Meet the men who will be competing for the 2017 crown.
The 2007, 2014 and 2015 world champion will be more determined than ever to claim a fourth crown this year, after a 2016 that was marked by two things – mistakes and mechanical failures. Even as a big Hamilton fan, I had to acknowledge that the errors on his part were crucial to the destiny of the title – his former teammate Nico Rosberg was utterly focused and Hamilton, at times, wasn’t – yes, if not for the engine failure in Malaysia he would have been champion – but the same can be said for not messing up in Australia, Singapore, Japan or Italy, to name but a few – if he’d won from pole in Australia, he’d have been champion. Second places to Rosberg in Singapore, Japan and Italy would have been enough as well, to say nothing of his crash in qualifying in Baku, when pole was in sight. Even second place there, on its own, would have been enough of a points swing in his favour.
Still, the past is the past. Hamilton is more than capable of winning the 2017 title, and given the strong showing from the car in testing, he has the equipment to do it as well.
The new variable at Mercedes, following Rosberg’s retirement, is Bottas – a veteran of five years in Formula 1, all previously spent at Williams. Bottas has clocked up nine podium finishes, including two second places, but is yet to win a race. That will change this year, but will he be able to compete with Hamilton?
My feeling on the subject is – no. As mentioned, Bottas will win races, but he has not so far struck me as having the conviction to be a world champion. I may yet be proven wrong – we shall wait and see.
Team: Red Bull
If Red Bull are closer to Mercedes this year, then expect this man to be in the thick of the action. Aggressive and bold, Ricciardo is not afraid to push and is brave under braking – as we have seen in a number of gutsy moves. Since moving to Red Bull from Toro Rosso in 2014, Ricciardo has shown a willingness to challenge the establishment – including comfortably beating then-teammate (and Red Bull golden boy) Sebastian Vettel). His four wins in F1 have all been about opportunism – he has put himself in the pocket to take advantage of circumstances, and with the right car, he will be a champion some day. Intriguingly, one of his closest challengers might be his existing teammate…
Team: Red Bull
It would be fair to say that Red Bull have the most exciting pairing of drivers on the grid – I’ve already spoken of the bold nature of Ricciardo, and Verstappen is no different. He made waves last year when he was upgraded to Red Bull, winning his first race for them at Barcelona. Verstappen tangled – controversially – with Rosberg in Germany and with Vettel in Mexico, and his defensive driving earned the wrath of a few of his competitors – including Kimi Raikkonen. Verstappen himself was unrepentant.
Verstappen also put in arguably the drive of the season at Brazil last year – when he went from 16th to 3rd in the final 16 laps of a rain-soaked event, drawing comparisons to Senna and Schumacher. More performances like that, and a car capable of consistently winning, will produce fireworks.
Four-time champ Vettel is out to prove a few things in 2017. He endured something of a trying year last season, as Ferrari improved a little on pace (but not enough) and sacrificed reliability to do so. There were signs of a slightly frayed relationship with Ferrari, and his temper boiled over at the Mexican Grand Prix, when he launched into an extraordinary outburst at race director Charlie Whiting, following a controversial clash with Verstappen.
Given that 2017 is the final year of his contract with Ferrari, Vettel will have one eye on what’s happening elsewhere – Mercedes have only given Bottas a one-year deal, so Ferrari will need to demonstate a competitive car to avoid Vettel being tempted away, and Vettel will need to display the composure and pace that saw him win four consecutive championships if Ferrari are to decide they want to keep him.
The 2007 champion has surprised me a little by sticking around for another year. at 37, he is one of the oldest and most experienced drivers on the grid, and Ferrari clearly feel he still has something to offer. Is he simply a foil for Vettel? Or is a competitive car going to mean Raikkonen runs at the front, challenging for wins and even the title?
I’m more inclined to think the former. In their two years together, Vettel has beaten Raikkonen, as Alonso had in 2014. If this is not his final year in F1, I’ll be surprised, but we shall see if the Ice Man has anything up his sleeve.
Team: Force India
Perez has amased a reasonable degree of experience over the course of his career and has generally gotten better as the years have gone by – his chances of winning have been hampered by lacking a car capable of doing that – though some confident showings for Force India over the past few years have served him in good stead. It seems unlikely that he’ll win races this year, but he’ll be hoping to help power Force India to another respectable finish.
Team: Force India
Ocon is something of an unknown quantity – the young Frenchman is new to F1, having had a few races with Manor last season, where he acquitted himself reasonably well, and did enough to attract the attention of a team capable of scoring regular points. I can’t really say too much about him, because I don’t know anything about him! Ocon has won races in other formulas, so there is potential there.
