge, pretty much literally in Singapore. On pole at Marina Bay and red-hot favourite for victory, Vettel was the prime mover in a cataclysmic turn 1 accident under the floodlights that eliminated four cars including both Ferraris.
  • Then in the following two races, adding insult to injury, car gremlins struck the Scuderia, Vettel starting plain last in Sepang and out within four laps at Suzuka.
  • Hamilton hammered home his now considerable points advantage with victory at Austin, finally sealing the title at round 18 in Mexico. Here, Vettel destroyed his already paper-thin title chances with his third misdemeanour, a first-lap clash with… you guessed it, Hamilton!
  • Some naysayers questioned whether the outcome of the 2017 title was more that Vettel threw it away than Hamilton won conclusively on merit. For most, including Vettel, it was certainly the latter. Seb’s stated sentiment was “The best man won”.
  • By publically making such an acknowledgment, Vettel may well have had in mind his own personal lapses. Or was he thinking about Spa? If only he had won at Spa, his Ferrari clearly the faster car on race day! But with extraordinary race-craft, plus just a smidgeon of luck, Hamilton crucially kept Vettel behind at the SC restart on lap 34.
  • If there was one single moment when Hamilton won his championship, it was Spa.
  • Spa put Lewis on a roll, winning a hat-trick of victories that built into five-from-six, truly championship winning form. Regardless of Vettel’s travails, after the Summer break those same naysayers were hailing Hamilton for soaring to a new level of excellence.
  • Hamilton’s fourth title was his best yet. He rarely enjoyed an overwhelming car advantage against Vettel’s excellent Ferrari, especially in race trim. Indeed, Toto Wolff described the W08 as something of a ‘diva’, capricious, difficult to tame and far less consistent track-to-track than Vettel’s SF70H.
  • Three key factors defined Lewis’s championship-winning season: his tenacity to hold onto Vettel’s coat-tails when Ferrari held the upper hand in the first half of the season; next, just like his hero Senna, keeping himself in the frame for race wins by virtue of his stunning one-lap pace, winning 11 poles, and finally, returning after the Summer break with an irrepressible winning mind-set that began with his crucial Spa victory.

New F1 Regulations

  • The new regulations produced more muscular, better-looking cars and an entertaining championship battle. But the downside was that it created two-tier F1 as a chasm opened up between the top three teams and the rest, and worse still, the quality of the racing was poor.
  • Even with DRS assistance, cars of similar performance couldn’t engage closely, or barely even pass one another. The 2017 Formula 1 season represented the worst year for overtaking in the DRS era, the number of passes (435) almost half that of the previous year (866).
  • All this showed that the objectives laid down for the new for 2017 Formula 1 were simply ill conceived. Yes, as decreed, the cars were indeed faster, 4.52 seconds per lap compared with 2015, and the greater challenge they presented to the drivers was a laudable benefit, but these bigger, heavier, grippier cars were little more spectacular to watch and their ability to compete for the same piece of track had been blunted.
  • The extra performance of the 2017 cars came from both increased mechanical grip and higher downforce. Cars were 200mm wider, restoring them to two metres, a width last seen in 1996. This facilitated a significantly wider and longer rear diffuser for increased downforce through ground effect.
  • Increased aerodynamic downforce came from wider front wings, more freedom for barge boards around the side-mounted air intake ducts, and a wider, lower rear wing. Ahead of the rear wing and integrated with the engine air-box, the ‘shark fin’ made a reappearance, having been banished in 2009. It soon had attached to its pointed trailing edge a cheap looking wire-coat-hanger-like device known as a T-wing.
  • Tyre widths were increased from 245mm to 305mm fronts, and 325mm to 405mm rears, but remained on 13-inch rims. Pirelli had been charged to make their 2017 rubber more durable and less susceptible to thermal degradation. This did have the desired effect of allowing drivers to spend less time managing tyres.
  • But even though a new softer dry tyre, the Ultra-Soft, had been added to their range, Pirelli made conservative compound choices for 2017, cautious about the demands of these larger, heavier, faster cars. This meant tyre strategy played a lesser role in 2017, with one-stop races more the norm than the exception, this too affecting the ‘quality’ of the racing.
  • So with their wider track and heftier wheels and tyres, cars became even heavier, the car/driver weight limit raised accordingly from 702kg to 722kg for 2017.
  • On the PU (power unit) front, the race fuel allowance was eased from 100kg to 105kg and the unloved ‘token’ system controlling engine development abandoned. Although this provided greater freedom for manufacturers to introduce improvements, they still could not exceed without penalty their allowance of power units per driver over the 20 races. This reduced from five to four before receiving a minimum 10-place grid drop per PU element. For Renault and especially Honda powered drivers, grid penalties were rife in 2017, Vandoorne 215, Alonso 160.
  • By Abu Dhabi, following a full season of development, these new cars were close to becoming the fastest in F1 history, slower only down the straight due to increased drag, but much faster under acceleration and in cornering with commensurate extra G-force on the drivers. Indeed, certain corners were no longer treated as such, taken flat courtesy of the superior grip and downforce levels.
  • So did these exceptionally quick racing cars separate the men from the boys? Possibly so on the grounds that there seemed to be a higher incidence of unforced errors, notably in free practice; that drivers relatively new to F1, notably Stroll, Palmer, Vandoorne and Giovinazzi, appeared to perform comparatively poorly against their more experienced teammates, especially in qualifying, and as a more general comment, the low deg Pirelli’s meant drivers spent more time ‘on it’ and appeared more physically drained post-race in 2017.

