I have to say, I’ve been looking forward to writing this post ever since the checkered flag fell in Abu Dhabi a few months ago. All around the world, motorsport seasons are beginning to roll into life. First we had the Rolex 24 at Daytona, then the Daytona 500 and the Clipsal 500 the weekend before last, and now it’s the turn of F1 to take centre stage as the 2016 season roars into life at the Australian Grand Prix. Oddly, I think this season there are almost as many knowns as there are unknowns but there are plenty of new arrivals and chassis developments to make for an uncertain few days before Sunday. With V8SC supporting F1 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday it means for another sleepless weekend here in the UK, but I don’t think anyone could doubt that it’s going to be worth every single minute.
Below, you can find four of the biggest questions I think remain unanswered before the Australian Grand Prix.
Who has the edge, Hamilton or Rosberg?
This is a question that I honestly have no idea how to answer. It’s been suggested hundreds of times before that Hamilton may have taken his foot off the pedal a little after his title win in Austin, and that may be true, but would that account for the whole gap which suddenly appeared between him and Rosberg? I don’t think there’s any doubt that 2016 is a critical year for Nico. His Mercedes contract is up at the end of the year and whilst I think it would be a very harsh decision to get rid of him, with the likes of Max Verstappen waiting in the wings, you wouldn’t bet against it. F1 teams are rarely known for standing still and resting on their laurels.
Rosberg is Mercedes through and through, and having been there from the start in 2010, is no doubt integrated extremely well at Brackley. But, and its a big but, it’s critical that Rosberg beats Hamilton in 2016, or at least takes the championship fight down to the very last lap of the very last race. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking Hamilton has a slight advantage over Rosberg when it comes to pure speed, especially after he gained the upper hand in qualifying early last year. However Rosberg needs to capitalise on Hamilton’s occasional lapses of concentration and moments where he inevitably pushes the car a little over the limit if he’s to really put up a title fight and stay ahead of Vettel and Ferrari.
I guess by the end of Saturday we’ll have a clearer idea about this one, and with Mercedes giving both their drivers more freedom to race, and the restrictions of team radio we could be in for a titanic battle between F1’s worst best of friends. If Rosberg can keep his cool and make calm, measured decisions then he could have a powerful weapon in his fight against Hamilton. I often think the battle between Hamilton and Rosberg can be likened to the hare and the tortoise, although this isn’t by any means suggesting that Rosberg is slow! I know that time and time again Lewis has proved that he can juggle his jet set lifestyle, but surely there must come a point where he burns himself out?
Just where exactly will Mclaren fit?
By their own admission, McLaren Honda failed to compete their full winter testing programme and have promised more performance in Australia. But so has every other team, so will Mclaren really make any inroads into the top five or six? I wish they could, but I can’t see it happening. I think we’ll definitely see a marked improvement on last year (quite honestly anything would be) but what I do admire about McLaren is the way they have kept their toys firmly in the pram, unlike Red Bull.
**Cue small rant about Red Bull**
Mateschitz has yet again issued another quit threat and quite frankly I feel his attitude is quickly becoming disgraceful. It was only two/three seasons ago that we were reaching the end of a four year period of Red Bull dominance (sort of) so to be threatening to quit the sport after just one (lets not forget they won three races in 2014) comparatively difficult season is nothing short of ridiculous. Something which will certainly be on my wish list for 2017 is for someone to come and buy out Red Bull and Toro Rosso, and rid the paddock of Mateschitz’s constant moaning. At the end of the day, he can blame Renault all he wants but I didn’t hear him making any complaints when Red Bull were winning. Mateschitz is a brilliant oxymoron (and also an actual moron), in the case that he’s helping and destroying Red Bull’s reputation at the same time. Well done Dietrich, you’ve achieved something quite remarkable there, and the more he complains, the more damage to does to Red Bull’s F1 legacy and their reputation as “good sports”.
**Phew, rant over. But I think it needed to be said**
With Jenson entering what surely is his last season in F1, and Fernando Alonso potentially entering his penultimate it will be important for McLaren to make significant progress this year. 2017 was always their target for a championship, and a shot at next years title is still within reach however I don’t think anyone at Woking or Honda will settle for a repeat of 2015. Whether McLaren can be regular points finishers or not in 2016 largely depends not just on Honda, but on just how much progress Renault can make with their power unit over the course of the season and it will be fascinating to see where McLaren, Renault and Red Bull are come the end of the season.
My guess for now is that the midfield will be Force India/Toro Rosso, Red Bull, McLaren followed by Renault but I’m expecting Button and Alonso to be much closer to the front by the final leg of the season. They have to be.
Sauber vs Manor vs Haas. Who’ll come out on top
I think this is a tough one, especially at the start of the season where all teams will be dogged by reliability issues. The first few flyaway races give (what we suspect to be) F1’s bottom three teams a real chance to score some surprise points as faster outfits struggle to get their cars to the end of races. Come the mid season I think all three of Sauber, Manor and Haas will struggle to keep pace, development wise with the other midfield teams to banking any potential points in the early rounds would be a great boost heading into the mid season, especially for Haas and Manor.
That being said, I’ve been extremely impressed by Haas so far, so maybe they will be able to keep up in the development race? In Grosjean they have a mature, capable and experienced driver who is certainly capable of scoring big points. Maybe the Frenchman will be able to carry Haas through their debut season and be the team leader they will so desperately need.
I’m going to go with Sauber just ahead of a very closely matched Manor and Haas for the first few races of the season, but think Grosjean could certainly spring a surprise points finish.
Big Year for Kimi
Like Button and Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen is another driver in the twilight years of his F1 career and if he is thoroughly beaten by his teammate again this season, I can’t see the iceman staying in F1. Raikkonen has been soundly beaten by both Alonso and Vettel in the last two seasons when the car was supposedly not to his liking, and its painful to see a driver who was once untouchable struggle so much. Raikkonen is a mere shadow of the driver he was during the mid 2000’s and even on his return to Lotus in 2012 he looked like he had fight left in him. However, the last two seasons have been a far cry from the Raikkonen we all once knew and I hope that he can really get to grips with the 2016 Ferrari, so his career doesn’t end on a whimper.
It’s pretty clear that Kimi ‘s role this season will be to support Vettel, and I’ve mentioned a few times now that Ferrari will need him to be taking points of Hamilton and Rosberg on a regular basis if they are to win their first drivers title since 2007 (funnily enough that was Kimi Raikkonen). Pace for pace I think Vettel does now have the edge on Raikkonen, but if the Ferrari is a good as we hope it is then a splattering of podiums over the course of the season should be an achievable goal for Kimi.