Pre-Season Testing – The Upper Midfield

Having already looked at the teams most likely to stand on the top step of the podium, it’s time to look at ‘The Best of the Rest.’

Last year, the team to hold that distinction was clearly Force India.  Their nearly superhuman effort to punch above their weight despite having an inferior budget to those around them was nothing short of incredible.  However, their success was due, in large part, to Williams floundering, and the failure of Renault to succeed upon their re-entry to the sport as a full fledged manufacturer.

What will this year bring?  See below.

 

Toro Rosso

More than any other team on the grid, Toro Rosso is most at home in the midfield.  As the so called ‘feeder’ team to big sister Red Bull, they always seem to be deliberately pushed behind and towards the back of the pack.  However, in the past several years, they have begun to take on a life of their own and show themselves less as a baby Red Bull team and more of a fully functioning member of the grid.

The 2017 season sees the Italian squad debuting their first new livery since entering the sport.  And, holy hell, it’s a looker.  Gone is the navy and red that we are so accustomed to seeing.  Those old colors have instead been been replaced by a truly spectacular silver and blue design that, without out question, is the most stunning paint jobs on the grid.  But championship points aren’t awarded for being pretty.  So let’s get to the actual car.

Unlike many other teams, Toro Rosso has adopted a Mercedes style wing, meaning they lack the semi-phallic thumb and instead have a more traditional looking protuberance at the front end of their car.  As I’ve said previously, it may be slightly disconcerting to some that they are going with a style of wing that only other one team uses, but that team has won the past three years, so they’re clearly on to something.  Toro Rosso have also adapted the high mounted suspension of the Mercedes, which if the experts are to believed, should give them an aerodynamic advantage by better channeling the air through the suspenion.  Added to this, they have adopted a pseudo-Ferrari style air intake on the side pod.  While not nearly as pronounced as the side pods on the Ferrari, the Toro Rosso still sees the side pods raised enough over the suspension, so as to allow cooler, unaltered air to flow directly into the radiators.  This should help the engine stay cooler, and like the Ferrari, potentially allow for the Renault powered Toro Rosso to run at a higher wick.  But here we come back to the problem that may plague Toro Rosso throughout the season, the Renault engine.  Similar to their sister team, Red Bull, Toro Rosso’s success relies almost whole heartedly on the success of the new Renault engine.  In testing, bug after bug seemed to crop up and give the team problems.  That said, last year the team was saddled with year old Ferrari engines, and managed to still rake in a respectable number of points to finish 7th overall.

Keeping the same driver lineup for the next season, Toro Rosso will hope to build on that success.  But will they?  It’s hard to tell.  On the one hand, Carlos Sainz Jr. is without question one of the brightest young talents in the F1 paddock.  When racing against his now race winning teammate, Max Verstappen, Sainz showed he was not only on pace with the young Dutchman, but often times faster.  Sainz has shown time and time again that, given a strong enough  car, he will punch above his weight and bring in a good slew of points.  As for the other driver…  Well, that’s a different story.  Daniil Kvyat was unceremoniously booted from Red Bull after his home race and was resigned to wallow in mediocrity for most of the season.  While he did get better at the tail end of 2016, he was consistently outshone by Sainz.  While there is hope that he will get a little bit of his mojo back and help the team do well, I seriously doubt if we will see him in a race car come this time next year.  He simply does not have the talent to be racing at this level, plain and simple.

So, all in all, I think this will actually be brilliant year for Toro Rosso.  If Renault manages to get their act together, which they have promised to do, we could very well be looking at consistent points finishes from the team, and, dare I say it, perhaps even a podium by Sainz.

Predictions: 4th in Constructors.  SAI: 7th in WDC, KVY 14th in WDC

 

Force India

Force India were the surprise upstarts of last year, putting themselves back on the podium again and proving that you can do (almost) anything you set your mind to.  That said, their robust pairing of Perez and Hulkenberg is gone now, Hulkenberg being replaced with young Estaban Ocon.  While this certainly hurts the teams chemistry and talent level, preseason testing has shown us that Ocon is worth his weight, his times being relatively close to those of teammate Perez.

