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Top 10 most exciting driver changes of 2017

While the silly season doesn't offer a lot of racing, driver movements always increase anticipation for the upcoming year. David Gruz picks the 10 most exciting changes ahead of the 2017 motorsport season.

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes

10. Esteban Ocon, F1, Force IndiaEsteban Ocon, Force India

Esteban Ocon, Force India

Photo by: Sahara Force India F1

What a year 2016 was for Ocon. He started it with a troublesome DTM campaign and ended up making his Formula 1 debut and then quickly achieving something no Manor, Marussia or Virgin driver had done before - a big promotion. He hasn't clocked any standout results, but the fact he was right away on pace with fellow Mercedes junior Pascal Wehrlein proved his worth - and an impressive drive nearly resulting in points in Brazil bolstered his reputation.

Arriving to a team that was fourth in the constructors' last year, Ocon could feasibly end up challenging for podiums every once in a while, just like Sergio Perez had done over the years. The Mexican, of course, has been sheer quality at FI, so the going will be tough for Ocon but Perez will need to bring his A game as well as he can't afford to give his new teammate an inch.

But Ocon's rise through the ranks has already confirmed the promise shown in junior single-seaters. The next couple of years, which he will spend trying to prove Mercedes that he's good enough for F1's most coveted drive, will be crucial - and how he fares out of the blocks at FI could very well set the tone.

9. Daniel Suarez, Monster Energy Nascar Cup, Joe Gibbs RacingDaniel Suarez, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Daniel Suarez, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Photo by: Jim Utter

The post-2016 silly season has been all about last-minute retirements and withdrawals: Nico Rosberg, Volkswagen in WRC, Audi in WEC and, the latest of them all, Carl Edwards. In 2016, Edwards was again within a whisker of the Cup title and again came up just short. As we found out later, it would be his last attempt - at least for now.

Before his decision, the top Cup teams were set to be largely unchanged with Clint Bowyer stepping in for Tony Stewart at SHR and Furniture Row adding a car for Erik Jones the exceptions. But Edwards’ retirement shook things up, immediately opening up a spot for reigning Xfinity champion Suarez in what some consider the Cup's current benchmark team.

Suarez became the first Mexican-born NASCAR champion at the national level last year in just his second NXS season. He was all set for another year in the second tier but will now need to quickly refocus on what will be the biggest challenge of his career - with a mercilessly tough set of teammates and a whole lot of pressure on his shoulders.

8. Edoardo Mortara, DTM, MercedesEdoardo Mortara, HWA AG

Edoardo Mortara, HWA AG

Photo by: Daimler AG

Drivers switching manufacturers is rare in DTM, mainly because they often have stronger ties to one of the brands than the series itself. That made Mortara's decision to end a six-year tenure with Audi and move over to Mercedes all the more surprising.

In the very evenly-matched world of DTM, Mortara's first sustained title challenge arrived only last year - but his reputation as one of the series' best had been built up even before that. Perhaps he is already expected to be the leader of the Mercedes outfit - Robert Wickens and Paul di Resta have on occasion laid a claim to that status last year, but neither were as consistent as Mortara.

His arrival is defending constructor champion Audi's loss. However, the team responded by bringing in quality names like Loic Duval or Rene Rast, which makes the series all the better.

7. Andre Lotterer, FIA WEC, PorscheAndre Lotterer, Porsche Team

Andre Lotterer, Porsche Team

Photo by: Porsche Motorsport

FIA WEC has lost a significant number of its established LMP1 drivers over the silly season, mainly thanks to Audi’s call to quit the series. Just one of the six former Audi drivers will stay on full-time for 2017 - but it's the one that WEC is hardest to imagine without.

When Audi was the team to beat in the recent past, Lotterer was the class of the field and he always remained a major threat even when the team’s dominance faded. Now he is again with the favourites in Porsche, and further title exploits should now be a formality.

With Neel Jani, the benchmark driver of the 2016 championship-winning crew, and Le Mans winner Nick Tandy, the German makes up one of the most exciting trios in the history of the championship.

6. Josef Newgarden, Indycar, Team PenskeJosef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske Chevrolet

Photo by: John Bisci

On pure pace, Team Penske has been IndyCar's benchmark outfit for a couple of years now - and any change in its line-up is a big deal. Its last signing - 2015 arrival Simon Pagenaud - is currently the reigning champion.

The same fate could be on the cards for Newgarden, who finally got his big shot in the series after several impressive campaigns with smaller teams. Over the past five years, Newgarden has upped his game step-by-step, and in 2016 he wound up a superb fourth, as Ed Carpenter Racing's only full-timer.

In giving Newgarden Juan Pablo Montoya's full-time seat, Penske has made a statement, the team now employing all four of 2016's leading drivers. But worries of single-team dominance aside, it's a box office move for the sport - Newgarden is the new generation. He is American, he has a thoroughly endearing public persona and he's more than earned the opportunity.

