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2017 Formula 1 season preview: Five storylines to watch

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The start of the new Formula 1 season is almost upon us, with Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix marking the beginning of a fresh era for the sport.

Gone is long-standing CEO Bernie Ecclestone. Gone is World Champion Nico Rosberg. Gone are the old regulations. In comes Liberty Media, some young blood for the grid and a push for more aggressive-looking and faster cars.

2017 will be a big year for F1, be it for better or for worse, so here are five storylines that are set to define the season to come.

THE LAND OF LIBERTY

One of the biggest storylines that dominated the offseason was the takeover of F1 by Liberty Media, completed in January. Liberty announced last September that its offer to acquire the sport had been accepted as part of an $8 billion deal, with American executive Chase Carey becoming F1’s new chairman.

When the takeover was completed two months ago, Carey moved quickly to invoke change. Bernie Ecclestone’s reign as F1’s ringmaster came to an end, with Carey wanting to fully capitalize on the potential of the sport. Ecclestone had been expected to continue as CEO for another three years; he was gone in a matter of months, instead being given the honorary role of ‘chairman emeritus.’

Quite what Liberty’s takeover means for F1 remains unclear. Much has been said about a possible expansion in the United States and other key markets, with as many as 25 races in a year also being speculated. Most expect a change in approach to online media and a general ‘getting with the times’.

Perhaps the bigger question lies in how the political landscape of F1 will change. The current commercial agreements run to 2020, making any widespread change before then difficult to invoke. The F1 Strategy Group remains a strong body, yet with new sporting managing director Ross Brawn pushing for a more progressive, forward-thinking future and approach to racing, the self-interest fostered by its members may be hard to maintain.

The winds of change are blowing in F1. Liberty will be keen to leave an impression on the sport immediately, yet after so many years under Ecclestone, one of the biggest storylines this year will be how it adapts to the new regime.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Carlos Sainz of Spain driving the (55) Scuderia Toro Rosso STR12 in the Pitlane during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

TECHNICAL REVOLUTION

F1 may be enjoyed a sizable change behind the scenes, but it will also be very different visually in 2017. Following the first stanza of the V6 turbo era, the sport has changed direction following the introduction of a set of very new technical regulations for the forthcoming campaign.

A greater focus on aerodynamics and an increase in downforce combined with the introduction of new, wider tires courtesy of supplier Pirelli all adds up to an expected five-second gain on lap times from 2015. That was the target – one that was easily met through pre-season testing.

As with any regulation change, all teams have an opportunity to break free of the shackles of the 2014-2016 status quo in F1 that went largely unchanged. Much as Brawn did in 2009 and Mercedes did in 2014, teams have the chance to steal a march on their competitors. The somewhat predictable nature of F1 in recent years is not guaranteed to remain in 2017.

The pecking order and championship battle is something that warrants its own storyline; the bigger picture here is what the wider impact of F1’s new regulations will be. The goal is to make F1 ‘sexy’ again, and if testing is anything to go by, the technical revolution has been a positive one. Concerns remain about the amount of overtaking that will be possible given the increased levels of downforce, but three things are for certain: the cars are faster, more exciting to watch and more exciting to drive.

And that is a very good thing indeed for F1 as it looks to recover from a few patchy years of competition and constant regulatory change.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 01: Valtteri Bottas driving the (77) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO8 prepares to leave the garage as 2016 F1 World Drivers Champion Nico Rosberg stands at the garage exit during day three of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 1, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

A SPORT WITHOUT ITS CHAMPION

If Liberty’s takeover of F1 was the story to end the offseason, then Nico Rosberg’s sensational retirement lit the fuse to start a busy, breathless winter. Nobody saw it coming: he announced it out of the blue the morning before receiving his championship trophy, a mere five days after clinching his maiden crown under the lights in Abu Dhabi for Mercedes.

F1 has not raced without its champion since 1994, when Alain Prost made good on his plan to retire after racing for Williams in 1993 when he romped to the title. While it may seem like a bad thing for F1, Rosberg was hardly the sport’s most visible figure during his 11-season stint. If it was Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel absent from the grid, that’d be a bigger loss to the sport.

It does, however, create a curious situation where we are guaranteed a fresh champion this year. Hamilton enters the year as the overwhelming favorite for the drivers’ crown, given his form last year with Mercedes and agonizing title defeat that some attribute to bad luck rather than reduced skill compared to Rosberg. But if Vettel or Daniel Ricciardo get the right car underneath them, particularly in the wake of the regulation changes, then there could be an open fight for the title.

