With the 2016 Formula 1 World Championship season set to kick off in a little over 10 weeks’ time in Australia, it is an opportune time to take a closer look at what changes – in rules, drivers and teams – will take place before the engines fire up once again…
Renault returns (again)
One of the most drawn out stories of 2015 was Renault’s attempts to buy out the Lotus F1 Team and return as a full works effort in 2016.
The Enstone outfit has had a number of guises – Toleman, Benetton, Renault and Lotus – and has been embattled with a succession of financial dramas in recent years.
Its debts – along with plenty of delays caused by behind-the-scenes negotiations between Renault and Formula One Management (FOM) – only saw the ink dried on the purchase contracts just before Christmas. The full details of the (third) incarnation of the Renault F1 Team will be announced in Paris in the coming weeks.
The Palmer name returns
What is at least confirmed by the Renault team is that it will run both Pastor Maldonado and Jolyon Palmer as its drivers in 2016. There had been some concerns that either one (or both) of the pair could be dropped, given both drivers’ 2016 contracts were actually signed under the team’s former Lotus guise.
Added to that were concerns about the longevity of Maldonado’s funding in the wake of the recent Venezuelan presidential elections (where his backers, the ruling United Socialist Party, were thrown out of government), as well as whether Palmer’s contract would be upheld.
As it currently stands, Palmer will be the 2016 grid’s sole rookie driver. After romping to the GP2 Series Championship title in 2014, the Englishman occupied the position of Lotus’ official reserve driver, taking part in thirteen Friday FP1 practice sessions in addition to a number of in-season test outings in the E23 Hybrid.
He acquitted himself well, and despite not having raced competitively in over a year, is considered by many insiders to be a driver to watch in 2016.
Palmer is the son of former F1 driver turned commentator and manager, Jonathan Palmer, the former Formula Two Champion who raced in 83 Grands Prix between 1983-1989 for the likes of Williams, RAM, Zakspeed and Tyrrell.
A new Team joins the grid
The Haas F1 Team will become the first new Formula 1 team to appear on the grid since 2010, returning the grid to 22 cars next year.
The American-licensed team, headed by NASCAR team owner Gene Haas and former Jaguar F1 technical director Günther Steiner, will splits its operations between the United States and the United Kingdom.
Haas has strong links with Ferrari, and has secured the use of Ferrari customer engines and reserve driver Esteban Gutiérrez for 2016, in addition to the highly-rated Romain Grosjean, who moves across from Lotus.
Rival teams have been keen to trumpet the potential challenge that the all-new outfit could pose in its maiden season, with some even suggesting that it could threaten the established midfield runners.
Team owner Gene Haas has, however, been keen to play down such talk and insisted that simply getting off the bottom of the Constructors’ Championship standings would be a massive achievement.
Its 2016 chassis is expected to undergo its first round of mandatory FIA crash tests at the end of this week.
Engine-swapping among a number of teams
A number of teams will be running different power units in 2016 to what they ran last year.
The biggest switch is of course Renault’s buyout of the Mercedes-powered Lotus F1 Team, which will see the return of the French carmaker as a fully-fledged constructor and engine maker for the first time since 2010.
Scuderia Toro Rosso has broken ranks with its senior Red Bull Racing team and signed a deal to use one-year-old Ferrari power units next year. The Italian outfit effectively takes over the Ferrari contract held by the Manor Marussia F1 Team, which has jumped ship to take on the highly-rated Mercedes power units.
Red Bull’s motors are rebranded
A Formula 1 team will run a rebadged engine for the first time since the Sauber-Petronas partnership of 1997-2005.
That honour falls to Red Bull Racing, which dominated the sport’s headlines for much of 2015 with a highly-publicised slanging match with its works partner, Renault.
The Milton Keynes team’s attempts as a complete divorce fell through, however, when its attempts to nab engine supply deals from either Mercedes, Ferrari and Honda were blocked. Attempts to bring VW into the sport also fell through in the wake of the carmaker’s diesel emissions scandal, although commonsense opinion could argue that a move to a turbo-hybrid sport like Formula 1 is exactly what the brand should have done.
That left Red Bull Racing with no choice but to begrudgingly reunite with Renault, although this time without any branding to it or its luxury (Nissan-owned) arm, Infiniti.
Gone is that sponsorship, along with long-time watch partner Casio, and in comes long-time McLaren sponsor TAG-Heuer, who have stumped up enough cash to rebrand the Renault engines and spearhead its development.
Break out the ear plugs…
Noise – or lack of it – has been a rather curious but very vocal complaint from Formula 1 fans who have felt let down since the introduction of the much quieter V6 turbo-hybrid power unit regulations in 2014.
The FIA has done nothing to talk up the massive gains these new power units have achieved, but are at least listening to the concerns of the fans.