5. Maverick Vinales, MotoGP, YamahaMaverick Viñales, Yamaha Factory Racing

Maverick Viñales, Yamaha Factory Racing

Photo by: Yamaha MotoGP

If this list was ranked by who will face the most difficult task next year, Vinales would certainly be a top-two pick. The weight of expectations will be heavy on the young Spaniard's shoulders, as he arrives to MotoGP's perennial frontrunners Yamaha in place of a three-time champion.

He fully deserves it, of course, representing the best option on the grid besides the unavailable Marc Marquez. He and Suzuki have made staggering progress since 2015, culminating in Vinales' sublime Silverstone win, while his first laps with Yamaha grabbed headlines because he was producing fantastic pace immediately.

But it's going to be tough, of course. With none other than Valentino Rossi as his teammate, Vinales' mental strength and composure will be tested - and he'll look to assert himself within the team right away. With a team such as Yamaha a title challenge will always going to be the goal and Vinales will need to impress quickly in order not to become number two within the team.

4. Nico Hulkenberg, F1, RenaultNico Hulkenberg, Renault F1 Team

Nico Hulkenberg, Renault F1 Team

Photo by: Renault F1

A factory team seat for Hulkenberg will have been on many F1 fan's wishlist for years. His reputation has had its ups and downs since a rookie-season GP2 title marked him out as a future superstar and most think he still has the potential to live up to his early promise.

Sure, Renault, as it stands, is not Mercedes, Red Bull or Ferrari. For the immediate future, it could even mean a step back, considering Force India’s strong 2016 season. But factory support with a healthy budget and a long-term plan means that the French marque is a reasonable bet for a driver who wants to one day fight for the title.

With sophomore driver Jolyon Palmer alongside, Hulkenberg will be hoping to clearly establish himself as the team leader. Chances are he will have to put in quite a bit more work within the midfield, but at least now there's a clear path to the end goal.

3. Sebastien Ogier, WRC, M-SportSébastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia, M-Sport, Ford Fiesta WRC

Sébastien Ogier, Julien Ingrassia, M-Sport, Ford Fiesta WRC

Photo by: M-Sport

The new regulations, Toyota's arrival, Citroen's return and the many, many driver changes made WRC more exciting than int has been in a long time. But the big draw of WRC 2017, surely, is Sebastien Ogier trying to retain his title with an all-new team after four years of comfortable dominance with Volkswagen. 

As he - for most, the best rally driver on the planet - was suddenly without a seat at the end of 2016, opportunities were not as open as they could've been, and the realistic options boiled down to Toyota and M-Sport. He tested both and picked Malcolm Wilson's outfit.

Early Monte Carlo evidence suggests M-Sport's Ford is quality, but certainly a far cry from the all-conquering Volkswagen Polo R in terms of relative pace. His testing opportunities have been limited and the situation is unfamiliar. Still, despite all this, would anyone be surprised to see Ogier a five-time champion at year's end?

2. Jorge Lorenzo, MotoGP, DucatiJorge Lorenzo, Ducati Team

Jorge Lorenzo, Ducati Team

Photo by: Ducati Corse

With three titles and eight consecutive campaigns in the top three, it’s fair to say Lorenzo has achieved everything he could have at Yamaha. During his almost decade-long tenure with the team, MotoGP enjoyed some of its most thrilling seasons and Lorenzo played a big part in the show. His on and off-track rivalry with teammate Valentino Rossi has endured and captivated.

But a move to Ducati is no less exciting - and will probably serve Lorenzo well after what was an often trying 2016 season. In what will likely be a welcome reprieve from the intra-team dynamics at Yamaha, Lorenzo does follow in Rossi's footsteps in joining Ducati - but the Spaniard is set to have a much better time with the team than his former teammate had.

After a long drought, Ducati was twice on the top step last year - and both wins were no fluke, the Desmosedici GP16 proving a brutal force at some venues. Its GP17 successor will be a highly different bike compared to Lorenzo’s old Yamaha machinery, which will take getting used to, but the payoff could be massive.

1. Valtteri Bottas, F1, MercedesValtteri Bottas, Mercedes

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes

Photo by: Daimler AG

When Formula 1 is dominated by a team for several years, a line-up change not only impacts the team, but alters the dynamic of the whole sport. And when the line-up change is the result of a surprise retirement by the reigning world champion, with most candidates for replacement tied up by air-tight contracts, it's got potential for complete chaos.

Rosberg's decision to call it a day left Mercedes in need for a fast solution. Options were limited for the team and, very soon, homegrown talent Pascal Wehrlein and Williams man Bottas became the main contenders. In the end, Bottas was the choice - Mercedes basing the decision on experience and rightly recognising the Finn's obvious talent, despite his somewhat stalled career momentum.

Bottas had done a very fine job during his Williams tenure, and has been rewarded with an opportunity of a lifetime. But at Mercedes, there's nowhere to hide on a bad day - and Lewis Hamilton is a ridiculously tough opponent, especially given that Bottas's preparations for 2017 at Merc will have started behind schedule. A one-year deal means 2017 is make-or-break.

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