What you need to know about F1 in 2017 | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 23.03.2017
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What you need to know about F1 in 2017

New technical regulations, new owners, faster cars, and just maybe - with a little luck - a more competitive field than in recent Mercedes-dominated years: Here's what you need to know about the upcoming F1 season.

Lewis Hamilton will be fighting for a fourth drivers' championship in 2017, but preseason testing suggests that Ferrari and Red Bull might both be able to provide a sterner test for Mercedes up front. Bernie Ecclestone has taken a back seat and new owners Liberty Media will be trying to modernize and open up what can sometimes be a stuffy and elitist series.

Formel 1 Nico Rosberg (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Suki)

For the first time since the 1994 season, the reigning world champion will not try to defend his crown

The lights go out for the first time on Sunday, March 26, in Melbourne. Before the Australian Grand Prix, here's DW's survival guide for the 2017 F1 season.

Read: Liberty takeover casts shadow over new F1 dawn

Why all the hype around the rule changes?

2017's alterations to the regulations are particularly noteworthy because they buck a recent trend in the sport. Instead of trying to limit the amount of downforce the cars can produce, in a bid to slow the field down or at least keep the pace in check, this new set of rules is designed to permit the teams to generate more downforce.

The front and rear wings are larger, as are the tires - with the rear wheels drastically increased in size to give more mechanical grip as well.

Teams are again permitted to build "winglets" and other pieces of bodywork at the extremities of the car that had been banned in recent seasons.

Pirelli's tires have also been redesigned - abandoning previous efforts to make the race rubber degrade artificially quickly.

What will that actually mean?

The stated aim is to speed up the cars and to make it possible for drivers to push harder for longer during the races. Several drivers, not least Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, had complained that they spent too long nursing their tires or their engines, or trying to save fuel, at given race phases. The goal now is to make Grands Prix more like a sprint and less like a marathon.

At least to some extent, the alterations have worked. Lap times and cornering speeds are up, considerably. Indeed, the string of F1 lap records that still hold from the 2004 season - set during the last year of the V10 engine era - are in serious danger of falling this season. The cars will be faster than any of the past decade.

"I'm finding the car is much more physical to drive than in the past," Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton said during testing. "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 before."

Are there any downsides?

Yes, and one in particular could prove serious. The main concern is that boosted aerodynamic performance could make it harder for drivers to overtake each other. F1 cars are designed to gobble up smooth air at the front, put it to use as a force pushing the car into the ground and improving handling, and then spew out a disturbed, turbulent wake at the rear - a little like a boat on the water. A car following in this wake can suffer a serious performance disadvantage - right at the moment when the driver needs everything at his disposal to set up an overtaking maneuver. 

"Definitely from the driving point of view, it's much nicer for the driver. For the show, I don't know. I'm sure it will be much more difficult to overtake," Williams veteran driver Felipe Massa said, describing his difficulties when following in the pocket of "dirty air" generated by the car in front. "Today driving behind cars you lose a lot more downforce. The car is also much bigger. We'll see, but I think it will be more difficult to overtake."

Will Mercedes dominate again?

Maybe not, but they're still among the favorites. They showed almost bullet-proof reliability and pounded out more testing miles than their rivals, in scenes eerily reminiscent of the last three seasons. But it looks less likely that they will win every race bar one this year, as in 2016.

Formel 1 Weltmeisterschaft World Championship 2017, Test in Barcelona | Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes (picture-alliance/dpa/Hoch Zwei)

Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes are likely to remain the benchmark - but that's a little less certain than in years past

So who looked like a possible threat in testing?

Gleaning too much info from preseason testing is dangerous. Mercedes tend not to show their entire hand, while Red Bull intentionally kept some aerodynamic parts under wraps this year, saying they didn't want to give the competition a chance to start on copycat concepts. We won't see the truly competition-ready RB13 until Melbourne.

But with those caveats, Ferrari looked strong - especially in their simulated runs on heavy fuel designed to simulate a race situation. The SF70H - named to celebrate 70 years since the first Ferrari car, the 125 S - also set the quickest individual laps on low fuel at the Barcelona testing. Given that Ferrari's main problem in recent years was pace in qualifying spec with a light car, these portents are good. But after a disappointing 2016 season without a race win, the pressure's on Sebastian Vettel and his team to deliver. This begs a key question: Was Ferrari the only team genuinely trying to top the testing time sheets?

Read: F1 testing shows Ferrari may be ready to challenge Mercedes.

Behind the leaders, Mercedes-powered team Williams looked like the benchmark in the battle to be "best of the rest," but performance data suggested a closely-matched midfield.

Spanien Barcelona Formel 1 Testfahrten (picture-alliance/Cordon Press/J. Valls)

Williams looked solid in Spain - Felipe Massa is back in the cockpit because of Valtteri Bottas' move to Mercedes

Are any teams struggling?

McLaren Honda. F1's second most successful team continues to labor going into its third season since cooperating with Honda as an engine manufacturer. The MCL32 was woefully unreliable and around two seconds a lap off the leaders in testing. They covered less ground, at slower speeds, than anyone else.

Spanien Formel 1 Testfahrten in Barcelona (Getty Images/M. Thompson)

There's very little evidence that McLaren or Fernando Alonso's fortunes are likely to improve

Even before the first race of the season, reports are circulating that the team is sounding out Mercedes - hoping to switch engines for the 2018 campaign. It's hard to know who to sympathize with more: double world champion Fernando Alonso doomed to another season of mediocrity, or promising Belgian rookie Stoffel Vandoorne - who likely won't have the hardware necessary to make a splash in his first full F1 season.

What can we expect from the new owners of F1?

It's early days in a complex and costly endeavor for Liberty Media, so don't expect an immediate revolution. Even the new 2017 rules are entirely the brainchild of the outgoing management and the current grid.

What is likely to change relatively quickly, however, is the attitude to the media. Liberty Media's first substantive alteration was to drastically revise F1's approach to social media - freeing up more content to be shared on platforms like Twitter or Facebook. That's a solid first step towards opening up a series that Bernie Ecclestone sought to keep as exclusive as possible.

What have been the key personnel changes on the grid?

One mover deserves special attention because his chances of success improved immensely in the offseason.

Formel 1 Testfahrt - Valtteri Bottas (picture-alliance/Zuma Wire/Pacific Press/P. Guillen)

A little like Rosberg before him, Valtteri Bottas could provide Hamilton a sterner test than most expect

Nico Rosberg's retirement opened up a prime seat at Mercedes late in the game. The Silver Arrows best option at short notice to partner Lewis Hamilton was Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas. Bottas moved after three seasons at Williams, where he impressed but never finished higher than second. He now has the machinery to try to go one better. Although no household name, the Finn could prove more of a threat to Hamilton than some have suggested. Former engineers at Williams speak highly of his performances, especially of his ability to consistently deliver quick qualifying laps under pressure.

What else is worth noting?

Backmarkers Manor (formerly Marussia - and Virgin before that) are no more. The team's near-permanent battle against bankruptcy finally ended in the offseason. That means the field has shrunk to 10 teams and 20 cars. This made German youngster Pascal Wehrlein homeless, but he has since found a drive with Sauber instead.

And speaking of shrinking, there will be no German Grand Prix, as in 2015. The Nürburgring remains unable to meet the prohibitive prices demanded in exchange for hosting a race. That's why we're back down to 20 Grands Prix this season - after a record 21 in 2016. The season finale is in Abu Dhabi on November 26.

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