Their car, which will take some getting used to now as it has been covered in pink paint (which for the record if they don’t get Pink to show up to one race and pose with the team, they’re doing it wrong), seems to keep some of the same philosophies that brought them success in last year’s championship.  The nose is more or less a continuation of the team’s novel ‘punched’ nose that ran the past two years, only updated to fit this years regulations.  Just glancing at it, it is quite reminiscent to the twin tusk nose Lotus ran several years ago, however that nose went over about as well as Nigel Mansel shaving off his mustache, so it will be interesting to see if Force India can find success with a similar design this time around.  The mountings around the side pods carries a similar design to that of the Ferrari or the Renault (more on the below), but without as many bells and whistles.   I wouldn’t be surprised to see this as an area for further development, as it looks pretty basic as of now.  It may be that they are waiting for more data to improve the design and maximize it for high downforce tracks like Spain or Monaco.

I firmly believe the case is still out on Force India.  They have the fully updated Mercedes engine, so they will be strong at the high power circuits like China or Monza, but I’m not so sure how their aerodynamic package will work out they hope.  They are really the only team on the grid to be trying this type of nose design, so, as with many things in this sport, it could prove brilliant or blow up in their face.  In terms of drivers, I’ve long thought that Sergio Perez is one of the better, more underrated drivers on the grid, so I expect him to do extremely well once again.  Ocon, on the other hand, is more of an unknown quantity.  He was able to run toe to toe with Wehrlein, yes, but I haven’t seen any major flashes of brilliance from him, yet.  I expect him to get in the points from time to time, but not to be a constant points scorer.   Perez, however, just might nab himself another podium this year.

Predictions: 5th in Constructors.  PER: 8th in WDC.  OCO: 12th in WDC

 

Renault

While it is incredibly strange to see a true works team scrapping away in the midfield, Renault has proven that since the their Flavio/Fernando glory days, they are nothing but a true midfield team.  The addition of Nico Hulkenberg to the team this year is sure to give them a massive lift, however, the retention of Joylon Palmer is anything but.  Yes, Palmer had a better second half of the season, but that’s kind of like comparing different seasons for Minardi: one might have been better than the other, but on the whole the body of work wasn’t exactly stellar.

In terms of the car, Renault comes into the season with the first car they were wholly able to design to their specifications (the 2016 model was originally designed to house a Mercedes power unit), so there is hope that the team will do better than it did during 2016.  That said, while Hulkenberg was able to put in some decent times behind the wheel, Palmer did not and stayed consistently in the lower middle of the field.  To make matters worse, Renault seemed to endure issue after technical issue, ending the test with the third fewest laps of any team.  You don’t have to be Ross Brawn to know that this does not bode well for the team’s prospects.  That said, power unit issues aside, the RS17 is a fairly standard issue car, especially when it comes to the aerodynamics.  The front wing maintains the ‘thumb nose’ and the side pods haven’t seem to have gone through any major facelifts.  The most interesting part of the car, to me at any rate, is cage like side pod wings that extend from the center of the chassis and down along the side pods themselves.  Logically, these are there in order to angle the air better towards the back of the car and reduce drag.  We’ve seen somewhat similar designs on other cars, but the semi-circular aspect of the Renault’s design is fairly novel, so it will be interesting to see what effect it has on the car’s performance.

All in all, this does not look like a great year for Renault.  Likely, they will be fighting for points.  They will, more than likely than not, haul in more points than they did last year, but a podium seems unlikely unless Hulkenberg can put together a Le Mans-esque performance and put the car where none of us thought it could go.  He will probably be the sole point winner for the team, as I don’t see Palmer being able to compete with the likes of him or those around him, for that matter.  It’ll be a tough year, but a good one.  And one that could potentially see them start to eek closer to their goal of getting back among the big boys.

Predictions: 6th in Constructors.  HUL: 8th in WDC.  PAL: 14th in WDC.

 

File Under: Pre-Season, F1, What The Hell Do I Know?

 

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