A number of less-than-elegant solutions were trialed and abandoned, but the 2016 technical regulations have been amended that will require all cars to be fitted with separate exhaust pipes for the turbine and the wastegate – with teams given the option of having either one or two wastegate exits. A benefit of this is expected to be an increase in noise volumes.
The FIA has included in its regulations specific guideines on where the exit of the exhausts can be placed in a bid to prevent the return of ‘blown diffusers’.
TRhat being said, there are several different ways of approaching the design and should one or more teams find a way of cleverly blowing exhaust gases on to some aerodynamic parts then it could deliver a performance benefit.
More tyre choices for drivers, plus a new ‘Ultra Soft’ tyre compound
Formula 1’s sole tyre supplier, Pirelli, has introduced a fifth dry-weather tyre compound, with the purple-banded Ultra Soft tyre joining the established ranks of the Super Soft, Soft, Medium and Hard rubber on offer.
Pirelli will also bring three dry-weather compounds to every Grand Prix in 2016 to open up race strategies by giving the drivers a choice in which compounds they would like to run.
Pirelli will choose two sets for the race (only one of which must be used), and one set (the softest nominated compound) that may only be used in the final Q3 qualifying phase. Theoretically, a driver could run three different compounds during a race.
Reduced pre-season tests; more in-season tyre tests
The Formula 1 grid will have just eight days of pre-season running to sort out their new cars before the 2016 Formula 1 season gets underway, after the FIA elected to reduce the number of pre-season test events from three to two.
Two four-day test sessions will take place on February 22 to 25 and March 1 to 4 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, with Jerez now dropped from the pre-season calendar.
The FIA has, however, left itself open to the possibility of Pirelli being able to host up to six two-day tyre tests across the course of the season. These sessions will occur in the days following a Grand Prix.
There will also be two days of dedicated wet-weather tyre testing at the Circuit Paul Ricard in France at the end of January.
A Grand Prix of Europe … in Asia
The ‘European Grand Prix’ has had an on-again, off-again presence on the Formula 1 calendar. After being held in locations including the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain, it now makes a comeback… in Asia.
The latest addition to the championship calendar is the oil-rich former Soviet state of Azerbaijan, which has produced motorsport luminaries such as… no, me neither.
Despite worldwide NGO concerns about rampant corruption within its bureaucracy and constant clampdowns over freedom of speech and the press, it hasn’t stopped the FIA and Formula One Management from inking a contract to deliver another cashed-up country a slot on the schedule.
The 6-kilometre circuit layout has been penned by F1’s ubiquitous circuit designer Hermann Tilke and will play host to its inaugural race on the weekend of June 17-19. That happens to coincide with the running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, making it impossible for Nico Hülkenberg to attempt to defend his title.
Germany returns, but for how long?
The future of the German Grand Prix has been in dire straits for some time and it dropped off the calendar in 2015 after the Nürburgring was unable to raise the funding it needed to host the event, which it does on alternating years with the Hockenheimring.
The Hockenheimring – which hosted a dreadfully-attended race in 2014 – was unable to fill the void at short notice, Germany was absent from the calendar for the first time since 1960. It will host this year’s race in late July prior to the four-week summer break.
Bernie Ecclestone has, however, been telling anyone who will listen that the event’s future is dead after 2016 and that it’s all the fault of the local governments.
Granted, Ecclestone himself ran into some rather famous trouble with the German courts, but both circuits’ regional governments are now headed by socialist/green coalitions who are unwilling to spend the money propping up the German Grand Prix. Ecclestone has reduced the hosting fee and Mercedes has even dipped into its own coffers to help fill the financial void, but it would seem everyone is only willing to bend so much.
The other problem is that today’s German fans seem very apathetic about Formula 1 in the post-Schumacher era. The Mercedes team is not very German and neither is its number-two driver, Nico Rosberg. His compatriots Sebastian Vettel and Nico Hülkenberg are not F1 ambassadors to the extent that Schumacher – the son of a working-class bricklayer – was, and their lack of accessibility and marketability also has to be part of the problem.
Other calendar tweaks
An initial draft of the 2016 Formula 1 calendar showcased a record 21 races with the packed season – curiously – starting in early April in Australia.
Sanity prevailed and the season-opener was brought forward to its customary mid-March slot, but there have been a number of other calendar changes in what will be a record-long season.
Malaysia has had its request to be bumped later in the season finally approved, and it will now have a late-season berth after the neighboring Singapore Grand Prix. Russia, in turn, has been moved earlier in the season and will now run in the first quarter of the calendar.
Images via Fox Sports, Haas F1 Team, Lotus F1 Team, Silk Way Travel, Sutton Motorsport Images, TAG Heuer, XPB Images
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