Why Spain is the start of F1’s ‘second season’

Formula One hits Europe for the first time this year in Barcelona – here’s five things to watch for as the season resets after the flyaways.


It’s the great guessing game of any Formula One off-season; the never-ending quest to work out which team is fastest and why before the cars hit the track for pre-season testing and, you know, actually demonstrate that for themselves. And then do some more guessing as to who is holding something back after testing for the season-opener in Australia

Another F1 truism? We spend the opening quartet of flyaways from Albert Park debating the pecking order of teams one through 10 on the grid with one qualifier: wait until they return to Europe for the Spanish Grand Prix. Spain, as the first GP much closer to home for the teams after the races in far-flung Melbourne, Sakhir, Shanghai and Baku, marks the start of F1’s unofficial ‘second season’, where teams bring significant aerodynamic and performance updates that have been finessed in factories while the machinery itself stays largely in launch spec, chasing victories far away from base.

What do we know about the season so far? The big three of last year – Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull – are still the top triumvirate in F1, but the true order of that trio remains to be seen. Mercedes has dominated since the advent of the V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014, and a familiar pattern looked set to emerge when Lewis Hamilton demolished the opposition in Australian Grand Prix qualifying in March. But since, Ferrari (Sebastian Vettel) has taken three straight poles, Red Bull (Daniel Ricciardo) has won a race in China, and it was Hamilton who belatedly took Mercedes’ first win of 2018 in fortunate fashion in Azerbaijan last time out, his teammate Valtteri Bottas retiring late with a puncture after the Finn looked set to win a race Vettel had in his keeping until a late race safety car for … well, you know what.

The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, site of round five of the season this weekend, is one that every driver and team knows like the back of their hands as F1’s pre-season testing track of choice, and it’s one that provides every type of corner (even if we miss the fearsome big-balls right-handers that used to be the final sequence of the lap). Meaning there’s few unknowns about the venue; but what of the cars?

What might a technical shake-up do to that enormously-analysed pecking order we talked about earlier? Will we see technical directors entering the paddock with last-minute go-fast bits in their hand luggage ahead of qualifying on Saturday? (Answer: yes). And what trends might be revealed in Barcelona that set the scene for the races to follow?

Here’s five things to keep an eye on for this weekend.

1. Look for Silver to shine
Azerbaijan has been a tricky track for Mercedes in recent years despite it winning seemingly everywhere else, the propensity of its cars to overheat its rear tyres in the stop-start early part of the lap diluting its overall performance advantage over the rest. Catalunya, therefore, comes at the perfect time for a team that hasn’t yet hit its usual heights this season, Hamilton admitting after Baku that “Ferrari still hold the upper hand”, particularly in qualifying.

Since F1 made its big power-plant shift in 2014, there’s only one time Mercedes hasn’t won in Spain, and that came after Hamilton and Nico Rosberg committed the cardinal sin of crashing into one another (yes, other teams do it too) on the first lap for Max Verstappen to sweep through to win on his Red Bull debut in 2016.

Mercedes spent much of the pre-season running at the same circuit sandbagging so as to not show its superiority over its rivals, and while the team trails Ferrari (by four points) in the constructors’ championship, you’d be shocked if that didn’t change come Sunday night. Should Ferrari be able to hang with Mercedes in Spain, we might just have a title fight that’ll rumble on for the remainder of the year.

2. Running of the Bulls in Spain?
Ricciardo won in China, sure, but Barcelona shapes as Red Bull’s best chance for a strong result in a relatively normal race, not the safety car-generated tyre gamble that was Shanghai last month. Yes, the RB14 might labour down the lengthy front straight, but the sweeping curves that feature across much of the rest of the lap should see Ricciardo and Verstappen in their element, especially in the super-long Turn 3 and the quick right flick of Turn 9 onto the back straight. Passing is notoriously difficult at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya and tyre debris off-line tends to shrink the racing line, but the Bulls should be quick enough in clean air to do some damage at a circuit that shapes as one of their most suitable for the season.

3. Making sense of the midfield
The top three teams are clearly the same as last year, but what have the first four races told us about the order of who follows them? Barcelona, as a track everyone is very familiar with, should help in sorting out the midfield minefield, with the identity of who is the next-best team seemingly switching by the race.

McLaren (fourth in the constructors’ championship with 36 points) lead the chase for now, but that’s largely on the back of Fernando Alonso being one of just three drivers in the field to score points at every race (Hamilton and Vettel, first and second in the championship, are the others).