Teams, Races, Drivers, Rules

  • Ten teams disputing 20 races in 2017 meant one less than last year on both counts.
  • Manor went into administration during the Winter break. The loss of £10m or more of Bernie money due to Felipe Nasr’s two points for Sauber in Brazil sealed their fate. In an ironic twist, Nasr lost his Sauber seat to Wehrlein, released by Manor!
  • The German GP fell off the calendar again, the Nürburgring unable to take up the alternating slot with Hockenheim. The latter is listed to return in 2018.
  • Azerbaijan became a GP in its own right, dropping its incongruous European GP title.
  • In July, Silverstone activated a break clause whereby unless a new deal is struck, the British GP could drop off the F1 calendar after 2019.
  • On the driver front, the big news was Bottas switching from Williams to Mercedes to replace Rosberg. This led to Williams ‘un-retiring’ Felipe Massa to take over Bottas’ car alongside rookie Lance Stroll.
  • Antonio Giovinazzi also made his race debut, subbing for Pascal Wehrlein at the first two rounds while he recovered from a neck injury inflicted during the Race of Champions.
  • The other big driver move was at Enstone. As Renault rebuilt the Equipe and ramped up their challenge, Nico Hülkenberg got his overdue chance to join a works outfit, drafted in from Force India to lead the team. Kevin Magnussen left Renault for Haas, replacing Gutierrez.
  • Initially Jolyon Palmer continued alongside Hülkenberg but after a torrid season was dropped with four rounds to go. For these four races and the 2018 season, Toro Rosso loaned Carlos Sainz to Renault.
  • Brendon Hartley, a rookie who must have long since thought his F1 dream to be over, replaced Sainz. A Red Bull driver academy reject, Hartley had subsequently made his name with Porsche in LMP1, winning Le Mans once and the WSC championship twice. Now, after a bold telephone call to Helmut Marko, he found himself as the first New Zealander in F1 since Mike Thackwell in 1989.
  • Hartley’s Toro Rosso teammate was 2016 GP2 champion Pierre Gasley, another F1 rookie. His opportunity emerged when, for a second season running, Red Bull dropped the unfortunate Daniil Kyvat, the Russian’s points-scoring record again failing to impress.
  • Vandoorne, who debuted last year, supplanted Button at McLaren but Jenson was brought back for one final race, the Monaco GP, filling in for Alonso during his Indy 500 venture, Fernando now intent on winning motor sport’s Triple Crown.
  • A second F1 returnee was Paul Di Resta, subbing for an unwell Massa in Hungary some three-and-a-half years since his last GP start.
  • For 2017 the FIA rescinded the so-called ‘Verstappen rule’ that outlawed moving under braking when defending a position, replacing it with an all-encompassing rule against manoeuvres that could endanger other drivers.
  • But they found no suitable ruling, or any other solution for that matter, for the consistent policing of cars exceeding track limits, an issue that remained a bone of contention in 2017.

