F1 2017 preview – what’s new, who’s fast, who’s not?

It’s back, but perhaps not quite as you knew it. This weekend, Formula One returns and the first round starts in Melbourne, home of the Australian GP.

What’s new?

A raft of regulation changes far too technical for yours truly to explain in forensic detail means that the cars are bigger, faster and in theory harder to drive. It should make for a better spectacle.

18-year-old Canadian Lance Stroll is the only rookie in the field this year, driving for Williams, although Stoffel Vandoorne (McLaren) and Esteban Ocon (Force India) have only driven in a handful of races. They start their first full campaigns.

Reigning champion Nico Rosberg decided to retire following his title success, meaning Valtteri Bottas takes his place at Mercedes and Felipe Massa has come out of retirement to join Stroll at Williams.

Out with the old…

As well as Nico Rosberg, leaving the grid is Jenson Button, and although he hasn’t officially retired, taking on the role as McLaren’s reserve driver and ambassador, it is highly unlikely that he will race in F1 again. Esteben Gutierrez lost his place at Haas and has moved to Formula E.

The Manor team has folded, so there are two fewer cars on the grid than last year. Pascal Wehrlein replaces Felipe Nasr at Sauber while Esteban Ocon moves to Force India.

There will be no German Grand Prix this season, so the calendar is back to 20 races.

So, can we expect a big shake up?

Maybe, but don’t get your hopes up too much. Mercedes, Red Bull, and Ferrari are likely to remain some way ahead of the pack. You can’t always read a lot into times during testing but Ferrari appear to have made a big step forward and it is hard to see them failing to win a race this season.

McLaren have really struggled and failed to complete a race distance during testing. Cracks in their relationship with Honda are obvious while Sauber are expected to be bringing up the rear with them.

The midfield could, however, be very competitive. Force India – now bedecked in a new pink livery – were best of the rest in 2016 but could come under threat from Williams, Toro Rosso and Renault, who have recruited Nico Hulkenberg to join Jolyon Palmer.

Haas – now with Kevin Magnussen alongside Romain Grosjean – made a great start to 2016 but faded as the season went on and continue to be troubled by the same issues that dogged them last year. It could be a difficult second season for them, although if Ferrari have made a big step up, they could again get off to a flyer before Renault – who power Toro Rosso as well as Renault and Red Bull – catch up.

Predictions?

I think Lewis Hamilton will still be the man to beat, particularly with a new team-mate who will take time to settle in at Mercedes. However, what interests me is Ferrari. If they have made a huge gain, then whoever gets the upper hand between Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel could be poised to take the fight to Hamilton, and that will certainly be worth watching. But I still think Hamilton will prevail.

What do you think?