First blood went to Ferrari with a victory in the Australian GP, a race that put legacies, reliability and rookies under the spotlight.
First blood is red in colour
A first win for the Scuderia since September 2015 was a win premised on a combination of speed and smarts. It felt like a throwback to a long-lost era for Ferrari fans.
In the sizzling build up to the season opener Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel each downplayed their chances and tipped the other as the favourite.
Vettel’s gamesmanship has been a notable component of pre-race narratives. The German clearly sandbagged during Barcelona testing when he lifted off the throttle down the main straight while recording his fastest time. He pulled a similar move in Q2 in Melbourne by backing off down the straight and then there was his cheeky review of the Mercedes and Red Bull in parc ferme after qualifying.
The four-time champion is visibly much happier in 2017 and although Ferrari insisted on a media blackout during pre-season, Vettel’s not-so-subtle teasing sent a message to the rest of the field.
He showed on Sunday that both he and the Prancing Horse can also do their talking on the track on race day and it is worth wondering whether he would have engaged in gamesmanship of this nature without being confident in Ferrari’s package.
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 26, 2017
With its innovative bargeboards and sidepods, Vettel’s Ferrari had the pace to stay within 1-2 seconds of Hamilton in the early phase of the race and looked comfortable and fast, while the Brit was vocal in his complaints about the Mercedes W08’s lack of grip.
Much has been made of the Merc strategy to pit Hamilton before the Ferrari, with some suggesting that the Silver Arrows had made a strategic error.
However, the reality is that had Vettel not over-cut Hamilton to gain track position he seemed to have had the pace to under-cut the Merc had they gone with the other option.
Vettel acknowledged that he was helped by Max Verstappen holding up Hamilton after the pit stops. While this is true, Ferrari played the right hand at the right time – quickly banishing the ghosts of the strategic errors that the team made throughout 2016.
Toto Wolff’s reaction to seeing Vettel come out ahead of his man after the stops was telling. Not once but twice Wolff thumped his fist into the desk in front of him. He knew that Vettel had the race in the bag thanks to Ferrari’s one-two punch of pace and strategy.
— Mattzel89 (@Mattzel89) March 26, 2017
It’s close up front, but getting close won’t be easy
With the winter’s phoney war finally over there is a clear picture of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the cars.
Mercedes can turn up the wick and still has the edge over one lap, but the Ferrari seems better balanced and perhaps quicker in race trim. Ferrari, too, has greater poise when slicing through the turbulent air generated by cars ahead.
With the extra grip, shorter braking distances, faster corner entry speeds, wider cars, and extra downforce Melbourne validates the thinking that overtaking will be much more challenging in 2017.
Ferrari may well have a significant advantage over rivals if it is indeed true that the SF70H can follow other cars more closely. This could provide opportunities to get into DRS range and as Vettel did in Melbourne overtake rivals during pit stop sequences.
Legacies under the spotlight
Nico Rosberg won a race every 10 races he started and beat Hamilton in his prime to the title in 2016. Despite these exceptional credentials, Rosberg’s status as one of the best of his generation is often doubted by fans and analysts alike. And to be fair to the critics, Hamilton did generally beat the German.
So what do we make of Valtteri Bottas? It is true that Hamilton was in a class of his own during practice sessions and qualifying. Yet in the grand prix, Bottas surged to a podium and finished within striking distance of his more illustrious team-mate.
While it would be churlish to suggest that Bottas will have the measure of Hamilton, the Finn does seem to have the pace and craft to compete. If it was not clear to Hamilton that Bottas is an able replacement to Rosberg, it is now.
The midfield minefield and the Perez show
Both Toro Rossos and both Force Indias earned points at the 2017 season opener, with the big three manufacturers (sans Daniel Ricciardo) and Felipe Massa’s Williams claiming the top six spots.
Ricciardo’s horror weekend precluded him from mixing it at the sharp end and Romain Grosjean also retired while running in the top 10. On a better weekend for this duo, at least one Force India and one Toro Rosso would have found themselves out of the points.
This services to illustrate just how compacted the middle of the pack is. Underscoring the competition, Nico Hulkenberg in a works Renault could only manage 11th.
Force India’s Sergio Perez showed that it is possible to get overtaking business done with two spectacular passes. On the opening lap he slipped up the inside of Daniil Kvyat at turn 3 and would later go on to pass the other Toro Rosso with another wonderful move; this time around the outside of T3.
Perez was brave and bold to win these wheel-to-wheel battles. And that is what it is going to take for the midfield runners to find a way to get into the higher points scoring opportunities.
On reliability and rookies
Five of the day’s seven DNFs where technical or mechanical in nature. This attrition is not unexpected at the start of the season, though Ricciardo’s power unit giving in will cause serious concern for the Renault-powered teams down the paddock.
Not to take anything away from the Aussie, Grosjean’s retirement was arguably the most gut wrenching of the lot considering his superhuman effort in qualifying.
Like Haas, many teams found drivers at opposite ends of spectrums. While Grosjean for example stunned the paddock by qualifying sixth, his team-mate endured a woeful Saturday and an even worse Sunday.
Kevin Magnussen’s tangle with Marcus Ericsson at the start was clumsy at best, amateurish at worst. The Dane continued but his race was scruffy, which is hardly the best start to his Haas career after an underwhelming spell at Renault.
The fortunes of Verstappen and Ricciardo were also vastly different, and Lance Stroll had a baptism of fire while Massa raced like he was never away (yes, yes, his was a short-lived retirement),
Then there is Sauber’s Ericsson, who was really lucky not to be outqualified by Antonio Giovinazzi, the late replacement for the injured Pascal Wehrlein.
Giovinazzi’s impressive qualifying, consistent racing, and 12th-place finish did not go unnoticed. Quite simply, Ferrari was not the only winner for Italy in Melbourne.
Richard F Rose
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