Formula 1 2016: Complete Season Preview, Predictions and Expert Breakdown

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistMarch 15, 2016

Formula 1 2016: Complete Season Preview, Predictions and Expert Breakdown

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    The 2016 Formula One season kicks off on March 20 with the Australian Grand Prix. The 22 drivers will line up on the grid in Melbourne with a record-breaking 21 races ahead of them, each man with his own personal goals for the season firmly in his mind.

    For the Mercedes and Ferrari drivers, race wins and the ultimate glory of the drivers' championship will be the target. Lewis Hamilton is aiming to become only the fourth driver in history to win a third consecutive world title; team-mate Nico Rosberg will again be trying to stop him.

    Sebastian Vettel will also have at least one eye on the title, while team-mate Kimi Raikkonen's goals may be a little more modest.

    No one else has a realistic hope of challenging for the top spot, but there's more than just one prize in F1. A number of drivers are out of contract at the end of the year, and the likes of Valtteri Bottas, Sergio Perez, Nico Hulkenberg and Romain Grosjean will be jostling to put themselves into contention for a top drive.

    So too will Toro Rosso youngsters Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr.but the men in the seats they covet, Red Bull duo Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat, might be less keen on seeing their colleagues advance.

    Rookies Pascal Wehrlein, Jolyon Palmer and Rio Haryanto all want to prove they have what it takes to compete at the top level. At the other end of the career ladder, veterans like Jenson Button and Felipe Massa will want to show they can still mix it with the kids.

    The eight months ahead could play out in any number of ways; while one or two things about the coming season are easy to predict, the rest are anything but.

    As is customary, we asked our Bleacher Report F1 team to look ahead and give their predictions on a variety of topics. Writers Neil James, Oliver Harden and Matthew Walthert are joined by F1 editor Alex Livie and B/R UK editor (and F1 lover) Mark Patterson.

    Who'll be the drivers' champion, who'll be the surprise package and which circuit will host the race of the year?

    Read on for our thoughts on those questions and many more.

Who's Going to Win the Drivers' Championship?

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    Neil James: It's difficult to look beyond Lewis Hamilton for 2016's driver's championship. Mercedes are probably going to have an appreciable advantage over Ferrari at most of the grands prix in 2016, so it follows that the German team's best driver is most likely to win the title. Unless, of course, he has an off-year like he did in 2011.

    Oliver Harden: Nico Rosberg. After claiming the 2014 title, a dominant 2015 felt like the natural next step for Hamilton, but can the Brit really be trusted to win three in a row? With changes to the tyres and increased radio restrictions, you would expect Rosberg to work harder than his team-mate when it comes to understanding the requirements of 2016. He may also thrive in an underdog role if Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari can match Mercedes on a regular basis.

    Matthew Walthert: Rosberg won the last three races of 2015, but those came after Hamilton had already clinched the title and was using his energy elsewhere, as he told the official F1 website. Hopefully it will be a closer fight—not only between the Merc drivers, but also with the Ferraris—but Hamilton should come out on top again.

    Alex Livie: Lewis Hamilton. The gap will be closed in 2016, but Hamilton will still keep his rivals at bay.

    Mark Patterson: Lewis Hamilton. That's the bit that's near-certain. The bit we'll spend the second half of the year debating is where the (then) four-time world champion stands in the pantheon of history.

Who'll Win the Constructors' Championship?

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    Mark Patterson: Mercedes will win the 2016 constructor's championship. Ferrari's grip on second place will tighten, but the gap to Mercedes will continue to grow.

    Neil James: A third consecutive title for Mercedes. Ferrari will be closer, but Mercedes have the better driver lineup and there are question marks over the Scuderia's reliability. The gap between first and second will be smaller than in 2015, though.

    Oliver Harden: Mercedes. The mileage covered by the team in pre-season suggests the W07 will be almost bulletproof and, unlike Ferrari, the Silver Arrows have two drivers who are guaranteed to turn up at every race.

    Matthew Walthert: Mercedes' speed and reliability are still too much for Ferrari to handle over the course of a full season. It should be closer than last year, but the Silver Arrows will have their third straight constructors' title sewn up with a race or two to spare.

    Alex Livie: Mercedes. The defending champions will again prove a cut above the chasing pack.

Surprise Package of the Year

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    Alex Livie: McLaren have had a tough few seasons, but they could finally be about to fight towards the front of the grid. 