Ferrari

  • In reviewing the teams, pride of place must go to Ferrari for bringing the 2017 season alive. Their resurgence produced a genuine inter-team championship battle for the first time in five seasons. That it fizzled out and failed to go down to the wire was disappointing, but it saved F1 from a fourth successive Mercedes walkover.
  • After three victories in 2015, expectations had been sky high for the following year. Instead it ended winless, Maranello falling behind Milton Keynes in the teams pecking order. Ironically, success this year stemmed from the upheaval endured during this underwhelming 2016 season.
  • The departure of James Allison in July 2016 had forced Ferrari to rethink their technical organisation and this restructure proved immensely effective. A less hierarchical, flatter structure not only addressed Mattia Binotto’s limited experience in chassis design, it also increased the accountability of each chassis specialist within a shared vision. The result was the SF70H, an effective and attractive looking machine powered by a V6 turbo-hybrid engine. With better combustion through improved piston design, many considered it to closely match Mercedes.
  • Externally the car featured an innovative short sidepod with ‘letterbox’ air intakes allowing the sculptured bodywork beneath to blend in a pleasing flow towards the ‘coke-bottle’. Ahead of the sidepods, barge boards and turning vanes completed an area of the car that had clearly received a great deal of aerodynamic attention.
  • The car’s particular quality was consistency. It worked its tyres well and was competitive at most tracks, especially those with slow and medium-fast corners. But if race pace was invariably strong, single-lap pace was Ferrari’s greatest disadvantage against Mercedes. As track position took on even greater importance with the idiosyncrasies of the new cars and tyres, pole or a front row grid slot counted for much.
  • Nevertheless, Vettel occupied the front row on 14 occasions including four poles, and in the first six races of the season scored three wins and three seconds to lead Hamilton by 25 points. But after the glorious Monaco 1-2, Ferrari’s first triumph in the Principality for 16 years, Vettel began to leak points and throw away wins.
  • He should have won in Azerbaijan and Singapore and could have won in Belgium, Japan and Mexico. It’s these missed opportunities after Monaco that demonstrate how close Ferrari came to Nirvana. The fact that just one of these near misses was attributable to car unreliability says much about where the shortfall really lay.
  • A further deficit on the driver front was Kimi Räikkönen, completing his fourth consecutive (winless) season since his recall to the Scuderia. Still highly popular with many fans, Räikkönen’s single highpoint was pole at Monaco. Despite being labelled a ‘laggard’ by Sergio Marchionne, and many felt some 100 points shy of his machinery’s potential, Kimi will again support Vettel’s championship bid in 2018.

