2016 Formula One Season: midseason musings
And some thoughts on the 2017 drivers market
When reflecting on the 2016 season thus far, there really is no other place to start than with the reigning and almost certainly recurring world champions. While some may find it all a tad dull, one can’t deny that Mercedes are doing another fine job this season. For one race spectators could hope that the competition had actually closed the gap to Mercedes, but after Melbourne the German organisation simply ran off and never looked back. On the driver front it is a bit more of a mixed bag: while Nico Rosberg started remarkably well with four wins on the trot, he has been in his more usual form of late. In other words: he is consistently losing ground to Lewis Hamilton again and has by now slipped to second in the world championship, after leading by more than 40 points at one stage. Hamilton suffered all the bad luck you could suffer in those early races, but now seems to have found his mojo again. Moreover, he has resorted to his usual psychological warfare against Rosberg, a proven tactic in recent years. My money thus remains on title prolongation for Hamilton, but on the other hand, Rosberg did manage to defy my pre-season predictions by securing a new two-year contract at Mercedes.
Another organisation that will be rather pleased at this stage of the season is Red Bull Racing. Nobody expected much from the team after a lacklustre 2015 and a late-sealed engine deal for a rebadged Renault power plant. Yet the team has by all standards made the best of the situation, and then some. Daniel Ricciardo is only getting better and better, while the notorious ruthlessness of Helmut Marko was once again proven right with the promotion of Dutch teenage sensation Max Verstappen. With the addition of Verstappen, Red Bull has arguably the best driver pairing of the top teams: they are incredibly evenly matched (unlike their peers at Mercedes and Ferrari) and Christian Horner does not have the headaches of Toto Wolff caused by two drivers that obviously can’t stand each other. Add to that the popularity of both Ricciardo and Verstappen and the related commercial benefits and opportunities, and things are looking decidely bright for the team. Now all Red Bull needs to do is improve on the strategy side of things, because strategic misses cost the team some good results (Ricciardo in Monaco, Verstappen in Hungary). Once those issues are solved, Red Bull should grow from strength to strength during the remainder of 2016 and in seasons to come (assuming they settle their somewhat uncertain engine situation).
Speaking of Red Bull-sponsored talent: Carlos Sainz must ask himself by now where exactly his future lies. Outshone by Verstappen last year and thus losing out on a promotion early in this season, Sainz took the opportunity of measuring himself against a new teammate and with success. He has absolutely dominated Danill Kvyat (see below) and on current form, Sainz deserves to move on sooner rather than later. That he was linked to a move to Ferrari was not surprising and he must have been gutted when the Italian squad chose to retain Raikkonen. However, Sainz did not allow that disappointment to affect his performances and the young Spaniard looks readier than ever for a top seat. The problem is: there aren’t any available for the time being. Red Bull is unlikely to drop Ricciardo and Verstappen any time soon, while a Ferrari or Mercedes seat will not open up before 2018. For now, Sainz has little option but to stay put at Toro Rosso and continue impressing.
While Sainz has been strong again, he is the exception to the rule when it comes to Toro Rosso as a whole. The Red Bull junior squad planned for another season of relative stability in which Verstappen and Sainz would push each other to new heights. That all changed after only four races, as Verstappen was promoted and Toro Rosso was reunited with the now-disgraced Daniil Kvyat. The idea was for Kvyat to regain some momentum after a rough start to the season in the mothership. It’s safe to say that didn’t happen. The young Russian has been totally eclipsed by his Spanish colleague (since they became teammates, Sainz scored 26 championship points against a paltry 2 points for Kvyat) and in Germany, Kvyat seemed close to tears in media interviews following a disastrous qualifying performance.
Rumours are now swirling that Kvyat will be replaced by Red Bull protege and GP2 driver Pierre Gasly, maybe already this season. Kvyat has responded to those rumours with lots of swear words, but that only seems to underline how powerless he is in the face of almost certain defeat. To be fair, the Toro Rosso seems to be a more tricky car to drive this season and the team has lost some ground to its immediate competitors. But those are the circumstances in which Kvyat should have used his relative experience to drive the team forward. Instead Sainz is clearly top dog within Toro Rosso. On current form it is almost unfathomable that Kvyat will remain in F1 in 2017.
