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The Way It Is/ A new look for Formula 1 in 2017 as Rosberg retires

by Gordon Kirby
Mercedes-Benz totally dominated the first three years of the FIA's latest 1.6 liter turbo hybrid Formula One. Over the past three years Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg fought their own personal intra-team duel for the World Championship with Hamilton taking the title in 2014 and 2015 and Rosberg prevailing this year.

Between them Hamilton and Rosberg won 51 races over these three years; 19 this year and 16 in each of 2015 and 16. Few teams in the history of F1 or motor sport as a whole have been as dominant.

Rosberg was teary-eyed and very emotional after winning the title in Abu Dahbi and at the end of last week to the surprise of many he announced that after the trials he endured this year he's decided to retire immediately.

"Since 25 years in racing," Rosberg said in a statement, "it has been my dream, my 'one thing' to become Formula One World Champion. Through the hard work, the pain, the sacrifices, this has been my target. And now I've made it. I have climbed my mountain, I am on the peak, so this feels right. My strongest emotion right now is deep gratitude to everybody who supported me to make that dream happen.

© Gary Gold
"This season, I tell you, it was so damn tough. I pushed like crazy in every area after the disappointments of the last two years; they fueled my motivation to levels I had never experienced before. And of course that had an impact on the ones I love, too — it was a whole family effort of sacrifice, putting everything behind our target. I cannot find enough words to thank my wife Vivian; she has been incredible. She understood that this year was the big one, our opportunity to do it, and created the space for me to get full recovery between every race, looking after our daughter each night, taking over when things got tough and putting our championship first.

"When I won the race in Suzuka, from the moment when the destiny of the title was in my own hands, the big pressure started and I began to think about ending my racing career if I became World Champion. On Sunday morning in Abu Dhabi, I knew that it could be my last race and that feeling cleared my head before the start. I wanted to enjoy every part of the experience, knowing it might be the last time ... and then the lights went out and I had the most intense 55 laps of my life. I took my decision on Monday evening. After reflecting for a day, the first people I told were Vivian and Georg (Nolte, from Nico's management team), followed by Toto (Wolff).

"The only thing that makes this decision in any way difficult for me is because I am putting my racing family into a tough situation. But Toto understood. He knew straight away that I was completely convinced and that reassured me. My proudest achievement in racing will always be to have won the world championship with this incredible team of people, the Silver Arrows.

"Now, I'm just here to enjoy the moment. There is time to savor the next weeks, to reflect on the season and to enjoy every experience that comes my way. After that, I will turn the next corner in my life and see what it has in store for me."

Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda now face the difficult problem of replacing Rosberg. Will they try to buy-out the likes of Fernando Alonso or Max Verstappen from their existing contracts or settle for an unproven young talent like Pascal Wherlhein And will Mercedes continue to be as strong next year without Rosberg as F1 enters a new era with rules specifying more downforce and more grip?

A new formula always shakes things up but it's difficult to imagine Mercedes falling behind Ferrari or Red Bull. Pure power has been one of the team's greatest strengths over the past three years and that is sure to continue in 2017. Ferrari has made plenty of progress with its power units this year and is also sure to be strong next year. Renault also made some improvement this year and more power is expected next year to aid Red Bull in its battle with Mercedes and Ferrari at the top of F1's pyramid.

© Gary Gold
F1's three top teams will likely respond to the challenges of the new rules better than the rest because they enjoy a clear advantage in financial and technical resources. There's a chance that Red Bull, led by Adrian Newey's renowned aero abilities, will beat Mercedes and Ferrari aerodynamically, but Renault will have to make a big improvement in power if Red Bull is going to threaten Mercedes' championship dominance.

It's said that changes to aerodynamics and wheel and tire sizes will produce lap times five seconds quicker than this year. The cars should be more spectacular to watch and difficult to drive but with more downforce, more grip and even shorter braking distances passing surely will be even more problematical.

The changes for 2017 include increasing the width of the front wing to 1,800 mm (70.9 inches); lowering the rear wing by 150 mm (5.9 in) and moving it back 200 mm (7.9 in); allowing the leading edge of the barge boards to be brought forward so the teams have more freedom in controlling airflow; an increase in the width of both front and rear tires to allow cars to generate more mechanical grip; and a 20 kg increase in minimum weight of the car including the driver to 722 kg. The teams will be allowed to use 105 kg of fuel to account for the increase in minimum weight.

Beyond F1's big three teams everyone is struggling to put together the money or technical resources to stay in the game. Williams and McLaren remain the strongest of the rest. Williams enjoys Mercedes power units but seems to lack the financial backing to seriously challenge the top teams. It will be interesting to see if talented Canadian teen-ager Lane Stroll can cut the mustard with Williams next year while his father helps the team commercially.

McLaren hopes for more power from Honda next year as Zak Brown takes over as team boss in the wake of Ron Dennis' departure. Brown did a tremendous job as a sponsor salesman building a very successful mid-sized company in Just Marketing. He's also an enthusiastic and knowledgeable historic racer so he brings many strong attributes to the table. In the end, Brown's success at McLaren depends of Honda's ability to bridge the gap to Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault.

Force India enjoyed a good year in 2016, finishing fourth in constructors' points ahead of Williams and McLaren. But again, the money and resources aren't there to move into the top bracket. Much the same can be said for Renault, Haas, Toro Rosso, Sauber and Manor. Gene Haas's new team had a reasonable first season and it will be interesting to see how the team progresses. For many years F1 has offered a thin field dominated by a few teams and so the story continues.

Of course, for the top teams and for Bernie Ecclestone and his partners F1 is a tremendous money spinner. Over the years Bernie has developed an aura of extreme exclusivity around F1 such that it's available only to the wealthiest or most famous people. He's also built a true world championship with races next year in Australia, China, Bahrain, Russia, Spain, Monte Carlo, Canada, Azerbaijan, Austria, the UK, Hungary, Belgium, Italy, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, the United States, Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi.

© Gary Gold
Into his eighties Ecclestone continues to use his wily positioning and negotiating skills to squeeze bags of money from F1's race promoters and sponsors. We old-timers like to complain that Ecclestone has pushed F1 too far in all ways, including creating too many antiseptically super-safe Tilkedromes while constantly squeezing the likes of Spa, Monza, the Nurburgring, Silverstone and Montreal. It will be interesting to see if there's any change in this philosophy as Liberty Media slowly extends its influence on F1 in the coming years. But I'd wager that there will be no serious moves away from Bernie's way of doing business.

Another point is that today's F1 drivers have become specialists who race only in F1. We never see a modern F1 driver anywhere near a long-distance sports car, Indy car or NASCAR machine. The days of truly versatile drivers such as Juan Fangio, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Phil Hill, Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren, Jack Brabham, John Surtees and Mario Andretti have passed into history and this loss has made the sport as a whole much weaker. Sadly, there's not one ounce of leadership anywhere in the sport willing to address or grapple with this historical change in the fabric of motor racing.

It's also clear that F1's ladder system--GP2, F3, GP3, etc.--has become absurdly expensive. It takes many millions of dollars to get into F1 in the 21st century and I seriously doubt that talented drivers from regular middle class families such as Gilles Villeneuve or James Hunt would be able to make it to F1 if they were racing today.

As for 2017, it's hard to imagine anyone challenging Hamilton, his new teammate and Mercedes-Benz. Vettel and Raikkonen at Ferrari and Ricciardo and Verstappen at Red Bull will have their days in the sun, but it's unlikely any of them will be able to beat the pair of Mercedes on a regular basis.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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