Nico Rosberg is world champion. Felipe Massa and Jensen Button have retired. Force India have achieved their best ever finish in the constructor’s championship, and Max Verstappen has provided several talking points over the course of the year. What’s the full story of the 2016 F1 season?
It began, of course, in Australia. A new ‘elimination’ format for qualifying was introduced, but this would prove to be a disasterous and short-lived experiment that didn’t have any meaningful impact on the pecking order. Hamilton qualified on pole with Rosberg right beside him – as in Hungary in 2015, both Ferraris would leapfrog the Mercs and Hamilton slipped down to fourth.
Getting off the line badly would prove to be a bit of a theme this year. Hamilton’s poor getaway in Australia was repeated at the very next race, and also in Japan, and poor performances in Italy and Singapore, plus a crash in qualifying in Baku, cost Lewis a lot of points. It was an error-strewn season from the three-time champion, and whilst mechanical problems also affected Hamilton, he failed to control the factors he could influence. This is as crucial as any engine failure.
The narrative of the season is one of victory for consistency over intensity. in 2014 and 2015 Rosberg was beaten, and in 2015 quite convincingly so. Rosberg himself has remarked on how gutted he was after Austin last year, and from that point on changed his approach. ‘One race at a time’ became his philosophy, and he focused on getting the job done at each race weekend, rather than thinking of the big picture.
Rosberg had one or two poor starts of his own, and made other mistakes. He was outclassed in the rain-soaked Monaco, British and Brazilian races, but held his nerve in the challenging environment of Singapore, and when he needed to get second in the last four races, he set about doing exactly that. Rosberg is not a risk taker who will push the envelope, but he is methodical. His calm approach and deeper resolve has earned him his title.
The Rise and Fall
Away from the title battle, other stories were developing. Red Bull began the season with Daniel Ricciardo and Danill Kvyat as their drivers, and whilst they weren’t entertaining the idea of fighting for titles, they were quietly hopeful of an improvement on a miserable 2015. Kvyat didn’t seem to get this memo. Collisions between Kvyat and former Red Bull favourite Sebastian Vettel in both China and Russia led to Red Bull demoting Kvyat to Toro Rosso, bringing Max Verstappen up to Red Bull. The team claimed this had always been the plan, but it’s hard to imagine any plan involving swapping drivers after just four races. Kvyat never really recovered from the move, but has kept his seat at Toro Rosso for next season.
Verstappen has made serious waves this season, and he did so immediately, winning in his first race with Red Bull, when the Mercs collided in Spain. Yes, it was a slice of opportunism, and yes, Red Bull messed up on Riccardo’s strategy, but Verstappen still had to fend off the experienced Kimi Raikkonen for several laps, displaying a composure that defied his years.
Alongside his win, Verstappen would earn both praise and criticism for his aggressive racing. More than once, Verstappen would clash with the Ferraris, and earned the wrath of both Vettel and Raikkonen for his tactics in Belgium and Mexico respectively. It was his performance in the wet in Brazil, where he surged past car after car in the closing laps to grab an unlikely podium, that led to comparisons with Senna and Schumacher. Such comparisons may be premature, but Verstappen is a bold racer and has clear ability, and if he can develop his skills, he will be a world champion.
The Prost/Senna moment?
It’s hardly a secret that the relationship between Hamilton and Rosberg, who came up through the ranks together, has turned pretty cold, and their first-lap accident in Spain drew comparisons to the collisions between Senna and Prost. Neither driver has publicly spoken of what was said in the debrief afterwards, but the pair have barely been able to look at each other, much less talk, and another collision in Austria hardly helped, with Mercedes boss Toto Wolfe threatening to punish any further incidents quite harshly. Whether the dynamic between them will change now Rosberg has won a championship remains uncertain.
Much was said of the possibility of Ferrari threatening the dominance of Mercedes in 2016. Indeed, at the very first race at Melbourne, in scenes reminiscent of Hungary 2015, both Vettel and Raikkonen got ahead of the Mercs. A strategic gamble following Alonso’s huge crash didn’t pay off, and Ferrari would also miss out on a potential win in Canada for the same reasons. However, their car was generally not as fast as the Mercedes, and Red Bull would catch up to them, overhauling them in the constructor’s championship. Reliability, normally a strong point for Ferrari, also let them down on a few occasions. Vettel would occasionally cut a frustrated figure – the four-time world champion wants to be mixing it up at the front, not scratching around for third.