    Mark Patterson: Toro Rosso will be this year's surprise package. Think of them as Red Bull without the upheaval, and the pairing of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. is as exciting a duo as any on the grid. With a year's racing under their belts, it's time to see them scrap higher up the field.

    Neil James: I wrote back in December that I thought Toro Rosso would kick off the season ahead of Red Bull, and it looks even more likely to happen now. The Faenza-based team were seventh in last season's constructors' championship with 67 points; they can be sixth or better, with more than 100 points, in 2016.

    Oliver Harden: Esteban Gutierrez. The Mexican failed to make an impression in his two previous seasons in F1, but Sauber was no place for a rookie in 2013 and 2014. After a year on the sidelines as Ferrari’s reserve driver, Gutierrez will find a more productive, forgiving atmosphere at a brand-new team and challenge Haas team-mate Romain Grosjean.

    Matthew Walthert: Toro Rosso and Force India should punch above their weights this year, but that's not really a surprise...so let's go with McLaren. The team won't be contending for regular podiums yet, but they should be much improved from last year. The end of the token system should allow Honda to make significant gains on the engine side, the team's biggest stumbling block last year.

Surprise Flop of the Year

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    Matthew Walthert: Maybe not a huge surprise, but Renault will take a big step back this year. The loss in horsepower from switching Mercedes engines for Renault ones will be exacerbated by the uncertainty that swirled around the team for much of the offseason. The driver lineup of Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer is promising, but it will be a year or two before they have a car capable of showcasing their speed.

    Alex Livie: Williams will find themselves on the back foot in 2016 and fighting in the midfield.

    Mark Patterson: Against their position last year, this could be a tough season for Sauber. The team began 2015 well but lost momentum. This season, they could be sliding further down the grid.

    Neil James: Surprise flop is a tough one to pick, because it's hard to think of any driver or team expected to do well that I think will fail. But let's go with Palmer, who'll find it tough going up against Magnussen in what is likely to be an uncompetitive Renault. 

    Oliver Harden: It’s no longer a surprise when Kimi Raikkonen flops, sadly, so let’s say Fernando Alonso. After the disaster that was 2015following all those near-misses with Ferrarithe two-time world champion is beginning to look tired. A decade on from his most recent title triumph, this might be the year Alonso loses his reputation as the most complete driver in F1.

King of Qualifying?

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    Oliver Harden: Even with a new qualifying format designed to trip up the front-runners, Lewis Hamilton should still have enough to retain the Pole Position Trophy.

    Matthew Walthert: Hamilton's qualifying dominance for the first 12 races of 2015 (11 poles) set the tone for the season and helped him build what proved to be an insurmountable lead in the drivers' standings over Nico Rosberg. With what should be the best car again, and despite the shake-up to the qualifying format, Hamilton should grab another Pole Trophy—not that he cares.

    Alex Livie: Rosberg will edge out Hamilton and the Ferraris in qualifying.

    Mark Patterson: Rosberg will keep pace with Hamilton—and it will somehow feel like a surprise every single time.

    Neil James: When the car is to his liking, Hamilton is unstoppable over a single lap. He struggled toward the end of 2015, and Rosberg took six poles in a row, but Hamilton should be back on form in 2016.

Will any Silly New Rules be Introduced?

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    Neil James: Maybe we should make the drivers qualify using GP2 cars, or decide the starting order based on the length of their grid girls' index fingers? Something daft will be proposed, probably by F1 chief executive Bernie Ecclestone, but nothing new will be adopted. Enough's changing in 2017 as it is.

    Oliver Harden: Apart from the unrefined 2017 regulations being finally rubber-stamped, let’s hope not.

    Matthew Walthert: Who knows what pseudo-controversy will prompt the next knee-jerk reaction to "improve the spectacle," but you can bet one is coming. From team-radio restrictions to FRIC bans to tyre-construction changes, it's been a while since we went a full season without some kind of change. If I had to bet on what the change would be, I would say the new qualifying format doesn't last the whole year. 

    Alex Livie: This is F1, so almost certainly. But don't ask me what they will be.

    Mark Patterson: I don't hate the new qualifying concept—but the farce of its introduction is the biggest problem. I'm just hoping the technology can cope.

The Next Big Driver Move for 2017

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    Mark Patterson: Fernando Alonso into retirement will be the next big driver move. The sport would benefit from Alonso exhibiting his skill behind the wheel, but the fear is that he and Jenson Button go out with a whimper.