Mercedes

  • To win a fourth consecutive Constructor’s title is remarkable – equalling Red Bull (2010-2013) and McLaren-Honda (1988-1991), albeit still short of Ferrari’s six (1999-2004) – but for a team to retain their ascendency either side of a radical change of formula was a first.
  • Mercedes’ achievement in winning the 2017 Constructors’ title compared equally well with their winning ability to meet the new regulations of 2014 (and 1954 for that matter, had a Constructor’s title been awarded).
  • Twelve victories and 15 poles don’t portray the toughness of the struggle Mercedes faced in 2017. The W08 was certainly quick on low downforce tracks with fast corners, but it was fickle, difficult to set up and on certain circuits – Russia, Monaco, Hungary, Singapore – clearly inferior. “The toughest car to understand in my F1 career’” said Hamilton.
  • On account of it’s capricious nature, W08 became known as a ‘diva’, but it had many attributes too, including bullet-proof reliability – Lewis scored points in every race – and a ‘magic button’ to select a qualifying mode that delivered extra horsepower in Q3. Mercedes also introduced a new approach to clutch paddle design in response to yet further FIA changes to make starts ever more driver dependent.
  • Aerodynamically, Mercedes adopted a different philosophy from Ferrari towards the new regulations. Whereas Ferrari had shortened their sidepods to optimise the space ahead of the air intakes, Mercedes went for a longer wheelbase, a difference of some 166mm (6.5 inches). If less beneficial on tighter, slower circuits, the extra downforce from the resultant increased surface area was highly advantageous on faster tracks.
  • Mercedes brought a massive upgrade to the Spanish GP. Attached to either side of a far narrower nose, situated between front wing and front axle, radical new scoop-shaped turning vanes had been added that soon became known as ‘the cape’. By pulling airflow from under the nose cone and central section of the front wing towards the bargeboards, ‘the cape’ was an important step in increasing the end-to-end aero efficiency of the W08.
  • Along with building a car to radically new regulations, Mercedes had to endure significant changes in key technical personnel with the departure of Paddy Lowe to Williams and the arrival of James Allison from Ferrari. They also had to deal with a pre-season challenge from Ferrari regarding the legality of passive suspension systems designed primarily to influence the aerodynamic platform. To what extent this and the FIA clampdown on ‘oil burn’ – the practice of using engine oil as fuel – hindered their season is difficult to gauge.
  • With intra-team rivalry at an all-time high at that astonishing 2016 title decider in Abu Dhabi, chemistry between the Mercedes drivers improved immensely with the arrival of Bottas. For example, would Lewis have given back a place to Nico as he did to Valtteri in Hungary?
  • Toto Wolff might claim that his ‘clear-the-air’ pre-Christmas kitchen chat with Lewis had caused this calmer ‘team first’ atmosphere. Some would say that it was just the removal of all that Hamilton/Rosberg ‘baggage’, or that easy-going Bottas was not one for car-on-car warfare on-track, or psychological tricks off it. Sceptics would be certain that Hamilton just didn’t consider Bottas a threat.
  • But, despite grappling with a new team, he was a threat, even keeping himself in the frame for championship honours during the first half of the season with his two race victories. And then the W08 struggled for performance, Bottas seemed better able to handle it.
  • But after the Summer break, just as Lewis raised his game, Valtteri lost his way. That he managed to regain competitiveness and beat Hamilton in a head-to-head at the Abu Dhabi finale must give him hope that ultimately he can find sustained winning performance in his second season alongside the four-time champion.
  • But in many ways, the inability of Bottas to get the better of Hamilton, and Rosberg’s 2-1 mauling in their bitter three-season head-to-head, is exactly the reason why Lewis is so highly valued by Mercedes. Not only can he rise to new heights by summoning yet more from that bottomless well of talent, his unquenchable self-belief also enables him to bounce back stronger from defeat or disappointment.
  • Formidable attributes.

Red Bull

  • 2017 must be regarded as a missed opportunity for Red Bull. If they had begun the season as strongly as they finished, who knows what might have been. In the final six races Verstappen scored 100 points, championship form matched by Hamilton alone.
  • Many thought the increased downforce afforded by the new regulations would be a godsend for Adrian Newey’s design genius, but aero correlation problems between the wind tunnel, CDF simulation and the track were not corrected until Silverstone. And the pre-season challenge by Ferrari over suspension may also have been a factor.
  • Further shortcomings arose from their TAG Heuer-badged Renault power unit. The ‘entirely new’ unit continued to be significantly shy of Mercedes and Ferrari for power, but worse still, it was plagued with unreliability. Verstappen took the brunt of this in the first half of the season, Ricciardo suffering later on.
  • This poor reliability blighted pre-season testing, and frankly no Renault-powered team was immune from a deplorable level and frequency of engine grid-penalties in 2017. Towards the end of the season, Renault even elected to trade power for reliability. And as for the promised new, improved MGU-K unit, it never materialised.
  • Inevitably, relationships between Red Bull and engine supplier Renault hit a new low such that 2018 could well be their final season together. Nevertheless, the duo added another three victories to their partnership bringing shared Turbo-Hybrid victories to nine, including the first fully on merit by Verstappen in Japan.
  • In Ricciardo and Verstappen, Red Bull has perhaps the strongest pairing in F1. It’s a fascinating confrontation with Dan just about holding the ascendancy in 2016. But this year Dan was placed under greater teammate pressure than at any other time during his four-season Red Bull tenure. His reaction was to over-analyse on set-up and over-drive on track, leading to Max ‘winning’ the qualifying head-to-head 13-7.
  • On race day Ricciardo delivered excellent results for his team with nine podiums including his Baku victory. It made Verstappen’s four podiums looked meagre by comparison, but even then, the young Dutchman had the last word with his two victories and a P2 over the final six races. It suggested that Max was now learning to deliver championship form on a Sunday.
  • In October Red Bull extended Verstappen’s contract a further three years until end-2020 whereas Ricciardo is out of contract after 2018. To fulfil his title ambitions, Dan will soon need to decide if his best chance still lies with Milton Keynes.

