Paddock buzz: What lies ahead in 2016

While it might be a tad too early to make valid predictions about the 2016 Formula 1 season, still, let’s at least take a crack at inspecting a few relevant points that seem to be on everyone’s mind.

With the pre-season test on February 22nd, the gestation period naturally leads to a lot of melodramatic speculation and anticipation. Last season left us with Hamilton wrapping up the title in a drenched race at Austin, his teammate Rosberg showing a bit of form after that, Ferrari making a U-turn since 2014 and becoming the only team able to give Mercedes a run for their money in 2015. Considering tyre changes made by Pirelli for 2016, new exhausts, new drivers, new outfits on the grid and a record-long calendar, this may be a show worth finding a big bag of greasy popcorn for.

2016: The year of the Red Prancing Horse? 

What we know so far is that Ferrari will be making improvements over the engine units and it has been anticipated by most that they will be on par with Mercedes by March. There was speculation and concern mid-season over the advantage they were gaining from the development work done by Haas F1 Team, to whom they will provide engines in 2016. Rivals Mercedes had questioned the rules and legalities involving an existing Formula 1 team working along with a new team (which hasn’t entered the F1 championship yet). The suspicion was that Ferrari had gained benefit from the unlimited time a new team gets for the wind-tunnel and CFD simulation work. If the scarlet outfit manages to find more pace and advantage over the winter, we might see tables turning next season, and Sebastian Vettel would be the obvious contender for the title. For Kimi, 2015 might have ended on a high, but inconsistencies and DNFs have lead to a sad amount of discontent. Anyway, 2016 will be a deciding season for the Finn’s Formula 1 career.

Maybe it’s about unleashing the two of them completely. Make them have their own strategy cars.

Battles at Castle Mercedes 

A talking point of last season has been the rift between Nico and Lewis that sprung into the public eye as a result of their actions and pit-radio conversations. Team Principal Toto Wolff left Abu Dhabi on a note that he would address the issue of driver disorder over the winter as it had become their biggest weakness. Recently he has also warned the drivers that this kind of behaviour could not carry on into the next season, otherwise he would be forced to consider a change in the driver lineup. Speaking to the Daily Mail, however, he hinted that they might let both drivers adopt independent strategies despite the fact that it would split the team internally. Wolff said: “We had a more relaxed approach this year, letting them fight it out on the track, and it might have a new dimension next year”. He also added: “Maybe it’s about unleashing the two of them completely. Make them have their own strategy cars. That would be a solution”.

Renault’s return to the circus 

The final takeover of Lotus F1 Team is complete – Renault’s return comes as a relief for Enstone. The switch from Mercedes power back to Renault obviously means that the engine provider will have to resolve various engine woes along the sidelines which have been a reason for a fractious relationship with customer Red Bull in 2015. The bitter truth does remain that 2016 might be a mighty tough season for them, and a transitional one, but it will be intriguing to see how they match up to a solid midfield with Haas, Force India, Sauber and Toro Rosso.

American affairs 

Haas F1 debut adds the very needed spice to the grid and the team has recently announced that they are on schedule with the developmental work of their car. They have been collaborating with engine supplier Ferrari as their technical solution provider and gaining insights into perfecting their car throughout 2015. The driver cocktail includes former Lotus driver Romain Grosjean and former Sauber driver Esteban Gutierrez, both fairly experienced racers. Haas F1 Team has aimed for a points finish in the season opener in their recent statement. Maybe this is just the type of American optimism that the sport needs at the moment. And American fans.

Old McLaren had a farm 

After an annus horribilis in 2015, both McLaren champion drivers seem to be happy about a new challenge, even if they were often called ‘the new back-markers’. Even if their car livery perfectly explains the situation with key brands moving to other teams: Johnny Walker to Force India, Tag Heuer to Red Bull Racing, Hugo Boss to Mercedes. Nonetheless, Button has pointed out the previously mentioned Ferrari’s turn-around as a ray of hope. Also, it has been noted from the last five laps of Abu Dhabi GP that Alonso’s car settings were switched to ‘full deployment’ to determine full potential of the power unit, resulting in third fastest lap of the race. It is up to you to decide whether these are signs of upcoming improvements or desperate techniques in a desperate situation. Well, there isn’t anywhere else left to go but up, unless the team wants chanceless Manor to overtake them once and for all.

Recharged, ready and red bulls  

The Renault badge was removed and the powertrain received a Tag Heuer label. Red Bull Racing (by the way, no Infiniti in the logo) has roped in Mario Illien of Ilmor engineering to make the difference. Chassis wise, the team has always been strong on design & aerodynamics, and Illien’s involvement in the development front along with power units might give them that extra nudge to challenge the very front of the grid. With Formula 1 fans finally getting used to Seb wearing a Ferrari uniform, the new prince of Red Bull just might be the Russian hockey-punk Daniil Kvyat.

Landlords of the tyre garage 

The tyre changes in 2016 are intriguing, they’re an added factor in making the season more interesting as they include a new compound ‘ultrasoft’ introduced by Pirelli, three dry compounds per race, and more freedom in tyre choices for the teams. Out of 13 sets used by each driver at a Grand Prix, two will be chosen by Pirelli, one will be chosen for qualifying and the remaining ten sets will be up to the teams to play around with. However, due to the logistics involved in transporting the tyres, there is a glitch where teams have to submit their tyre choices 14 weeks in advance, eight weeks before every European race. The twist is that the 2016 cars were not ready for the deadline of tyre choices – which was December 2015 – and that means folks will be taking a pure gamble at the choices for the first few races.

All Baku needs to do now is to be as fast as it looks on paper.

Tweaked exhausts and louder cars!!! 

The dawn of the V6 era has made the Formula 1 cars sounds like a cat’s purr compared to the lion’s roar of the GP2 cars. To address the complaints of vivid enthusiasts and fans, the new regulations will allow the teams to introduce cosmetic tweaks to make the cars sound louder. Therefore, in Barcelona, all ears will be on the noise and all eyes will be on the design of exhausts. There won’t be too many chassis or nose changes to witness at the pre-season tests, but the cosmetically-tweaked sound and brand new exhausts will certainly set the F1 paddock buzzing.

Can the long calendar short-circuit? 

A 21-race-long Grand Prix calendar – the longest ever in Formula 1 – definitely sounds like a treat, not to mention the new circuit in Baku. Located in the Caucasian capital of Azerbaijan, the street circuit runs alongside the banks of the Caspian Sea and through the old historical promenades of the city. Sublime street circuits like Monaco and Singapore have been the highlights of the calendar for delivering thrilling races. All Baku needs to do now is to be as fast as it looks on paper with its acceleration section of 2.2 kilometres.

Instead of a summary 

You know very well that figuring out how powerful the challengers are can only be done after the tests, sometimes even after a few races. But. While the season might get interesting on the track, there will surely be a lot of off-track high-quality drama to observe. And it will kick-start with the teams and FIA trying to grasp engine regulations, then the cost-reduction measures. Don’t forget the ‘professional’ speculations about massive changes in 2017. Also, a potential EU investigation of the prize money structures and all the politics that come with it may cloud the racing itself. Finally, 2016 will see the world answering the question whether Formula 1 is still capable of entertaining the people and being as popular as it used to be.

An ideal situation for most admirers of the sport in 2016 would be a dynamic four-way fight, not a two-way kitty brawl between Mercedes drivers. My simple personal wish list would consist of two things: multiple race winners and a somewhat repeat of 2012 with an added V6 turbo drama.

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