Wheels24.co.za | F1 fans in for a humdinger of a season


Wheels24.co.za | F1 fans in for a humdinger of a season
  1. Wheels24.co.za | F1 fans in for a humdinger of a season
    sport24.co.za
    With numerous factors playing a part in the 2017 F1 season, drivers and fans can brace themselves for proper…
    Motorsport

Paris - Lewis Hamilton's bid to regain his Formula 1 title might actually prove harder without Nico Rosberg around.

Rosberg retired days after becoming the 2016 world champion and finally getting the better of Hamilton, ending their acrimonious rivalry at Mercedes just as he got the upper hand.

The Bottas factor

With Rosberg gone, a key factor this season - starting with the Australian Grand Prix (March 26) - will be how three-time champion Hamilton gets on with his new team mate.

Valtteri Bottas was plucked from Williams after Rosberg's shock announcement. The calm Finnish driver is seen as the perfect foil for the tempestuous Hamilton, an outspoken driver not afraid to stand up to management.

A perfect match in theory, perhaps not in reality.

READ: Bottas' 1-year Mercedes deal explained

Hamilton and Rosberg had a tense relationship and openly feuded at times, forcing Mercedes management to intervene. Crucially, however, the quick and consistent Rosberg also brought the best out of Hamilton - forcing him to up his pace in qualifying and on race day.

Even though he lost the title, at times last year Hamilton's driving was the best of his career. Some credit for that must also go to Rosberg's relentless competitiveness.

Rosberg quit F1 with 23 wins, but the 27-year-old Bottas has never won a race at this level. He has only nine career podiums and never finished higher than fourth in the championship. If he does not challenge Hamilton in the same way that Rosberg did, then Hamilton's level might drop.

If so, Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel, a four-time F1 champion, and Red Bull pair Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo will be poised to take advantage.

Hamilton's rivals

Vettel is desperate to bring the drivers' title back to Ferrari for the first time since Kimi Raikkonen, his current team mate, won it in 2007.

19-year-old Verstappen made history last year as the youngest driver to win a race - and the youngest to qualify on the front row. He has huge talent and is a fearless driver. Ricciardo also won a race last year and the 27-year-old Australian showed great speed.

READ: F1 testing - Ferrari's Vettel leaves field behind

Ferrari demonstrated in pre-season testing that it may finally have turned the corner after a hugely frustrating campaign where it slipped behind Red Bull, much to the exasperation of Vettel. Ferrari showed more pace than Mercedes in pre-season testing, although those gains should not be taken as outright proof since teams can hold something back. The real indicator will come on Saturday, during qualifying for the Australian GP.

Verstappen said: "It is always hard to say who now has the better car, but it is very obvious that Ferrari is stronger than last year. Mercedes is always up there as well. I think that they are not showing their true potential."

Fans gambling over the last three years didn't need to look too far down their betting slips - it was almost always a case of which Mercedes driver would win.

But new rule changes may help bridge the gap this time.

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New-look cars

Wider tyres, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce should make the heavy cars five seconds quicker per lap. The tyres are 25% wider, have more grip and - crucially - are more durable, enabling drivers to push harder and limiting the cyclical pitstop strategy that made many races easy to call.

There is also much greater license to develop engines, although each driver remains restricted to four per season before incurring penalties.

This wholesale revamp is a welcome boost for the sport and especially its fans, who in recent times were crying out for entertainment. As well as Mercedes dominating everything, some races were almost processional, with far too much emphasis on fuel and tyre strategy and little toe-to-toe driving. Overtaking was seen as a bonus, rather than a key part of a sport representing the pinnacle of quick racing.

READ: Ross Brawn looking to establish new F1 'overtaking group'

This lack of excitement even prompted two-time world champion Fernando Alonso to make the remarkable statement that F1 was so boring it sent him to sleep - and that the sport should instead be paying fans to watch.

The general mood is far more upbeat now, with drivers expressing overwhelming enthusiasm for the new cars.

Hamilton, who has often spoken about wanting a return to a more challenging form of racing, said: "It's so much faster in the corners. The force you feel on your body and on your neck is much higher. I've got bruises and bumps where I've never really had them…

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