The removal of the champion’s confidence gives this title race a unique dynamic. The likes of Hamilton, Vettel, Ricciardo and Rosberg’s replacement, Valtteri Bottas, all start this year as equals. Nobody has the right to race with the No. 1 on their car this year.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO8 on track during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

CAN ANYONE BEAT MERCEDES?

The shift in the technical regulations may have opened up an opportunity for the chasing pack to cut the gap to Mercedes, yet few are expecting the Silver Arrows to capitulate and squander their advantage from round one.

Engine quality and power – the backbone for Mercedes’ success in recent years – remains a key focus in the regulations this year, while the W08 car appears strong in a number of other areas. Testing saw Hamilton and Bottas produce some impressive times, pointing towards another title bid.

Yet Mercedes was not the fastest team in testing. That honor instead went to Ferrari. Now without a championship in nine seasons, the Scuderia was left reeling last year when it failed to win a single grand prix. A couple of opportunities for victory were squandered, and when Mercedes truly dropped the ball, it was Red Bull who capitalized, not Ferrari.

The signs coming out of Maranello for 2017 are good. Raikkonen set a blistering pace in the Barcelona test running, with Vettel also looking strong. On-track, the SF70H car looks like a noticeable step up on its predecessor, offering the drivers confidence. Come Sunday in Melbourne, it could be a two-team race at the front.

Or even three. Red Bull was far more understated through testing, but is set to introduce a raft of aero updates come Melbourne for the RB13 car. Technical guru Adrian Newey is said to have his mojo back, and with the regulations favoring aerodynamic performance – an area Red Bull is traditionally strong in – much more this season, things are looking positive for Red Bull.

Some in the paddock believe that the ‘big three’ could be over a second clear of the rest of the pack even at this early stage. How the field jostles through 2017 will be fascinating. It’s an all-out arms race from here on in.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 07: Stoffel Vandoorne of Belgium driving the (2) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 on track during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 7, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

THE NEW GENERATION

The start of the season in Australia ordinarily heralds the arrival of a number of rookies, yet in Australia, there will be just one.

Lance Stroll will make his F1 debut on Sunday, becoming the second-youngest starter in the history of the sport (Max Verstappen being the youngest). The Canadian driver won the Formula 3 title last year in record-breaking fashion before embarking on an intensive private testing program, trying out the 2014-spec Williams all over the world, racking up multiple seasons’ worth of mileage. He is perhaps the best-prepared F1 rookie in years.

Two more drivers will be starting their first full seasons in F1. Stoffel Vandoorne finally gets his chance to impress for McLaren, having replaced Jenson Button after spending a year in Super Formula following his magnficent GP2 title win in 2015. Vandoorne is seen to be one of F1’s future superstars, making his first year on the grid a big storyline. He made his first F1 start in Bahrain last year, deputizing for the injured Fernando Alonso, and was quietly impressive. Quite whether the McLaren-Honda MCL32 will be up to the task of letting the Belgian display his true talent remains to be seen.

Esteban Ocon will also be on the grid for the first time in Australia. The Mercedes junior made his debut in Belgium last year for backmarker Manor, and put in a string of impressive displays that prompted Force India to hire him as a replacement for Nico Hulkenberg following the German’s move to Renault. Ocon won the F3 title ahead of Verstappen – F1’s golden boy – in 2014 and has been quick at every step of his career. Now in an upper-midfield car, Ocon will be pushing to stand out as F1’s top rookie this year.

All three form part of a bright new generation for F1. Throw in the likes of Verstappen, Bottas, Carlos Sainz Jr., Kevin Magnussen and Pascal Wehrlein, and you can see why the future is very bright for the sport.

The new F1 season begins across NBC Sports Group this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix. For full broadcasting details, click here.

After ‘rough start’ to 2017, Raikkonen responds with Russia podium

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Kimi Raikkonen was pleased to put a “rough start” to the 2017 Formula 1 season behind him by charging to third place in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix for Ferrari.

Raikkonen entered the Sochi weekend with half the points of Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel, having seen the German driver claim two wins and one second-place finish in the opening three rounds of the year.

Raikkonen had failed to hit the podium in F1 since the Austrian Grand Prix in July, but nearly scored his first F1 pole for nine years on Saturday after running Vettel close in qualifying.

