As we edge ever closer to the start of the 2017 Formula One Season, it is not just the rules and regulations that are changing this year, there are also a number of driver changes, as well as some fresh talent to keep a close eye on too.

On the move…

Valtteri Bottas – Williams Martini Racing to Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team

The biggest move of the year has to be that of Valtteri Bottas to the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team, having replaced outgoing world champion Nico Rosberg, who made the shock announcement that he would be retiring just days after taking the title last year.

The Finn joined the world champions at relatively short notice, leaving him and the team very little time to get acquainted before the work for the new season began.

So far, things have gone extremely well for the 27-year-old, who set the fastest lap time and completed the most laps of any other driver at this week’s pre-season test session at the Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona. Nevertheless, Bottas is not underestimating just how much work is still required to be fully up to speed with his new squad, before he can begin to pose a threat to teammate Lewis Hamilton and challenge for the 2017 title.

Make no mistake, Bottas has certainly proven his talent through his journey to F1, and has not disappointed during his time at Williams Martini Racing, so it will be no easy ride for Hamilton to dominate him.

That Mercedes picked Bottas as their favoured replacement is high praise indeed, and he has been given the perfect opportunity to really impress now that he is driving for a world championship winning team.

This season will no doubt be the biggest test of his life so far, and one that could make or break his F1 career.

Kevin Magnussen – from Renault Sport Formula 1 Team to Haas F1 Team

World © Octane Photographic Ltd. Formula 1 – Winter Test 1. Kevin Magnussen – Haas F1 Team VF-17. Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Tuesday 28th February2017. Digital Ref :1781LB1D8664

Kevin Magnussen has made the switch to the Haas F1 Team on a multi-year deal, after turning down a one-year contract to stay with the Renault Sport Formula 1 Team, an offer the Dane felt was just not good enough.

Since making the move, the French squad have also lost Team Principal Frederic Vasseur, who was one of the major factors in turning the team’s fortunes around and signing up talented Sahara Force India F1 Team driver Nico Hulkenberg for 2017.

Both teams were new boys to the grid last year, Haas having never competed in F1 before, whilst Renault made their return as a full-time constructor.

The American squad got off to one of the best rookie seasons in F1 history, with aggressive tyre strategies really paying off for the team in the early races. After a superb start though, they struggled to maintain that performance and fell away, with driver Romain Grosjean often complaining that the VF16 was un-driveable.

They did manage to earn themselves 29 points however (all scored by Grosjean), which was far better than Renault, who could only manage eight.

That strong early showing was possibly what tempted Magnussen to the American team’s doors, the Dane having now completed two full seasons in F1, with little success. In 2014, he was promoted to a full-time seat at McLaren, but unable to out-do then seasoned teammate Jenson Button in qualifying or race results, he was demoted to reserve driver in 2015, when the Woking based squad signed up Fernando Alonso.

A year without a seat ensued before Magnussen joined the all-new Renault project in 2016. The season began well for the Dane, and despite the RS16 being deemed a tough car to drive, he managed to pick up six points with a seventh place in Russia.

There he had looked like the Formula Renault 3.5 Championship winning Magnussen of old, able to hold his own in the midfield and battle fiercely but fairly with his rivals, but he was unable to re-match that brilliant performance for the remainder of the season, and Renault’s chances as well as Magnussen’s faded away.

The 2017 season is a crucial one for the Dane, who fell behind lesser thought of teammate Jolyon Palmer in the second half of last year. He must show that he has what it takes to remain in F1, and really come to the fore this season, having received criticism along the way from both McLaren and Renault that he is undisciplined.

In Grosjean, he has a strong teammate, and Magnussen must at least match if not outperform the Frenchman, if he is to prove the doubters wrong.

Haas looked strong during the first week of testing in Barcelona, putting in some strong times, although its brake issues of 2016 are still said to remain. If the American squad can get on top of those, the VF17 could be a strong contender, leaving Magnussen with no excuses and nowhere to hide.

