The 2016 Formula 1 season may have ended a little under two weeks ago now, but it was perhaps right that we let the dust settle before kicking off our series of year reviews on MotorSportsTalk.
Last Friday saw Nico Rosberg perform the ultimate mic drop by announcing his immediate retirement from racing just five days after winning his first F1 World Championship.
We’ll get to that in a bit when looking back on the stories of the season – but through the rest of the year, F1 offered a number of intriguing and notable moments.
Here’s a look back at the biggest stories of the 2016 F1 season.
MERCEDES MAKES IT THREE
Mercedes winning a third straight championship double may not seem like a big story at face value, but it really, really is. Given we are now three years in to the V6 turbo era of F1 and the field has noticeable converged, for Mercedes to have racked up a record number of wins, points and poles is an astonishing achievement.
Very rarely have we seen a true threat to Mercedes’ surpremacy, either. In 2015, Sebastian Vettel’s three victories came on weekends where Mercedes was simply second best. This time around? The two blots on Mercedes’ record book – Spain and Malaysia – were due to mitigating circumstances.
Red Bull and Ferrari may have lurked at times, but in reality, the gap at the front only grew bigger in 2016.
HAMILTON/ROSBERG RIVALRY GETS ANOTHER (FINAL) CHAPTER
The rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg reached a fiery crescendo in 2016. On-track clashes in Spain and Austria stoked the fire nicely, forcing Mercedes to revise its “terms of engagement” with both drivers to prevent recurrences.
While we failed to see any titanic on-track battles between the duo, this was certainly the bitterest year yet in Hamilton/Rosberg relations. The lengths that Hamilton went to in the title decider to stop his teammate winning was evidence of how sour relations had become, yet he was gracious in defeat once Rosberg had clinched the title.
Following Rosberg’s retirement, it looks like we’ve seen the last chapter of one of F1’s most intense rivalries. While it may have been messy at times, it has at least ensured that Mercedes’ spell of dominance was not a complete procession.
ROSBERG DROPS THE MIC
The last F1 story of the year was the biggest. Nico Rosberg’s sensational decision to retire from racing just five days after winning his maiden world championship shocked the entire F1 paddock (well, except Lewis Hamilton) and the sporting world in general.
Everything about the story was a surprise: the decision itself; the nature in which it happened; the ‘OK-ness’ about it all, as well. F1 will be without its champion next year despite him being perfectly fit and well, young, and coming off the best season of his career. It’s a weird situation…
It also brings into question the legacy that Rosberg will leave behind. Will he be remembered as the driver who defeated one of F1’s all-time greats in Hamilton? Or as the man who was ‘one and done’? Time will tell.
HAAS HITS THE GRID
The star-spangled banner returned to the F1 grid full-time in 2016 as NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas saw his eponymous operation make its debut. Most were unsure what to expect from Haas F1 Team during its debut season, making Romain Grosjean’s charge to sixth on debut in Australia a surprise for most.
Grosjean went one better at the next race in Bahrain, finishing fifth, but it proved to be the high point of the season. The strategic mastery we saw early on disappeared, and the teething problems that come with any new project began to crop up time and time again. The team scored just one point in the second half of the season.
Nevertheless, it was a strong start to life in F1 from Haas. Let’s see what more it can do in 2017.
FERRARI STRUGGLES, RED BULL EXCELS
When Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen vaulted to the front of the pack on the opening lap of the season in Australia, it seemed our prayers had been answered: finally, there would be some resistance to Mercedes’ steam-roller act we’d seen for the previous two years in F1.
It was about as good as things got for the Scuderia though. Come the end of the year, both Vettel and Raikkonen ended up winless, with Ferrari slipping behind Red Bull to third in the constructors’ championship. It was a big come-down after the hope that ran through the 2015 campaign and off-season.
As for Red Bull? 2016’s success was a big surprise. Renault finally got its act together on the engine side of things, giving Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo the tools with which to win one race each, and even light the fire under the Mercedes boys later in the year.
VERSTAPPEN STEPS UP, STEALS THE SHOW
Max Verstappen’s promotion into a Red Bull seat just four races in to the new season was a major story, with the crest-fallen Daniil Kvyat moving back down to Toro Rosso. We knew this teen protege was going to be special, but few could have predicted just how special he would be through 2016.
From victory on debut (albeit a fortunate one) to his defence of Hamilton in Japan, and, most impressive of all, his magic in the rain at Interlagos, this was a memorable year for Verstappen.
Don’t go thinking this is the finished product yet. Verstappen’s qualifying form remains a bit patchy, lacking the ouright pace over one lap of teammate Daniel Ricciardo, and there were costly errors through the year (the start at Spa being one).
But boy, if this is Verstappen as a sophomore, we can’t wait to see what’s to come in his twenties.
TALKING ‘BOUT MY GENERATION
2016 was a year for the next generation of F1 to come to the fore. Besides Verstappen’s growing stardom, we saw his ex-teammate, Carlos Sainz Jr., lead Toro Rosso and mark himself as one of the best up-and-comers on the grid.
Mercedes youngsters Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon both enjoyed impressive campaigns, the latter making his debut at Spa, with both now being linked to the vacant Mercedes seat.
We also saw Stoffel Vandoorne make his race debut, replacing the injured Fernando Alonso in Bahrain ahead of his full-time bow with McLaren next year, and had GP3 champion Charles Leclerc run in practice for Haas.
With Lance Stroll also poised to join the grid next year, we’re talking more and more about a younger generation in F1.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
Tying in with that theme, 2016 saw the last hurrahs in F1 for Felipe Massa and Jenson Button, two of the sport’s veterans. Although Button could yet return in 2018, it’s highly unlikely.
Both ended their careers gracefully, bowing out with class in Abu Dhabi, although it’s hard to play their seasons up as being overly impressive given their form compared to teammates Valtteri Bottas and Fernando Alonso.
With Rosberg now also out of the picture, the F1 grid is becoming more and more unrecognizable to the one we had 10 years ago.
Some of the other big stories were:
- Force India’s best-ever finish in the constructors’ championship, beating Williams to fourth.
- Liberty Media’s plan to buy F1, announced back in September.
- F1’s first race in Baku, Azerbaijan, which proved to be a pleasant surprise.
- McLaren’s continued revival as Honda makes progress.
- The reliability of Lewis Hamilton’s car (or lack of) through the season.
- The power struggle at McLaren that led to Ron Dennis’ exit.
- Continued efforts to improve safety in F1 with the Halo device.
- After a damp 2015, the roaring, record-breaking USGP in Austin in October (with a hat-tip to Taylor Swift).
And it is with a T-Swift lyric we shall close things out in our stories of the season. 2016 may have been a bit of a rough year for the world, but the F1 season acted as a kind of escape; a way to shake it off.