The Customer is Wrong — Albert Park Wrap-Up and Shanghai Preview

F1 fans think back to the early 90’s and they remember great-looking cars with large wings and fat tyres, and many think of these as the glory years. Memory is fallible though. Overtaking was not common, and regularly the dominant Williams or McLaren (or later, Benetton) would often lap all but four or five other cars. Its kind of like the movie Tango & Cash — a 1989 action movie starring Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone. (As a bit of trivia, it was the last movie released in the 1980’s) I never saw this film in the cinema, but I remember watching it at a mate’s house on VHS. My 14-year old self absolutely loved this movie, it had explosions, fight scenes, swearing, dick jokes — the works. Until very recently, I trusted my 14-year old self’s opinion, and would have still thought fondly of the film. Last month, I re-watched Tango & Cash, and its safe to say that it hasn’t aged well. Formula 1 is much the same. We all think back to the days of yore and remember them as better than they were.

Drivers over the past few years have complained of tyre degradation meaning they couldn’t push cars to their full potential. In many ways they have a fair point, after all, what’s the point of driving the fastest cars in the world if you can’t drive at 100%? A lack of tyre degradation results in fewer pit-stops and less opportunities for creative strategy, which, in turn, reduces overtaking opportunities.

Unfortunately, the FIA, when considering the rule changes for this year, listened to both the fans and the drivers. The sport’s governing body, increased wing size, and made the cars wider with fatter tyres in an effort to please fans who wanted better-looking cars. In a way, it was successful. The cars do look better this season, and certainly more aggressive. The FIA listened to the drivers too, and asked Pirelli to make tyres which degrade slower, and don’t get completely cooked from running behind another car. Again, the FIA got what they asked for.

I used to work for a large government agency. When implementing a new computer system, the Department failed to include processing speed in the specifications. When I tested the system, I remarked to the developers that it was incredibly slow compared to the old system, and his response was “It wasn’t in the specs, so we didn’t consider it”. I feel this is a good parallel for the rule changes in F1 this year. The FIA have completely omitted overtaking from their rule changes. Consequently, the cars create more ‘dirty air’, have shorter stopping distances and are wider, and this has greatly hampered overtaking. Red Bull Team Principal, Christian Horner, has called for calm, saying that Melbourne is traditionally a difficult track for overtaking, and we’ll know a lot more after Shanghai and Bahrain. Shanghai is probably the best track for overtaking, in last year’s Shanghai Grand Prix, an F1 record was set with 161 on-track overtakes. I doubt we’ll see half of that this weekend, but I have been wrong before.

Albert Park takeaways

  • Dan Ricciardo had the weekend from hell in Melbourne, and he’ll want to put that behind him quickly and get his season back on track. It started with a spin in Q3 that sent him into the wall backwards at turn 14 before he had set a flying lap. Ricciardo was then slugged with a 5-spot grid penalty for replacing the gearbox damaged in the accident in qualifying, relegating him to 15th. Bad turned to worse, when Dan’s Red Bull got stuck in 6th gear on the formation lap and had to be trucked back to the pits. Ricciardo eventually started the race, albeit two laps down, but the car was retired on lap 29 with more gremlins.
  • McLaren and Sauber, as predicted, were the slowest cars in the pack. But each team had some positives to take from the race. Fernando Alonso was running in the points for the majority of the race, before a damaged left brake duct forced him to retire late. Sauber driver, Pascal Wehrlein, withdrew from the race due to complications from a neck injury from a crash in January’s Race of Champions. This created an opportunity for Ferrari test driver, Antonio Giovinazzi, who drove a flawless race in an underpowered car, and finished in 12th on debut.
  • Haas had a great start to the weekend, and the car looks a genuine mid-pack contender. Romain Grosjean showed some good pace, particularly in qualifying, where he managed sixth place. Unfortunately the race didn’t go to plan, with Kevin Magnussen making early contact with Ericsson, and Grosjean losing power while running in seventh.
  • Mercedes looked quick all weekend. Lewis Hamilton showed why he is still the favourite to regain his World Championship, running at the top of every session — except the one that matters. Lewis will be ruing the questionable strategy to bring him in for his tyre change earlier than necessary, where he was held up by the Red Bull of Max Verstappen, which ultimately cost him the race. Bottas drove a good race, but still looks a half-step behind his teammate.
  • Sebastien Vettel took a fantastic victory at Albert Park. He drove a near-flawless race, and seemed to have pace in reserve. The race-pace of Ferrari looks excellent, and they could be a serious challenger for the Constructor’s Championship. Kimi Raikkonen was his usual self, driving a clean race to finish fourth, and provided some humour on the team radio.

Shanghai preview

  • Shanghai, along with Bahrain the following week, are permanent circuits. They are wider and grippier than Albert Park, and we should get a look to see if the 2017 cars can actually pass each other. At last year’s Shanghai Grand Prix, there were 161 on-track overtakes, and Lewis Hamilton had 18 himself.
  • Rumours have been flying since Melbourne. There are rumours Fernando Alonso will sit out the second half of the season if McLaren can’t provide a competitive race car. There are rumours that Pascal Wehrlein will not get his Sauber seat back from Antonio Giovinazzi. And there have been rumours of McLaren changing to a Mercedes engine, or even developing their own.
  • Again, it’s likely to be a three-tier race. Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull will be the top three teams, in some sort of order. McLaren and Sauber will be the bottom two teams again, they will be unable to overcome their power deficiencies. The middle-tier is the most interesting, with Renault, Haas, Torro Rosso, Williams and Force India all vying for the last few points positions.
  • If overtaking proves again to be elusive, I think it will be telling for the remainder of the season. It will place great emphasis on qualifying and aero development.
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