Despite slipping behind eventual race winner Valtteri Bottas at the start, Raikkonen was able to keep Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton back early on before enduring a rather lonely race en route to third place.

“I think I have had a bit of a rough start to the season, far from ideal. This weekend for sure has been a step forward,” Raikkonen said on the podium after the race.

“We’ve been more happy with how things have been running, but we still only finished third. We lost out off the start and then not an awful lot happened after that.

“We keep trying and keep improving, I’m sure we’ll get there. It’s all about all the small details have to be exactly there, then you will get the first place, because the four of us are very close most of the time.

“It’s a small difference that makes a big difference in the end.”

Despite clinching a double podium with Vettel and Raikkonen in P2 and P3 respectively, Ferrari lost the lead of the constructors’ championship in Russia as Bottas’ victory pushed Mercedes one point clear.

Vettel heaps praise on ‘man of the race’ Bottas after Russia F1 win

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Sebastian Vettel was quick to heap praise upon Mercedes rival Valtteri Bottas following the Finn’s maiden Formula 1 victory in Russia on Sunday.

Vettel entered the race in Sochi chasing his third win of the season from pole position, only for Bottas to blast past him on the run to Turn 2 on the opening lap.

Bottas was able to pull clear through the first stint before Vettel reeled the Mercedes driver in during the closing stages, with the Ferrari looking faster on the super-soft tire.

Vettel eventually fell 0.6 seconds shy of Bottas at the flag, but was full of praise for the first-time winner despite missing out on victory himself.

“I obviously tried everything to catch Valtteri, I thought there might be some kind of opportunity on the back straight,” Vettel explained.

“I was sure [Felipe Massa, who was being lapped] would lift around Turn 3, it’s flat out, and let me by so I wouldn’t lose much time. But then I think just wasn’t sure what he was going to do, and ended up losing a bit more than I was hoping for.

“In the end it doesn’t matter. I think this is the man of the race today, big congrats to Valtteri, his first grand prix win. It’s his day.

“I think we tried everything, but obviously we lost the race at the start, which was a bit of a shame. I had a good start. I think our start was probably a match to Valtteri, maybe he gained a bit of momentum at the beginning, but then he had a massive tow.

“I defended the inside, but by the time we approached braking he was already in front and able to shut the door on me, so well done. That’s where he won the race, and then he did a superb first stint, I couldn’t stay with him.

“He was very, very quick all race, no mistakes. As I said, man of the race.”

Despite finishing second, Vettel managed to extend his championship lead to 13 points in Russia after closest-rival Lewis Hamilton ailed to fourth place in the second Mercedes.

Bottas: First F1 win feels ‘amazing’, worth the 81-race wait

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Valtteri Bottas made no secret of his delight after scoring his first Formula 1 race win in Russia on Sunday, beating Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen to victory at the Sochi Autodrom.

In just his fourth race for Mercedes, Bottas charged from third place on the grid to seize the lead at the start en route to his maiden grand prix victory, coming on his 81st start.

Bottas made his F1 debut back in 2013 with Williams, and had not won a race since a British Formula 3 round at Donington Park in 2011 before today’s breakthrough.

“Amazing. It took quite a while, more than 80 races for me, but definitely worth the wait and worth the learning curve,” Bottas said after the race.

“This strange opportunity came to me in the winter to join this team, and they made it possible today, so really want to thank the team. Without them it wouldn’t be possible. It feels amazing.”

The result marked Mercedes’ second win of the season and sees the German marque re-claim the lead of the constructors’ championship, moving one point clear of Ferrari.

“We’ve had a tricky beginning of the year. The fight with Ferrari, again today, was very close,” Bottas said.

“We managed to be on top, but we have to keep pushing. We have to keep finishing with both cars all the time one and two.

“Just very, very happy now.”

Bottas takes maiden F1 victory in Russia despite late Vettel charge

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Valtteri Bottas became Formula 1’s newest winner after dominating Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix for Mercedes, leading home Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen at the Sochi Autodrom on Sunday.

In what was something of a slow-burner in Sochi, Bottas managed to seize the lead from pole-sitter Vettel at the start before perfecting the restart after a safety car period to create a healthy buffer that acted as the foundation for his first F1 victory.