The Spaniard always lifts to another level at home, but can he keep his 2018 form up against the likes of Renault (fifth, 35 points, and who have had both drivers in Q3 in all four races) and Force India (sixth, 16 points, and who had Sergio Perez on the podium in Baku)?

The other team to keep an eye on is Haas (eighth, 12 points), who could have had more points than that from either Romain Grosjean or Kevin Magnussen in Australia alone had both their pit stops not gone awry. Two points finishes from a possible eight (and Grosjean being just one of two drivers yet to score at all, along with Sergey Sirotkin of Williams) isn’t an accurate reflection of the American team’s pace, and Spain could be the start of them finishing where their speed suggests they should.

4. When is 1 worth more than 66?
When it comes to qualifying in Spain, that’s when. Sunday’s race is 66 laps long, but history suggests whoever has ‘1’ next to their name after qualifying 24 hours earlier is in the box seat to take the victory. More races are won from pole in Spain than anywhere (even Monaco), and with the current generation of fast-cornering cars, turbulent air and tyre marbles can turn the Spanish GP into a largely processional affair, one where the field can be strung out quickly. Last year’s one-on-one Battle of Barcelona between Hamilton and Vettel was both highly unusual and completely exhausting for its sheer intensity, but few remember that third-placed Ricciardo was the only other driver on the lead lap by the end, and he was a whopping 75 seconds adrift. We’ll know more about the true pace of all the cars after Sunday, but it’s hard to imagine Spain will serve up a race as compelling chaotic as Baku was, or build to a thrilling finale like Shanghai did.

5. The animals line up in pairs
With Catalunya being a track that rewards car pace more than allows individual drivers to shine, the grid can take on a ‘Noah’s Ark’ feel, the teams often lining up side-by-side based on the optimum performance of their machinery. Which means teammates can often set up next to one another for the long (740 metre) run the right-handed first corner, after which a switchback into Turn 2 always catches a few drivers out. If you’re a team principal, you could be forgiven for watching the first 30 seconds with your hands over your eyes …


10 fearless predictions for the F1 season

What our crystal ball is telling us about what will happen on four wheels in 2018, with one big asterisk …


Eight days of testing are in the rear-view mirror as the Formula One teams and personnel arrive in Melbourne for Sunday’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix, with something of a pecking order emerging after a pre-season held in rain, shine and snow (yes, really) at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya earlier this month.

Which means it’s time to take a brave pill and peer into the crystal ball to see what will happen in 2018. Who shines? Who stumbles? Where will the biggest driver rivalry be? Which grandee team will fall from grace? And is there anyone who can elbow their way into the equation to stop Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes winning both world championships again?

Here’s 10 cast-iron guarantees (well, nine at least) for Albert Park this Sunday and the 20 races to follow in F1’s 69th season.

1. Halo won’t be a talking point for long

No, really. Hear us out. Most drivers won’t say much publicly against the cockpit protection device that makes its race debut in Melbourne (Haas’ Kevin Magnussen aside, who raged against it in testing), and yes, it’s an inelegant solution to a problem that clearly needs addressing. Yes, there are serious visibility concerns for spectators to ascertain which of a team’s two drivers is in a car as it flashes past (expect the sport’s organisers to address that pronto with an edict that car numbers must be bigger to counter the lack of helmet recognition caused by the halo). But like anything new in F1, it’ll be abnormal until it isn’t, and before too long we’ll be talking about Mercedes vs Ferrari, which Red Bull driver rules the roost, how many laps McLaren has managed before breaking down and so on – regular F1 topics.

Is it ugly? Absolutely. Will drivers be harder to identify in Melbourne? Most certainly. Will we stop grouching about it? Daniel Ricciardo has some thoughts. “I think people are going to get used to the halo pretty quickly and we won’t talk about it for too long,” he wrote in his column for “Remember back in 2009, the year that Brawn won the championship, and the cars that year looked so different with the small rear wings, almost like F3 cars? People threw their hands up and talked about it a lot at the start, but then we all got used to it and just moved on.” We reckon he’s right. Even if we don’t like it.