Optimists could argue that initially, there were plenty of reasons to be hopeful about Ferrari. The team started very well in Melbourne, only to ruin its own chances of victory by a disastrous race strategy. Yet the pace seemed to be there and lo and behold, even Kimi Raikkonen turned up this season to fight for podiums and wins. And then something happened on the way to heaven. It is difficult to pinpoint one factor that has caused Ferrari’s fall from grace; rather, the Scuderia is suffering from a plethora of ills. Reliability is sub-par, Sebastian Vettel seems to be having something of an off-year and strategy-wise the team is all over the place at times: the fact that Ferrari honestly thought it was fighting Verstappen in Hockenheim was a good example. The bottom line is that at this moment, Ferrari seems to have lost its second place in the pecking order. While Red Bull is on a clear upward trajectory, Ferrari is slipping backwards and can only count itself somewhat lucky that Williams has the same problem.
Like Ferrari, Williams has a disappointing season and is getting worse rather than better: instead of snapping at Red Bull’s heels, it is now desperately fighting to stay ahead of Force India. Based on the evidence from the last four races, in which no Williams finished higher than ninth, they are at risk of failing that objective. Valtteri Bottas has been reliable as usual, but he is clearly frustrated with the team’s lack of progress and the at times questionable and defensive race strategy. Like Sainz, he was also named as a candidate to partner Vettel at Ferrari, but with that opportunity gone, he too is a bit stuck. Felipe Massa started the season decently, but his performances have fallen off a cliff in the second quarter of the season. He hasn’t finished better than 10th since Monaco and has been unable to close the pace gap with Bottas. For 2017 Williams might do well to replace Massa with that other veteran, Jenson Button, or go for fresh blood in the form of Perez.
In terms of budget Force India has a lot less firing power than the four teams ahead of it, but the squad has been making the most of the possibilities presented to it. Hence it is now for the first time seriously snapping at the heels of the big boys. As in 2015, Sergio Perez has been leading the attack for the British-Indian team in spectacular fashion, with two podium finishes in Monaco and Baku the highlights. Nico Hulkenberg’s season thus far has also been very much like 2015: decent performances, diligently collecting points, but without ever raising too many eyebrows. Still, Force India will and should be more than pleased with the results so far. If it maintains these levels of performance, it might very well end the season in fourth. That would be very much unlike 2015: in fact, it would constitute the team’s best ever season.
For McLaren, the main conclusion after twelve races is: what a difference a year makes. A year ago it seemed like Fernando Alonso rather than Jenson Button was ready to bid Formula One farewell, so dispirited was the Spaniard by the never-ending gremlins. But fast-forward one year, and suddenly things are looking up for the Woking squad. Alonso and Button are regular point scorers, the Honda engine has made leaps forward in terms of reliability and over time McLaren should become a front runner once again. There is simply too much experience and quality in the McLaren-Honda combination. For this season, coming sixth in the constructors’ championship should be the target and given their current form, that is more than feasible.
Nevertheless, team chief Ron Dennis does have a luxury problem to deal with this fall: who to race in 2017? Alonso is already under contract for next season, but Button is not. I earlier described him as Formula 1’s Gary Lineker, in that he simply does not seem to get older or worse for wear, and McLaren would certainly not suffer if it decided to retain its current driver pairing. The problem is that Belgian wunderkind Stoffel Vandoorne is waiting in the wings. Vandoorne has agreed to sit out this season and keep himself entertained in Japan for the time being, but another year on the sidelines will be unacceptable for the record-winning GP2 star. In other words: either Dennis retires Button/loans out Vandoorne, or he risks losing one of the future stars of Formula One. All things considered, I’d say it is time for a changing of the guard. With Vandoorne, McLaren has a potential future world champion under contract, and it would be foolish to lose him.
At Renault, team boss Cyril Abiteboul is having similar considerations to deal with. The French equipe as a whole can not (and certainly will not) be satisfied with its pace thus far. The car does seem to be rather reliable, which is a plus, but both in light of its heritage and its ambitions Renault will want to move upwards as soon as possible. Hence, big chances are afoot and Abiteboul seems to be considering a complete overhaul on the driver side. While he has said publicly he is “not writing off” his current line-up for 2017, that is hardly a vote of confidence. Instead, he has played up the prospect of emulating Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel — a driver that grows with the team and brings it to championship-winning form. Initially, it seemed like its French reserve driver, the incredibly promising Esteban Ocon, was being prepared for a race seat with regular appearances in Friday practice. But his recent move to Manor has made that slightly more complicated (see below). Instead, Renault is now strongly linked to both Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez, both of whom might see a move to the French team as an attractive career switch as the full power of Renault Sport is unleashed going forward.
