Last year’s Formula One World Championship was by no means a classic. This was largely thanks to a second year of domination by the Mercedes team and a focussed Lewis Hamilton clinching his third title with three races remaining. Only Ferrari saved the day for the fans and hard-pressed media thanks to three unexpected victories for four-times World Champion Sebastian Vettel.
While Mercedes and Ferrari won all the races, a resurgent but somehow hesitant Williams emerged best-of-the-rest, while the remaining competition spent much of the season in disarray both on and off track. Red Bull fell out very publicly with engine supplier Renault, McLaren discovered that Honda had forgotten how competitive contemporary Formula One really is, and Lotus limped through its final debt-ridden season under owners who unimpressed since the day they entered the sport.
So what of 2016?
Well two pieces of good news for those who would like to see Lewis Hamilton properly challenged. The first is that if team mate Nico Rosberg can continue the momentum of having thrashed the World Champion during the last three races of the season, we may have a proper inter-team duel at Mercedes. The second concerns Ferrari which, having reversed the decline of 2014, looks much stronger, genuinely competitive and very happy with an upbeat Vettel as team leader. If the Italian team can repeat the kind of step it made in 2015, Mercedes might well have something to worry about.
Down at McLaren there are lots of positive noises about Honda making big strides for this year, having recognised and dealt with the deficiencies of both its internal combustion engine and exhaust-driven heat energy recovery systems. We shall see. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and engine companies seldom get fully on top of fundamental architectural, design and technology problems during a 16 week off-season. Even if they were on the case since last summer.
Having tried to divorce Renault and run off with Mercedes, Red Bull Racing discovered that Mercedes didn’t love them after all, and has been forced to make the walk of shame back home. Renault, feeling scorned, has responded by ratcheting up the costs of its engines and ‘debranding’ them. Add to that the ending of a substantial sponsorship from Renault-Nissan Group brand Infiniti, and it has been a painful period for the Red Bull camp. They now find themselves with a car powered by a watch, having sold the branding of the Renault engines to LVMH’s Tag Heuer.
As a fan of Red Bull Racing, however, it is to be hoped that having put the politics and commercial infighting of 2015 behind them, the Milton Keynes team can knuckle down and do what they are best at; embarrassing the car manufacturers by producing cars that have for years possessed among the very best chassis and aero characteristics.
Lotus, thankfully, has been sold to Renault. Great for the Enstone team, good news for Renault and a source of enormous relief and satisfaction for the whole of F1. I believe that Renault will not only make great strides as a team, but begin to turn the corner as a engine supplier – watch this space.
Renault has a terrific heritage in this sport and, having recognised that being an engine supplier can be a thankless task, becoming captain of their own ship is the right move. I can sympathise with Renault’s plight, having experienced at Cosworth what it is like to have teams happy to take credit when their car is quick, and blame the engine supplier when it’s slow. Such is life for a supplier.
Of the others, Williams will have to dig deep in order to retain that hard won third place in the Constructors Championship, for even they will realise that their good results were due in part to the problems affecting so many of their natural rivals. Force India was a marvel last season, taking 5th and embarrassing many of the great teams, a performance worthy of their forebears in the team once known as Jordan Grand Prix.
Sauber will likely continue to hold the lower-midfield slot but will have to watch out for a Manor team which is going to benefit from stronger technical leadership not to mention decent engines from Mercedes.
Which leaves us with Toro Rosso and the new American team, Haas F1. I have intentionally kept these to the last because both teams excite and could cause real upsets in 2016.
Toro Rosso showed an impressive turn of speed with its 2015 car, and the novice driver combination of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr was a revelation. If for no other reason, watch Formula One in 2016 because you will witness the continued rise of Verstappen. The 18 year old Dutchman has excited even the most jaded within the F1 circus, while Sainz’s refusal to be overshadowed by his team mate marks him out as a man who has inherited the daunting competitive spirit of his World Champion rally-driving father.
Haas F1 may be based in Charlotte, North Carolina, but under the leadership of experienced Italian team principal Guenther Steiner it has put together an impressive package for its first year in F1. With a satellite facility in Banbury, UK, the team is making the most of being able to combine Europe’s F1 engineering talent pool with the manufacturing capabilities of Haas Automation.
It has also partnered with Ferrari, who will essentially provide everything apart from the chassis and bodywork; it is worth considering Haas as being the first of a new generation of ‘B’ team. With the enormously talented Romain Grosjean leading the team alongside under rated Esteban Gutierrez, this is a team worth a bet when it comes to scoring points and causing an upset.
If that happens, Formula One in 2016 could introduce us to a much needed boost for the sport in the United States, for if there is one thing we know about American sports fans it is the extent to which they will get behind a home-grown challenger. Who knows, in Haas F1 US auto racing fans may find renewed interest in racing cars that turn right as well as left, and don’t need banking to stop them flying off the road.