Heading into the 2016 Formula One season, the 67th since the World Championship began back in 1950, there was an air of optimism.
The previous two campaigns had been walkovers for Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton, with no real serious threat to usurp their dominance.
There had been the death of Jules Bianchi in July 2015, and the uncompetitive nature of the Renault and Honda power units meant that by the end of 2015, things weren’t in a good way.
However, 2015 had shown that Ferrari and new signing Sebastian Vettel were on course to take the fight to the Silver Arrows, and a titanic showdown between Vettel and Hamilton for the title was about to ensue.
After sensational rookie seasons, Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz were both eager to show what they could do at Toro Rosso, with Danill Kvyat’s seat at Red Bull looking unsafe and his position at the senior team under threat from the drivers of the junior squad.
There was also the arrival of a new team, the first since 2010. Haas F1 Team, set up by NASCAR legend Gene Haas, had to be taken seriously, as they had a Ferrari technical link-up, which some teams felt went a little too far, and had secured Romain Grosjean.
Renault returned as a manufacturer, taking over the Enstone based Lotus team, again, and began to put in place a development cycle that would eventually one day see the team at the front, fighting for wins and titles once again.
After the embarrassment of 2015, McLaren-Honda were feeling positive. Honda had had a year to get back up to speed, and their new power unit was not only more powerful, but most importantly was reliable.
In the end, it was Nico Rosberg who toppled his team-mate to take his maiden world crown, by the margin of just five points, with the identity of the World Champion unknown until the final corner of the final lap in Abu Dhabi.
Ferrari Faux Pas, fortunate Fernando
With so much optimism and a feel good vibe surrounding it, as is often the case with F1, it found a way to shoot itself in the foot.
Toward the end of pre-season, Bernie Ecclestone and race promoters wanted a way to spice up the show, to create more randomised grids, with the faster cars having to come from far back, to aid overtaking.
They decided to tinker with the one aspect of a Grand Prix weekend that works. Qualifying. An elimination style format was drawn up, where in the three segments of the session, after a period of time had elapsed the slowest driver would be eliminated every 90 seconds until that segment had ended.
In theory, this was a good idea, as drivers would be put under pressure to deliver on their first flying lap, or find themselves out of positon on the grid. At the end of Q1 in Melbourne, Jolyon Palmer on debut for Renault showed how the system was meant to work, knocking Marcus Ericsson out in the dying seconds, placing the Sauber in the 'red-zone' when the 90 second timer ran out.
In practice, it was a disaster. At the crescendo of the first session to use the format, Ferrari’s Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen were out of their cars, being weighed, before they were even eliminated.
Christian Horner apologised on behalf of F1 to the fans for the debacle, and it was agreed that for the next round, in Bahrain, the tried, tested and loved ‘Knockout’ format would make a return.
In the Australian Grand Prix, Ferrari threw the race away, with a strategy mis-step, by fitting another set of supersoft tyres to Vettel, during the red-flag period.
This was caused by the massive accident that befell Fernando Alonso. On the run to turn three, the Spaniard misjudged where Esteban Gutierrez would brake. The result was a terrifying high-speed accident, that wrote MP4-31 #1 completely off, and left the double world champion with broken ribs, and a race lay-off.
Rosberg was the benefactor of Ferrari’s mis-judgement, cruising home to take the first 25 points of the season. After a bad start, Hamilton was able to recover, with a long first stint, to take second.
Red Bull were surprised with how the new Renault power unit was performing, and Daniel Ricciardo was able to come home a comfortable fourth.
In sixth, was Grosjean, who on Haas’s debut scored eight points, with a clever strategy.
Over the course of their time in F1, Pirelli have often been criticised for the nature of their tyres. Either they are too soft and wear out too quickly, 2013, or blow-up on their own accord, also 2013.
However, the Italian company decided to start to bring three types of slick tyre to each race, as opposed to the long-established two. The result of this was that there was much more variation in strategy and the race in Melbourne was interesting as all the differing ideas panned out.
Lesson still not learnt
Two weeks on in Bahrain, F1 still hadn’t learnt its lesson, and the elimination qualifying was still being used. Ecclestone and Jean Todt put forward an aggregate style system, where two laps would count for pole. (This was last used in 2005, and scrapped after a handful of races.) this was rejected, and F1 was at left to make a fool of itself. Again.
The race itself was effectively over after turn one, as Hamilton got a poor start from pole and was side-swiped by Valtteri Bottas, allowing Rosberg to escape up the road.
Raikkonen had made a poor start, which Ferrari believed eventually cost him the win.
But at least he had made the start, something that couldn’t be said about Vettel, whose power unit went pop on the formation lap, the first DNS of his career.
Grosjean and Haas’s dream start continued, with a fifth place finish, to leave the team on 18 points after two races and leading Grosjean to describe the VF-16 as “the best car I’ve ever driven.”
