The 2017 Formula One season featuring the 68th Formula One World Championship was one of the most anticipated seasons in the recent history of Formula One for more reasons than one. The emergence of new Formula One Management team other than Bernie Ecclestone’s management and tweaks in the technical regulations relating to bodywork design of Formula One cars with the objective of improving lap times by four to five seconds over the 2016 generation of cars dominated focus coming into this season.
As the season reaches midway point after the 10th race of the 20-race season went down at Silverstone last weekend.
The first part of this 2-series review focuses on major talking points of the season so far. From the misery at McLaren to the new found rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, the 2017 Formula One season has really lived up to expectations.
A quick recap……
Mercedes’ driver Lewis Hamilton trails Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel by a single point after ten of 20 races this season. Vettel’s massive 20-point advantage was reduced significantly at Silverstone after the Mercedes’ driver secured his fourth win of the season on a weekend Vettel suffered a rare but potentially costly blip.
Hamilton has won four races, one more than Vettel’s three this season, and the Briton has six pole positions to Vettel’s one, but the German’s greater consistency is the difference. The Ferrari’s driver has the equal best average qualifying position with Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas despite not having the fastest car over one lap – this consistency has been aided by the user-friendly character of the Ferrari SF70-H.
While Hamilton has had four difficult weekends in ten – off-form in Russia and Monaco, a win lost to a loose head restraint in Azerbaijan and a five-place grid penalty for an unauthorised gearbox change in Austria, Vettel has had a relatively easy ride through the season until the unfortunate tyre incident at Silverstone.
The Liberty Media frenzy
The biggest news coming into this season was the $8billion acquisition of Formula One by media giant, John Malone’s Liberty Media from CVC Capital Partners.
In September 2016, Liberty Media had purchased a minority stake in the sport from CVC Capital Partners, and completed the purchase ahead of the 2017 season, with the long-term goal of adopting a model similar to that used by the U.S. National Football League and Major League Baseball, with teams entitled to purchase a stake in the sport.
However, on January 23rd 2017, Liberty Media Corporation and Delta Topco, the parent company of Formula One confirmed that Liberty Media had completed its previously announced acquisition of Formula One, the iconic global motorsports business, from a consortium of sellers.
The announcement which was viewed by many within Formula One paddock as a positive development for the cash-generating glamour sport heralded raft of changes to follow. The commercial operation of the sport underwent a restructuring with Bernie Ecclestone leaving his role as Chief Executive of Formula One Group after forty years in the role. Former team principal, Ross Brawn – who won World Championship with Ferrari and his own eponymous team, was appointed as Managing Director in Ecclestone’s stead.
Also, Chase Carey the executive vice-chairman of 21st Century Fox was appointed as Chief Executive Officer of Formula One, in addition to his existing role as Chairman, and Bernie Ecclestone as Chairman Emeritus.
With the acquisition of the sport by Liberty Media, teams were given more control over creating and uploading content to social media. Under Bernie Ecclestone’s previous management, all footage filmed in the paddock was automatically controlled by Formula One Management with tight restrictions on the release of content. This is in addition to teams being given the opportunity to participate in the investment into the sport – the initiative which has gained the interest of some teams already.
Already, many are beginning to count the gains of Formula One’s new owners – the sport is beginning to attain new heights, new audiences are being targeted with increased fan’s base and attendances at races so far this season.
McLaren-Honda relationship at the brink
The 2017 Formula One season represents an all round struggle for McLaren, the struggle is not just about scoring points, but about finishing races, no thanks to the faltering Honda’s power unit.
Honda’s difficult start to its third season back in Formula One with McLaren has left the team further off the pace than expected this year, with Fernando Alonso’s ninth place in Baku the only points finish for the team so far as it sits at the bottom of the constructors’ standings. With unreliability plaguing the MCL32, Stoffel Vandoorne has already partly exceeded his penalty-free engine element usage for the whole season, while Fernando Alonso has only seen the chequered flag once.