2. Ferrari can’t win the constructors’ title

It’s been 10 years since the Prancing Horse won a teams’ title, and it won’t win this year’s one, either. The reason? You need two drivers capable of scoring big points to unseat Mercedes, and while Red Bull has them in Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, Ferrari simply doesn’t in Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. Raikkonen’s past four years at Ferrari have seen him finish 106 points behind teammate Fernando Alonso in 2014, 128 points adrift of Vettel (2015), 26 points behind Vettel (2016) and 112 points in arrears of the German last year. And, in case you’d forgotten (and you’d be forgiven), it’s five years since he last won a race (Australia 2013 for Lotus). The Finn is wildly popular with the fans, has world champion (2007) pedigree, offers invaluable technical feedback, and doesn’t rock the boat internally at Ferrari. All employable attributes. And none of which mean the Scuderia will be sailing to a constructors’ title this year, no matter how good the SF71H is.

3. Which ‘V’ will have more victories?

Will Vettel at Ferrari, or Verstappen at Red Bull win more races in 2018? Last year was 5-2 in the German’s favour, with Verstappen’s victories in Malaysia and Mexico coming in the latter half of the year when he finally had some luck with reliability. The Dutchman looks set to go up another level this year, and Vettel’s old team may be poised to present him with a two-pronged headache with Verstappen and Ricciardo likely to out-perform Raikkonen. Ferrari will likely be more reliable, but in a head-to-head fight, we’re predicting Verstappen, by a hair.

4. Renault will make podiums, plural

The French team hasn’t sniffed the top three since it returned to the sport as a fully-fledged constructor three years ago, but this has to be the year. A chassis that’s striking for its aerodynamic progress, momentum from late last year and two strong drivers in Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz makes us confident that there’ll be a podium photo or two with a yellow hue this year. For Hulkenberg, who holds the dubious record of most starts without a single top-three finish (135), it’ll be long, long overdue.

5. Force India will fall

The British-run Indian-owned team has been hugely impressive in the past two seasons, finishing fourth and as the unofficial ‘best of the rest’ behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. Pound for pound, Force India does the most with the least on the F1 grid, aided by a heady dose of Mercedes engine power. But this year shapes as the one where the team could slide, with Renault surging, McLaren given new life by jettisoning its troublesome Honda engines, and the likes of Toro Rosso and Haas making strides. The latter two teams look to be a step or two away from fourth, but we could see a world where Force India drops behind the bigger and wealthier Renault and McLaren outfits – which would likely mean the Sergio Perez/Esteban Ocon driver ‘partnership’ that produced several flashpoints last year could get really tense …

6. Standing starts after red flags will be dumped

This new rule probably won’t last long. In the event of a red flag stopping a race, the drivers will be led back onto the circuit behind the safety car, at which point they will line up on the grid in the order they were in when the red flag was thrown for a standing re-start. Exciting for TV and spectators trackside, sure, but Romain Grosjean was adamant that safety needs to be considered after the new system was trialled in testing in Barcelona, particularly if drivers are forced to stay on the same worn tyres they were on when the race was stopped. “In my experience I feel like it’s dangerous,” the Haas driver said, adding “it could be carnage” if the rule stayed as is. “Maybe the others don’t feel the same, but I don’t feel confident going with cold tyres,” he said. Expect the drivers to raise this issue well ahead of time this season, and a compromise to be reached.

7. McLaren will get it right, eventually

Yes, we saw the pre-season testing mileage stats that had McLaren last on the ‘laps completed’ board by some distance after problems that ranged from oil and hydraulic leaks, turbo failures and the engine cover being smouldered by the car’s exhaust. Yes, we know that McLaren’s horrendous pre-seasons of the past three years were a sign of what was to follow as a once-great team managed to only beat Sauber in the constructors’ championship last year. But the MCL33 isn’t slow, and when (note use of ‘when’) it runs properly, it can be a serious contender for fourth place in the teams’ title. Renault’s engine, by degrees, will surely be more reliable than the Honda that preceded it, and in Alonso, the team knows it has a driver who, when motivated, will haul a car into places it arguably shouldn’t be in. We’re backing them in to be a strong points finisher by the second half of the season, and Alonso snaffling a podium or two wouldn’t be a shock.

8. Williams’ decline will continue

Renault will rise, Toro Rosso are bullish, McLaren can hardly get worse and Force India will be a consistent presence in the midfield. Not everyone can improve, which leads us to Williams. Only Toro Rosso (with Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley) have less experience than Williams pair Lance Stroll (one season) and Sergey Sirotkin (rookie), and while the Russian is better than your average pay driver, you have to question the motivation behind his employment when data suggests he’s slower than the man he replaced, the retiring Felipe Massa (and that’s the 2017 Massa, not the near world champion Massa of a decade previously). The team has Mercedes power again, which is a plus, but after a conservative approach to pre-season testing that came after a fifth-place finish last year with 55 fewer points than the year before, is a slip to the bad old days (ninth in the constructors’ championship in 2013) on the cards?