Nico Hulkenberg – Sahara Force India F1 Team to Renault Sport Formula 1 Team

World © Octane Photographic Ltd. Formula 1 – Winter Test 1. Nico Hulkenberg – Renault Sport F1 Team R.S.17. Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Monday 27th February 2017. Digital Ref : 1780LB1D8410

One driver who should have achieved more than he has so far in his career, is Nico Hulkenberg, who has made the move in the opposite direction to Magnussen, taking up the Dane’s seat at Renault, where as a full on constructor the German is hoping he now has his career set.

It was a big gamble however, having left a team on the up in Force India, who had just achieved their best ever result of fourth in the championship last season, and look like they have the engineers and resources to continue on that rich vein of form.

The German is renowned for making the wrong decisions in terms of where he lays his hat, having missed out on numerous occasions despite his undoubted talent. It would be foolish to think that Renault can start challenging for titles this year, but they should at least be able to up their game now in their second season back.

With an all-new engine concept being produced his year, which the French manufacturer believe will bring 0.3 second gains per lap for their teams, Renault and Hulkenberg have a chance to shine.

The French team have performed well so far in pre-season testing, finishing third fastest on the final day in Barcelona last week, so maybe the tides are turning for Hulkenberg, who should not have any problems out performing teammate Palmer, despite the Brit having been with the team a year longer.

Pascal Wehrlein – Manor Racing MRT to Sauber F1 Team

Credit: Sauber F1 Team

Having lost out on the spare seat at Force India to Manor Racing MRT teammate Esteban Ocon, and seen his team of last year go under, Pascal Wehrlein made the switch to the Sauber F1 Team for 2017.

The German performed well last season, taking one point and tenth place for Manor at the Austrian Grand Prix, in what was an extremely accomplished performance from the then rookie, in a tricky machine.

Nevertheless, Force India felt Ocon would be a better fit for their team than Wehrlein, and the German was left to ponder what he needed to do to ensure next time he would be the first name on the list for potential suitors.

So far in 2017, the German has had the worst possible start to pre-season, having had to sit out the first week of testing in Barcelona with a back injury, sustained in a huge crash at the race of Champions, which saw Wehrlein flip his car into the barrier. He walked away unhurt from the accident, however doctors advised him he should sit out the test.

No confirmation has been provided as to whether Wehrlein will make the second week of testing, but social media activity from the German, indicates he is trying his hardest to get back.

That is as it should be too, with Scuderia Ferrari reserve driver Antonio Giovinazzi snapping at his heels, having sat in for Wehrlein at Sauber last week, Wehrlein will have to up his game this season to show he has the potential to be the next big thing.

Esteban Ocon – Manor Racing MRT to Sahara Force India F1 Team

World © Octane Photographic Ltd. Formula 1 – Winter Test 1. Esteban Ocon – Sahara Force India VJM10. Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Wednesday 1st March 2017. Digital Ref :1782CB1D8597

Esteban Ocon came into the 2016 F1 championship halfway through the season, having replaced Rio Haryanto at Manor Racing MRT from Round thirteen onwards.

The Frenchman is a highly rated talent, having had prolific success in the junior formulas, where he beat the likes of now Red Bull Racing driver Max Verstappen to the European Formula 3 title, back in 2014.

That got the attention of Mercedes, who signed him up to their young driver programme, before he went on to take the GP3 title in 2015 as well.

The Frenchman acquitted himself well against Manor teammate and fellow Mercedes protégé Wehrlein in 2016, despite having much less time in the car, and having tested for the Force India team a year earlier where he impressed them with his maturity and talent, he bagged a seat with the Silverstone based team alongside Sergio Perez for 2017.

It was a positive week of testing for Force India and Ocon, who predominantly used the time to get acquainted with the new car and tyres, ahead of the upcoming season, which is going to be a big test for the Frenchman.

Lining up alongside talented driver Perez, who helped Force India to their best result as well as his own in 2016, Ocon will have to be on his game all year round, if he is to get anywhere near the Mexican and prove he deserves a race seat with a big team in the future.

New blood…

 

Lance Stroll – Williams Martini Racing

World © Octane Photographic Ltd. Formula 1 – Winter Test 1. Lance Stroll – Williams Martini Racing. Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Tuesday 28th February 2017. Digital Ref : 1781LB5D8299

Lance Stroll perhaps has the most to prove this season if he is to shake off the pay driver tag that is heavily emblazoned upon him, after his billionaire father stumped up the cash to enable his seat at Williams Martini Racing.

The Canadian youngster does also have talent to back up the money however, having taken the European Formula 3 championship in dominant style last year. He is prone to the odd mistake however.

So far, 2017 has not gone the way Stroll would have hoped, having suffered three incidents in two days during the first week of testing in Barcelona, with his final off seeing Williams have to pull out of the final day of testing due to lack of parts.

The crashes were by no means massive however, and it was always going to be a steep learning curve for an 18-year-old, making the step up to much bigger and more powerful machinery than he had experienced before.

Stroll will need to make amends in the second week of testing, and make up for the lost track time that he so crucially needed ahead of the new season.

Stoffel Vandoorne – McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team

World © Octane Photographic Ltd. Formula 1 – Winter Test 1. Stoffel Vandoorne – McLaren Honda MCL32. Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Thursday 2nd March 2017. Digital Ref :1783CB1D9366

Stoffel Vandoorne has been on many people’s radars for quite some time, and has long been hailed as a star of the future, having won the Formula Renault 2.0 title in his second season, before joining the McLaren young driver programme and finishing runner-up to fellow Woking protégé Kevin Magnussen in the 2013 Formula Renault 3.5 championship, the following year.

In 2014, he became one of McLaren’s Reserve drivers and moved up to GP2 where he finished second to now Renault Sport Formula 1 Team driver Jolyon Palmer in that maiden season, having taken four victories, including the first race of the campaign.

Winning the 2015 GP2 Championship in dominant style the following year, was not enough to secure the Belgian a seat in F1 in 2016, and so Vandoorne became the official Reserve Driver for the McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team as well as competing in the Japanese Super Formula Series, to keep himself race sharp.

That proved a great move, as it allowed Vandoorne to race in a car that has similar aero and cornering speeds to a F1 machine, and one that will have prepared him well for the increased physical demands on drivers in 2017.

Having filled in for teammate Fernando Alonso at the Bahrain Grand Prix last year, when the Spaniard was side-lined following a horrific crash at the first round of the season in Australia, Vandoorne does have experience of a F1 machine.

The Belgian’s debut could not have gone much better, out qualifying teammate Jenson Button on the Saturday, before securing McLaren’s first point of the season by finishing in an impressive tenth place.

It is a shame then that as Vandoorne finally makes his step up to the pinnacle of motorsport, McLaren are way off where they would like and need to be.

The Woking based squad had a dismal start to pre-season testing in Barcelona last week, losing near enough two days of running to Honda engine issues. They made up some time on the remaining two days, but they were some way off the pace of their rivals, as well as in the mileage stakes.

Add to that the fact that the MCL32 did not look particularly comfortable on track, McLaren seriously need to up their game with a big second test if their future is indeed going to be bright, now they have returned to being orange.

Times up…

At the end of this year, a number of big name drivers have their contracts coming to an end, with the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel all coming onto the market following the conclusion of the 2017 season.

That is perhaps the reason Mercedes only offered Bottas a one-year deal when he made his recent move, leaving themselves in with a chance of being able to select the finest drivers available, when they come to pick a line-up for the following season.

Such a plethora of options would then be on the board, and could even being about the return of an Alonso / Hamilton partnership at the Silver Arrows squad in 2017. Should McLaren Honda fail to deliver for a further season, it is likely the Spaniard would want to cut his ties with the failing squad and either move to a team where he knows he can end his career on a high, or perhaps leave the sport altogether, having become bored with the current generation of cars.

Four-time world champion Vettel would also be available, and could also be looking to move on, if Ferrari cannot get their act together this season. Relations were becoming strained during a difficult 2016, and it is unlikely the German will accept another season without a win to his name.

Another driver that would be ready and available is Carlos Sainz Jr. Having regularly lost out on a full-time seat at Red Bull Racing to his fellow young drivers, and that teams current incumbents having already signed contracts to the end of 2018, it is highly likely the Spaniard would be willing to cut ties with his long-time backers, in a bid to try to advance his career past the level of Toro Rosso.

With that in mind, 2017 is set to be a crucial year for many drivers and teams, who will want to ensure they are in a prime position to take advantage, ahead of negotiations for 2018.