Despite a late charge from Vettel – chasing his third win of the season – in the closing stages, Bottas was able to hang on and become the fifth Finnish driver to claim a grand prix victory, coming in just his fourth race for Mercedes.

Ferrari’s advantage in qualifying was quickly overturned at the start when Bottas managed to get a slipstream on both Vettel and Raikkonen, allowing him to pass ahead of Turn 2. Vettel settled down in second ahead of Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton, but the race was quickly neutralized following a clash between Romain Grosjean and Jolyon Palmer that sparked a safety car period.

Bottas managed to perfect the restart once the incident had been cleared to quickly gap Vettel, opening up a three-second lead in the laps that followed. Hamilton was doing his best to keep in touch with Raikkonen in third, only for Mercedes to confirm that his car was overheating, forcing him to ease off his pace.

The battle for fifth also took a twist in the early stages of the race when Daniel Ricciardo suffered a brake failure, forcing him to retire from the race. Max Verstappen was able to move ahead of Felipe Massa off the line, giving Red Bull something to be upbeat about, but hopes of the podium remained slim.

Bottas’ lead stood at around five seconds after 20 laps, but his lead soon began to fall. A mixture of both traffic and tire blistering allowed Vettel to gain time hand-over-fist as the first round of pit stops neared, moving to within three seconds of the Finnish driver.

Bottas was the first of the leaders to pit, coming in for a new set of super-soft tires at the end of Lap 27. Mercedes serviced Bottas quickly, but Ferrari did not react immediately, instead choosing to keep Vettel out in the hope that the ‘overcut’ would play into his hands again as it did in Australia.

Ferrari eventually pulled the trigger on Lap 34, bringing Vettel in to make the switch to super-soft tires after seeing Raikkonen lay down an impressive pace after changing compound a few laps earlier. With Bottas struggling to match the pace of the Ferraris on the super-softs, the Finn’s stranglehold on the race looked weaker than before despite being back in the lead.

Vettel made up yet more time with 13 laps to go when Bottas ran wide at Turn 13, appearing to struggle with his front-left tire and lock up. The mistake allowed Vettel to close to within two seconds, setting the stage for a fight to the flag.

Vettel managed to find some clear air between traffic and move around a second behind Bottas with four laps to go. Bottas kept getting a good exit from the final corner, ensuring Vettel did not get DRS at first, making it difficult for the Ferrari driver to pull a pass.

A good lap saw Vettel finally dip under the one second margin and get the DRS boost with two laps to go. With Bottas also coming across traffic, the pair were separated by just a few car lengths heading onto the final lap.

Bottas was offered a late bonus when he came across Felipe Massa, running a lap down, and was able to use DRS himself. Massa also made life difficult for Vettel behind, allowing Bottas to move clear once again.

It proved to be the final act in an exciting finish, with Bottas coming through to secure his maiden grand prix victory and give Mercedes its second win of the year. Vettel was left to settle for P2, but extended his lead in the drivers’ championship in the process to 13 points.

Kimi Raikkonen endured a rather lonely finish to the race, crossing the line third to pick up his first podium finish of the year. He finished over 15 seconds clear of Lewis Hamilton, whose difficult weekend came to a quiet end in P4, over 20 seconds down on the race winner.

Max Verstappen led Red Bull’s charge alone in fifth place following Ricciardo’s early retirement, while Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon continued Force India’s record of getting both cars into the points at every race, the pair finishing sixth and seventh respectively.

Nico Hulkenberg was able to follow his first points for Renault in Bahrain with a second charge into the top 10, finishing eighth. Felipe Massa had looked set to finish sixth, only for a slow puncture to force him into a late second stop, leaving him P9 at the flag. Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the points for Toro Rosso in 10th.

Lance Stroll recorded his first race finish in F1, crossing the line 11th in the second Williams, while home favorite Daniil Kvyat was left to settle for 12th. Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne finished 13th and 14th respectively for Haas and McLaren, both having been hit with penalties for exceeding track limits on the opening lap. Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein finished 15th and 16th respectively for Sauber, closing out the classified running order.

Fernando Alonso’s struggles with McLaren-Honda hit a new low just before the race started when he suffered a power unit failure on the formation lap, forcing him to abandon his car at pit entry. It went down as his first ‘Did Not Start’ since the 2005 United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which curiously will be his next destination for his IndyCar test with Andretti Autosport on Wednesday.

Formula 1 returns in two weeks’ time with the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona.