On the eve of what could be a fascinating and revealing second week of pre-season testing, here is my attempt to decipher what F1’s pecking order will look like in 2017. Given that these early predictions are based on what was seemingly an unrepresentative first test, the contents of this article could be a mile away from the order we have after qualifying in Melbourne.
At least then I will have demonstrated the unpredictability of F1. Like any good armchair pundit hoping to predict the future, my excuses are in early.
Nevertheless, here is my 2017 predicted pecking order…
With an outstanding 2593 kilometers covered and two race simulations completed within the first week, Mercedes are once again the stand-out performers. The juggernaut seems to have been unperturbed by the regulation change that cynics would say was intended to destabilise them.
Both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas have demonstrated impressive pace in the opening days to match their mileage and despite an electrical glitch on Thursday morning, their W08 has been ultra-reliable.
Whether this near bullet-proof reliability can be maintained when their powerunit is turned up to the most aggressive modes remains to be seen. Suspicions are surfacing that dyno testing may have revealed some frailties when the engine is set to “v-max,” but for now at least, Mercedes seem to be at their brilliant best.
Where do Ferrari really sit? On the basis of last week, it seems that their 2017 package is every bit as strong as that of the champions, with Kimi Raikkonen having set the benchmark time on two of the four days, while Sebastian Vettel’s best time of the week was a mere two-tenths adrift of Bottas’, despite the German running the soft compound versus the Finn’s ultrasoft.
However, Ferrari are kings of the ‘false dawn.’ Its important to remember how fast they were in testing ahead of their winless 2016 campaign.
3. Red Bull
While Ferrari may have already shown their hand, Red Bull have most certainly kept their cards close to their chest so far. Fans were expecting to see a radical RB13, with winglets galore, whereas the team seem to have adopted an aero philosophy based on making the car as slippery on the straights as possible.
The result is a car that looks deceivingly basic. However, the remarkably tight rear packaging and ingenious method of working the air in the homologated central third of the front wing – taking the form of the “Pingu” nose – Red Bull could have a car to match the initial billing. A quiet first week though, means that it’s impossible to rank them higher that third at present.
If any of these predictions are to change across the course of next week, expect to see Red Bull make progress up the rankings.
They may have had their rear wing support pillar deemed illegal already, but Renault’s first week of pre-season testing was otherwise very positive. Both Nico Hulkenberg and Jolyon Palmer recorded impressive times on the soft compound tyre and the team managed a solid-if-not-spectacular 1364 kilometers.
Last season could well be written into the history books as an anomaly for Renault. They spent 2016 repairing the Enstone base following a year of financial deprivation under the Lotus banner. This is their first year back as a true manufacturer outfit and at present, they seem to be heading what is a remarkably tight midfield scrap.
5. Toro Rosso
It was a curious first week in Barcelona for Toro Rosso. They unveiled to STR12 to a chorus of delight from fans who appreciate not only the stunning livery but what is also a beautifully designed car. James Key and his team have once again produced a car with plenty of interesting aerodynamic concepts.
The fact that their car has the same nose, suspension and airbox philosophy as the Mercedes is a measure of how technically advanced the car is and how well Key and his team are at interpreting a new set of regulations.
They may have struggled with reliability in week one of pre-season, completing fewer laps than even McLaren, but with a car as well designed as the STR12, Toro Rosso should be a strong midfield team in 2017.
6. Force India
The perennial plucky underdogs Force India have targetted a third place finish in the Constructors following what was a record breaking 2016 for them. Based on what we have seen so far, it seems like a lofty ambition.
Having a Mercedes powertrain is unquestionably an advantage. While aerodynamic performance counts for more this campaign, this is still ultimately an engine formula. Despite this, their mileage in the first test was low compared to the works Mercedes. Force India managed just 1294 kilometers, while Williams missed a full day’s running yet still recorded 992.
Force India may not have shown their hand yet as far as outright speed is concerned. However, with fewer bells and whistles than a Renault and lacking the Mercedes-esque cleanliness of the Toro Rosso, I’m currently placing them sixth.
This is the hardest of all the rankings, without question. McLaren may have had a disastrous first week of 2017, but Williams’ was similarly disappointing. The FW40 only completed 24 kilometers more than McLaren, thanks to a lack of spare parts accentuating the damage done by Lance Stroll’s rookie excursions.
Meanwhile, the FW40 seems a little lacking in the aero department. The packaging to the rear of the car seems very conservative and their bargeboards are very basic in their design versus that of the opposition. Its difficult to distinguish key features that will make the FW40 a fast racing car.
For Haas, their position in this pecking order is largely on account of the fact that 2017 looks as though it could be a continuation of their debut campaign. Team Principal Gunther Steiner has already established that their 2017 challenger is experiencing similar brake inconsistencies as it’s predecessor.
In Kevin Magnussen, Romain Grosjean has a teammate who is likely to push him harder than Esteban Gutierrez managed, but aside for this detail, very little seems to have changed here.
What more can be said that hasn’t already been mentioned? McLaren have endured a dire first week back in the paddock, with powerunit failures resembling the issues faced back in 2015, when the partnership with Honda was in it’s infancy.
Honda has arrived with a new design philosophy this season, opting to alter the powerunit to match the concepts that have worked at Brixworth. At present, it seems as though the team is almost starting from scratch once again, hence placing them in the same pecking order position as 2015.
With Manor out of the equation, Sauber seem destined to become F1’s backmarker team. They enter this season with one hand tied behind their back on account of running a year old Ferrari powerunit. While this is precisely what Toro Rosso faced last season, Sauber’s disadvantage is made worse by the fact that engines are not homologated this season and the development race will therefore by so much greater.
Both Marcus Ericsson and Antonio Giovinazzi may have recorded competitive times throughout last week, but based on previous evidence, Sauber are no strangers to the phenomenon of ‘glory runs’.