9. Hamilton will win his fifth title

We’ll give you a minute to come up with an alternative world champion for this season. (Pause) No, we can’t think of one either. Mercedes’ pre-season confidence, Hamilton’s blazing form when it really mattered last year and a teammate in Bottas that doesn’t present the same challenges Nico Rosberg once did all adds up to five for us.

10. Where will Ricciardo be driving in 2019?

Speaking of Bottas, he might have as much to do with point 10 as point nine. Or maybe he won’t. Regardless, that giant asterisk we mentioned earlier? We’re using it here …

What do we know about the 2018 F1 season?

Testing is over and Australia is just a week away – here’s five pointers the pre-season has suggested as we count down to lights out in Melbourne.


The phoney war is over – that phoney war being Formula One pre-season testing, where fresh liveries and new faces in new places occupy our attention initially, after which point F1 fans and insiders scratch their heads trying to work out who is fast, who isn’t, and why.

So what did eight days of running at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya really tell us about the 21-race season that’s to follow? We’ll get back to those eight days later on, but with the season-opening Australian Grand Prix a little over a week away, we can paint something of a picture before the lights go out for 2018.

Here’s some of what we can deduce from testing – and a few pointers of what to look out for when the new season is officially ‘go’ in Melbourne on March 25.

Silver still holds sway

Don’t make any rash predictions on the season ahead based on testing, common convention suggests. You never know what fuel loads teams are running, tyre choice can make a fast car look slow, teams with plenty of spare space for sponsor stickers can be tempted to chase a headline time to squeeze some extra cash out of a potential backer, and so on. Don’t do it …

So we will. Mercedes has dominated F1 since the advent of the V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014, and testing presented few signs that anything will change any time soon. How can we tell? Something Mercedes didn’t do, and one thing they did.

Looking purely at the overall lap times, seeing Lewis Hamilton in eighth and teammate Valtteri Bottas 10th is quite a shock, until you consider how the Silver Arrows approached Barcelona. Consider, for sake of comparison, McLaren, who came into 2018 testing off a horror season last year and finished the test with the third-fastest time overall with Fernando Alonso. The devil in the detail? McLaren did 99 laps at the final test on the hypersoft tyre, Pirelli’s quickest rubber for 2018, while Hamilton and Bottas didn’t complete a single lap on the pink-walled tyre, and did more than half of their laps across the two tests on the medium tyre, suggesting there’s pace to burn when they fit the right rubber for qualifying in Melbourne. Pirelli’s estimate of the time gain when switching from mediums to hypersoft? North of two seconds a lap …

Another indication of Mercedes’ confidence came in comments from technical director James Allison, who, while explaining the differences between last year’s car and this one, suggested the 2017 Merc would be “blown away” and “utterly hopeless” compared to its successor. Let’s not forget that the W08, last year’s car, won 12 of the 20 races, took pole position 15 times, finished on the podium 26 times of a maximum 40 and won the constructors’ championship – for the fourth year in a row – by a massive 146 points. Allison’s comments could have barely been scarier if they were accompanied by the theme music from ‘Jaws’ …

The rest of the pack will move forwards – progress in F1 is a constant – but to expect anyone else other than Mercedes to start the year as favourites is foolish.

Asterisks are still alive

Ah, the old game of posting a fast lap time and then adding an asterisk to it as soon as you get out of the car. Sebastian Vettel posted the fastest time of testing (1min 17.182secs, breaking the circuit record), while Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen was just 0.039secs slower on the final day, the Prancing Horse pair six-tenths of a second faster than the next-best runner (Alonso’s McLaren). So, Seb, you’d be pretty pumped up about that, then? Er, no. “I think it’s the wrong conclusion to look at the timesheet, there’s more to it than a good lap,” he said with a convincingly furrowed brow in Barcelona. “We still need to work on the performance and the feeling. I think today the track was quite fast, we ran a little bit different program to others. There are some things we still need to get on top of.”