In summary: this season seems rather lost (Renault is kind of stuck in ninth place in the constructors’ table), but only a fool would bank against L’Equipe and that rather fantastic-looking yellow livery moving up the grid in years to come. I could see Kevin Magnussen getting another year to prove his worth, seeing that he has been giving his best in sub-par material and his points-winning finish in Russia was one of the few highlights. At the same time, the Renault journey will likely end for Jolyon Palmer after this season. The Brit is a fine driver (you don’t just win a GP2 title), but he has looked vulnerable ever since the season started. Renault technically never signed him, since his contract was inherited from Lotus. Thus Palmer had to impress from race one in order to stand a chance at keeping his seat. It’s safe to say that he hasn’t. More often than not beaten by Magnussen in terms of pace, Palmer has made quite a few mistakes and caused more damage than his Danish team mate.
Moving on to the only newcomer on the grid, one can only conclude that Haas has already now passed its debut season with flying colors. As I argued before, it has been smart in exploiting the regulations to the maximum and 28 points at the half-way point of the season is a massive achievement. In many ways, Haas’ debut season reminds a lot of Stewart Grand Prix’s first year in 1997: the team does nothing outright spectacular, but is solidly finding its footing without embarrassing itself. Much of that has been down to Romain Grosjean, who has been invaluable to the team’s development. He is known for his good technical knowledge and ability to give clear feedback, qualities that are incredibly important for a team at Haas’ stage of development.
On the other side of the pitbox it has been a more mixed picture. Esteban Gutierrez has admittedly suffered more in terms of reliability than his French colleague, but overall he has had trouble keeping pace with Grosjean. While he has shown improvement in the last few races, he will have to have a stellar second half if he is to aspire to a second year at Haas. Granted, he has the backing of Ferrari and some Mexican moneymen, but Ferrari has also been pushing its development driver Charles Leclerc. The young Monegask has been making a number of appearances for Haas already in Friday practice and could very well find himself racing for Haas in 2017. That would leave Gutierrez with the respectable option of becoming the successor to Luca Badoer and Marc Gene as Ferrari’s development driver.
Like Haas, the semi-newcomers at Manor (seriously, the team look nothing like the also-rans of the Marussia era) will be equally pleased with their first half of the season. Pascal Wehrlein is living up to the promise he has shown in years past, and his stellar drive in Austria gave the team its first point and lifted it above Sauber in the championship. As was to be expected, Rio Haryanto has mostly played second fiddle to Wehrlein, but the Indonesian was never beaten by much and his overall performance has been above my and many others’ expectations. However, his backers have decided against funding his drive beyond the first twelve races, meaning that Haryanto has had to give up his seat.
For Manor, this has been something of a blessing. It is no secret that Haryanto was the spiritual successor to Pastor Maldonado and was never picked primarily for his talent. However, with the arrival of Esteban Ocon for the second half of the year, the team will now field not just one but two Mercedes juniors. The two will likely face stiff competition in each other and thus drive themselves and the team forward. Do not be surprised if Manor pick up a few more points before the flag drops in Abu Dhabi, especially on tracks where it benefits from the power of the Mercedes engine (Spa, Monza and Mexico City come to mind). Continuation of the Wehrlein-Ocon pairing is probably a good bet for 2017, unless Perez and his Mexican backers decide to seek greener pastures beyond Force India. In that case, one of the two Mercedes youngsters might very well be promoted in that direction. In other words: Wehrlein and Ocon have plenty to drive for.
Finally there is Sauber. Before the season I predicted that like in 2015, Sauber would likely start strongly, score some points and then slip towards the back of the grid. Sadly enough, the team didn’t even have the ability to book some good results early on. Thus far, 2016 is even worse than the disastrous 2014 season: no points, mostly beaten by Renault and increasingly under fire from Manor. You could argue that Marcus Ericsson has been the stronger driver this season, with Felipe Nasr decidedly average compared to 2015. But when you’re starting 21st and 22nd, really, who is counting? An upswing should be on the horizon now that Sauber has new ownership (rumoured to be linked to Ericsson’s Swedish financiers) and is out of dire financial straits, but surely any turnaround will take time. And with Manor significantly improving its driver line-up, things are bound to get tougher rather than easier for Sauber in the remainder of 2016.