Williams Wilt, Force India Flourish
Two teams, both with Mercedes engines. Both have relatively low budgets, but Williams have been third in the constructor’s championship for the past two seasons running, whilst Force India have steadily improved, but surely can’t be expected to challenge Williams, who, given their performances over the past couple of years, should be challenging for third again, if not better?
Nope. Bottas remained steady behind the wheel and Massa gave it everything, but the problems that Williams had with their 2014 and 2015 cars (namely, a lack of downforce, which hindered them at certain venues) weren’t resolved, and Force India made strides with their car. Perez gave a good account of himself, including podiums at Monaco and Baku, whilst Hulkenberg continued to be reliable in getting points. The difference between 4th and 5th is millions of pounds of prize money, so it will be interesting to see how Force India invest that money, especially given that Hulkenberg is switching to Renault next year.
McLaren make Progress
Make no mistake, McLaren and Honda are not where they want to be. Their partnership is an investment of millions, and part of the reason why McLaren have the services of Fernando Alonso for at least one more year. They have improved, and Alonso himself has continued to remind people why he is still regarded as one of the most talented drivers on the grid, but there is too great a gap to make up on driver skill alone. On power circuits like Silverstone and Spa, the lack of power in the Honda engine was plain for all to see. It remains to be seen if the new cars in 2017 can offset that disadvantage, or if Honda can close the gap.
The New and the not-so-New
The first ‘from scratch’ team for a while, Haas, burst onto the scene this year, and Grosjean scored points for them at their very first race, with a highly credible 6th. All in all, Haas would score 29 points, all of them won by Grosjean, who has matured since his ropey 2012 season. Gutierrez might consider himself unlucky (having finished just outside the points on a number of occasions), but he has been dropped for 2017, and if Haas were having to make a choice based on the pairs’ performance this season, there was only going to be one winner. Haas have done remarkably well for a brand new team, and they will hope to build upon their season.
Renault returned as a outright works team in 2016, having taken over the struggling Lotus team. They scored a total of 8 points, with all but one of them scored by Magnussen, yet Palmer is the man remaining with the team for next season – Magnussen is replacing Gutierrez at Haas. It would be fair to say Renault have had a rocky return to F1, but theirs is a long-term plan, and they don’t lack resources.
The Boys at the Back
Manor were determined to go from also-rans to a team capable of pestering others in 2016, and they have certainly made progress. Now armed with Mercedes engines, they gave it a good go this year, and Pascal Wehrlein (who is moving to Force India) impressed quite a few onlookers. It was he who scored Manor’s only point in Austria, and he comfortably outclassed his first teammate, Rio Haryanto. Esteban Ocon gave him a bit more to think about in the second half of the year, and both drivers have been tipped as rising stars.
They are joined by the Sauber of Nasr, who scored two points in Brazil to break Manor hearts and take 10th in the constructor’s championship. Sauber have had another tough year, so to get any points at all is a welcome relief for them. What the prospects are for either Manor or Sauber as 2017 rolls in are anyone’s guess.
Both Massa and Button have said their goodbyes, bowing out of Formula 1 with their heads held high. Massa won several races and was nearly – nearly – world champion in 2008, and did remarkably well to recover from a horrifying head injury in 2009, giving a good account of himself in his Williams years. Button was the 2009 world champion, and he went on to prove this wasn’t merely about the car when he pushed Hamilton hard in 2010. Button actually became the first teammate of Hamilton to beat his fellow Englishman in the standings in 2011, and overall, scored more points than Hamilton during their three years as teammates.
A surprising addition to this list of retirees is newly crowned champion Rosberg. He announced his retirement just five days after clinching the title, stunning the motorsport world. In retrospect, given the scale of the challenge, and given that Rosberg has a young family to think about, it makes sense for him to bow out on a high, and I wish him well.
2016 was all about opportunism. Rosberg took full advantage of problems for Hamilton in the first four races, and whilst Hamilton did swing the pendulum into his favour, you can’t help but wonder if the points lost to Rosberg in those opening stages were crucial. Whenever Hamilton made a mistake, Rosberg was cool and composed enough to exploit it, doing what he needed to do to get the job done. There might be those out there who doubt his credentials as a champion, but he had to get the car across the line and he did exactly that. He earned the title, and now he can savour it.