The reality is that Ferrari aren’t Mercedes-level fast – nobody is – but are part of the top three along with Red Bull as they were last year. How good could they be? It’s hard to know, and neither driver is telling …

For feedback purposes, we preferred Max Verstappen’s take as testing came to a close, the Red Bull racer reasonably untroubled by finishing 20th of the 22 drivers who turned a lap in the pre-season. How does the RB14 feel compared to its predecessor, in which he took two wins late in the 2017 season?

“I know it feels faster,” he grinned, clearly playing along.

“The car feels good. Everyone of course wants to know where we think we are in relation to our opposition, but honestly it’s impossible to tell until we get to Australia, as you don’t know what everyone else is doing.

“It’s still all to be discovered.”

Renault to the four

No, that’s not a typo; we mentioned earlier that this year’s quickest trio of teams appears to be the same as last year’s, but the picture of who will be crowned king of F1’s unofficial second division appears to have a yellow hue, with Renault looking to have made giant strides over the off-season to challenge Force India’s recent hold over fourth place in the constructors’ race.

Carlos Sainz (fifth-fastest overall) and Nico Hulkenberg (11th) were relatively happy with Renault’s pace in Barcelona, and while the team suffered with gearbox gremlins on the final day of running to leave some question-marks hanging ahead of Australia, the tighter aerodynamic packaging of the RS18 was notable compared to its predecessor, the team’s chief technical officer Bob Bell admitting that Renault had “pushed like hell” with the new chassis in an attempt to take the next step.

Recent history suggests engine reliability is always a question with Renault, but with arguably the strongest driver line-up of the midfield teams and a renewed focus in year three of its return to F1 as a full factory team, the French outfit could be flying early in the season.

McLaren are out of excuses

You’d have been forgiven for having flashbacks to 2017 (and, to be fair, the two years before that) in Barcelona when testing was regularly stopped for stricken McLarens being brought back to the pits on the back of a flatbed truck, but this year, there’s no Honda for the team to point the finger at, the British squad aligning itself with Renault power for 2018.

A car that has, in the words of team racing director Eric Boullier, an “ambitious design” was plagued by myriad problems across the eight days in Spain, and the team managed just 599 laps in all between Alonso and teammate Stoffel Vandoorne, nearly 100 fewer than the next-worst team, Haas, and 441 less than Mercedes at the top of the tree (remember what we said about that ‘Jaws’ music?)

The MCL33 – when it works – is quick enough, but would you be comfortable predicting both orange cars will last long enough to see the chequered flag in Melbourne, a bumpy, technical street circuit that will undoubtedly be harder on machinery than a resurfaced Barcelona, which resembled a billiard table for pre-season testing? With Honda getting off to a strong start in its new partnership with Toro Rosso (only Mercedes and Ferrari’s drivers managed more laps than STR duo Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley), McLaren only have themselves to blame if things go south this time.

Testing in Europe is useless

Remember the eight days of testing we mentioned earlier? It seems ludicrous that a sport as sophisticated as F1 allows for eight days of what is, effectively, pre-season training (your local park football team probably does more than that), and as preparations for a 21-race season go, eight days seems woefully inadequate. Throw in the weather to hit Barcelona in the first week (track temperatures didn’t hit double-figures on the second day, and the third day was a complete write-off after snow), and you wonder why F1 keeps persisting with scheduling testing solely in countries where weather can scupper the best-laid plans of a billion-dollar business.

Taking a leaf from MotoGP – which ran its pre-season tests in Malaysia, Thailand and Qatar this year – would be a sensible decision. Barcelona doesn’t need to be abandoned, but what about adding, say, Bahrain to the mix? No snow there …

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.

What F1 fans really want

FerrariCrowdMore competition, greater fan engagement, a relaxed rulebook and a return to a tyre ‘war’; they’re just some of the key recommendations from an extensive fan survey into Formula One conducted by the group that represents the men behind the wheel, the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association.

At the Monaco Grand Prix in May, the GPDA launched an online survey to discover what F1 fans want for the future, proving a rare opportunity for a representative voice to be heard for those who follow the sport.

The survey was completed by more than 217,000 fans, with participants coming from 194 countries. The highest number came from the United Kingdom; Australia ranked seventh in participation and ahead of Japan, Italy and Brazil, key F1 markets with significantly larger populations.

Who are Formula One’s fans?
If you’re 37 years old and have been following F1 for more than a decade, then you’re an average fan based on the results of the survey. Half of the respondents were between the ages of 25-44, while 25 per cent of those surveyed said F1 was their favourite sport.

