Launch week: pressure builds on F1 to deliver

The 2017 season is dawning on Formula One, and as the sport transitions from its barren off-season to an optimistic pre-season, the first pieces of the year’s puzzle begin presenting themselves.

This year F1 is governed by a new set of technical regulations, and this month all 10 teams are revealing their interpretation of the rewritten rulebook.

Naturally each team will hope their challenger will be clever enough, their reading of the rules sophisticated enough, to propel them up the championship order.

But while the 2017 launch week will reinstate last year’s rivalries — and settle the rumour, one way or the other, that Ferrari has found itself desperately behind the game — more important is that Formula One will be taking its first tentative steps into what is meant to be a spectacular new era.

The 2017 rules are the long-awaited and much-hyped regulations meant to bring ‘the spectacle’ back to a Formula One judged to have lost its way in recent times.

First billed in 2015 as a plan for “faster cars and thrilling races”, the new-look formula principally uses fatter tyres and more aggressive aerodynamics to speed up cars for the first time in generations.

The combination of Pirelli’s new wider rubber and the lower, sweeping front and rear wings will give the car a distinctly nostalgic feel, but the formula’s secret ingredient will be the improved lap times, which will be somewhere between three and five seconds quicker than last year.

It sounds exciting on paper, especially since the sport dropped some of its more bombastic proposals for regulatory revolution in the preceding 24 months, but will they deliver?

“If anybody was thinking of these rules with the aim of closing the field up, then they’ve got rocks in their head,” iconic Williams designer Patrick Head told the Guardian.

“If they wanted a formula that allowed for more overtaking … then they needed to go for a formula that reduced downforce levels, but they have gone in the opposite direction.”

Indeed, hand-in-hand with driver complaints that Pirelli’s tyres are prone to overheating is the way that, due to already advanced aerodynamics, following another car closely tends to hurt performance and — you guessed it — eat up the tyres.

Further to the point is that the new aero-heavy and therefore drag-laden cars are best mated to more powerful engines, a field in which Mercedes will almost certainly still lead the way this year.

Coupled to the technical challenges facing this rule book is the fact that the sport’s poorer teams — including Williams, the surging Force India team, and struggling Sauber — are all disadvantaged when the rules are significantly rewritten.

Compared to the cashed-up squads the small teams are severely restricted when it comes to build capacity and the ability to compete in one season while designing and building for the next.

Given the midfield was just finding a happy, punchy medium last year, the third year of the previous regulations, a change in the rules is more likely to take the sport a step away from its goal of more competition.

But that doesn’t mean we should lower our expectations.

Certain is that the sport’s four power units, key to performance under these regulations, are converging in competitiveness and that aero development pace will be ferocious, meaning the championship order is at least theoretically open.

We also know design genius Adrian Newey is again spearheading Red Bull Racing’s threat against Mercedes, and Ferrari, tipped to be at its hapless best, is an each-way bet to shine or embarrass itself.

The fight between Williams and Force India will be fiercer in 2017 after Frank Williams’s historic team was bested by its lesser-funded midfield rival.

Plus Renault and McLaren will be out to reclaim their places amongst the frontrunners after underwhelming 2016 campaigns.

The path to a ‘more spectacular’ Formula One has never been narrower, but 2016 left us with an unfinished narrative the teams are yearning to close — and in the face of a counter-intuitive set of regulations it will be up to the teams alone to carry the sport into its next chapter.

No launch season has been as important as that of the 2017 season, because the cars launched this month could make or break the next three seasons of Formula One.

The pressure’s on.

Williams — 17 February (online)
Sauber — 20 February (last night)
Renault — 21 February
Force India — 22 February
Mercedes — 23 February
Ferrari — 24 February
McLaren — 24 February
Haas — 26 February
Red Bull Racing — 26 February
Toro Rosso — 26 February