Australian Grand Prix Review

Free Practice and Qualifying

So the 2017 Formula One season is finally here. The wait and anticipation is over. Generally speaking, I look forward to a season only to be disappointed once it starts when I find one team dominate as Mercedes have done in the last 3 years. However, this year felt different because we have new management, new technical rules, and somehow a fresh start. The F1 cars are now wider with wider tyres and the teams have greater freedom with aerodynamics. As a result, the cars look spectacular with devices such as shark fins and T-wings making an appearance on the bodywork. It was hoped that these changes would improve racing, make the cars more physically challenging to drive and 5 seconds a lap faster.

The Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park is the customary season opener and has been since 1996. Free practice and qualifying showed the rules have had an effect. All drivers reported faster cornering speeds generating more G-force. During the first two free practice sessions on Friday everything seemed business as usual with Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes dominating both sessions and ending up half a second faster than the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel. What was concerning was the teams’ race simulation runs during the sessions, which showed that Mercedes looked dominant in race trim. However, there was a chink of light in the third and final practice on Saturday morning that suggest the new rules may have shaken up the order when Vettel clocked the fastest time, nearly half a second quicker than Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas.

From the outset, qualifying showed that Mercedes and Ferrari were at the sharp end with Hamilton posting a fastest time of 1m 24.191s by the end of Q1, over a second quicker than Vettel’s Ferrari. There was early disappointment for Sauber driver Pascal Wehrlein. He was declared unfit to drive before the qualifying session even began after supposedly feeling the after effects of his crash at the Race of Champions in January. His replacement, young Italian Antonio Giovinazzi was a revelation recording the 16th fastest time just missing the cut off point for Q2, and only a couple of tenths slower than his more experienced teammate Marcus Ericsson. Kevin Magnussen in the Haas struggled in 17th, and Stoffel Vandoorne in McLaren-Honda only ended up in 18th confirming the Surrey-based team’s very poor form in Winter testing. The only other British driver, Jolyon Palmer was in 20th and last place.

Things were a lot closer between the two Mercedes and two Ferraris with Bottas registering the faster time of 1m 23.215s, only 4 hundreds of a second ahead of Hamilton in second place. The Ferraris were only two tenths further behind with Raikkonen and Vettel with the 3rd and 4th fastest times respectively. Redbull so far look like the third fastest team with Max Verstappen ending up with 5th fastest time. Perez, Hulkenberg, Alonso, Ocon, and Ericsson finished 11th to 15th and were knocked out of Q3.

The third and final qualifying session always involves a duel among the 10 remaining cars. A few minutes into Q3, the session was interrupted when Redbull’s Daniel Ricciardo lost the rear end of the car at turn 14 and ended up in the gravel trap. Once the session restarted, Hamilton, Bottas, and Vettel traded fastest laps. Qualifying ended with Hamilton as the eventual pole sitter, recording a fastest time of 1m 22.188s. Vettel managed to split the two Mercedes and was only just over two and a half tenths slower than Hamilton. Bottas ended in third and Raikkonen fourth. Max Verstappen achieved a consistent fifth, and Frenchman Romain Grosjean an incredible 6th place on the grid for Haas.

It’s still early days but it would appear Mercedes still have the edge with Ferrari seemingly a lot closer as the second fastest team. However, with Hamilton on pole position, and Vettel on the front row with him, the race was set up for a great battle.

The Race

Sunday afternoon ended up being a great day for Ferrari as Sebastian Vettel won the Australian Grand Prix nearly 10 seconds ahead of Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton. Bottas completed the podium in third place. Vettel’s teammate Kimi Raikkonen was in 4th and Max Verstappen finished a solid 5th.

At the start of the race, Hamilton had the better get away and stayed ahead of Vettel. For the next 15 laps, Hamilton and Vettel showed how they were in a class of their own as they both pulled away from Bottas and Raikkonen. During the first few laps, it soon became clear that Lewis was struggling with his tyres because of the hot track temperatures. This allowed Vettel, whose Ferrari has been known to be kinder on its tyres, to put pressure on him. The gap between Hamilton and Vettel fluctuated between 1 and 1.5 seconds.

At the end of the first stint, it was Mercedes who blinked first calling Hamilton to the pits, changing his ultra-soft tyres for the harder to last for the rest of the race. By the time Hamilton returned to the track he ended up fifth behind Verstappen’s Redbull and registering fastest race laps. The total gap between Sebastian and Lewis hovered between 21 and 22 seconds, which was just about enough time for Vettel to enter the pits, complete his stop, and exit the pit lane. Only time would tell if Ferrari’s strategy of keeping Vettel out on track longer would pay off.

Unfortunately for Hamilton, once he closed in on Max Verstappen, he found it difficult to overtake him, causing him to lose time on Vettel. This was largely due to the dirty air coming from the wake of the Redbull, and undoubtedly a side effect of the relaxed aerodynamic rules.

Finally, Vettel stopped on lap 23 putting on a fresh set of soft tyres, which would last for the rest of the race. Vettel soon built a 6 second lead, which increased further to 7 then 8. At the end of the race, Vettel crossed the line comfortably, much to the jubilation of the Tifosi at Albert Park, and much to the relief of Ferrari who seems to have converted the good form they had shown in Winter testing. The only question is whether the Scuderia can keep up this form for the rest of the season.

Elsewhere on the grid, Redbull had contrasting fortunes. Max Verstappen finished a solid fifth in spite of emitting brake dust from his wheels and completing the race with worn super soft tyres. In contrast, his teammate Daniel Ricciardo had a nightmare race when his car stopped on track on his way to the grid during the build-up to the race. Unfortunately for the Australian, Redbull couldn’t fix the car before the race’s warm up lap, and Ricciardo didn’t get out in track until 2 laps into the race. Being two laps down, Redbull could only use the race as a test session to accumulate vital data to develop the car for the rest of the season. Ricciardo continued to have technical issues and retired the car on lap 30.

McLaren torrid Winter testing form continued to show in Australia with Fernando Alonso retiring on lap 50 with a broken floor, and his Belgian teammate Stoffel Vandoorne ending up 13th and last.

Other notable results include Esteban Ocon’s solid finish in 10th place scoring his first point of his career in the Force India after a spectacular overtaking manoeuvre on Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault, and solid 12th place finish for rookie Antonio Giovinazzi in the Sauber.

Ferrari’s win at the season opener suggests that they are fairly competitive with the Mercedes, and we might be in for an interesting battle. But one thing is for certain Mercedes will not be taking this lying down and will bounce back for the next race. What’s more the hotter track temperatures Albert Park may have favoured Ferrari and it would be interesting to see whether the Italian team can cope with the cooler temperatures.

The effect of the new rules was mixed. On the positive side, the racing was more compelling, and as Vettel commented after the race he could push tyres harder. However, the presence of more aerodynamic devices on the 2017 F1 cars meant more dirty air was created making overtaking harder as Hamilton found when following Max Verstappen. This shows that the sport may be heading in the right direction but Formula One is still on it’s early steps on a very long road.

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