Force India

  • Having usurped Williams for fourth place last year, Force India consolidated that position with a superb 2017 season. Sporting a striking pink livery, the Silverstone-based squad scored in all but one of the 21 rounds, with double-points finishes in 16 of them.
  • Even so Force India were very much ‘best-of-the-rest’, posing little threat to the top three teams even though they will equally have felt little threat from below themselves.
  • Following a half-season at Manor, Estaban Ocon was drafted in to replace Renault-bound Hülkenberg alongside fast and experienced Mexican, Sergio Perez. Both had something to prove, Mercedes-backed Ocon that his future lay with the works team, Perez that he remains a worthy contender for a top-team drive, just as Hulkenberg had shown.
  • With clashes in Hungary and Azerbaijan, this ambition-fuelled rivalry spilled over onto the race track until finally, after a double wheel-banging incident in Belgium, senior management imposed team orders.
  • The pair were remarkably closely matched, neither driver ever dominating the other, with Perez edging it overall on points 100 – 87, and in qualifying 13 – 7. But some would say that against a near-rookie so he should, and will have noted that Ocon became stronger once he began to revisit tracks familiar to him from nine races for Manor.
  • But undoubtedly their civil war cost the team points, arguably even podium finishes in Montreal and Baku. The latter, that turned out to be the only 2017 podium not won by a top-three team, ironically went to Williams.
  • To repel the increased competition expected in 2018 from upwardly mobile teams such as Renault and McLaren-Renault, Force India require a selfless team effort, and can ill afford a repeat of the reckless behaviour shown by their drivers before they were reined in.

Williams

  • The turn of the year saw substantial change at Williams with Mercedes’ Paddy Lowe replacing Pat Symonds as Technical Director, and Valtteri Bottas chosen by Mercedes to take the seat vacated by Nico Rosberg. The release of Bottas made for a deal including beneficial terms for their Mercedes power units, and the early release from gardening leave of Lowe, who would also become a Williams’ shareholder.
  • Williams then recalled ‘retiree’ Filipe Massa to take up the seat alongside rookie Lance Stroll. Although these two and their FW40 (skipping FW39 to signify 40 years of Williams in F1) still managed to keep Williams in fifth place in the Constructors’ Championship, the points trend since the heady days of 2014 told its own story: 320, 257, 138, 83.
  • Stroll took time to get fully up to speed, finding it particularly tough to master qualifying, but the teenager also showed flashes of talent by claiming ‘youngest-ever rookie podium’ in Baku and ‘youngest ever front-row starter’ at rain-affected Monza.
  • Towards the end of the year, with Massa pressing for an early decision about his continuation, Williams embarked on a tortuous driver selection process to determine who would join Stroll for 2018. Besides Massa, the shortlist included Paul Di Resta, who had subbed for the unwell Felipe at the Hungaroring, Pascal Wehrlein, Daniil Kvyat, Robert Kubica and finally Sergey Sirotkin, a test driver for Renault and former GP2 race winner.
  • Because of the storybook nature of a possible return to F1 seven years after his grave injuries, Kubica was the emotional favourite to earn the drive. But following a post-season test in Abu Dhabi, Sirotkin surprisingly was given the nod.
  • With such an inexperienced driver pairing, it is hard to see the anticipated new technical direction from Paddy Lowe arresting the Williams points slide into 2018.