    Neil James: A whole host of drivers could be set for switches at the end of the year, including Nico Rosberg, Valtteri Bottas, Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen. But for me the biggest news will be the arrival of Stoffel Vandoorne, who will finally step up to take a richly deserved race seat at McLaren.

    Oliver Harden: If he can sustain his late-2015 form, Sergio Perez could slot very nicely into a No. 2 role at Ferrari, leaving Romain Grosjean to make a prodigal son-esque return to Renault when his gamble of switching to Haas fails to secure him a place alongside Sebastian Vettel.

    Matthew Walthert: If Rosberg loses to Hamilton again this year, I could see him looking for another drive. In that case, could Max Verstappen make the jump to Mercedes? It seems crazy—he'll be just 19 when the 2017 season begins—but plenty of people thought it was crazy for him to be in F1 at all last year, at the age of 17. And all he did was score two fourth-place finishes, Toro Rosso's best results since some guy named Vettel was on the team.

    Alex Livie: Verstappen will have a good season in 2016, and this will earn him a move up the grid.

Best Driver Signing of 2016

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    Alex Livie: McLaren ensuring Fernando Alonso committed to another season rather than taking a break was the best driver signing of 2016.

    Mark Patterson: Kevin Magnussen. It's not been a winter of dramatic driver shifts, but Magnussen's second chance at F1 will give us a reminder of his talent—and we may see McLaren taking a long look at him during the year to see whether they can bring him back.

    Neil James: Haas made their start to F1 life much easier by convincing Romain Grosjean to lead their team in 2016. The Frenchman is among the quickest drivers on the grid, and on occasion, he can push a car beyond its usual limits. Points will be hard to come by for the American team, so Grosjean's contribution will be invaluable.

    Oliver Harden: Magnussen. The Dane remains rough around the edges, but he has provided Renault with the sense of direction they were never going to have with Pastor Maldonado as the French manufacturer makes its return to the grid.

    Matthew Walthert: Haas scored a major coup in convincing the talented, experienced Grosjean to join a start-up team (you may remember it didn't work out so well for established drivers like Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen during the last influx of new teams). Grosjean's influence will be felt not only on the track, where Haas could steal a few surprise results, but also in the factory, where his feedback will be key in the development of the car.

Grand Prix of the Season

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    Matthew Walthert: Although I'm not convinced F1 should even be racing in Azerbaijan, I love street circuits, and the one in Baku has the potential to be a great one. Tiny margins for error mean a real test for the drivers and often lead to unpredictable results. For some reason, the race is just one week after Montreal, but that also means it is early enough in the year that the championship will still be up in the air, even if Hamilton and Mercedes do end up running away with it again. 

    Alex Livie: The Bahrain Grand Prix often throws up plenty of excitement, and it will be the same again this year.

    Mark Patterson: Malaysia. Sepang is a fun track, the weather is anyone's guess, and the races where the teams are required to think on their feet will be the spectator events of the season.

    Neil James: Not everyone is a fan of races in oil-rich (or not so rich) countries with no real motorsport heritage, and street circuits aren't everyone's cup of tea. But the new Baku circuit, venue for the "European" Grand Prix, looks like it'll give all the teams and drivers a real headache with their setup and preparation. This, and the fact it's an entirely new track, could make things very interesting. Pretty city, too.

    Oliver Harden: Brazil owes us an exciting grand prix after three relatively uneventful races since the 2012 title shootout between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso.

Drivers in Their Final Year of F1

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    Oliver Harden: Jenson Button appears to be getting better with age, but the 2009 world champion is unlikely to survive a third successive retirement saga, with Stoffel Vandoorne waiting patiently for an opportunity at McLaren. Kimi Raikkonen will also be forced into retirement if Ferrari have any ambition, while Marcus Ericsson might struggle to keep his place at Sauber.

    Matthew Walthert: If McLaren still aren't competitive, both Fernando Alonso and Button might decide that they have had enough of touring around at the back of the field. Depending how competitive he is and how long the Indonesian government's money holds out, Rio Haryanto could be a one-and-done driver at Manor. 

    Alex Livie: Button will head off into F1 retirement at the end of 2016.

    Mark Patterson: I fear the worst for Button and Alonso, but Felipe Massa could also bow out this year, with Paul di Resta getting a second chance in F1 with Williams. And Raikkonen is in the final days of his Ferrari career, too.