But team chief Eric Boullier insists the situation is not irretrievable for 2017 and that both team and engine provider are working as hard as they can to deliver heavily-improved performance.
“We have to be the best ourselves before we see the global picture,” McLaren’s racing director said.
“Honda are doing the same and we try to work as hard as possible to make sure we will catch up.’’
Speculation in recent weeks has suggested Honda have sought the help of external consultants, including Mercedes and renowned engine specialists Ilmor, in a bid to turn their Formula One fortunes around.
Although engine boss Yusuke Hasegawa said he would not disclose any such details, he promised that Honda “are trying everything” to catch up since the start of the year.
“There are many programmes ongoing simultaneously so that we see some updates in a few races when we expect to catch up some level of performance,” said Hasegawa.
Meanwhile, despite Honda’s problems, McLaren have dismissed speculation a return to Mercedes power is on the cards for 2018.
This decision is quite understandable.
If the British team were to part company with Honda, this would be less than straightforward – the team currently receives around $100 million, free power units and a significant sponsorship package. Honda also pays half of the drivers’ wages.
When compared to the $18.2 million that Mercedes charges customer teams, it is very difficult to see how it would be possible to make the finances add up; the team has been without a title sponsor since Vodafone left at the end of 2013.
McLaren and Honda enjoyed one of the largest periods of dominance in Formula One history when the two companies partnered up between 1988 and 1992, claiming four constructors’ and drivers’ championship doubles along the way, but the relationship that was rekindled in 2015 has been a stark contrast to the successes of the past.
Now, after a continued faltering performance in 2017 thanks largely to issues within the Honda unit, it would appear as though patience with the Japanese manufacturer is wearing thin.
Fernando Alonso on the edge
Two-time Formula One world champion, Fernando Alonso has endured a humiliating 2017 season. The Spaniard ninth place finish in Baku represents his best performance so far.
The problems have been attributed to the Honda power unit in the car which Alonso himself claims has left him up to 20mph down on rivals in a straight line.
In a move believed to be intended at boosting the morale of Alonso, in April, McLaren’s executive director Zak Brown announced that Alonso would miss the Monaco Grand Prix in order to race in the Indianapolis 500. Alonso was replaced by the retired 2009 Formula One world champion, Jenson Button who is contracted to McLaren as an ambassador.
However, Alonso returned from Indy 500 more livid with McLaren situation that the 32-year old Spaniard issued a carefully worded September ultimatum to the team to improve its performance.
“We have to win,” Alonso said. “If we are winning, before September or something like that, I will make a decision and I will stay. I joined this project because I want to be world champion, and we are not in that position. If you don’t see things changing and you are not competitive, then maybe you change projects.”
However, with 10 races down and the Spaniard yet to make decision, it appears as though as the next 10 races shall decide the future of the beleaguered Formula One jewel.
Finally, Ron Dennis loses boardroom battles
The biggest, but surely not the most shocking news of the season came towards the end of June. Ron Dennis formally ended his role at McLaren, the company he made into one of the most successful Formula One teams of all time.
Dennis, ousted as chief executive officer in November 2016 in a boardroom coup, reportedly sold his 25% shareholding.
As Andrew Benson of the BBC succinctly put it: ‘’At its heart is the story of a broken friendship – between Dennis and fellow shareholder Mansour Ojjeh, who were close allies for three decades before they fell out a few years ago.’’
Departure was always on the card for Ron Dennis and what happened had been on the table for at least three years.
As long ago as early 2013, there had been claims of a fall-out at McLaren, of Ojjeh wanting Dennis out, of the chairman in turn wanting to take majority control of the company and trying to raise the money to do so.
Those stories would not go away.
The deal that would have seen Dennis increase his shareholding from 25% by buying stock from Ojjeh (25%) and Bahrain’s Mumtalakat investment fund (50%) never happened.