Renault versus Toro Rosso

  • With a meagre eight points in 2016, Renault amassed 57 to leapfrog both Haas and Toro Rosso and rise from ninth to sixth in the team pecking order. Towards the close of the season there were even signs that the RS17 was the fourth fastest car, at least over a single lap, Hulkenberg qualifying P7 in each of the final three rounds.
  • Impressive progress yes, but how much more might have been achieved but for two crucial flaws in Renault’s ‘package’. First, the reliability of the Renault power unit, and second, ‘The Hulks’ teammate, Jolyon Palmer. His contribution was a mere eight points from 16 race starts, and regrettably, car unreliability wasn’t the primary explanation for this paucity of points.
  • Another potential obstacle to future success had been a certain confusion in leadership at Renault. In January this was rectified through the resignation of Team Principal Frederic Vasseur, leaving the way open for Renault Sport MD Cyril Abiteboul to lead the way.
  • In fulfilling his aspiration to join a ‘works’ team, Hulkenberg thrived, proving to be the ideal choice to lead at least this first phase in Renault’s resolute ambitions for championship honours.
  • Following a season with a year-old Ferrari engine, Toro Rosso returned to a full-spec Renault power unit for 2017. By November, having become embroiled in a bitter Constructors’ championship fight, both parties probably wished it were otherwise, Renault snatching the coveted sixth place from its customer team at the very last round.
  • As the closing rounds of the season counted down, and STR watched a 12-point lead evaporate, things turned ugly in Brazil. Renault blamed power unit failures on STR’s poor installation; Toro Rosso retaliated by implying foul play.
  • Bizarrely, this spat was caught up in the McLaren-Honda debacle, whereby Toro Rosso had by then announced its split with Renault and was probably still smarting from the loss of their key points-scorer, Carlos Sainz, to their closest rival.

McLaren-Honda

  • Having made encouraging if modest progress last year, McLaren had every reason to believe that Honda would finally deliver in 2017. Surely the Japanese power unit would lift the team into the top four at the very worst, podium contention at best, or even that very first win?
  • At pre-season winter testing reality struck home: in spite of, or rather because of abandoning the ‘size zero’ concept and adopting Mercedes’ V6 turbo-hybrid engine architecture, Honda had gone backwards. It all worked so well in single-cylinder form on the dyno in Sakura, but within an integrated V6 power unit, severe vibrations caused repeated breakdowns, let alone the oil tank problem that limited winter testing so drastically. During the second week, while other teams pumped out race distances, the longest Honda stint was a paltry 11 laps.
  • It was then that McLaren’s patience snapped. Ron Dennis’s McLaren-Honda dream was over, even though the nightmare had yet to end. A bleak 21-race season lay ahead during which McLaren not only had to find a new engine supplier, but also convince their key asset, Fernando Alonso, to stay on board.
  • The racing season proceeded as woefully as pre-season testing had foretold. Alonso and Vandoorne managed a meagre 30 points between them, their best result sixth for Alonso in Hungary. The points trend over the three-year McLaren-Honda partnership looked like this: 27, 76, 30.
  • For Honda, grid places lost through power unit penalties in 2017 totalled a staggering 380, although this compared closely with Renault’s 320. (The equivalent stats for Ferrari was 20 and for Mercedes the perfect zero!) But Renault was supplying three teams, their average per car, per race being 2.66 to Honda’s 9.5!
  • Inevitably, McLaren’s first port of call to find a replacement power source was Mercedes, their engine partner over 20 years from 1985 to 2014, a period that included 78 race victories but ‘only’ four championship titles. But Stuttgart turned them down, as did Maranello, while Viry was reluctant to supply a fourth team.
  • Switching to a Renault power-unit – that had won three 2017 races – was imperative for Woking. The team considered that a fourth precarious season with Honda placed their very survival in jeopardy. It was also a pre-requisite for retaining the services of Alonso.
  • So a complex deal was struck to achieve this together with keeping Honda in Formula 1. Star STR driver Carlos Sainz would transfer (on loan) from Red Bull to Renault, enabling Toro Rosso to be released from their Renault contract to become Honda’s ‘works’ team.
  • Despite their 2017 travails, McLaren frequently insisted that their MCL 32 chassis was one of the best on the grid. And Alonso’s prowess appears undimmed, as showcased by his Indy 500 exploits. So expectations for a long overdue McLaren revival are high for next year, but up against similarly powered cars from Milton Keynes and Enstone, there will be nowhere to hide.