Standing in for the injured Alonso, Stoffel Vandoorne not only out-qualified Jenson Button, on debut but raced to P10, to score McLaren’s first point of the year.
The theories start
Heading to Shanghai, elimination qualifying was finally eliminated itself, and Hamilton was hoping to reduce the gap that Rosberg had in the early title race. Rosberg had won both races to sit on 50 points, with a second and third enough for 33 for the Brit.
However, a gearbox penalty seemed bad enough, but it was to get a lot worse for Hamilton, as his Mercedes W07 Hybrid PU106C began a diet on MGU-K and turbos.
A failure in Q1 left Hamilton last on the grid, and an eventful race saw him come home seventh, having collided with Felipe Nasr on the opening lap, and then struggling to overtake Felipe Massa later in the race.
Red Bull’s early season promise exploded, as did Ricciardo’s left rear on lap three, whilst in the lead. This left Rosberg to cruise home, 30 seconds ahead of the pack, to take a third win of 2016, and sixth in a row.
But whilst Ricciardo came home for a third fourth place in a row, Kvyat was third at the flag, to take just his second podium in F1.
The main talking point was the move on Vettel he made at turn one. The Red Bull dived up the inside, cleanly and fairly, forcing Vettel to jink left, into team-mate Raikkonen.
The German quite quickly apportioned blame to the young Russian, saying he was a “mad-man” and in the cool down room before the podium saying “you came like a torpedo.” Kvyat effectively told Vettel to stop moaning and get over it.
In Sochi, things went from bad to worse for Hamilton, as he suffered another MGU-K failure in qualifying and was left P10 on the grid, Rosberg on pole.
At the start, homeboy Kvyat rammed Vettel, twice, causing the Ferrari into the barriers and retirement. Vettel, not the only time in the season, turned the airwaves blue and made his views known.
The chase of Rosberg was halted when Hamilton’s car developed low water-pressure, and was forced to ease off, allowing the German to win his seventh consecutive race, and make it 100 points from 100 in 2016.
This spanned the ridiculous theories that Mercedes were deliberately sabotaging Hamilton as they wanted a German to win in a German car. Toto Wolff refused to dignify the theories with a response.
Despite a fourth and fifth in Russia, it was becoming clear that Williams were going to struggle, as Red Bull had jumped them in performance, and the team decided early on to devote their attention to the 2017 car, with the new technical regulations.
After four races, Rosberg had 100 points from 100, Hamilton just 53. If fate were to be believed, any driver who won four in a row at the start of the season, had go on to take the title.
"He's crashed into his team-mate"
The decision to relieve Kvyat of his Red Bull drive and demote him to Toro Rosso, and promote Verstappen the other way, had more politics to it then driving performance.
Yes, the Russian had struggled, but was on the podium in China, but Red Bull did not want to lose its newest star to Mercedes or Ferrari, and so something drastic needed to happen. And so it did.
The press conference in Spain was a touchy affair, with Kvyat and Verstappen seated next to each other, alongside Sainz. To say it was awkward was an understatement.
Sometimes, in F1 things happen for a reason. In just his 23rd race in the sport, Verstappen won the Spanish Grand Prix, expertly defending from Raikkonen, as the duo tried to make their medium tyres last the 30 or so laps from their final stop.
The reason why Red Bull and Ferrari were fighting for the win was because at turn four, the Hamilton and Rosberg decided to play team-mate Total Wipeout.
From pole, another bad start from the Brit allowed Rosberg to get the jump into turn one. However, the German was in the incorrect engine setting, and began to de-rate, or slow down.
The golden rule of motorsport is do not crash into your team-mate. That is the ultimate cardinal sin. You just don't do it.
Sensing an opportunity, Hamilton dived up the inside, went on the grass and that was that. Many expected Wolff to explode with rage, but he was quite statesman like. He explained that he thought the incident would act like a pressure release and allow a reset of tensions. He wouldn’t accept a repeat.
The comeback begins
In a word, Daniel Ricciardo was stunning in Monaco. A barn-storming lap in Q3 secured a maiden pole, and he was all set to take the win they all dream of, until his team fumbled the switch from Inters to Slicks.
Hamilton, who was let through by an off the boil Rosberg, was kept out by Mercedes strategist James Vowles on full wets until the track dried enough for slicks, opting for the new compound, the ultrasoft.
The usually ever-smiling Aussie was devastated on the podium, telling his team on the in-lap “nothing you can say, can make up for that.”
Behind him, Sergio Perez kick-started Force India’s season, with a much deserved third place, having held off Vettel for the majority of the race. Team-mate Nico Hulkenberg mugged Rosberg on the run to the line for sixth, to secure the team their best ever result in a race.
In this single race, Hamilton had cut the gap to Rosberg from 43 points to 24, and finally had his first win of the campaign. Next up, was Canada.
The next part of VAVEL UK’s 2016 Formula One season review covers Canada to Germany and the mid-season break and will be available in the next few days.