In early 2014, Dennis forced out team principal and chief executive Martin Whitmarsh, a close friend of Ojjeh, who was in a hospital bed recovering from a double lung transplant.
Certainly Ojjeh continued to make his life difficult. When, at the end of the season, Dennis wanted to keep Kevin Magnussen to partner Fernando Alonso in 2015, it was Ojjeh who stepped in and undermined him, forcing him to take Jenson Button instead.
It hardly helped that Dennis failed to secure a new title sponsor following the departure of Vodafone in 2013, which many blamed on his refusal to lower McLaren’s rate card despite a changed commercial landscape and the team’s drop in competitiveness.
Formula One and McLaren will struggle to replace an astute but gauche 70-year old Ron Dennis.
The gloves are off in Sebastian Vettel – Lewis Hamilton rivalry
‘’Gloves are off!’’ – that was the catch phrase used by Mercedes’ executive director Toto Wolff while reacting to the incendiary collision between Vettel and Hamilton during this season’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Vettel hit the back of Hamilton’s Mercedes ahead of a safety car restart on lap 19 at Baku before pulling alongside and swerving into the British star. Vettel got an instant 10-second stop-go penalty from the race stewards which enabled the championship leader to finish fifth in the race.
Lewis Hamilton labelled Vettel ‘a disgrace’. ‘’He disgraced himself. If he wants to prove he’s a man we should do it out of the car, face to face.’’
The incident was reviewed by the FIA and decision was reached not to take any further action against the German.
For so many years, Formula One fans had waited for this rivalry between two of Formula One great drivers. Baku incident was, fittingly, a heated moment itself that brought the bromance to an end. It brought to an end the mutual respect that had preceded it and set the tone for a truly championship fight in the modern Formula One era.
With just one point separating the two drivers going into the last 10 races of the season, what had been a gripping tussle for the title now might just have the ingredients to match the heights of Senna v Prost and Piquet v Mansell.
The future of British Grand Prix goes up in flames
The future of one of Formula One’s oldest races was thrown into confusion after the decision of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, owners of Silverstone, to activate a break clause in their contract about three days before this year’s event. The decision which represents a warning signal that unless a new contract is signed, 2019 will be the final year the British Grand Prix takes place at Silverstone was perplexing as much as depressing for many Formula One fans across the globe.
BRDC had warned earlier this year of the potentially ruinous cost of hosting the race under the current contract with the Formula One Group. It is set to run until 2026 but includes a clause that raises the hosting fee each year. It is understood to have been £12m in 2010 and is set to rise to £27m by the contract’s conclusion.
Liberty Media has said it wants to actively engage with circuits in order to help them generate more revenue but in Silverstone’s case they are already almost at capacity in terms of selling tickets. “We are pretty much a full house and we are charging pretty much a full price and we still can’t make the sums add up,” Stuart Pringle, sporting director at Silverstone, said in May.
Silverstone is the only circuit in the UK with the classification to host Formula One and no other credible alternatives have been forthcoming. Should the British Grand Prix not be held it would be the first time since the world championship began in 1950 that it has not been on the calendar. At the Austrian Grand Prix, the McLaren chief executive, Zak Brown, suggested that Liberty should buy the Northamptonshire circuit and use it as an asset to promote the sport.
While the chief executive of Formula One Group Chase Carey has described the decision of BRDC to activate a break clause in their contract as annoying and frustrating, Nigel Mansell British former formula one world champion is convinced the decision was taken in order to renegotiate better deal with Liberty Media. ‘’Hopefully they are taking this decision to announce that they need help and hopefully someone will come forward. F1 has a duty as well to reward the circuits who have been faithful to them over so many years and have made the sport as brilliant as it is.’’
At whatever cost, Formula One fans expect the British Grand Prix to remain on the calendar and at Silverstone beyond 2019.
Soliu Adeyemo is a renowned Formula 1 Expert. Follow him @SolihuF1 on Twitter and Instagram for more updates and analysis.