Haas and Sauber

  • Of the two Ferrari customer teams, Haas had by far the better year. Perhaps surprisingly so given that a team entering only its second season has to build a new car for the first time against the backdrop of participation in a full racing season. And this time the VF-18 had to meet an entirely new set of regulations.
  • Although it was an up and down year as the inexperienced team struggled with the tricky nature of the sensitive Pirelli tyres, a good finishing record was achieved along with two double-points finishes.
  • Within the hard-fought 2017 mid-field, eleven points-scoring races was impressive, as was the team’s ability to score regularly throughout the season, demonstrating that car development is also improving.
  • However, lead driver Romain Grosjean’s points score was virtually the same as year one, the team’s overall improvement from 29 to 53 largely down to the recruitment of a second points-scoring driver, Kevin Magnussen.
  • So next year will be a significant further test to see if this impressive new F1 team can begin to move up the grid.
  • Running a 2016-spec Ferrari engine was always going to make it difficult for Sauber to do little more than prop-up the 2017 Constructors’ table, and so it transpired. Five points, inevitably scored during the first half of the season as their power-unit became less-and-less competitive, was the sum total for their toils.
  • Pascal Wehrlein scored all these points – collecting four for an exceptional one-stop drive in Spain for P8 – and out-qualified Ericsson 11-7, yet he was the driver to lose his seat come the year end.
  • In part this was linked to a major shift in direction during the Summer. Initially it had appeared that Sauber would assume McLaren’s role as Honda’s ‘works’ team. This arrangement was rapidly nullified when Sauber’s owners, Longbow Finance, replaced Team Principal Monisha Kaltenborn, appointing Frédéric Vasseur, recently departed from Renault, in her stead. Vasseur envisioned Sauber’s future path as an even closer alliance with Ferrari.
  • To her credit and against the odds, Kaltenborn, the first-ever female Team Principal, had maintained Sauber’s financial viability (and jobs) for some five seasons.

Farewell

  • Lost to Formula 1 during 2017 were: John Surtees 83, Patrick Neve 67, Tim Parnell 84, Mike Taylor 82, Eric Broadley 88, Don Nichols 92, John Nicholson 75 and Bette Hill 91.
  • Special tribute should be made to the illustrious motorsport careers of 1964 World Champion John Surtees, and renowned racing car designer and constructor, Eric Broadley. Their F1 paths crossed on more than one occasion, notably, Surtees’ pole for Broadley’s Lola-Climax Mk. 4 on its 1962 GP debut at Zandvoort, and his 1967 Italian GP victory in the ‘Hondola’.
  • In addition to the above, Broadley made numerous forays in F1, with Embassy-Hill (1973); Beatrice (1983); Larrousse (1987-91); Scuderia Italia (1993) and finally a works effort in 1997. But, the Hondola apart, he never found winning success, a similar outcome befalling Surtees during his time as a F1 constructor between 1970 and 1978.
  • But with six GP victories for Ferrari, Cooper and Honda, John Surtees MBE, OBE, will always be best remembered for his unique achievement in winning world championship titles on two wheels and four.

Governance and Politics

  • 2017 was a pivotal year for Formula 1 when, on 24 January, Liberty Media officially took over from CVC as commercial-rights-holder. It was soon apparent that Bernie Ecclestone, despite his chairman emeritus title, would take absolutely no further part in the shaping of Formula 1’s future.
  • In order to enhance the F1 proposition for the benefit of its stakeholders – teams, promoters, fanbase, FIA, and ultimately themselves – Liberty rapidly defined the principal areas that required attention: spiralling costs, inequitable revenue distribution, discriminatory governance system, and by no means least ‘the show’. They also recognised that none of these issues would be a ‘quick fix’, and targeted the end of the 2020 season when present contracts and covenants expire.
  • What Liberty hoped for was a spirit of partnership among those parties with vested interests; a give and take philosophy, with engagement of fans at its epicentre, all driven by the shared desire for the long-term success of the F1 business model.
  • They quickly discovered that this is not the nature of Formula 1’s culture. When MD Sport Ross Brawn unveiled a concept for cheaper, less complex post-2020 engines with wider appeal to prospective suppliers, opposition from Renault and Mercedes was vehement. Ferrari even threatened to exit F1 over this and other cost saving proposals.
  • So there remains a long and winding road ahead in solving F1’s biggest issues, leaving Liberty with little to show from 2017 other than a new logo and experimentation with a few fan-friendly initiatives.
  • In the meantime Liberty has moved into brand new London headquarters to accommodate a massively increased head count. Investing now to generate results a few years down the line is the mantra. Or as Liberty boss Chase Carey puts it, “I think ’17 and ’18 we look at as foundation building years. Our real target for where we’re trying to get to is 2020.”
  • Such a measured approach will only find acceptance if 2018 produces an entertaining season. And that very much depends on Ferrari and Red Bull. Did they miss their chance this year? Will 2017 prove to be as close as Mercedes will let them get?

 

RS
Formula 1 All the Races