One in five fans have been to a Grand Prix in the past 12 months, while away from the track, the increasing trend of F1 moving to pay-TV in several key markets has changed the way people consume it. Approximately 90 per cent of fans watch races on TV, but more than 50 per cent haven’t watched races live since they moved away from free-to-air.

The TV trends are also reflected in an increased online following; more fans (55 per cent to 50) say websites are now their primary source of information rather than TV, and approximately 45 per cent watch races online, 30 per cent watching on demand at a time of their choosing.

How do fans feel about F1?
While the appreciation for the technology arms race that has always typified F1 remains, F1 fans aren’t as positive about the sport as they were in 2010, when the now-defunct Formula One Teams Association embarked on the most recent comparable global survey. Less than 10 per cent of those surveyed feel F1 is healthier now than it was in 2010, with cost and predictable racing cited as two of the three key factors.

With Mercedes winning 23 of the 27 Grands Prix ahead of this weekend’s race at Silverstone since the advent of the V6 1.6-litre turbo hybrid era, 89 per cent of fans say F1 needs to be more competitive; on a related point, 85 per cent believe the sport needs to do more to obtain and retain new fans to counter Mercedes’ domination and a saturated sports market featuring more choice for the armchair viewer than ever.

Six in 10 respondents still see F1 as the “pinnacle of motorsport”, but the perception that today’s grid doesn’t feature the best drivers is increasing; 88 per cent believe F1 should feature the best 20 drivers in the world, but less than half (45 per cent) believe it actually does. More than half (56 per cent) of those surveyed feel today’s Formula One cars appear too easy to drive.

Who are the star attractions?
Kimi Raikkonen has been roundly thrashed since his return to Ferrari by Fernando Alonso and now Sebastian Vettel, but the survey revealed the Finn to be the most popular driver in F1. The oldest driver in the sport at 35, Raikkonen rated ahead of Alonso (second) and another 30-something in his McLaren teammate Jenson Button (third); neither reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton, nor the driver who won the four titles before Hamilton, Vettel, could crack the popularity podium.

Ferrari hasn’t won a title since Raikkonen’s 2007 success, but remains the most popular team; the Prancing Horse topped the ‘favourite teams’ tally ahead of British duo McLaren and Williams. Just one in 10 respondents follow only one team, while one-third of those surveyed support more than one team and driver.

Cars from Michael Schumacher’s red reign at Ferrari in the 2000s were considered the best-looking F1 machines of all; 32 per cent of respondents rated the cars from the ‘noughties’ as their favourite. The current iteration of F1 cars ranked just fifth on the list of seven decades of machinery (10 per cent), ahead of only the 1960s and ’50s.

What of the future?
F1 fans gave a resounding thumbs-down to gimmicky solutions to what are seen as deep-rooted problems. Radical suggestions like reverse-grid races (advocated by just 18 per cent of those surveyed), success ballast as a handicap system to add extra weight to front-running cars to slow them down (26 per cent) and calls for three-car teams or fewer teams running more cars (14 per cent) received a lukewarm response. The Drag Reduction System (DRS), in place since 2011 as an aid to promote overtaking, has lost favour, just 40 per cent believing it improves racing.

Eight in 10 respondents were keen on a return to competing tyre companies in F1, last seen with Bridgestone and Michelin in 2006, while 60 per cent want in-race refuelling reinstated for the first time since 2009.

Skyrocketing budgets also have the fans concerned; 54 per cent believe a budget cap should be introduced and policed, with 68 per cent believing running costs are too high and are a threat to F1’s future.

A majority of fans (74 per cent) also believe F1’s rulebook should be relaxed to promote greater diversity between the cars.

The sound of Formula One engines, the subject of much debate since the normally-aspirated V8 powerplants were shelved at the end of 2013, remains a talking point, with nearly three-quarters of respondents saying the tune of F1 is important to them.

What happens next?
Alex Wurz, the chairman of the GPDA, said the drivers’ group would analyse the results from the survey before approaching F1 chiefs with their recommendations.

In the executive summary of the survey, Wurz wrote: “More than ever, F1 needs to feature the best drivers, and you (the fans) are looking to drivers to take a lead in engaging with fans to revitalise the sport; drive technical and sporting change to improve the spectacle and appeal of F1.”

Originally published as ‘The fans have spoken; GPDA survey results’ here