In this week’s episode of the Inside Line F1 Podcast, Mithila and Kunal asks whether new Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas will leave us reminiscing over reigning champions Nico Rosberg.
As we excitedly countdown to the 2017 Australian Grand Prix, we wonder if we’ll be treated to an epic Formula 1 race or a Sunday morning snooze fest?
Will Bottas be able to challenge Lewis Hamilton like his predecessor regularly did? The pressure is on the Finn given that the Mercedes bosses have given him four races to prove himself. But will the fans be as patient?
And there’s more to look forward to in Australia as well. Will Red Bull Racing’s RB13 look different than the one that appeared in pre-season testing?
And what of the rookies, Esteban Ocon and even Lance Stroll?
The curtain has closed on the Bernie Ecclestone years and a new era dawns for Formula 1 in Australia.
There is uncertainty quite what direction the sport will go in partly because the sport’s new owners, Liberty Media, have kept their cards close to their chest since paying $8 billion to buy the product that is F1.
Initially, the man tasked with heading Liberty’s operation, Chase Carey, intimated that Ecclestone would be integral to the sport going forward in the near future at the very least.
But working closely with the octogenarian as the purchase edged ever closely, he realised ties had to be severed entirely – and quite brutally – with F1’s long-term supremo, some would say dictator.
Carey admits he still talks to Ecclestone once or twice a week, which is understandable considering the puppet strings he held over the sport for so long from the minutiae of allocating paddock passes to the big-bucks race deals.
Ecclestone still intends to attend half the races – although Australia won’t be one of them in his role of chairman emeritus – although he does not take too kindly to it.
In the build-up to the first race of F1’s new era, Ecclestone said: “The last thing I am is an ambassador. I’d be a bad one actually,” and he makes clear that the new owners wanted “to get rid of the Bernie era”.
Instead, he will stir from the outside looking in, as he already has done, likening his time at the helm to “a five-star Michelin restaurant” and, with a dig at the new US bosses of the sport, “not a hamburger joint”.
Quite what the future lies in store for F1, no one really knows, some critics even suggesting that is the case for Liberty Media too.
Carey is not an F1 aficionado. Whereas Ecclestone climbed through the ranks of the sport, Carey only attended his first F1 race in September but he is business savvy having formerly worked as Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand man.
But the 62-year-old with the bushy moustache has at least given some hints to what lies ahead in terms of what happened during F1 testing in Barcelona in recent weeks.
There, teams were permitted to use social media to reveal clips of their cars and pit crews in action – a monstrous no, no of the Ecclestone years. It indicated greater freedom for teams and drivers alike but also backed up a previous pledge by Liberty that they would push the digital platform much more.
Such an approach is understandable. F1 wants a younger audience and that is the appeal of a business which globally has seen television viewing figures fall by 200 million since 2008.
Liberty want to make their own mark on the sport, as Carey said in a recent interview, “we clearly want to run the business in a different way”.
F1’s new hierarchy testifies to just that. Instead of just Ecclestone at the top, Carey will be CEO but flanked by two right-hand men: Sean Bratches as managing director of commercial operations, and Ross Brawn, the former Mercedes team principal, as managing director of the sport. In addition, there are plans afoot to double F1’s workforce from a fairly meagre 70.
F1’s most iconic brand, Ferrari, have bought into it – quite literally by buying Liberty Media stock, and other teams have been invited to buy into the same model.
The brief noises that Carey has made in public are partly of evolution, partly revolution.
This week, he told The Times newspaper: “The top line I’ve heard multiple times is that the racing needs to be more exciting and less predictable. The rules have become very complicated. Engineers have overtaken the drivers, so we need to push the drivers back to the forefront.”
More broadly, he adds: “We’re not just shifting ten degrees. We really want to create a new way of doing business and a new culture with a broader universe we deal with.”
One assumes amid the soundbites, Carey has a master plan for F1 for Melbourne and beyond.
The former team owner Eddie Jordan said “goodbye and good riddance Bernie” in a jokey take on the end of the Ecclestone era last week before pointing out the work Ecclestone had done in making Jordan and other’s rich from the sport.
But Jordan also echoed the sentiments of many others: “Thank you Bernie for everything but the sport needs a change.”
What the change proves to be will come clearer from one race weekend to the next.
Not since 1993 when Alain Prost won the world title before calling it quits has the Formula 1 grid been devoid of a defending world champion.
When Prost bowed out with a Williams win, he was 38 and his decision was far from seismic as the one made by Nico Rosberg just days after his crowning glory aged 31 and at the peak of his powers.
Pundits have pored over the decision but the reality is that for the first time in quarter of a century there is no hope of a back-to-back world champion.
The three-time F1 grand prix Johnny Herbert made the point this week that “Formula 1 moves on quickly” and the pondering of what might have been with Rosberg will quickly dissipate.
Quick has been the buzzword of F1 before the onset of the season in Australia, the cars five seconds quicker than last year, with Lewis Hamilton, bidding for a fourth world title, making the point: “It is definitely the fastest I have ever been in F1.”
While his comment centres on the increased speed, at 32 and arguably the peak of his powers – his pace at the end of the season where he won the four last races a testament to that – it is perhaps a nod to his own capabilities at the wheel.
Mercedes may well be matched for speed by Ferrari in winter testing – with Red Bull just marginally back – and Ferrari could well win the season opener, as perhaps Sebastian Vettel should have done a year ago.
But Albert Park can be an anomaly of a track – sometimes a bad judge of the season that lies ahead – and one that suits the Prancing Horse, while Mercedes and Hamilton go into the season knowing that their car habitually goes well everywhere. Ferrari cannot boast that same confidence.
But what winter testing indicated – and using that as a benchmark is never an exact science – is that a duel between the two dominant driving forces of the past decade in Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel look finally set to do battle in even machinery properly and consistently for the first time.
Vettel, at times a petulant child at Ferrari last season when the initial promise of the winter was not delivered, has given a far more positive vibe on the eve of the season, insisting a first world title for Ferrari since 2007 was a distinct possibility.
The four-time world champion knows he will have to contend with Kimi Raikkonen for No.1 at the team. A comfortable Raikkonen is a quick one, and having struggled to get to grips with the Ferrari previously, he looked more at one with it in the latter part of the season and likewise during testing in Barcelona.
The other unknown in the title race is Valtteri Bottas. Williams have nothing but praise for him and there’s is no doubt that, like Raikkonen, he is a flying Finn but it is another matter doing that down the grid with the spotlight off you rather than in the car of the defending champion having replaced Rosberg.
There are the doubters, 1996 world champion Damon Hill among them: “He’s good, very good but I wouldn’t say that he’s shown so far that he’s the hottest thing in F1. Can he put as much pressure on Lewis as Nico did? Some people step up, some don’t. He’s not won a race yet.”
And the third facet in a potentially pulsating title race are Red Bull, who in Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen may yet prove to have the best driver pairing on the grid, although both have suggested they’re not quite in a position to win races as yet.
The team’s in-season development is such that should not necessarily peg them back for long but the question is how much will rest on qualifying – where Mercedes have dominated – in a new era where it’s not clear how easy overtaking is.
The six realistically going for the world title are all aggressive in their own right, capable of making the most of an overtaking opportunity should one arise.
And the reality is that while 2017 may prove Hamilton v Vettel, hopefully gone are the dominant periods of the last two teams: namely Mercedes and before them Vettel’s former employers at Red Bull.
Melbourne will provide the first answers.