It’s impossible not to like Massa, who went so close to winning the 2008 crown, and who bounced back from potentially life-threatening injuries in 2009. A true veteran of F1, Massa actually retired at the end of 2016 – but has come back for at least one more year, in order to help Williams fulfil obligations to sponsors. In testing Massa and Williams showed they have reliability and stamina, but it seems unlikely they will be challenging for wins, which is a pity, as I’m sure a lot of people would love to see Massa win again.
18 year-old Stroll is one of the youngest competitors in F1 and one of two rookies this year. Stroll has a good record in feeder series, but in testing caused problems with accidents that led to Williams getting less of a run during the first test. This has led a few observers to question the wisdom in giving him a seat, but in the second test he was better. I have no idea what to expect from him, so it will be interesting to see how he performs.
Here’s a guy that could have so easily been cast aside. 2012 was a miserable year for Grosjean, despite flashes of great skill, but he has since matured. Grosjean scored all of Haas’ points in 2016, and will be at the forefront of their efforts this season, bringing a fair bit of experience to the team. I’ve heard that he still harbours ambitions of a ‘big seat’ and a crack at the world championship – I don’t know if that’s realistic, but Grosjean is certainly capable of leading Haas as they aim to make progress.
It would be fair to say that Magnussen has flown under the radar in his F1 career. Unspectacular but quietly going about his job without causing trouble or fuss. He actually did finish second in his first race for McLaren in 2014 – but that was more due to circumstance than anything else. Will he be able to match Grosjean? I have no idea.
Team: Toro Rosso
2016 was a very difficult year for Kvyat, not least of all because it had started out with him at a team that tends to run near the front, and ended with a team firmly rooted to the middle. After four races in which Kvyat caused several incidents, Red Bull demoted him to Toro Rosso, and his performances as the season progressed showed his discontent. He might be fortunate to still be in F1, given his fall from grace, and will need to work hard to beat Sainz, who is ambitious and probably seeking to move up from Toro Rosso himself. 2017 will be a big test of Kvyat’s resolve.
Carlos Sainz Jr
Team: Toro Rosso
I alluded to ambition just now, and this is very much true. Sainz is entering his third season at Toro Rosso and might feel that he should have a crack at a bigger team before long. It’s a hard but true circumstance that Toro Rosso is a bit like a finishing school before getting sent to the big boys (Red Bull), and no one wants to stay at school forever. Sainz has shown some good pace and will surely be snapped up by another team at some point.
I like Hulkenberg. He has struck me as a nice guy and he’s proven to be quite a dab hand at the wheel of a racing car too. The only thing missing from his time at Force India was a podium finish, that he was a little unlikely not to claim, and now he is helping Renault to push on from a somewhat trying experience last year, when they rejoined F1 as a full-blown works team. There are worse drivers to have on a team, and hopefully he will continue to impress.
Palmer is entering his second season in F1 and to a few observers he might be considered fortunate to still be in the sport. He was unspectacular last year and will be hoping for better times this year, but I suspect he will be in Hulkenberg’s shadow for the most part.
Perhaps the most talented driver on the grid, and certainly one of the best, Alonso’s recent career has been one bad decision after another, with two seasons of difficulty and struggle with McLaren so far, and no sign of that changing after a miserable time in testing for the only Honda powered team on the grid. Alonso will, as always, drag the car higher up the field than it has any right to be, but he deserves to be racing at the front, reminding everyone why he is a two-time world champion. Will he finally get fed up this year? Or will he tough it out, knowing this is the final year of his McLaren contract, and knowing that other, better options might open up for 2018?
Yet another newcomer to F1, Vandoorne did race once in 2016 at Bahrain, but is in the same boat as Ocon and Stroll – inexperienced at this level. He has spent a few years in feeder series, so he is not without an understanding of what it takes to succeed, and he will learn from Alonso. He will probably fly under the radar this year, given the poor capabilities of the car.
Wehrlein displayed great promise in 2016 for Manor, including picking up points in Austria, and was briefly considered for the Mercedes seat, before being ruled out due to lack of experience. It must be frustrating to be at Sauber, who will likely struggle toward the back of the grid this year, but Wehrlein has not shown any sign of being annoyed at this, and will be keen to get on with it, putting himself in the shop window should other, bigger teams come looking.
Now entering his fourth year in the sport (and third with Sauber), Ericsson has not distinguished himself as being an especially great racer, but not has he disgraced himself as being a particularly bad one either. The simple fact is, he does not have the machinery to make a major impact, so he will have to set himself the goal of beating his teammate, which will be easier said than done, for my instinct is that Wehrlein is the more talented of the two. We shall see.