The 2017 Formula One season ended with a somewhat passive finale at Abu Dhabi, with Valtteri Bottas taking his 3rd victory of the season in a race that had the end-of-term vibes to it, given both championships were sealed long before the race in the twilight had come around. The race had the Mercedes pairing of Bottas and Lewis Hamilton running away with it at the front, with Ferrari and Red Bull lagging far behind. A microcosm of the hybrid era you may think, although this season was far from the norm we grew accustomed to.
Mercedes were given an actual challenge for the championships by the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel, and were made well aware of the threat of the Scuderia from the off, with Vettel beating Hamilton by 10 seconds in Australia. Unlike in previous seasons where a non-Mercedes victory was seen as a one-off or even from a mistake by Mercedes themselves, the challenge by Vettel and Ferrari was a bona fide threat that had troubled the Silver Arrows throughout the season. Tussles in Russia, Spain, Azerbaijan, and Belgium showed that Ferrari were more than a match to break the dominance that Mercedes had prided themselves over for the last 3 seasons. It was always going to be a difficult task for the Ferrari to overhaul the Silver Arrows however. With near bulletproof reliability from Mercedes, as well as the underperformance of Kimi Raikkonen, who despite his one-off shows of prowess such as taking pole at Monaco proved he is very much past his prime, Mercedes always seemingly had the edge.
Ultimately however, it was mistakes and errors by Ferrari themselves that cost them their fair chance at glory. A rash error of judgement from Vettel in Azerbaijan cost him a guaranteed podium finish at the very least. A chaotic start at the Singapore Grand Prix, a race they should’ve run away with given their technical advantage over Mercedes at the track, resulted in a double retirement for Ferrari for the first time since Mexico 2015, the first double retirement on lap 1 in Ferrari’s history, and the constructor’s championship gone in a flash. In Malaysia, a turbo failure meant Vettel had to battle from the back to finish 4th, while a spark plug failure at Japan meant the title was gone and Hamilton would win once more. A calamitous Asian leg for Vettel, and his wait for Title No.5 would continue…
Looking further down the field, there was a number of breakthroughs for drivers. Carlos Sainz had a season of tremendous success, consistently scoring decent points finishes for the team and single-handedly secured Toro Rosso 7th place in the championship over Haas, with a 4th place finish at Singapore being his main highlight of the season. His reputation improved drastically over the season, becoming a fan’s favourite and being tipped as a front-runner for the Ferrari seat when Kimi Raikkonen leaves the team. His efforts did not go unnoticed in the paddock, with Renault coming in to secure his services for the final 4 Grand Prix at the expense of Jolyon Palmer, and even managed to achieve a 7th place finish at his first Grand Prix for Renault in the USA. Make no mistake, Carlos Sainz is a phenomenal talent who will go a long way when given the right opportunity.
Another driver whom had a fantastic season was Esteban Ocon in the Force India. Considering it was his first full season in Formula One after his cameo at Manor in 2017, Ocon showed why he’s been touted as one of the future stars of the sport, and why Mercedes prefer him to Pascal Wehrlein in their Young Driver programme. In scoring points in 18 Grand Prix out of 20, with only an uncompetitive car in Monaco and a collision with Romain Grosjean in Brazil diminishing this record, Ocon proved more than a match for his team-mate Sergio Perez in the Force India. While he was involved in some notable in-race incidents with Perez, this did not damage his reputation as one of the most promising talents in the sport, and showed that he can perform from the get-go as long as the car is competitive. Given he’s been touted as Mercedes’ next driver-in-waiting, this season confirmed you can expect some great moments from Ocon in the future.
However, the struggles continued at McLaren-Honda in 2017. Like in previous seasons, McLaren were tormented by constant reliability issues with their Honda engine. It was calculated that Stoffel Vandoorne had over 1 mile’s worth of grid penalties because Honda’s package was so troublesome, while Fernando Alonso made his displeasure of his engine public through his humorous radio messages. It is a shame that McLaren have had to face such problems, because the chassis design was actually a very effective piece of kit. Solid results at Hungary and Singapore, tracks that are not dependent on engine power, showed that the car was decent, yet it was the sheer lack of power that Honda’s engine produced which was holding McLaren back. The relationship between McLaren and Honda reached breaking point, and McLaren decided to end their partnership only three years into a ten-year deal, choosing to use Renault engines from next season. It was supposed to be a match made in heaven given their past glories, but it turned out to be a nightmare scenario.
Away from the track, Liberty Media’s ownership of the sport showed signs of clear progression from the past incarnation under the stewardship of Bernie Ecclestone. Fan engagement is the crucial factor in Liberty’s eyes to pushing the sport to new boundaries, with social media platforms being utilised effectively for the first time in the sport’s existence, and a blessed relief for its eager followers. The street demo in London was an amazing success. Even without Lewis Hamilton’s attendance at his home event, relative newcomers to watching Formula One were captivated by the spectacle it brought to the heart of the UK’s capital city, and people genuinely enjoyed themselves. The ‘walk-on’ entrance to the United States Grand Prix, partnered by the dulcet tones of sporting extraordinaire Michael Buffer, transformed what was a very generic procedure in drivers taking to the grid, even if not everyone liked the concept. Even the sport’s logo has changed to a more modern approach.
All of this is a clear indication that Liberty wants to take Formula One into a completely new direction, away from the stagnant state it was in under Ecclestone’s rule. They want to create a sport which people can enjoy, a sport that is no longer “under-managed and under-invested in” as F1’s commercial director Sean Bratches quite appropriately puts it. Especially when the sport is moving towards Pay-TV deals such as Sky’s exclusivity deal in 2019, securing a fan base in these circumstances is crucial to a sustainable sport, and these initial steps are an encouraging foundation to build on.
When looking back on this season in the future, it may not necessarily stand out amongst the crowd given a Mercedes car won the Championship for the fourth year in succession. However, the back story behind it is a fascinating legacy that will hopefully flourish for years to come. Will drivers such as Carlos Sainz and Esteban Ocon use this season’s glories to push further forward in their careers? Will Liberty’s initial progression prove to be the building blocks of producing a truly global sport for everyone? Will a team step up their development and be a match for Mercedes all season long in 2018?
Only time will tell.