So what do we make of the dramatic new era of superfast Formula 1, which kicked off in Australia with a powerful victory for Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari? Is the change to F1 going to realize new owner Liberty Media’s hopes that it will help a beleaguered sport to rediscover its mojo??
For me, it was the fillip that F1 needed after Mercedes’s domination of the turbo-hybrid formula. A change is as good as a rest, and all that. Fans around the world wanted to see a different winner, and they got one.
Just to remind you, of the 59 races held between 2014 and 2016, Mercedes won no fewer than 51, leaving Red Bull five and Ferrari just three. Stunning statistics.
Vettel’s success confirmed that everything that the red cars had shown in pre-season testing was valid. So chapeau tip to the Scuderia – even if it is currently trying to redefine corporate arrogance (thank you, Signor Arrivabene) – for turning its fortunes around so spectacularly.
There was nothing fluky about the success, and as Mercedes newbie Valtteri Bottas said, the Ferraris were faster. Period. (Well, Vettel’s was, anyway. Kimi Raikkonen seemed to be driving in some sort of trance, in a trailing rather than parallel universe.)
But, and here’s the point, Ferrari didn’t dominate. It wasn’t the eighth-tenths ahead of the Mercs that they used to be ahead of their opposition. It was a nip-and-tuck race between pole sitter and early leader Lewis Hamilton and Vettel, until the Englishman’s tires wore out sooner. He then got delayed after his pit stop, behind Max Verstappen’s disappointing Red Bull, and that enabled later-stopping Vettel to swap tires and come back out in the lead. So it was close, and there was nothing to suggest that next time around it won’t be the silver car back in front. The lap times between the two marques were evenly matched.
Did it mean that we could expect Ferrari to become the dominant party? Has the baton been passed? Not necessarily…
Truly I don’t expect that to be the case in 2017, because the SF70H is clearly a very good car and much better than its predecessor. Make no mistake; Mercedes has a fight on its hands. But with luck this is going to be like 2008, when the initiative swung between Ferrari and McLaren throughout the year. That would be something, wouldn’t it? Because that is the best hope for a spectacular year, rather than out and out exciting racing on track.
You had to look down to the battle for 10th between the brilliant Fernando Alonso, the emergent Esteban Ocon and the always quick Nico Hulkenberg before you found any real evidence of racing. With wider cars, much greater downforce and thus grip, that was likely to be the case on a tight track where braking distances would be much reduced. And up front the racing was dull. After lap 18, the first five positions barely changed. Thankfully Alonso’s occupation of 10th place from the 14th to the 51st lap, before he was mugged when his tardy McLaren Honda’s suspension broke, ensured that there was some dramatic wheel-to-wheel battling.
But it’s not all bad news. Some driver’s raved about how much fun the cars are to drive; and they do look good as they get thrown around.
“You could push much harder,” Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel said. “Usually the first couple of laps you were pushing last year and then the tires were dropping off. Now the tires are still dropping off a bit, but you can keep pushing. You can keep braking at the same point. The car is screaming ‘More, more, more!’ Also, at the end with the harder tires there is hardly any degradation, so it’s really good fun, especially in the fast corners. You could keep going forever. It was a great race and I enjoyed it a lot.”
Seventh placed Sergio Perez added, after his great battle with the Toro Rossos: “Driving these cars is so much fun. You can push a lot harder than in the past and I was doing my fastest laps toward the end of the race.”
So the formula is so far a partial success. The cars might not yet be five seconds a lap faster, as predicted, but Albert Park isn’t the greatest venue to judge outright speed due to its stop-start nature. And while they certainly do look pretty, they can bite. It looks like the grand is back in Grand Prix car.