The 6 biggest stories of the F1 off-season

F1 2017 is go in just under six weeks’ time – are you up to speed?  


Are you getting as impatient as we are for the start of the Formula One season? Well, the good news is that you won’t have to wait too much longer. Pre-season testing gets underway in Barcelona next week, with the ‘phoney war’ that characterises the early days of any new campaign beginning in earnest in the Spanish sun. Who’s fast? Who has got it right? Who’s sandbagging? And who has a lot of work to do?

All won’t be completely revealed until lights out in Australia for the opening Grand Prix in this year’s 20-race season in late March. And while we’re waiting for the on-track action to start, there’s been plenty going on off it – so with less than six weeks to go before Melbourne, here’s a rapid recap of six of the biggest stories this off-season.

1. Bye bye Bernie
Mark Webber’s
description of Formula One was, as most things with the former Red Bull racer, succinct and spot-on. “It’s Bernie’s train set mate, we’re just playing with it,” Webber often said, and he was right – emphasis on the word ‘was’. After the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council unanimously approved Liberty Media’s purchase of F1 in late January, Liberty announced that Chase Carey would add the title of CEO to his role as F1 chairman, and that 86-year-old Bernie Ecclestone would be handed an honorary role as chairman emeritus with no hands-on involvement.

F1 without Bernie is hard to imagine, and after 40 years of his diminutive presence being the biggest in the paddock, it’ll be interesting to see the changes – and how quickly – Liberty institute. Meanwhile, talk of Ecclestone setting up a breakaway series started immediately after the change at the top of the sport, which Ecclestone himself swiftly denied. Don’t expect that chatter to die down, though.

2. And to Manor too
F1 will be back to 10 teams in 2017 after the demise of Manor, the sport’s minnows closing their doors in late January after going into administration and failing to find a new buyer.

Pascal Wehrlein scored a crucial point for Manor when he finished 10th at last year’s Austrian Grand Prix, but the team fell behind Sauber into last place in the constructors’ championship at the penultimate race of the season in Brazil, when Felipe Nasr scored two points for the Swiss squad to finish ninth, a result that cost Manor around £30 million worth of prizemoney.

In a twist of fate, Nasr’s ninth may have cost him a place on this year’s grid, as the Brazilian lost his Sauber seat to Wehrlein for 2017, meaning his one chance at continuing his career into a third season at Manor went begging when the team went under.

3. Speaking of Wehrlein …
F1 drivers will race anything when they get a chance to, but for the Mercedes protégé, a bit of off-season fun could have longer-lasting consequences. A crash at the Race of Champions in Miami in January left the German with a neck injury and in some doubt for next week’s first pre-season hit-out in Barcelona. With this year’s cars featuring more downforce and therefore greater cornering speeds, Barcelona isn’t the place to start the pre-season with anything other than a neck that’s 100 per cent ready …

4. We can work it out
If a Formula One driver does a workout that’s not captured by social media for the masses, did it exist? With F1 expected to be more of a physical challenge this year –Turn 3 at Barcelona is expected to be full-throttle and 40km/h faster (at 250km/h) than last year’s cars could manage – the sport’s pilots have been hard at work getting fitter and stronger over the off-season, even if some of them need a little extra incentive to push …

As Daniel Ricciardo put it after last year’s end-of-season test in Abu Dhabi, “if next year is 100 per cent of our physical strength, then this year we’ve been at 75 per cent.” Despite all that preparation, expect some sore necks and busy physios next week in Spain.

5. Driver market settles
It took a while, but the worst-kept secret in F1 was finally confirmed when Mercedes was able to sign Valtteri Bottas to partner Lewis Hamilton at the world champion team this season. Reports had Mercedes waiving its engine bill to Williams – at around $24 million – to acquire the Finn, with Williams turning to recently-retired veteran Felipe Massa to offer some stability at the team as it beds in Canadian teenager Lance Stroll for his rookie season.

Mercedes and Williams both changing their driver line-ups means, remarkably, only Ferrari will take to the 2017 grid in Melbourne with the same two drivers it began last year with, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.

6. McLaren turns the page – and turns back the clock?
Three decades of tradition will be cast aside at McLaren in 2017, with its new car to be designated as the MCL32, breaking with the ‘MP4’ prefix to its chassis names that debuted in 1981, when Ron Dennis first became involved with the team. With Dennis now out at McLaren and commercial guru Zak Brown in as executive director, plenty of F1 insiders are speculating that McLaren will have a new look on track as well, with talk of a predominantly orange livery – which came to prominence with the team’s F1 and Can-Am cars in the late 60s – being revealed when McLaren lifts the lid on its 2017 challenger on February 24.


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