The F1 season got off to a fresh start with a new face and new car across the line first. After two plus seasons of Mercedes domination, it was a relief to see the red Ferrari driven by Sebastian Vettel finish in P1 in the season opener Down Under.
The first race was full of story lines. Most viewers were eager to see how the cars would compare to their performances in the preseason testing and if any of the teams had been sandbagging during testing. The speed from the Mercedes cars was expected and Hamilton qualified first on the grid. That was a familiar sight last season and reason to worry that 2017 would be more of the same. But the Ferraris were right up there too, with Vettel qualifying in P2 and Kimi Raikkonen in P4.
It was disappointing to see the Red Bulls off the pace. Their qualifying runs confirmed that their lack of speed during testing in Barcelona was no fluke. Max Verstappen qualified fifth, while hometown hero Daniel Ricciardo crashed and then had gearbox trouble that left him near the back of the grid. The rest of the top ten was filled out with Romain Grosjean’s Haas, Felipe Massa’s Williams, the Toro Rossos and Sergio Perez’s Force India.
Even before the formation lap, Ricciardo was struck by another mechanical issue, as he got stuck in sixth gear out on track. His car needed to be towed back to the garage for repairs and he missed the start of the race.
The Lights Go Out
The first attempt to start the race was aborted when it looked like some drivers lined up improperly, perhaps because of Ricciardo’s absence. After another formation lap, they were finally ready to go. When the lights went out, most everyone got off the line cleanly, which must have been a great relief to Hamilton, who struggled with starts last year. There was a regulation change over the winter that makes the drivers have to work more on their own to find the proper clutch bite point. Everyone seemed to adapt to the change well enough, but Verstappen got the best start of all, pulling alongside Raikkonen through the first turn before falling back.
The lack of on-track passing was disappointing. With the exception of some moves in the mid-field and among the backmarkers, there was none to speak of. This might be attributed to the new cars or it might be more related to the track at Albert Park, which usually doesn’t see that much passing.
The key move of the race came via a pit stop. Hamilton and Mercedes decided to pit the front runner on lap 17 after Hamilton complained of a lack of grip in his tyres. With a pit stop delta in the mid-20 second range, he rejoined the field behind Vettel, Bottas, Raikkonen and Verstappen. Meanwhile, Vettel took advantage of the clean air at the front of the field and continued on his Ultra Soft tyres until lap 23.
Hamilton was back up to speed quickly but got stuck behind Verstappen. Both Hamilton and his team sounded a bit frantic over the radio as they seemed to acknowledge that the race was slipping away from them. Verstappen is known as the most difficult man to overtake on the grid, but there is some concern that the new car bodywork prevents the cars from maintaining sufficient downforce as they approach the car ahead. Whether it was Verstappen or the new cars holding Hamilton up, Vettel and Ferrari made a clean pit stop and rejoined the track just in front of Verstappen and Hamilton. With Verstappen continuing to slow Hamilton down for another two laps, Vettel was able to scamper over 6 seconds ahead and that was more than enough to secure the win.
It appears that tyre management will continue to be important in 2017, even though degradation concerns are reduced. Toto Wolff of Mercedes said that the new tyres have a narrow temperature operating window (on the Mercedes, at least). Hamilton never seemed to get his tyres to the right temperature after he came back onto track behind Verstappen. Meanwhile, his new teammate Bottas did and was lapping notably faster than Hamilton (the better driver) for a while. The Ferrari chassis seemed to mate with the new wheels very nicely, which could be a key differentiator in the early races.
With the introduction of the new regulations, reliability issues were expected to pop up in Australia and they certainly did. Both Haas cars failed to finish, as did a Williams, a Renault, and a Sauber. The team most expected to struggle with reliability, McLaren, had a victory of sorts by getting one car across the line and getting the other car to complete 54 of 57 laps before retiring with a suspension failure probably caused by contact with Ocon’s Force India. Poor Ricciardo was able to start the race two laps late but then had his third mechanical failure in two days and didn’t complete more than 25 laps.
The fans at Albert Park were just as excited to see a team other than Mercedes win as we were. Somehow, the fans were allowed onto the track while the cars were still completing their post-race lap. It was scary to see fans running out within feet of the rocketship-like cars and you can bet the FIA is going to have something to say to the race organizers about it.
P1, Vettel (Ferrari); P2, Hamilton (Mercedes); P3, Bottas (Mercedes); P4, Raikkonen (Ferrari); P5, Verstappen (Red Bull); P6, Massa (Williams); P7, Perez (Force India); P8, Sainz (Toro Rosso); P9, Kyvat (Toro Rosso); P10, Ocon (Force India); P11, Hulkenberg (Renault); P12, Giovinazzi (Sauber); P13, Vandoorne (McLaren)