    Neil James: Raikkonen is the obvious contender hereunless the Finn can turn his form around, he'll definitely be out of the door at the end of the year. Massa and Button also look vulnerable with promising youngsters chasing their seats, while Jolyon Palmer, Rio Haryanto and Ericsson may struggle to carry on if the money taps run dry.

Rookie of the Year

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    Neil James: Pascal Wehrlein stands out as a candidate for rookie of the year. The 21-year-old enters F1 on the back of a successful campaign in DTM, where he became the series' youngest-ever champion. Mercedes clearly have faith in him and see him as a future driver for their all-conquering works team, so it'll be interesting to see what he can do.

    Oliver Harden: Jolyon Palmer. An honourable mention must go to Wehrlein, who could become as important to Manor as the late Jules Bianchi once was. But after several practice appearances with Lotus in 2015, Palmer should be more than capable of solid (if unspectacular) results from the very start of the season.

    Matthew Walthert: With what should be Manor's most competitive car ever and the support of the Mercedes team, Wehrlein has all the tools to succeed in his first year in F1. The reigning DTM champ will probably have a tough battle with 2014 GP2 winner Palmer for rookie honours, but a few decent results for long-suffering Manor will push him over the top.

    Alex Livie: Palmer might not set the world alight, but he will do enough with Renault to take the top rookie prize.

    Mark Patterson: Slim pickings this year, but fingers crossed that Palmer acquits himself well at Renault this year—he's had to wait for his chance at the highest level and will need to prove his worth immediately.

Will There Be a 1st-Time GP Winner?

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    Mark Patterson: There won't be a first-time grand prix winner this year. Valtteri Bottas will be the closest, but the chances of the stars aligning to allow him a victory feel slim.

    Neil James: The only cars capable of winning races in 2016 will be the two Mercedes and two Ferraris, and all four men in those cars are multiple race-winners. So it's a no from me.

    Oliver Harden: Probably not, unless Williams play their cards right with Bottas on one of the team’s good days.

    Matthew Walthert: Williams are the most likely team to break the Mercedes/Ferrari deadlock on merit, and Felipe Massa is already a GP winner, so let's go with Bottas. Daniil Kvyat, Max Verstappen or either of the Force India drivers could steal a race in the right conditions at the right circuit with some bold strategy calls.

    Alex Livie: Straight to the point here: No.

Something F1 Will Prove in 2016?

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    Alex Livie: In 2016, F1 will prove Mercedes are still way ahead of their rivals.

    Mark Patterson: That the teams still can't work together for the greater good of the sport, and we'll spend the season arguing about how to make the 2017 season a level playing field.

    Neil James: That the teams, engine suppliers and commercial-rights holder should have no direct role in the rule-making process. The political situation is already unbearable, and it'll only get worse in 2016. The FIA's word should be law.

    Oliver Harden: F1 is right to continue visiting new markets. Ever since the race was announced, there has been much hostility directed at the European GP simply because Azerbaijan is not a “traditional” F1 venue and the event happens to clash with the sacred Le Mans 24 Hours. But the race should be embraced and the unique, narrow section in particular could quickly become a favourite piece of F1 road.

    Matthew Walthert: That complicated rules don't necessarily lead to better racing. In the last two years, engine tokens and double points have come and gone, while the power-unit component penalties have been simplified—all positive steps. But now we have a new qualifying procedure and more complex tyre regulations. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, just keep throwing ideas at the wall until one sticks.

A Bold Prediction for the Season

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    Matthew Walthert: Kimi Raikkonen will finally win another race—his first since 2013—and Ferrari will keep him around for another year.

    Alex Livie: Fernando Alonso will show exactly why he is still one of the best drivers on the grid by showing up prominently in a car that is still a long way from the finished article.

    Mark Patterson: That a 21-race season is as big as the calendar gets for the moment. In the battle between the calendar and the cost of racing, 21 races will test everyone involved to their limits.

    Neil James: A credible new player will express a serious interest in entering by 2018.

    Oliver Harden: Now Ferrari’s C-team due to the arrival of Haas, Sauber are on course for a change of identity and will either be rebranded as Alfa Romeo or become a Honda customer team ahead of 2017.

    So, over to youhow do you think the season will pan out? Feel free to comment, or follow us on Twitter:

    @NeilJamesF1

    @OllieHarden

    @Matthew Walthert

    @Alex_Livie

    @MarkPattersonBR