The Australian Grand Prix signalled the beginning of the 2017 Formula One season, Bradley West looks at five things that we learnt from the race
The 2017 F1 season kicked off on Sunday at a gloriously sunny Albert Park in Melbourne in front of packed crowds and, whilst it may not have been a classic, for the first time since 2013 a Mercedes failed to win the opening race of the season.
That very fact alongside the potential prospect of a genuine title fight between several teams and the immense speed and challenge of these ‘new era’ cars suggests we have an enticing season ahead despite complaints emanating out of Australia concerning overtaking and the gap between the teams.
1: Ferrari have the pace
Well, well, well, Ferrari successfully managed to make good on their pre-season promise as Sebastian Vettel eased to victory in Australia despite starting behind Lewis Hamilton on the grid and getting a poor start off of the line. Immediately this victory implies that Ferrari may be able to sustain a season-long title fight but the caveat is that Ferrari should have won this very same season opener last year but for tactical blunders.
Nevertheless, the pure speed of Ferrari, whether quicker or slightly slower than Mercedes, seems much closer to the sport’s dominant force of the past three seasons since the hybrid era began in 2014. Before pitting and ending up stuck behind Max Verstappen effectively costing him any chance of fighting for the win, Lewis Hamilton could not shake off Vettel, who remained within 1.5 seconds of the Brit during the opening 20 laps of the race.
Alongside this, Vettel’s deficit to Hamilton’s pole was only two tenths of a second, a fact that has been attributed in many circles to a lap of individual brilliance from Hamilton. Whilst this does not automatically mean we are going to see a year-long title fight between Mercedes and Ferrari, it does suggest that Ferrari currently have the speed to take the fight to Mercedes and will make things difficult for Mercedes at the very least.
2: Overtaking is more difficult this year*
One of the main stories coming out of the opening race, alongside Vettel’s victory, was the lack of overtaking on display. The facts, indeed, make for grim reading. The Australian Grand Prix saw only five places officially change hands on the track. Additionally, several drivers have been vocal in their expressions of the difficulty of closely following another car in front including Lewis Hamilton himself.
This is as a result of the greater aero on the new cars which is allowing for greater cornering speeds and faster lap times but also means that greater dirty air is being blown out of the back of the cars, meaning the car behind has to force its way through a larger amount of dirty air to be able to pull alongside the car in front and potentially overtake it.
The hysteria over the lack of overtaking in Australia needs to be put into context however. Albert Park, being a narrow street circuit with relatively short straights, means that overtaking has always been more difficult at the track than at others. Judgement needs to be fully reserved until the European season begins on May 14 in Barcelona by which point we would have seen the cars race on a variety of different track types, with China and Bahrain renowned for being races at which overtaking is much easier than at Albert Park.
*Time for another caveat now. Overtaking being more difficult does not necessarily mean that the spectacle will be any less thrilling however. In fact, it will be much more ‘authentic’, something that fans had been calling for for several seasons now. The ‘golden years’ (2004-2009) of F1 that are so often viewed with rose-tinted glasses today and revered had a comparative lack of overtaking compared to the recent era of overtaking aids such as KERS and DRS. This recent era has arguably diluted overtaking by making overtaking too easy or unskilful thanks to the aid of DRS for example, taking the thrill and skill out of it.
Whilst the ‘golden years’ may have seen less overtakes when they were seen they were seen as much more skilful and thrilling as they were really fought for. Of course DRS exists this season but these new cars may have opened up the possibility of overtaking returning to a time when it was heralded as a challenging but immensely rewarding art. Further evidence is needed before making concrete conclusions on the state of overtaking that is for sure.
3: Red Bull have plenty of work to do
For all of Ferrari’s success in Melbourne, Red Bull were frankly nowhere. This is reflected in the analysis of Max Verstappen’s fifth place, examined as a good performance and the best the team could have hoped for under the circumstances.
Red Bull were almost half a minute behind with their only car to finish in the race and over a second behind Hamilton’s pole position time, all in a season where Red Bull were widely regarded a Mercedes’ biggest threat given the aerodynamic regulation changes. After all, Red Bull have the master aerodynamic strategist in Adrian Newey, a man who is normally able to extract every ounce and loophole out of regulation changes.
Red Bull may have not been blistering in their pace in pre-season testing but the common feeling was that they were hiding something. Perhaps not. In that case, Newey will have a lot of thinking to do during the season and in-season development will be crucial if a position higher than the third best team is desired.
4: There’s still life in the old dog yet
For a man who was supposed to be relaxing on a beach somewhere enjoying a well-earned retirement Felipe Massa was arguably driver of the day at the Australian Grand Prix, finishing in an impressive sixth place. It is well-known within the Williams team hierarchy that the top three may be out of reach this season so to only be beaten by faster cars, maximising the points return in sixth, was a huge achievement for the thirty-five year old and proves he still has something to give this season.
5: Setup changes may have more of an effect on the cars this year
Another intriguing development to come out of Australia is the impression that slight setup changes, even between engineers on either side of the same team, may have more of an impact this season as the cars seem particularly sensitive to these, with a very narrow ‘sweet spot’ potentially difficult to obtain on these new cars. For example, Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen complained about significant understeer all weekend as he struggled to match his teammates pace whilst Ferrari’s pace in general improved due to set-up changes following a Friday when they were well off of Mercedes’ pace. This is something to keep an eye out for the rest of the season.
Therefore, despite these general impressions gained from round one in Melbourne, it seems appropriate to reserve judgments on many aspects of how the season will shape up until we have a larger sample race size to draw from.