While the jury is out on what impact Formula 1’s 2017 rule overhaul will have on the racing this year, everyone is in agreement that the spectacle would benefit from an even closer fight at the front.
Mercedes’ domination of the sport over the past few seasons has been a turn-off for some fans, but the early threat last year from Ferrari and later on from Red Bull has shown that the Silver Arrows are not in a complete league of their own.
There is potential for a big shake-up in the order this year – and the emphasis on downforce, plus a fired up Adrian Newey, has inevitably singled out Red Bull as the main threat to Mercedes.
But Red Bull chief Christian Horner has been more cautious over the winter, for he is well aware that 2017 is not just about aero and driving talent, because engine power will remain a big factor.
In simple terms, wider, bigger cars need to punch a bigger hole in the air, which will make straight line speeds even more important this year than they have been in the past.
It was interesting this week to hear Renault F1 managing director Cyril Abiteboul say: “With the new aerodynamic regulations for the 2017 Formula 1 season, power sensitivity will increase.”
For Horner, a man who has got well used to a power deficit, that does not appear to be the best of news. However, he feels that if engine partner Renault can get within range of Mercedes, then Red Bull will be able to do the rest.
The three percent figure
Red Bull got back to winning ways last year as Renault’s restructuring of its F1 efforts helped it push forward and close the gap to Mercedes.
There remained clear power differences though – with Horner himself saying during 2016 that the gap was around 35Kw – around 45 horsepower. In percentage terms, it was estimated to be just above five per cent.
Hopes are high, however, that an all-new Renault power unit coming for this season can help the deficit be cut further, and Horner suggested prior to the off-season that just halving the gap would be enough for his team to get in the game.
“I think if we got back within three percent, which is where we were with the V8, then you’re in the hunt from there,” he told Motorsport.com. “And hopefully, with stability, we should be able to get there.”
Fighting talk then from Milton Keynes.
Renault will not know where it stands against Mercedes until pre-season testing at the earliest, but it is determined to pull out all the stops to keep marching forward.
Abiteboul thinks it too simple, however, to state that a three percent horsepower deficit will make Red Bull automatic title contenders.
“It is a very exciting time for everybody in F1,” said Abiteboul over the winter. “Clearly last season if they had been within three percent that would for sure have been better, but I am not sure that would have been enough to fight for the championship.
“We know where they want to be. We are committed to having the best engine in the grid. Not just within one percent, but to have the best.
“And we think we have a number of idea of technological concepts that can allow us to be better than Mercedes in the future.”
Renault is keeping tight-lipped about exactly what innovations are coming for its engine, but there is one known factor that could help shake things up further – a change of fuel and oil suppliers.
And in an era of engine rules where fuel is so important, with Petronas having been viewed as such an important element of Mercedes’ success, the changes may well impact competitiveness.
As Abiteboul explained: “We have looked at the different key success factors of where Mercedes is today and among the different ingredients, maybe those that people didn’t look at the start.
“Petronas is one element – both from a technical perspective but also from a commercial and financial perspective and marketing perspective.
“Petronas is completely committed to F1, fully focused on F1, which means they make sure to provide good products and also are able to make sure to sponsor the team at a level which will give the team the capacity to invest in people and technology and drivers and so on and so forth.
“So, yes – homologating a new petroleum partner – one or maybe two – is a risk, but in my opinion it is a risk that is completely worth taking if we want to be in line with our ambitions.”
But does he feel it would have been a help if Renault and Red Bull had the same partner?
“I always prefer simplicity because we have enough complexity to absorb, so it is better if it is only one,” he said. “But there are a number of engine suppliers who have been very successful in the past with two homologations.
“I would say also having two creates diversity, creates competition, creates inspiration – just like having different customer teams, Red Bull is a great inspiration for Enstone and a benchmark.
“Benchmarking is not unnecessary in the sport – but it means something in terms of operations, in terms of ring fencing IP because we want to protect IP of everyone we are working with, and it is completely fair. It is an extra concern but not something that is not achievable.”
Red Bull is certainly taking nothing for granted just yet, even though excitement is mounting about what it will deliver in 2017.
“Let’s see with the new regulations,” said Horner at the end of last year. “They represent an opportunity [for Red Bull], but for sure Mercedes will be the favourites going into next year – and why shouldn’t they be?
“They dominated the last three years, they still have an incredibly strong power unit. We’re relying on our [Renault] colleagues in Viry to hopefully make a similar amount of progress over the winter as last winter. And then it’s a question of who’s interpreted the regulations better on the chassis side.
“But of course the exciting thing about any new set of regulations is you don’t really know. Has something been missed, like the double diffuser, for example? But the cars for sure are going to be a lot quicker, a lot more challenging – and it’ll create bigger differentials between the drivers as well.”
The ingredients are there for a shake-up, but we will only find out what has been served up when the racing gets under way in Melbourne.