For the third year in succession, Formula One was dominated by behemoth Mercedes, which conquered all before it without giving rivals a chance.
Red Bull Racing and Ferrari had their chances, but the fact that Mercedes lost one fewer race this season than in the two prior underlines the lack of competition among the frontrunners.
But the 2016 season was fascinating for other reasons – and, most importantly, for reasons that could have significant consequences in 2017, regardless of the looming regulation changes.
Today The Roar concludes its 2016 F1 commentary with a look at the battle at the pointy end of the grid.
It’s hard to remember Sebastian Vettel smiling. Yes, there was his podium finish in Abu Dhabi, but it would be just as easy to argue it was a smile of relief as any sort of expression of happiness, because Ferrari’s 2016 season was chaotic.
Three wins in Vettel’s debut red season last year set the bar high for a team that was realistically still delicately rebuilding. As a result, the notoriously pressurised Italian environment saw a spectacular implosion this year.
It began with a hopeless tactical defeat in Melbourne, where Vettel could have won the race were it not for a rookie error in not changing his tyres under red-flag conditions. It was exacerbated by president Sergio Marchionne demanding victories begin flowing soon, or else. It culminated with technical director James Allison’s explosive departure halfway through the season. It ended with a distant third place in the constructors’ championship.
Poor strategy, a lack of upgrades, and the sort of conservatism that suffocates teams are all to blame for Ferrari – the most handsomely paid team in the sport – failing to deliver even a single victory this season.
Four-time champion Vettel is so frustrated that his on-track performances have suffered, bringing teammate Kimi Räikkönen onto almost equal footing in their partnership. The latter is motivated by his lack of opportunity elsewhere, but another year or two of poor cars is sure to force Vettel down the Fernando Alonso route of early departure.
Red Bull Racing
Red Bull Racing rebounded from a disappointing 2015 campaign with such aplomb that its meagre three-podium haul last season has been almost completely forgotten.
Their fourth place in the 2015 championship was largely down to the ailing Renault power unit, but so too did the team have to learn to temper expectations and maximise what was available, instead of perpetually aiming for victory.
The 2016 season was a culmination of that learning experience. Red Bull started the year with little expectation and earnt much – 16 podiums, including the year’s only two non-Mercedes wins – to finish a confident second on the championship table, well ahead of Ferrari.
The decision to switch Daniil Kvyat for Max Verstappen – as inspired as it was cruel for the Russian – enhanced the reinvigoration, and the Dutchman has pushed teammate Daniel Ricciardo into a higher gear, the two bringing the team up with them.
The team also hasn’t let a non-championship year go to waste, and spent the second half of the season testing Mercedes for weak spots on the strategy front. Some ambitious strategies allowed them to learn how Mercedes strategist James Vowles managed tactics, which will be invaluable information in a 2017 title fight.
As competent a team as Red Bull Racing is, it loses points for bungling a sure win in Monaco, the one race you’re not supposed to throw away, and for only half-heartedly acknowledging the role of Renault’s improved engine in its success.
There’s only so much you can say about a team as dominant as Mercedes. They are functioning at such a high level that three seasons of stable regulations have barely diminished their advantage – though it was fortunate Ferrari and Red Bull Racing tripped over themselves in race-winning positions at various points this season.
The only weakness was in dealing with its drivers. When Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton crashed in Spain the reaction was measured – Toto Wolff put this down to a statistical inevitability – but their comparatively smaller collision in Austria sent the team into meltdown.
The so-called ‘rules of engagement’ were redefined, and though no further major flashpoints occurred, reports have suggested the team – and Hamilton, in particular – were on the brink of falling out at various points throughout the season.
With Rosberg gone however, the team may earn a year or two of relative quiet on this front should his replacement prove less than a match for Hamilton’s natural talent.
On the other hand, with executive director Paddy Lowe rumoured to be shipping out at the end of the year, will the all-conquering Mercedes team be able to keep all the balls in the air over an off-season of significant change?
Mercedes – 9/10
What did you make of the 2016 championship? Which teams and drivers impressed, and which let you down? Leave a comment blow.
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