A returning driver and two rookies complete the grid of 22 drivers this season. Throughout the winter, up to 20 slots were confirmed leaving only Manor Racing’s two seats unoccupied until just recently. However, a surprise move came from the returning works Renault Sport F1 team—fresh off purchasing the Lotus F1 outfit—when they decided to release incumbent driver Pastor Maldonado in favor of ex-McLaren driver Kevin Magnussen.
Returning as a works outfit, Renault seemed to see Maldonado and his PDVSA financial backing expendable. That meant they could slot in Magnussen alongside rookie Jolyon Palmer, creating a young lineup with only one year of F1 race experience between them. Maldonado leaves the sport as one of the more notorious drivers in recent memory with a lengthy record of crashes and gaffes but of course, there’s also his lone race win with Williams in the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix.
Unlike the five-year veteran Maldonado, Magnussen brings tremendous upside after a promising start to his F1 career when he finished second in his grand prix debut in Melbourne two years ago. The Danish driver couldn’t follow up this result with another podium finish, eventually flying under the radar for the rest of the season. After a rather pedestrian rookie campaign, McLaren relegated him to a reserve driver role when Fernando Alonso took his race seat and then late last season, Magnussen was released. He will look for redemption with Renault, although the works team is adamant to aim for strong results this season.
Personally, I don’t think Renault can match Lotus’s performance from last year, predicting that Toro Rosso may be faster. I’d see Renault mainly competing against Haas or McLaren, or possibly Sauber towards the bottom of the grid, given that it’s difficult to predict Haas’s debut season performance and McLaren’s sophomore effort with the Honda power unit.
Another team that could catch some eyes this season is Manor. Having recently acquired Mercedes power units and technical support from Williams, there could be possible opportunities for last season’s back-markers to improve their grid position. They are set to field an all-rookie driver lineup to start the year, first announcing Mercedes reserve driver and 2015 DTM champion Pascal Wehrlein and then giving long-time GP2 racer Rio Haryanto the other seat. Both drivers bring with them some F1 testing experience.
Wehrlein’s signing was predictable since late last year when Manor inked a deal for Mercedes engines. The German driver took DTM by storm last season by becoming the series’ youngest ever champion, contributing to Mercedes’ dominant year in racing. Moving up to F1 immediately following a title-winning DTM season, Wehrlein becomes the first one to do so since Paul di Resta debuted in 2011 for Force India. Held in high esteem by Mercedes, I expect Wehrlein to be the lead driver for the rebuilding Manor team. If there’s anyone who can bring home strong results and maybe even points-scoring finishes for Manor, it must be Wehrlein.
Alongside the young German is Haryanto, who would become the first Indonesian driver in F1, finally graduating after years of racing in GP3 and GP2. Last year was his strongest season in GP2, finishing fourth in the championship with Campos Racing. He started out strong with numerous Sprint Race victories but his performance tapered off towards the end, succumbing to Sergey Sirotkin’s late season charge and narrowly surrendering third place in the championship.
Financially backed by Indonesia’s state oil company, Haryanto edged out Alexander Rossi and Will Stevens for the last available race seat. There was speculation that the three of them were to share one race seat across 21 races but with Haryanto’s recent signing, it is unclear whether he would contest the entire season by himself with one car or could share his seat with either Rossi or Stevens. Even though Rossi drove well for Manor last season, it still seems quite a surprise to have Haryanto take the final grid slot instead of the American. Haryanto’s GP2 campaign last year was a breakthrough for the young Indonesian, so hopefully he can take his momentum with him as he graduates to F1.
Now that all grid slots are occupied, Formula One is just about ready to return as the first round of winter testing in Barcelona starts on Monday, February 22.