As the opening round of the 2016 Formula One season dawns ever closer, Jennie Gow reports from Down Under ahead of the Australian GP.
“This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.” – Oscar Wilde.
There’s nothing like Australia, as the advertising slogan goes. And with that, there are few things as exciting as the prospect of a new Formula One season. There’s so much to look forward to, so much potential and so many hopes yet to be dashed. Whether you support Mercedes or Manor, Rosberg or Rio; no one has disappointed yet and everyone has the hopes of 2016 packed into their suitcases as they set aboard their flight to Melbourne.
So, what can we expect from the class of 2016?
Tighter battles, different qualifying, strategy games, new names and, maybe – just maybe – a new World Champion!
When it comes to the fight for top spot, it looks like Mercedes and Ferrari are closer than they have been in recent years. It’s always hard to tell from testing, but it appears the gap between the two giants of Formula One could mean tighter racing at the front, and therefore further down the grid, too. No doubt, it’s what F1 needs. This is not a championship in which the title holder should expect to turn up and win, week after week. We want… No… We DEMAND to see the biggest names in the sport compete, wheel to wheel. Fingers crossed, that is exactly what happens when the lights go out in Melbourne.
The mid-field battle this season also looks rather juicy. With Ferrari having improved their power unit, any driver with a red engine in the back of their car should be able to fight with their Mercedes-powered rivals just that little bit better. So, with that, you can expect Sauber and the new Haas F1 team to battle with the likes of Force India, Williams, Red Bull, Toro Rosso and Renault.
The only other engine supplier is, of course, Honda. Whether McLaren will be able to challenge this season remains to be seen. It’s certainly a big unknown, but the legions of fans who have kept the faith are certainly hoping for a big year from the Woking-based team.
As for the men at the top, well, some would say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, for the first time in several years the bosses of F1 have decided to change qualifying. The format will now in essence be three sessions where, every 90 seconds, a driver will be eliminated. It’s all very ‘X-Box/Playstation’ and you can almost hear the ‘GAME OVER’ music as a driver fails to make the cut. Some are cynical that this confusing format will have fans reaching for their remotes. Yet, whilst there was arguably nothing wrong with the old qualifying format, the rationale behind the decision to try and mix up the order for the race on Sunday is understandable. Could this work? Potentially, yes. Although, once the teams are given a couple of races to get their heads around the new system, the room for error will likely be reduced. I’m up for giving things a try in the name of progress – let’s just hope we don’t lose the fans as a result of tinkering.
Tyres might be black and round and keep your car off the ground but, this year, there’s a new lady in town: The purple banded ultra-soft that Pirelli are going to bring to certain races. You’ll see it first in Monaco. This isn’t the only tyre change this season. Compounds are likely to degrade more quickly, so expect to see an extra pit stop in most races, from most teams. Also, and most importantly for us fans, teams will now have three different compounds of tyres available to use over the weekend, up from two. This means a greater ability to mix up strategy. Someone who is extremely good on their tyres might be able to do something special every now and then. It should make the race slightly less predictable as well.
Needless to say, we have some exciting new names entering the arena to do battle this season.
First off, a new team. We don’t say that very often. Gene Haas has brought his motorsport knowledge to the F1 paddock with his brand new Haas F1 team. They are – to some an extent – a baby Ferrari team, and will look to take on the might of the mid-field in their first year. A small operation in relative terms, Haas F1 have enlisted two good drivers in Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez. But the team has already had to endure a wake-up call of sorts, having missed a large amount of running in testing due to reliability issues. In my opinion, it’s really important that new teams come to F1 and succeed. It’s been a while since that happened, so fingers crossed.
There are other new names this year, too, in the form of drivers. Rio Haryanto has risen from the ranks of GP2, and there is no doubt that, when it comes to fans, Rio will have plenty. The first Indonesian F1 driver in history; let’s hope he will bring a whole new nation to the sport. Indonesians traditionally love Moto GP, and anything with two wheels. Whether Rio will have the pull to bring fans to a four-wheel sport remains to be seen. He will partner Pascal Wehrlein in the Manor F1 team. A Mercedes protégé, much is expected from the young German, and it will be interesting to see if he can score points for his Manor team. With a Mercedes power unit in the back of that car, we might just see the odd result with Manor in the mix, rather than at the back of the pack.
Elsewhere, there is a very welcome return for Kevin Magnussen in the newly named Renault F1 team. Back from a year in the wilderness after losing his McLaren drive, the Dane certainly has plenty of support. He will be alongside Brit Jolyon Palmer who, having won the GP2 title in 2014, finally gets back to racing in his first year as an official F1 driver.
But the big question this season remains around Lewis Hamilton, and whether anyone can stop him from winning his fourth World Championship? I truly believe that Nico Rosberg is in the best place he ever has been to give it a go. That said, it’s a short-lived space. He needs to come out in Australia and have something close to a perfect weekend. He needs to beat Lewis in qualifying, and he needs to beat him in the race. Fail to do those two things and there will already be loud voices writing off his chances for the season.
In a Twitter poll I ran a couple of weeks ago, I asked which driver fans thought was most likely to challenge Hamilton for the title this season. Interestingly, 66% of you said Sebastian Vettel, not Rosberg. There is no doubt Seb still has the ability to win races – and we saw that last year when he was on the top step of the podium three times. However, whether or not he has the car beneath him to challenge, is another question. The great hope this year is YES. Mercedes have certainly been keen to show their closest rivals great respect going into the season, pointing out on a number of occasions that Ferrari’s pace is dangerous.
That’s what makes this moment in Formula One so special. Before Australia is the magical moment where anything could still happen. The moment where your driver could win a race, and where you team could challenge for the title. It’s the moment before fact comes in to fight fiction, and where hope and potential is everything. As soon as the flag drops in Australia, conclusions will be drawn, a rough sketch of the season will be completed in our minds and we may well come down to earth with a bump. My advice is simple: Savour this moment, because it is undoubtedly the most wonderful time of the F1 year.