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.

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500